Turkey’s Idlib Incursion and the HTS Question: Understanding the Long Game in Syria
After several days of speculation surrounding a possible Turkish intervention, on Oct. 8 Turkish reconnaissance troops crossed into Syria’s northwestern province of Idlib to scope out a first phase “de-escalation” deployment. Turkey’s move came within the broader context of a Russian-led initiative to de-escalate the conflict in Syria by focusing on specific geographic zones, of which Idlib was the fourth. In the days that followed the Oct. 8 deployment, limited numbers of Turkish troops used small country roads to establish thin lines of control spanning between the Idlib border town of Atmeh, east through Darat Izza and into Anadan in Aleppo’s western countryside. Two much larger convoys of at least 50-100 armored vehicles crossed at night on Oct. 23 and late on Oct. 24, effectively completing Turkey’s initial objectives.
The loose buffer zone that resulted serves primarily to place Turkish troops in a prime position to monitor and contain the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in their stronghold of Afrin, 30km north of Darat Izza. It was from Afrin that YPG militiamen and women had launched repeated attacks on Syrian opposition positions in northern Idlib, indicating the Kurdish group’s likely intent to expand aggressively southward. The YPG’s stronghold in Afrin also gave it the means to defend against any future attempt by Turkish-backed opposition forces to retake YPG-occupied towns like Tel Rifaat. Turkey saw these strategic realities as security threats, given the YPG’s structural and ideological affinity with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a designated terrorist organization that has fought a deadly insurgency against the Turkish state for more than 30 years.
Notwithstanding the significance of a Turkish intervention in Idlib, the development raised eyebrows for another reason: Turkey’s soldiers had been provided an armed escort into Idlib by none other than the jihadist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). Therein followed a flurry of accusations of Turkish collusion with al-Qaeda that although understandable, largely missed the potential significance of developments up to that point. I was in Turkey in the days leading up to the operation and was near the border as it began, meeting with a broad range of Syrian opposition groups and figures.
The background and dynamics underlying Turkey’s plans for Idlib were far more complex than what many assumed, and deserve some attention. Turkey’s actions are being guided first by priorities, with the YPG perceived as the greater and more immediate threat, and second by the strategic calculation that the HTS problem is better dealt with through a slow, methodical campaign of subversion — seeking to create divisions rather than open warfare. That assessment is shared by the several mainstream Islamist opposition factions in Idlib that Turkey would most effectively utilize to compete with and weaken (not combat) HTS’s most driven extremists and to co-opt (not kill) more malleable members of its base.
Perhaps more intriguingly, HTS and its leader, Abu Mohammed al-Jolani, were overwhelmingly keen to avoid conflict with Turkey and its opposition partners, given that such a scenario might irreversibly weaken its local and internal credibility. Jolani personally sought to initiate negotiations with Turkey to avoid that feared scenario. Finally, Russia is in on it all. In fact, Russian troops have been negotiating face-to-face with HTS for weeks and a Russian track of negotiations with HTS in the Syrian province of Homs was responsible for kick-starting the Turkey-HTS negotiations in Idlib.
Looking Beneath the Surface
HTS is a jihadist umbrella group formed in late January 2017 by Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS) — the successor group to former al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra. HTS was established against the backdrop of divisive inter-factional conflict in northwestern Syria, which had pitted JFS militants against Ahrar al-Sham, their longtime military partners. HTS’s creation had therefore helped clarify a line drawn between those loyal to a more “black” jihadist vision for Syria (who joined HTS) and those who, despite their Islamic conservatism, were determined to prioritize the Syrian revolution’s “green” nature. Given that HTS was created amidst such division and had been widely perceived as the aggressor, its local credibility as a pro-revolution partner dwindled almost as soon as it was created. Nusra achieved some legitimacy after several years of demonstrating its apparent loyalty to the broader, national Syrian cause, but this rapidly eroded when JFS and HTS were seen as prioritizing their own self-interest over the interests of the collective anti-Assad opposition. While still a jihadist group seeking the creation of local Islamic Emirates as future components of a global caliphate, HTS bore virtually no loyalty or allegiance to al-Qaeda or Nusra.
According to multiple well-placed opposition and jihadist sources, the Turkish move into Idlib was the result of an intensive negotiation process between HTS and Turkey. The talks had been initiated by HTS, at the request of its leader Jolani, whose delegates had mentioned to Russia during separate face-to-face bilateral negotiations that HTS was interested in a negotiated agreement to prevent a new conflict in Idlib. That Russia had been meeting directly with HTS — a group that for all intents and purposes it wants wiped from the face of the earth — says a lot about the complexity of the Syrian conflict. That HTS’s request to the Russians was then passed on to Turkey speaks to the relationship being forged between Moscow and Ankara as both countries seek to manage Syria’s conflict through the trilateral Astana process, which also includes Iran.
Much of the speculation about a potential Turkish intervention in Idlib had framed it as an anti-HTS operation. But this misunderstood the dynamics driving recent Russian-Turkish negotiations and the priorities of the main players. For Turkey, the dominant security concern in the Idlib-Western Aleppo zone has always been the YPG and its stated desire to expand west into Idlib. After the YPG’s expected victory against ISIL in Raqqa, Turkish security officials feared it might pivot west in an attempt to exert further influence along the Syria-Turkey border. Ankara sought to preempt such an advance, as well as any future eastward YPG threat to the Turkish-protected “Euphrates Shield” zone in northern Aleppo. And if the incursion could be sanctioned by an Astana agreement, so much the better.
According to multiple Syrian sources close to the upper echelons of the Turkish government, this is precisely what was agreed in Astana: The first phase of Turkey’s operation would project force on the YPG and in so doing establish a buffer zone along its border with Idlib and exert control over the border crossing at Atmeh. “This was never about HTS,” a prominent Syrian Islamist with extensive connections in Ankara told me. “Neither Russia nor Turkey think HTS can be dealt with only with military measures; the challenge is more complicated and requires an intelligent strategy.”
In other words, what would come from Phase 2, Phase 3, and so on of Turkey’s operation and its agreement with Russia would depend on how Phase 1 shaped up. There was, for example, some consideration for planning limited military operations toward Afrin to further contain the YPG, but that could only occur following further Russian agreement. There was also the more long-term acknowledgement that some level of conflict with HTS is inevitable. But that scenario too would likely depend on other moves by Russia and its partners in southern Idlib. In other words, Turkey’s first-phase operation reflected all that had been agreed, and anything more depended on a variety of factors that were impossible to precisely predict.
Despite its bombastic rhetoric, Russia has consistently resisted an all-out operation in Idlib given the draw on military resources that Russia would inevitably have to shoulder, as well as the huge amount of violence and humanitarian fallout that would result. Since the fall of Aleppo, Russia has concentrated on expanding its array of de-escalation zones across Syria; on rebuilding and restructuring the Syrian Army; and on refocusing pro-regime forces toward fighting ISIL in an attempt to enhance Bashar al-Assad’s international image. All of that would suffer should a major military operation be launched in Idlib. Through its Muslim-majority military police units, Russia has also stepped up its on-the-ground efforts to build trust with Syria’s armed opposition — efforts that, according to multiple groups, have been surprisingly successful. Such efforts dovetail clearly with Russia’s attempt to avoid all-out conflict in Idlib, and instead manipulate an arrangement in which its greatest threats could be weakened sufficiently and then dealt with in a more targeted fashion.
Jolani is said to fear a full-scale confrontation with Turkey and allied opposition forces more than any other threat. According to multiple well-placed sources, several of whom know Jolani personally, he worries a joint Turkish-opposition assault on HTS in Idlib could catalyze an internal crisis of confidence within HTS’s Syrian foot-soldier base. That could result in dangerous levels of division and defection. Already, HTS’s aggressive actions against rival opposition movements have severely dented the group’s popular credibility in Idlib. It is for this reason alone, according to my sources, that Jolani sought out talks rather than fighting when Turkey looked to be preparing to cross into Idlib.
Jolani is viewed with deep suspicion within Syria’s entire opposition movement. Out of dozens of trips to meet with Syria’s armed opposition since late 2013, this was the first time that every group expressed hostility to “Nusra,” “Jolani,” and now “Hitish” (the latter being the Arabic acronym for HTS, but which sounds intentionally similar to the derogatory “Da’ish” for ISIL). Jolani was singled out for particular criticism and venom. One individual who had personally met with Jolani on several occasions this year scoffed at how the HTS leader has repeatedly compared himself to Che Guevara, claiming he still has the potential to unite enough people under his umbrella to “become Syria’s Prime Minister! There is no underestimating his sense of self-importance, as if he lives in an alternative reality,” the source told me derisively.
Many of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) groups based in Idlib, western Aleppo, and northern Hama expressed their determination to fight HTS directly on the battlefield, liberate their territories, and exact revenge. During a six-hour meeting with 16 leaders from Turkey’s Euphrates Shield opposition alliance held near Syria’s border only hours before the Oct. 8 crossing, these FSA groups implied they were intimately aware of Ankara’s plans and that their fighters were preparing to cross into Idlib imminently to join Turkish forces. It quickly became clear, however, that Turkey’s favorite partners in northern Aleppo were in fact oblivious to Turkey’s designs. Although nearly 1,000 FSA fighters sat on the border across from Atmeh, not one of them was asked to join Turkey’s operation.
It was the more powerful Islamist groups — particularly Ahrar al-Sham and Faylaq al-Sham — that were more acutely aware of Ankara’s thinking. In multiple hourslong meetings, I spoke with leaders of the two groups, including Ahrar al-Sham’s new leader Hassan Soufan. Representatives of both groups said they embraced a subtler strategic vision, favoring a methodical campaign of subversion over face-to-face combat with HTS. The latter, they said, risked empowering HTS and solidifying its currently unstable leadership. The former holds a better chance of systematically dividing the group into a more manageable threat and co-opting those members who, when push came to shove, would not prove loyal to an extremist vision that conflicted with Syria’s mainstream revolutionary cause. The only catalyst that could start such a chain reaction, they said, would be the involvement of external players. A solely internal move by the opposition would fail — which multiple intra-factional incidents in Idlib and Aleppo have clearly demonstrated. Therefore, while Turkey’s first-phase intervention in Idlib looked like an entirely self-interested affair to contain the YPG, it was also designed in part to be the first step toward weakening HTS through more indirect means.
For HTS, It’s Not All Smooth Sailing
Turkey and the opposition groups have assessed that HTS and Jolani find themselves in a difficult situation in which miscalculation could mean existential challenge. With ISIL rapidly declining, international attention has turned more heavily toward the terrorist threat posed by HTS in Idlib. That external threat is compounded by a Syrian mainstream opposition now openly critical and frequently hostile to HTS’s overbearing influence and aggression.
Facing compounding internal and external challenges, HTS has repeatedly resorted to violently asserting its influence vis-à-vis opposition movements it deems to be threats or competitors. These pre-emptive military conquests (against the 13th Division, Free Idlib Army, Suqor al-Sham, Al-Jabhat al-Shamiya, Tajamu Fastaqim Kama Umrit, and Ahrar al-Sham) consolidated the group’s politico-military dominance in at least 60 percent of Idlib, but also severely eroded the legitimacy gained in previous years through successful anti-Assad operations. HTS (and Nusra and JFS before it) grew in size — to an estimated 25,000 fighters today — most of all because of its impressive military capabilities. Its ideological fervor has no doubt been important, but it has not been the guiding principle driving the mass appeal. Since at least mid-2016, HTS and its predecessors have seen their most valuable means of sustaining popular support constrained: the freedom to demonstrate unrivalled military power against the Syrian regime.
Until 2016, Nusra had a successful model, but one that depended existentially on continued anti-Assad military conflict. With that gone or severely curtailed in 2016 and 2017, Nusra, JFS, and HTS were forced to find other sources of legitimacy. Furthermore, because of HTS’s willingness to fight former opposition partners, it has effectively ceased to be an umbrella of various groups, and now only represents JFS and Nusra. Thanks to a spate of group, sub-faction, and individual defections, as well as the arrest and detention of several leaders, HTS has effectively reverted back to being Jabhat al-Nusra, but without that group’s earlier popular legitimacy. Even some of HTS’s long-labelled “doves” are said to have returned to their hardline ways in response to pressures on the group.
Take, for instance, Abu Mariya al-Qahtani — a longtime jihadist originally close to al-Qaeda in Iraq’s founding leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi — who was described to me by one acquaintance as:
a true extremist…his previous experiences in Syria had changed him in good ways, but recent developments seem to have had a bigger effect. He is not on the side of the true Syrian revolution anymore.
Another well-placed source explained what Abu Mariya had allegedly been involved in before joining the jihad in Iraq. “He was a ‘Son of Uday,’” which, the source explained, had been a mafia-like gang built around Saddam Hussein’s son Uday and had engaged in a host of illicit and frequently sadistic activities. The intended allusion to similar paths taken by senior ISIL figures was clear — from Baathist operator to hardline jihadist.
In Theory: Turkey’s Long-Term Plan
HTS is not ISIL. Turkey knows this, and so do the groups that exist alongside it, most of which are now skeptical of its intentions, hostile to its actions and/or opposed to its presence. For now, these actors believe that at least part of the group is a serious threat, but other parts are a manageable challenge. I personally know several senior Ahrar al-Sham military leaders, for example, who since as early as 2013 had been investing personally, and at great risk, in secretly “rescuing” young Syrian men from Nusra, which they deemed to be a likely future threat. At least two of those military leaders had in past lives been members of al-Qaeda or close to members, so they claimed to be issuing their years-old warnings with personal experience on their side.
Given the unprecedented pressures on HTS’s local credibility and the evolving geopolitical dynamics of the Syrian crisis as a whole, rival groups hold that it is better to out-compete HTS by gaining more legitimacy on the ground, rather than to attempt to out-fight it in a military confrontation that may in fact only harden its base.
Turkey’s deployment of a measured force in a strategically important zone of northern Idlib may primarily be intended to project force on the YPG in Afrin, but it also introduces a new and public source of pressure on HTS and within HTS’s internal structure. In August 2016, Nusra publicly withdrew from northern Aleppo in anger prior to Turkey launching its Euphrates Shield intervention. Nusra followed its withdrawal with multiple threats to destroy groups who sided with Turkey. This time around, Turkey’s entrance into Idlib forced HTS to negotiate. Given the numerous risks involved with confronting a Turkish intervention, Jolani had little room to maneuver, despite a private chorus of opposition within his Shura leadership.
Jolani’s decision to talk also came as the divide between al-Qaeda and HTS was becoming increasingly clear. For months, al-Qaeda’s central leadership and key al-Qaeda ideologues had publicly excoriated Jolani for illegitimately severing himself from al-Qaeda’s formal line of command. A host of al-Qaeda veterans inside Syria had separated themselves from Jolani, some of whom then joined in the public criticism of Nusra’s new face. The emergence in early October of a new jihadist group in Syria, calling itself Ansar al-Furqan, was according to multiple sources the work of several former Nusra leadership figures, plus a host of recent al-Qaeda veteran arrivals from South Asia and the Arabian Peninsula. The group was very small, but formed as a dedicated collection of al-Qaeda loyalists who would pursue the group’s newly stated objectives in Syria: guerilla warfare with an eye on targeting the West.
A groundless and frequently conspiratorial debate isolated to the distant Washington, D.C., beltway claimed the evolution of Nusra-to-JFS-to-HTS was merely a ploy to fool the West. But the reality was clear: Jolani’s decision to establish JFS in July 2016 through a claimed severing of external ties to al-Qaeda was exactly that — a severing of ties to al-Qaeda. HTS had by no means become any less extreme, but it had become something different. By reaching out to Turkey and talking with Russia, Jolani was doubling down on this new “progressive” jihadist model, but also risking a further loss of manpower from within his most hardline circles.
Though not the primary driving force, seeking to exacerbate those divisions was an objective of Turkey’s first-phase incursion into Idlib. By forcing Jolani to act in a way that truly dedicated extremists would see as a concession to a foreign government working with Russia and Iran, Turkey would heighten the internal pressure on HTS. That process of subversion had been underway for several months already, according to several sources. Each of them independently described a covert campaign managed by Turkish authorities to finance and direct the assassination of troublesome HTS commanders — almost all non-Syrians — who were known to vehemently oppose a more manageable path for the group. Since mid-September alone, at least nine such senior figures have been killed across Idlib, sources say, with several other attempted assassinations going unreported.
The same Syrian sources also claim that since mid-2017, Turkish intelligence has been involved — some said directly, others indirectly — in tapping or recording internal HTS conversations and leaking them for public effect. At least eight such leaks have emerged since August. In the recordings, HTS leaders display an overly enthusiastic interest in killing one another, attacking opposition rivals, and other divisive acts. Some of those leaks on their own forced a series of major defections from HTS in September.
In addition to its alleged covert activities, Turkey is also heavily involved in backing a very public revival of the Syrian Interim Government (SIG), under the leadership of heart surgeon Jawad Abu Hatab. By itself, the SIG has no means to compete with HTS, but with Turkish encouragement, political and financial support, and considerable logistical assistance, the SIG has built an intimate relationship with the complete spectrum of Syria’s mainstream opposition. Those relationships have resulted in the formation of a unified army structure in northern Aleppo (created on Oct. 24) and extensive negotiations for a national structure to coordinate the armed opposition’s future.
Beyond military matters, the SIG is more broadly presenting itself and increasingly being presented as the potential public face of a Turkish-backed socio-political and territorial alternative to HTS, the YPG, and the Assad regime. The SIG currently maintains its in-country headquarters in the Aleppo town of Azaz (within the Turkish-protected Euphrates Shield zone) and manages 12 provincial councils and more than 400 local councils across the country. The SIG has also sponsored a number of democratic elections in Idlib — much to the chagrin of HTS. Additionally, the SIG was handed control of the Bab al-Salameh border crossing between Turkey and Aleppo’s northern countryside on October 10, gifting it an estimated monthly income of $3 million. Further plans are afoot for the SIG to assume control of the smaller Jarablus and Al-Rai crossings (also with Aleppo), which would result in an additional $2 million per month. With Turkish financing, the SIG is also overseeing the construction of five hospitals in Euphrates Shield areas, as well as a military academy for FSA recruitment and a series of counter-extremism and rehabilitation centers for captured jihadist militants.
From Turkey’s perspective, helping the SIG gain a position of prime influence in northwestern Syria secures a potentially internationally legitimate source of sustainable influence and a defendable barrier against the expansionism of adversaries. For the Syrian opposition, buying into Turkey’s plans is quite simply their only option, but also one that promises the improvement in international credibility they so sorely need. With those perspectives combined, we can in theory see the emergence of an alternative opposition reality to embrace that excludes the unilateralist HTS project. Far from colluding with HTS as many accused Turkey of doing after the Idlib incursion, the operation viewed in its broader context was actually part of a long game to undermine HTS and elevate other, more credible elements like the SIG and mainstream opposition actors.
Some Perspective on What’s Next
As with all initiatives in Syria, there are many potential spoilers (Assad and Iran, in particular) and avenues for misdirection or diversion. It is also possible that HTS and Jolani could respond swiftly and intelligently enough to benefit rather than suffer from these new dynamics. Nevertheless, Turkey and elements of Idlib’s armed opposition appear to be presenting a strategy that synthesizes force projection, covert subversion and an element of “letting them rot.” All parties seem to agree, for now, that a scorched earth all-out assault on Idlib province does not promise to secure the desired objectives. That agreement may erode over time, or be disintegrated by aggressive actions by the Assad regime and Iran, but it is the dynamic at play today.
It is telling that some Western diplomats engaged with the Syrian issue on a day-to-day basis in the region have recently started asking behind the scenes: “Is it time to consider talking to HTS?” A cynic would say that question is a sign of Jolani and HTS’s success. Others would point to it as a reflection of new realities and an opportunity to further pressure the group to splinter into those who can be redeemed and those who will forever be enemies.
Nevertheless, now is not the time for Western governments to open dialogue with HTS. The group is decidedly not the kind of actor that deserves such treatment. Battlefield realities, however, will always demand different calculations, and the fact that Russia and Turkey are both engaged in direct bilateral talks with HTS is a very significant shift and a sign of things to come.
It is time for the discussion around HTS and the fate of Idlib to move beyond the simplistic, single-layered analysis that is too often shared in the West. Intelligent and sophisticated policy must address HTS with an acknowledgement that the group cannot be painted with a single brush and that more complex counter-strategies may hold a greater chance of success. This has been consistently lacking when dealing with the Nusra/JFS/HTS problem every year since 2012. To impose pre-determined values and assumptions onto an intricately complex jihadist movement is to guarantee an ineffective policy response. The time has come to approach this issue with a grounded reality and a realistic endpoint in mind.
It is true that no “good” options exist for dealing with the complex challenges posed in Idlib. But it is also undoubtedly true that leaving it to continue to fester or abandoning it to a pro-Assad scorched-earth campaign will represent a further boon to extremists and a weakening of those who oppose them. The solution therefore lies somewhere between inaction and over-action. Though clear visibility is hard to come by, the agreement reached between Russia and Turkey for a phased set of operations in Idlib appears to fit within this halfway house. HTS represents a markedly different challenge than ISIL and its weaknesses are better exploited through competition than through confrontation. Rather than granting HTS the gift of immortal genius, it is necessary to exploit those weaknesses through a locally grounded and patient strategy. Turkey may not have this all figured out, or have all the tools required to see the job through, but the initial principles guiding the counter-HTS component of its recent action are better than anything that has come before.
Charles Lister is a Senior Fellow & Director of Extremism & Counter-Terrorism at the Middle East Institute. He recently returned from conducting fieldwork in Turkey, where he met with dozens of leading representatives of Syria’s armed, political and civilian opposition.
Image: Yuxuan Wang/Flickr