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Will Damascus or HTS be the first to break the ceasefire in Idlib?

Can Turkey put a lid on HTS's ambitions in Idlib while maintaining its ceasefire with Damascus?

16 April 2020

AMMAN — On Wednesday, Turkish and Russian forces conducted their fourth joint patrol of the Latakia-Aleppo international “M4” highway, following a confrontation two days earlier which saw Turkish military police shoot tear gas at crowds of Syrian civilians and fighters who gathered to protest the patrols in what they called a “sit-in for dignity.” 

The joint patrols—a condition of the March 5 ceasefire agreement which ended Turkey’s Operation Peace Spring in northwest Syria—have met with fierce opposition by locals and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), an armed jihadist group which controls much of Idlib province. As part of the ceasefire and the Astana agreements which preceded it, Turkey has been tasked with dislodging HTS from the area. 

However, HTS has only grown more popular in the northwest province since the signing of the ceasefire. 

“We were expecting the deal to return the areas that the regime took [in its offensive last year]” Muhammad Sha’ban (a pseudonym), a resident of the southern countryside of Idlib province told Syria Direct. HTS, aware of its role as the last line of defense for many civilians, has “exploited the situation and encouraged the protests for its own interests,” Sha’ban explained.

The latest protests mark a sharp escalation between Idlib locals and HTS on one side, and Turkey on the other. If Turkey is unable to assuage the protesters and continue the joint patrols with Russia, it risks violating the ceasefire agreement and being pulled into another military conflict with Damascus. 

At the same time that its forces were confronting the Turkish military alongside protesters on the M4, HTS was arresting members of the Turkish-backed National Liberation Front (NLF), which is an umbrella organization for armed opposition-groups in northwest Syria. 

Among those arrested was Abu Ali Jurinaz, an NLF official who oversees the opposition group’s efforts to install military fortifications in Idlib province. He, and the other detained NLF members, were released late Monday night, the spokesman for Faylaq al-Sham—which is part of the NLF—Seif Raad, told Syria Direct

Though no official reason was given for the arrests, they were reportedly made to signal HTS’s displeasure at the NLF’s cooperation with Turkey in facilitating the M4 highway patrols and as a reminder of the group’s authority in the area. 

The confrontation and arrests come at a critical moment, as the fragile ceasefire is threatened by continual clashes between opposition factions and Syrian government forces in the northwest of the country. 

A low-intensity conflict, ramping up?

Immediately following the signing of the ceasefire agreement last month, both Turkish and Syrian government forces and its allied militias, began sending reinforcements to the frontlines around Idlib province. 

Turkey has sent around 2,600 military vehicles and tanks into northwest Syria since the ceasefire started, in addition to the deployment of 10,300 Turkish soldiers to the area since February 2, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory of Human Rights (SOHR). 

At the same time, there has been “a continual buildup of Iranian and regime forces” in the area, Wael Olwan, a researcher with the Turkey-based Jusoor Center for Studies told Syria Direct

Since its establishment in early March, the ceasefire has been violated over 109 times by government forces, according to Olwan. Most of those violations have consisted of shelling exchanges between forces loyal to the Syrian government and the Turkish army.  

On at least four occasions in the last two weeks, however, shelling in southern Idlib and western Aleppo province has escalated into outright fighting between forces loyal to Damascus and opposition factions, according to the SOHR.

Given the patchwork character of Damascus’s forces and its heavy reliance on foreign militias, it’s unclear if the clashes were fought by Syrian government forces or rather, as some sources have suggested, Iranian-backed militias who answer to Tehran. 

“The attempts to break into Kafr Taal [western Aleppo province], al-Baara, al-Fatterah and Sufuhoon [all in southern Idlib province], reveal that the regime is not convinced of the ceasefire,” Olwan said, adding that ultimately, “the militias are in charge of their own movement,” not Damascus. 

Raad also noted “unusual movement of Iranian and Hezbollah forces on different fronts in northwest Syria,” and warned that “the regime and its allies could break the agreement at any time, like it did with prior agreements.” 

Similarly, Aydin Sezer, an independent researcher, noted that the pace of Damascus’ military operations have actually increased in northwest Syria since fears of the coronavirus became widespread. “The Syrian government is actually exploiting this situation to fight the so-called terrorists [in northwest Syria],” he explained. 

Ankara, for its part, seems committed to the ceasefire, for the time being, stepping up its “efforts to make a joint Turkish-Russian patrol on the M4 highway possible,” Omer Ozkizilcik, a security studies researcher at the Ankara-based thinktank “SETA,” which is close to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), told Syria Direct.

The military buildup along the M4 can then be seen as a strengthening of Turkey’s “diplomatic” cards against Russia in Syria, according to Ozkizilcik. 

It is unlikely that Ankara would launch a renewed offensive in Idlib amid concerns over the coronavirus both at home and across the border. In addition, the prospect of another wave of displacement towards its border would be doubly dangerous given the risk of further coronavirus spread. 

Russia also seems to prefer to maintain the status quo, as a March 23 meeting between Bashar al-Assad and the Russian Minister of Defense, Sergei Shoigu, has been interpreted as a sign from Moscow for Damascus to stay the course. 

How long the status quo can be maintained, however, remains to be seen. If Turkey is unable to hold up its end of the deal and loosen HTS’s grip on Idlib province—as it has been promising to do since the September 2018 Sochi Agreements—Russia and Damascus could claim foul play and abandon the ceasefire. 

The question then becomes, does Anakara’s vision of a neutralized HTS match up with Russia’s? The answer is likely no, as Turkey prefers promoting reform within the group and empowering the “pragmatic wing” of its leadership, according to Ozkizilcik. Russia, by contrast, wants the group eliminated entirely.

“The group has to accept reality; they are no longer the stakeholder in Idlib, Turkey is. The best HTS can do is to disband,” Ozkizilcik explained. 

However, HTS seems reluctant to accept this version of reality. Its increasing encouragement of protests and detentions might signal the group’s desperation to maintain its mandate for power and could foreshadow future troubles to come between it and Turkey. 

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