BEIRUT – Turkey on Saturday announced the start of its second major cross-border military operation in Syria, and Turkish troops are now preparing to deploy alongside Syrian opposition groups in a province controlled largely by al-Qaida-linked militants.
The campaign aims to enforce the so-called de-escalation zone agreement in territory currently held by the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) alliance in Idlib province, but phase one of the Turkish-led operation may not involve an all-out confrontation with the militant group, according to Charles Lister of the Middle East Institute. While later phases may see more concerted action against the extremists, for now, a negotiated settlement seems to have taken shape, he told Syria Deeply.
“I am told that HTS and Turkey reached a final agreement to establish a Turkish protected buffer zone from the Idlib border village of Atme through Darat Izza to Anadan into western Aleppo,” Lister said. “From what I’m told, HTS agreed at most to leave these areas and agreed at minimum not to interfere with Turkey’s operations in that zone.”
Syria Deeply spoke with Lister, who has spent the past week meeting with Syrian opposition groups in southern Turkey, about Ankara’s strategy in Idlib, the sentiment among participating rebel groups and what this upcoming operation could mean for the Syrian war.
Syria Deeply: Do we know which opposition groups are part of the Turkish-led alliance?
Charles Lister: So far, it seems to be largely a combination of Euphrates Shield forces and a collection of FSA [Free Syrian Army] groups from Idlib, who were previously victims of HTS aggression. Groups like the Free Idlib Army, the remnants of the 13th Division brigade, and potentially some former members of the Hazzm Movement. But my impression is that this is really a Turkish-led campaign and that opposition group involvement will only be secondary. They will primarily be there for support.
Syria Deeply: What is the scope and aim of the Turkish-led operation?
Lister: So far, I don’t think there is any intention to go as far south as Idlib city. I think this would require a much more significant military operation than what Turkey is able and willing to do. At the moment, I think we are looking at phase one, which is for Turkey to pursue its own interests: to protect its borders, deter Kurdish threats, minimize further refugee flows and eventually […] establish some territory in Syria that refugees in Turkey could move back into. In a sense, what we are looking at is Turkey trying to secure its own internal national security interests and to potentially contribute toward further stabilizing at least some parts of Idlib.
Turkey and some of the opposition’s secondary intention in this first phase is to establish a Turkish protected area in northern Idlib, which can be used to start a slow and gradual campaign to undermine HTS. Some of Turkey’s long-term partners in Syria, groups like Failaq al-Sham and Ahrar al-Sham, are on board with this strategy. They don’t want to enter a full-scale confrontation with HTS. Instead, they want to more methodically undermine the extremist wings of HTS, particularly to try to encourage defections and divisions within HTS to make it a more manageable competitor rather than an adversary.
From what I’m told, Turkish intelligence has been working on this for some time already, in cooperation with opposition groups previously close to HTS. A spate of recent assassinations are apparently linked to this subversion campaign and, perhaps more importantly, so are a number of recent audio leaks of HTS internal communications.
Syria Deeply: What is the sentiment among rebel groups in Idlib?
Lister: Every single group that I have met with [in Turkey] over the past week, which spans all the Euphrates Shield groups, all the main FSA groups across Syria, Failaq al-Sham, Nour al-Din al-Zinki brigades and Ahrar al-Sham, have expressed support for Turkey’s intentions in Idlib. The one key area of difference is that groups within the Euphrates Shield and within the FSA seemed more determined to initiate a conflict with HTS, whereas groups like Failaq al-Sham, Zinki and Ahrar al-Sham strongly opposed the idea of a full-scale confrontation because they thought it might potentially strengthen HTS. They advocated instead for a slow and methodical campaign of undermining HTS from the inside.
But, these groups unanimously agreed on [their] suspicion, opposition and hostility toward HTS and particularly toward [HTS head Abu Mohammad] al-Julani. Over the three or four years that I’ve met with all of Syria’s opposition, this was the first time not a single group expressed some element of defense or support of HTS. This definitely struck me over the past few days. Al-Julani appears to have burned a lot of the bridges he built earlier in the conflict but he does still hold several advantageous cards.
Syria Deeply: HTS militants allegedly escorted a Turkish reconnaissance unit into Idlib on Sunday, implying that there have been talks between Turkey and HTS. Have there been any negotiations and do we know what their focus was?
Lister: As far as I am aware, there have been around three or four meetings, including one that took place yesterday (Sunday). In yesterday’s meeting, HTS and Turkey reached a final agreement to establish a Turkish protected buffer zone from Atme through Darat Izza to Anadan into western Aleppo. From what I’m told, HTS agreed at most to leave these areas and agreed at minimum to not interfere with Turkey’s operations in that zone.The idea here would be to replicate what Euphrates Shield looked like at the beginning of the Euphrates Shield operation, which was also preceded by a full Nusra Front withdrawal from areas of Turkish operations.
Syria Deeply: Why would HTS agree to a deal with Turkey considering that it has been a vocal critic of the de-escalation zone agreement?
Lister: I think we need to draw a distinction between what HTS says for its public audience, and what is being done behind the scenes, which is much more murky and political. Al-Julani is not only fearful of an all-out confrontation with Turkey and the opposition, his biggest fear is something catalyzing internal defections from the original Nusra core of Syrian fighters now within the larger HTS alliance.
This core is almost entirely composed of local Syrians who have been recruited into the Nusra Front, which later rebranded into Jabhat Fatah al-Sham and later formed the HTS alliance. Throughout this process, the Nusra core has become even more heavily Syrian, which for al-Julani is an invaluable source of local credibility that protects his forces from attack by most rival opposition groups – as we have seen in 2017. If Turkey or any other opposition faction – working by themselves or together – managed to create an alternative reality somewhere in Idlib, I’m told al-Julani’s biggest fear is that some of those Syrians will jump ship and join them, thereby weakening al-Julani’s credibility on the ground and creating opportunities to isolate him from the revolutionary street. So his greatest fear is internal defections and I think this is why he has channeled so much energy into negotiating with Turkey to prevent a full-blown confrontation.
Syria Deeply: Reports circulated of a series of defections from HTS in the weeks leading up to the campaign, as part of a larger Turkish effort to isolate HTS in Idlib. Which groups have defected and what is the scale of defection?
Lister: The major big loss was the al-Zinki movement. I was told Turkey had some kind of role, potentially with some opposition support, in making this happen. But there have been some other smaller defections from within the HTS core – small HTS sub-factions and local units. The latter are more concerning to al-Julani than anything else, as they represent the partial or possible disintegration of Nusra’s core Syrian structure.
Syria Deeply: There has been a lot of focus on HTS being the primary target of this campaign. What about the Kurds?
Lister: For Turkey, the [Syrian Kurdish] YPG is just as much of a concern and perhaps an even more critical concern than HTS. The fact that Turkey is looking to establish a lookout post or a launching-pad base on Mount Barakat, which overlooks Kurdish-held Afrin, speaks to that.
At the moment, however, I don’t think there is a prospect for a military operation in Afrin. But there is a Turkish effort to exert some kind of influence and a potential deterrent threat on the area to discourage the YPG from moving further into opposition territories. Russia seems to have lent its support to this, which is intriguing.
Syria Deeply: Turkish officials, including the president and prime minister, said that Turkey will cooperate with Russia on the Idlib campaign. What does this mean for the FSA?
Lister: I was actually sitting with all the Euphrates Shield leadership when Erdogan gave this statement. None of them expected this apparent comment of Russian air support and they were all opposed to it. They were genuinely incensed by the idea that Russia could be providing them with support from the air. Let’s see how that plays out. If Russia does provide air support, I think that may cause some problems.
Syria Deeply: Could it be a deal breaker?
Lister: It could potentially be a deal breaker. All the armed groups, who don’t already have a presence in Idlib, would lose credibility there if they entered into an alliance with Russia. It’s pretty well known that the Russians have been bombing Idlib on and off for a long time. So I think active Russian military involvement could be a deal breaker. But I’m not sure if that is going to end up being the case.
The answers have been edited for length and clarity.