More than a month since the Turkish military intervened in Syria’s rebel-held northwest, there is still little clarity about what Turkey is doing in Syria. Turkish forces entered Syria’s northwestern Idlib province on October 12 to establish a “de-escalation zone,” as part of a framework agreed between Turkey, Russia, and Iran in the Kazakh capital of Astana. But the real scope and objectives of the Turkish deployment are unknown, as is exactly how the Turkish presence will protect Idlib and its residents.
This ambiguity may be deliberate, because Turkey’s intervention is—to my best reading, and per the evidence to date—based on a problematic, politically unpalatable compromise. To secure Turkish interests and safeguard at least some of Idlib’s residents, Turkey has apparently partnered with Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the jihadist faction that controls Idlib and is the successor to Syria’s former al-Qaeda affiliate.
By engaging Tahrir al-Sham’s mostly Syrian leadership, Turkey may be working to flush the northwest of transnational jihadists and al-Qaeda hardliners who refuse to cooperate. Or, less charitably, it may just be looking after Turkish concerns and working with the local partner closest at hand. Either way, Turkey is gambling with its standing internationally.
As Syria’s warring camps prepare for a new round of UN-sponsored peace talks, the fate of more than
two million residents and displaced people in Syria’s northwest hangs on murky dealmaking taking place miles from Geneva, Switzerland—figuratively and literally. Turkey’s deployment into Syria is risky, in terms of both the operation’s low-percentage chance of success and Turkey’s reputation. It may also be the best chance to prevent a disastrous military battle for Idlib, a conflagration that would engulf millions of civilians.
MAP SHOWING AREAS OF CONTROL IN NORTHWEST SYRIA AS OF SEPTEMBER 17, 2017. SOURCE: @DESYRACUSE; LABELS ADDED BY AUTHOR. Turkey Steps into Idlib
In the lead-up to the October intervention, the Turkish government announced its intention to
deploy troops to enforce a ceasefire and a “de-escalation” in Idlib. The move was intended to preempt a battle for Idlib that would send a refugee wave towards the Turkish border, as well as to block a land grab by Turkey’s Kurdish enemies.
Where exactly Hayat Tahrir al-Sham—the latest iteration of Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate the Nusra Front—fits into this was unclear.
Ahead of Turkey’s deployment, it looked as if Turkey would try to unseat Hayat Tahrir al-Sham in Idlib. Speculation was rampant that Turkey was readying its Syrian rebel proxies for an attack on the jihadist group. Tahrir al-Sham had taken sole effective control of the rebel northwest in July, and by October the stage seemed set for a confrontation between the jihadists and a Turkish-backed force. On October 7, the eve of Turkish intervention,
the group issued a statement in which it threatened to “bereave the mother, orphan the children, and widow the wife” of any rebel it had run out of Idlib who tried to fight his way back in. Notably, Tahrir al-Sham did not threaten Turkey. Turkey, for its part, emphasized that its deployment was not a combat mission.
These declarations turned out to be the prelude to something less confrontational, and more complicated. Turkish forces entered Idlib
first as a scouting party on October 8 and then a full convoy on October 12—with a Hayat Tahrir al-Sham escort. The Turkish military took positions on the northern periphery of the rebel-held northwest, in the Aleppo countryside just below the Kurdish enclave of Afrin. Turkish forces have since deployed further along the edges of Afrin, evidently in coordination with Tahrir al-Sham. Turkey’s attempts to continue eastward have been complicated by the Nour al-Din al-Zinki Movement, which controls that section of the Afrin line and is the one northwestern faction that has bucked Tahrir al-Sham’s control.
TURKISH FORCES TAKE UP POSITIONS IN THE WEST ALEPPO COUNTRYSIDE. SOURCE: AL-DORAR AL-SHAMIYYAH.
Turkey has yet to station troops further south, including anywhere along the line of contact between Tahrir al-Sham-led rebels and the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad. The Afrin positions are, supposedly, only one phase of a multi-phase deployment that should encompass the whole northwest. Yet Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has also said that
the Idlib operation is “largely completed” and that Afrin is Turkey’s next target. Working Through Tahrir al-Sham
What Turkey is up to in Idlib is a
subject of debate. But as best as I can tell, Turkey’s intervention is working through Tahrir al-Sham, not against it.
Turkey had few other options, short of waiting for the northwest to collapse and
maybe opening Turkey’s borders to fleeing refugees. Tahrir al-Sham had already liquidated any potential rebel challengers inside the northwest, and Turkey was unwilling to confront the group head-on. Entering Idlib in coordination with Tahrir al-Sham was the only way for Turkey to intervene without a costly, bloody fight, one that probably would have only hastened the northwest’s implosion.
Turkey’s intervention is not a vehicle for Syria’s non-jihadist opposition to return to the northwest, the country’s largest remaining opposition enclave. Turkey did not send in its rebel proxies from its northern Aleppo “Euphrates Shield” zone (whose children Tahrir al-Sham threatened to orphan), and it is not using a section of the northwest as an incubator for an anti-Tahrir al-Sham rebel force. Likewise, Turkey is not delivering the opposition’s Syrian Interim Government—also based inside Euphrates Shield—to power in Idlib.
There is a tendency among commentators and analysts to blur the Idlib-centric, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham-dominated northwest with Euphrates Shield north Aleppo, and to treat these two Turkey-adjacent rebel pockets as if they are a single political unit. They are not. They are not only geographically disconnected, they have also diverged in terms of their respective rebel factions and civilian administrative bodies, as well as how each zone relates to Turkey.
ANNOUNCEMENT OF HAYAT TAHRIR AL-SHAM-BACKED “SALVATION GOVERNMENT.” SOURCE: IBA NEWS AGENCY, TELEGRAM.
The northwest is now run by a set of mostly new, nominally independent bodies that are widely understood to be controlled by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. The crux of Tahrir al-Sham’s political-administrative project is
the civilian-led “Salvation Government,” which was formed through a miniature, managed version of an inclusive national dialogue and to which Tahrir al-Sham handed control of its “Civil Administration for Services.” It is unclear to what extent the Civil Administration for Services’ directorates have successfully assimilated city- and town-level service bodies across the province. I have been told by contacts involved in Idlib’s governance that several provincial service directorates that predate the Civil Administration have continued to work autonomously.
The Salvation Government—notwithstanding
a few former Interim Government members in its ranks—is an explicitly anti-Interim Government project.
Before the announcement of the Salvation Government, the Turkish government seemed to signal—
through friendly Turkish press—that a Salvation Government-like civilian project was necessary to avert an international military attack on Idlib. Turkish official media has since provided positive, uncritical coverage of the Salvation Government.
Hayat Tahrir al-Sham has offered no single, official justification for Turkey’s intervention or explained whatever arrangement the group has struck with the Turks. Still, prominent public-facing members of the group have described the deal in roughly similar terms. Turkey’s limited deployment is
unpleasant but necessary to protect Tahrir al-Sham’s civilian constituency, these figures have said. The Turkish presence is permissible on two main conditions: The word of God remains supreme—that is, government according to Tahrir al-Sham’s understanding of Islamic law, not Turkish provincial authorities—and the “jihad” against the Syrian regime continues. Anti-al-Qaeda, If Not Anti-Tahrir al-Sham
Even a Turkish intervention that works directly with Tahrir al-Sham could have a disruptive impact on the group.
I understand the Turkish approach to Tahrir al-Sham as inside-out, not outside-in. That is, Turkey is not attacking Tahrir al-Sham’s core from without, by trying to peel marginal elements off the group’s edges and join them to a Turkish-led anti-Tahrir al-Sham project. Rather, Turkey seems to have interfaced directly with the group’s mostly Syrian leadership, centered on leader Abu Muhammad al-Jolani. Jolani and his circle have a reputation for being flexible and pragmatic, and they have
seemingly shrugged off the control of al-Qaeda’s central leadership, even if they have not somehow become “moderates.” By connecting directly to Tahrir al-Sham’s Syrian nucleus, Turkey may exacerbate splits and contradictions inside the group and shake off its most extreme transnational jihadist members.
Hayat Tahrir al-Sham’s engagement with Turkey has apparently contributed to the group’s deteriorating relationship with a clique of dissident former leaders and al-Qaeda loyalists. On November 27, Tahrir al-Sham
detained several of the most vocal splittists, including one who had previously been the Nusra Front’s top religious official. Separately, there has also been a spate of assassinations of Tahrir al-Sham figures in Idlib, including foreign fighters. It is impossible to tell if those killings have been genuine skullduggery, however, or more run-of-the-mill Idlib score-settling.
It seems at least plausible that Turkish intervention could be considered anti-al-Qaeda but not anti-Tahrir al-Sham. It is entrenching a post-Qaeda Tahrir al-Sham’s dominance in the northwest, including by
subsidizing the region economically and mainstreaming Tahrir al-Sham’s various aliases and fronts. At the same time, it might, in theory, help purge the group and Idlib’s insurgency of its most dangerous elements.
Of course, there are also a number of reasons it might not. To start with, even if Turkey is attempting to neutralize this jihadist group by working with and through it, there is little precedent or historical experience that suggests such an approach could succeed. Even as some hardliners break away from Tahrir al-Sham, there is no indication that Turkey is trying to remake the group’s veteran jihadist core. And there is a risk of over-reading divisions within Tahrir al-Sham. Tahrir al-Sham dissenters may still be tangled up in the organization in ways that are not apparent to outsiders. In Tahrir al-Sham’s announcement that it had arrested its ex-leaders, it said it had been meeting with them regularly to bring them on-side. Detaining them seems to have been a last resort. There is no hard evidence that either Turkey or Tahrir al-Sham is actively eliminating militant irreconcilables and no-hopers—they may just be floating in a sort of jihadist miasma in Syria’s northwest.
Tahrir al-Sham’s divorce with al-Qaeda could also mean less than we think. Even if there has been a break in al-Qaeda’s hierarchical chain of command, there may still be an ongoing dialogue between Tahrir al-Sham and al-Qaeda leadership or interactions at various levels of each organization, including between clusters and nodes inside them. In terms of Tahrir al-Sham’s willingness to harbor external attack plotters and the threat the group poses internationally, the practical relevance of the al-Qaeda split is unclear.
In a broader sense, Idlib’s insurgency may have been boiled down and reduced to something so intense that it doesn’t make much sense to draw fine distinctions between its parts—between “al-Qaeda” and “Tahrir al-Sham,” or “reconcilable” and “irreconcilable” jihadists. Analysts spent years neatly categorizing Syria’s armed opposition by ideology and politics. It may no longer be worthwhile, in analytical or policy terms, to thin-slice Idlib’s jihadists. Maybe this section of Syria’s insurgency is beyond nuance.
Two Key Questions
Whether Turkey can save Idlib is unclear, and seems to hang on two big questions.
First, what exactly is the extent of Turkey’s intervention? Turkey’s limited deployment so far on the Afrin line has arguably already secured Turkey’s core interests, including providing a buffer against new refugee flows and blocking Kurdish expansionism. But if Turkey wants to actually prevent Idlib’s collapse, it has to send troops further south—along front lines between Tahrir al-Sham and the Syrian regime—and guarantee a lasting ceasefire.
Turkey would have to agree on that additional deployment with Iran and Russia, its fellow Astana guarantors, and it is uncertain what they would want in exchange. Turkey would also have to reach a deal with Tahrir al-Sham, for which a Turkish presence on those active fronts would be a difficult, politically costly concession. A Turkish deployment on those lines would make liars out of Tahrir al-Sham’s leaders, who have said Turkey is only taking positions opposite Kurdish Afrin. And a Turkish-enforced ceasefire would invalidate Tahrir al-Sham’s raison d’être by ending the “jihad” against the regime.
If Turkey cannot horse-trade a deployment further south, then Turkish intervention helps Turkey, but not most of Idlib.
Second, can key international stakeholders be convinced to respect a lasting Turkish sphere of protection over Tahrir al-Sham-dominated Idlib? If it is going to turn Idlib into a jihadist-filled Turkish protectorate, Turkey has to secure the long-term investment of, at a minimum, its Astana co-guarantors Russia and Iran. Neither is obviously interested in killing Turks who are put in the line of fire, but on some level they still need to consent to this Turkish presence and restrain their Syrian regime partner.
To some extent, these and other internationals will need to buy into the distinction between Tahrir al-Sham and al-Qaeda—the idea that a Turkish-supervised Tahrir al-Sham in Idlib is qualitatively different from al-Qaeda and poses a lesser, tolerable threat. But outsiders could be forgiven for their unwillingness to give the benefit of the doubt to Jolani, a veteran transnational jihadist who was, until very recently, the head of Syria’s avowed al-Qaeda affiliate.
For its part, the United States still
considers Tahrir al-Sham a continuation of al-Qaeda franchise the Nusra Front. But Syria’s northwest is understood to be mostly Russia’s domain, not America’s.
The humanitarian case for Turkish intervention seems unlikely to sway Russia and Iran, although a military assault by the regime and its allies on Syria’s northwest, it seems clear, would be catastrophic in human terms. There are more than two million people in northwest Syria, including roughly one million vulnerable displaced civilians. A
wave of punitive Russian aerial bombing in September killed nearly 150 people and sowed panic across the northwest. A concerted campaign to retake the area would have a toll many times that, and it would scatter terrified civilians in every direction. Turkish intervention may be the only way to avert a battle for Idlib that would be deadly for thousands of civilians. But it is tough to imagine that, at this late stage, the parties to Syria’s war would get sentimental.
Russia and Iran may still be won over by a more pragmatic case for handing Idlib to Turkey. The two could likely brute-force a regime victory in the northwest, if they chose to. Actually subduing and sustainably holding the area, on the other hand, might be more challenging.
Assad has been fairly successful at pacifying formerly insurgent-held areas, but, as part of retaking many of them, he has also systematically emptied them of militants and civilians unwilling to be reintegrated into regime-led Syria. Most of these people have been “evacuated” by bus up to Idlib.
The east Homs town of Qaryatein did not undergo an orderly, negotiated “reconciliation” and evacuation. After the regime captured Qaryatein from the Islamic State militarily this April, the Islamic State retook it in October thanks, in part, to Islamic State loyalists inside the town. The Islamic State
reportedly massacred more than a hundred residents before the regime restored control.
Idlib could be a Qaryatein-type problem, but on a monumental scale. The northwest is full of people—Idlibis, self-selected irreconcilables from elsewhere in the country, and jihadist foreign fighters—who cannot plausibly rejoin Assad’s Syria. The roughly one million displaced people in Idlib all, individually, have reasons for refusing to live under the regime. There is nowhere left to bus them to. The regime will have to arrest, kill, or drive huge numbers of these people across the border into Turkey, or else risk recapturing a province-sized Qaryatein that is impossible to control and periodically erupts into wild violence. Better, the thinking would go, to make Idlib a Turkish problem.
I doubt this argument will ultimately convince Russia and Iran, or, indirectly, Assad. Over the course of the war, Assad has never shown any willingness to surrender part of territorial Syria. He tends to keep going, and his Russian and Iranian allies tend to go with him.
Nothing Left but Long Shots
On these two key questions—how far Turkey’s intervention will go, and whether key players are willing to countenance long-term Turkish tutelage over Idlib—I expect the answers are, respectively, “Not far enough” and “No.” I don’t think Turkey’s intervention will work.
Even if Turkey’s initiative mostly succeeded in the immediate term, there would be huge unanswered questions about what comes next as Syria re-coheres politically. Would Jolani become shadow governor of a Turkish-sponsored Tahrir al-Sham statelet? Would Idlib ever rejoin the world, or be part of a federal Syria? Or would it become some jihadist Forbidden Zone?
I don’t think Turkey’s intervention will get to that point. But I also don’t know of any good alternative, other than giving up on Idlib and
allowing a large proportion of its residents to seek refuge in Turkey when Assad and his allies sweep in.
Syria’s jihadist-dominated northwest is still heading towards a bad end. But the prospect of violence on a really shocking scale seems enough to warp the rules for international politics and military intervention. In any normal circumstance, what Turkey is doing in Idlib would be considered beyond the pale. At this point, though, weird options seem to be all that’s left.
HAYAT TAHRIR AL-SHAM STRIKES REGIME FORCES WITH A SUICIDE CAR BOMB. SOURCE: IBA NEWS AGENCY, TELEGRAM.