AMMAN: Ongoing evacuations of Turkish-backed rebels from frontline positions in northwestern Syria saw at least 1,700 troops from the National Liberation Front rebel coalition exit northern Hama province by Thursday, according to a local Ahrar a-Sham commander.

The evacuations, which began on January 13, were set out in a ceasefire agreement signed last week between factions from the Turkish-backed National Liberation Front (NLF) and archrivals Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham (HTS).

According to the text of the agreement, NLF groups agreed to hand over heavy weaponry and evacuate towards Aleppo province’s Afrin, held by Turkish-backed rebels, following lightning advances by hardline Islamist coalition HTS since the beginning of the year.

According to a local commander, the evacuations were undertaken on a voluntary basis by individual fighters rather than entire factions, and include fighters from Ahrar a-Sham and Jaish al-Nusr, two factions that form part of the NLF.

There were contradictory accounts of the exact number of troops evacuating towards Afrin. While local media outlets reported that 2,700 fighters from defeated NLF factions were on their way to Afrin during the evacuations, at least one local commander who spoke with Syria Direct said that the figure was closer 1,700, with fighters originating primarily from the regions of Sahel al-Ghab an Jabal Shahshbo.

The commander added that, aside from military convoys, an unspecified number of civilians would also evacuate towards Turkish-occupied regions of the northern Aleppo countryside.

“Everyone has a reason for leaving, and I can't speak for everyone,” he told Syria Direct Monday. “Maybe there is fear of future bombings after HTS takes control. Maybe they're afraid of HTS themselves.”

Another Ahrar a-Sham commander, in the Sahel al-Ghab area of Hama province, told Syria Direct on Wednesday that the number of individuals requesting evacuation from areas set to come under HTS control had increased steadily over the course of the four-day operation.

The future for evacuated fighters from the NLF, a loosely aligned coalition of 12 Turkish-backed rebel factions formed in early 2018 as a bulwark against HTS, remained unclear Thursday.

Speaking with Syria Direct throughout this week, rebel commanders predicted that thousands of evacuating troops would swell the ranks of other Turkish-backed factions in Afrin, located in a stretch of Aleppo province seized by Turkey early last year during its Olive Branch operation against the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG).  

“As far as the future of the factions that left to Afrin, up until now it's possible that they could join Jaish al-Watani,” said Ahrar a-Sham commander Abu Muhammad Ahrar, referring to another Turkish-backed rebel coalition that is based in the northern Aleppo countryside.

The January 10 NLF-HTS ceasefire agreement brought to an end more than a week of fierce interfactional clashes across the rebel-held northwest, which saw Turkish-backed rebels cede swathes of territory to HTS through a combination of clashes and negotiated settlements.

The hardline Islamist coalition, which is spearheaded by a former Al-Qaeda affiliate, now reportedly controls around 80 percent of remaining rebel-held territory in Syria’s northwest.

The advances saw HTS increase the areas directly under its administration by a third.  

Battle for the northwest

Interfactional clashes between the NLF and HTS first broke out on January 1, when the hardline faction accused fighters from the Turkish-backed Harakat Nour a-Din a-Zinki of killing five of its fighters. Using the alleged attack as pretense, HTS launched a large-scale offensive against the group in northern Aleppo, before expanding the front into the Sahel al-Ghab region of Hama province, controlled by its longstanding rival Ahrar a-Sham.

The advance was only halted after HTS seized dozens of towns from NLF forces in southwestern Idlib and northwestern Hama provinces—turning over large swathes of Syria’s rebel-held northwest to the hardline group.

As fears of a hardliner takeover of the northwest have spiked, HTS has sought to publicly to portray itself as a benevolent force returning the region to stable, civilian control.  

Speaking through HTS-affiliated channel Amjad Media earlier this week, leader Abu Mohammad al-Jolani emphasized the separation between the armed wing of the faction and its affiliated governing body, the Syrian Salvation Government (SSG).

“We don’t have the aim of ruling the liberated north,” Jolani said on Monday.  “We want to hand over all our areas to a civilian government.”

The SSG, formed by HTS in late 2017 as analternative to the opposition-run, Western-backed Syrian Interim Government (SIG), has expanded through the northwest in step with HTS military advances by dissolving local councils and asserting its strict interpretation of Islamic law on local communities.

Sochi agreement hangs by a thread

The hardliners’ battlefield fortunes have also left a Turkish- and Russian-brokered agreement over the fate of the northwest hanging by a thread, after political fortunes in Idlib swung dramatically in the favor of elements hostile to the ceasefire in a matter of weeks.

That agreement, struck last September between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin at a summit in Sochi, was widely credited with halting an imminent pro-government offensive intended to retake Idlib province and surrounding rebel-held areas.

In addition to establishing a 15- to 20-kilometer buffer zone between rebel and government-held territory, the agreement set out deadlines for the removal of rebel groups’ heavy weaponry and withdrawal of hardline groups from that zone.  

Much of the impetus for meeting those deadlines fell to Turkey.

While the agreement was heralded as a diplomatic success by the international community, specific stipulations in the Sochi agreement have proven more difficult to implement—in particular, the removal of hardline factions from the area.

Still, HTS’ recent battlefield gains may have shattered notions that Turkish-backed forces can contain and ultimately disarm HTS on their own. According to Chatham House consulting research fellow Haid Haid, a direct Turkish intervention is also unlikely, and he predicts that Ankara could now attempt to reframe the conditions of the Sochi agreement and preserve the status quo in Idlib without moving against hardline elements directly.

“Turkey is trying to find ways to keep the agreement holding, without really implementing all the conditions they agreed on,” he says. “They’ve always been trying to basically change the understanding of what each condition means, and find ways around them.”

Haid expects the issue of HTS presence in Idlib—and the further weakening of Turkish-backed forces there—to be high on the agenda next week at a summit between the leaders of Turkey, Russia and Iran.

“[That] meeting, and what comes out of it, will give us a better idea of what happens next,” he said.