On March 1, Turkey launched OperationSpring Shield against the Syrian Arab Army (SAA). During the week before this, Turkish drones entered Syrian air space and wrecked Syria’s air defences and many of its armoured vehicles (including tanks), killed a large number of Syrian troops (Turkey claimed that it had killed three Syrian generals) and shot down two Syrian Air Force jets. Syria shot down a Turkish drone. The rapid onrush of Turkish Armed Forces, which will likely escalate before this report is published, will not be easy for the Syrian government to control militarily. Turkey’s highly armed and motivated forces are no match for the war-weary Syrian Armed Forces. On February 27, a few days before Turkey began its offensive, the SAA struck Turkish troops in the Syrian province of Idlib, killing 36 soldiers.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan set a February 29 deadline for the Syrian forces to leave Idlib. He said that the area was a “safe zone” protected by the Turkish Armed Forces. Syria did not withdraw its soldiers, and this drew Turkey deeper into the conflict. Turkey’s March 1 offensive pushed the SAA away from the town of Saraqib, which is an essential path towards Idlib city. Pro-Syrian forces, both the army and its irregular supporters, had made a quick rush along the M4 highway towards Saraqib, hoping to advance rapidly into Idlib and clear the city of the last major armed rebel detachments from the long Syrian war. Lack of a command structure and overextension of the forces weakened the Syrian troops, who were largely sitting ducks when the Turkish drones arrived. They have since regrouped and the battle is going on.
On February 13, Turkey’s Defence Minister Hulusi Akar warned that his government would remain the protector of Idlib, the province in northern Syria where the last groups of armed rebel fighters remain. As part of the deal cut with Russia and Syria in Sochi (Russia), Turkey had observation posts inside Syrian territory to maintain the ceasefire. “Force will be used against those disobeying the ceasefire, radicals included,” Akar said. The phrase radicals included is key here.
Al Qaeda in Idlib
The radicals in question are former Al Qaeda fighters who are now grouped under the name Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), or the Syria Liberation Committee. The HTS was formed in 2017 out of the remaining jehadi groups that had gathered in Idlib in 2015. The main pillar of the HTS is the Al Qaeda branch in Syria, the Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, and before that the Jabhat al-Nusra. One reason why this group keeps changing its name is to try and rebrand itself outside the Al Qaeda orbit. The other groups that joined the Jabhat Fateh al-Sham to create the HTS include the four main omnibus jehadi groups: the Jabhat Ansar al-Din, the Jaysh al-Sunna, the Liwa al-Haq and the Haraka Nour al-Din al-Zenki. These are hardened groups of fighters, many of them coming in and out of each other’s platforms and even fighting each other viciously.
Since the early years of the war on Syria, elements that are now in the HTS had been operating as a Turkish proxy in the northern belt of Syria that runs from Aleppo to Idlib. As the SAA, with Iranian and Russian assistance, beat back the insurgency across the country, the men in these jehadi groups fled towards Idlib. Later, when the SAA captured fighters, they transported them to Idlib. This city and its surrounding area became a centre of jehadi fighters not only from the various outfits, the largest among them being the HTS, but also from Chechnya, Tajikistan, Turkey, China (Uighur) and Uzbekistan.
Since at least 2018, the Syrian government has threatened to overrun the city and eject Al Qaeda fighters from Syria.
In order to get a sense of the politics of the HTS, it is worthwhile to look at its spiritual advisers. Abdullah al-Muhaysini, a Saudi Salafi cleric, is a key figure in Idlib’s religious world and a main source for the creation of the HTS and is close to the Turkistan Islamist party, the most extreme group among Chinese Uighurs. For a time, it was al-Muhaysini who tried to create an alliance between the Islamic State and the other jehadi groups. Even Saudi Arabia was embarrassed by his harshness and his glorification of violence. His sectarian statements against the Alawite community (to which Syrian President Bashar al-Assad belongs) suggest his genocidal politics. It says a lot about the “radicals” in Idlib that people like al-Muhaysini are their spiritual advisers.
For the past several years, the HTS has tried to rebrand itself as “moderate”. In 2015, after it became the dominant force in Idlib, the outfit took on its new name and withdrew its pledge of allegiance to Al Qaeda. It claimed to be a Syrian nationalist force with an Islamic ideology. But this is merely window-dressing. It continues to propagate the view that the Syrian state must be based on Sharia law and espouses views that are more in line with Al Qaeda than with Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). The general orientation of the 100,000 to 200,000 “radical” fighters inside Idlib is towards Al Qaeda. This is something that is accepted even by the U.S. government, which has otherwise used these fighters in its geopolitical ambitions against the government in Damascus.
A horror story
The United Nations says that there are at least three million people in Idlib, about a third of them children. Not all of these people are native to the region. Many of them came along with the fighters when they took refuge in the area. Ever since the fighting intensified in December 2019, the U.N. says close to 900,000 people have been displaced. Before the recent escalation, the U.N.’s Under-Secretary for Humanitarian Affairs, Mark Lowcock, said the Idlib part of the war could be “the biggest humanitarian horror story of the 21st century”. He called for a ceasefire, although what this would do is not clear since it would only be a short-term solution to a problem with no long-term resolution without a war.
Large numbers of people fleeing Idlib went to the Turkish border, where they awaited transit into Turkey. Erdogan said his country could not take any more migrants. To release the pressure, and to put pressure on the European Union, Erdogan began to allow Syrian refugees and others to cross from Turkey into Greece at the Kastanies border crossing, where Greek border guards and the refugees clashed. This set in motion another crisis—Turkey intended to pressure Europeans to back it in its conflict with Syria. Turkey is a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, but there is no sign that NATO member countries would like to get involved in this dispute at this time.
Meanwhile, the situation for Syria’s civilian population is perilous. Civilian casualties are bound to rise.
If Turkey had not emerged as the champion of this last “radical” redoubt in Syria, the SAA, with Iran and Russia as allies, would have swept the region long ago. What would have happened to these thousands of fighters is anyone’s guess. Recently, the Turkish government air-lifted some of the fighters to assist its allies in Libya. No question that the Chinese would not welcome the return home of the Turkistan Islamist Party or that the Syrian government would know how to absorb Al Qaeda radicals who continue to believe that they might be able to seize power in Damascus. These “radicals” have fought each other in the past five years they have been stuck in Idlib and their fragmentation is their weakness.
In May 2017, Turkey, Russia and Iran agreed at Astana (Kazakhstan) to “establish a de-escalation zone” in Idlib, which would be guaranteed by the presence of Turkish monitors on the ground. In October 2019, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Erdogan met in Sochi to cut a deal about the northern areas in Syria. Kurdish forces would no longer be able to maintain their own control, because the United States had withdrawn the security umbrella it had provided them. Russia would be able to patrol those areas, while Turkey would have guarantees of no Kurdish statelet on its borders and no intervention into Idlib. Syria was not party to these negotiations, but it had to swallow them given its reliance on Russia.
There is no easy solution to the problem posed by Idlib. The Assad government, with Iranian assent, is eager to clear the territory of groups such as the HTS. Turkey is opposed to any such operation and would like to maintain its proxy groups intact in northern Syria. Russia would not like to antagonise Turkey, with whom it has developed a close and fruitful relationship. The U.S. is largely absent from the discussion. The dilemma is intractable since there is no real long-term solution that will please both Turkey and Syria. Russia has openly said that it did not want to be drawn into any long-term conflict with Turkey although as the conflict opened up in March two Russian frigates, Admiral Makarov and Admiral Grigorovich, moved from Sevastopol (Crimea) through the Bosporus Strait along the waters of Istanbul into the Mediterranean Sea. Anyone standing on the Galata Bridge in Istanbul would get a good view of Russian warships going past them, a clear indication of the tensions in the region.