Turkey’s role in Idlib remains a delicate one

Ankara has deployed troops to keep the peace in northwestern Syria - but their presence has become a source of controversy, writes Hassan Hassan

Syrian children ride a makeshift train of wagons in the northern city of Idlib. Photo: AFP / Omar haj kadour
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Last Thursday, Ankara announced its intention to deploy troops in Idlib as part of the de-escalation zones plan agreed with Russia and Iran last month. Ibrahim Kalin, a spokesperson to the Turkish presidency, told local media that de-escalation in Idlib would be monitored mostly by Turkish troops while Russia and Iran would focus on the areas near Damascus. The announcement came amid reports on social media of Turkish troops amassing near the northwestern Syrian border.

The deployment of Turkish forces as part of the de-escalation zones has been a point of contention among the Syrian rebels in Idlib for several weeks. In a statement in May, Hayat Tahrir Al Sham, previously known as Jabhat Al Nusra, pointed to a prospective Turkish role along with moderate rebels to fight the group in Idlib: “We received news from various sources about unprecedented moves by (dismantled rebel factions) … to break the resolve of the mujahideen and defeat them.” On Monday, the group echoed its opposition to any Turkish presence in Idlib following Mr Kalin’s remarks.

Tahrir Al Sham’s anxiety about such moves presents an opportunity to deal with an increasingly complex conundrum that moderate rebels and outsiders face in Idlib. The province is the rebels’ main stronghold today, with at least a million civilians living there. It is also the only major enclave in Syria where the former official branch of Al Qaeda dominates. No force in the country appears to be ready to fight a sustained battle to reclaim the province in the foreseeable future.

Thus, the question of what to do in Idlib remains a delicate one. A regime offensive in Idlib will lead to the displacement of tens of thousands of civilians into Turkey, which already signalled a lack of desire to deal with more Syrian refugees, including by shutting down its borders. Part of an attempt to avoid such a scenario, Ankara reached the agreement with Russia and Iran to establish zones of deescalations in northern and southern Syria.

Calm has since prevailed in Idlib, but concern persists about the presence of a group that the United States and other countries still regard as an Al Qaeda branch. People inside also fear that the lack of violence is the calm before the storm, suspecting that Damascus and its allies would eventually turn its attention to Idlib.

A way to reverse the influence of Tahrir Al Sham and avoid a humanitarian disaster in Idlib exists, and it could begin by exploiting the friction between the group and sections of the opposition over the fate of Idlib. This solution should involve two efforts.

The first is to present Tahrir Al Sham’s opposition to a Turkish peace role as an alternative to a regime push in Idlib. Tahrir Al Sham views the Turkish presence in Idlib as a threat, but many in the Syrian opposition view the role in a positive way, whether because Islamists and others see it as an ally or due to the relative calm it managed to establish in 5,000 square kilometres east of Aleppo since the last summer.

Tension between Turkey and Tahrir Al Sham has increased since the summer, over the latter’s hostility towards groups that accepted fighting under the command of the Turkish army in Aleppo. But Turkey-aligned rebels grew closer to Ankara since its intervention this time last year, and some recently called for the deployment of Turkish forces to prevent an offensive by the regime in Idlib. As such, divergence between Tahrir Al Sham and other anti-regime factions has grown since. A Turkish role in Idlib will deepen such divergence, and enable Turkey to shore up the capabilities of less extreme forces.

The second effort is to push for the relocation of a moderate opposition leadership to Idlib, something that Tahrir Al Sham vehemently opposes. The group rejected previous attempts to allow the opposition’s interim government to establish headquarters in the city – despite an offer to keep the group in control of the police and courts.

Both efforts should involve an international framework to guarantee enforcement and avoid a scenario in which Tahrir Al Sham quietly entrenches itself within the structures of the Syrian opposition in Idlib. In April, Ayman Haroush, a known cleric aligned with Turkey-aligned Ahrar Al Sham, revealed that the head of the interim government, Jawad Abu Hatab, presented the group with an offer for it and aligned factions to control the police and the courts in exchange for allowing his government to operate from Idlib.

According to Haroush, who claimed he was in attendance when the offer was made, the opposition leader told the group that the interim government would serve as a façade before the international community to end the appearance of rebel factionalism. The group allegedly declined the generous offer. Abu Hatab, an Islamist close to Turkey, became the interim government’s head in May last year, and it was not clear whether he made the alleged offer before the group announced its public disengagement from Al Qaeda.

The episode, if true, shows the risk of any effort unsupervised internationally. Ankara could help Idlib to avoid the fate of Aleppo, but Turkey and other countries have to be aware of any attempts by the extremist group to entrench itself through the opposition. No good alternative exists for a positive Turkish role in Idlib. Such a role has to build on the divergence between the rebels and Tahrir Al Sham to reverse its dominance in rebel-held areas in northwestern Syria.

Hassan Hassan is a senior fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy and co-author of ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror

On Twitter: @hxhassan​