Today, the looks are all directed to Idlib governorate, in northern Syria, for the people are in a state of anticipation, to know how the situation will develop in the upcoming a few weeks, or a few days, especially that six Turkish monitoring points have been spread in different parts of the area, after which Assad’s forces and ally militias’ military operations have been frozen.
The governorate witnessed stressful developments that are basically linked with the “Olive Branch” operation in Afrin, against the Kurdish “People’s Protection Units,” the most prominent of which relate to a new military structure for the factions in the area, which the Turkish side is trying to draw following the pattern of the “Euphrates Shield” operation in Northern Aleppo, for the Turkish army’s entry to Idlib would not be short; rather, it will persist there “until the danger is gone,” according to the Turkish Minister of Defense, Nurettin Canikli, latest statement.
To the day, the characteristics of the military structure have not yet been identified. But the sources which Enab Baladi managed to get from military leaders explained that the first step to be taken by Turkey is manifested through funding a number of “Free Army” factions and other Islamic groups, excluding “Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham” (HTS), the most influential in the governorate.
Idlib became the opposition’s major center in Syria since March 2015, being the only governorate that is completely out of the Assad’s control, except for the two pro-regime towns of Kafriya and Al-Fu’ah. The governorate also incubates the largest number of opposition factions, Islamic in their orientations and functioning under the “Free Army.”
The Funding is Conditional and in Stages
In the past three months, the “Free Army” in Syria did not receive any military or financial support, after the American support program, manifested by two operation centers, “MOC” and “MOM,” have come into a halt, after it started to shrink early in 2017 and arriving at 2018.
After the fund cut, many inquiries erupted about the factions’ ability to continue their military action or the solutions they will try to come up with in the governorate to survive.
In a former survey, published by Enab Baladi on its website, 40% of the participants, 300 people, believe that the best solution for the factions under the “Free Army” is to totally dissolve themselves; they also held the faction’s leaders as accountable for the situation they have reached.
The situation, however, took a different venture. Three sources, preferred to stay anonymous, said that the “Free Army” factions, active in Idlib have received a financial support from the Turkish government as a substitute for the American funding, in a step to form a new “National Army,” after the monitoring points have been spread.
The sources also told Enab Baladi that the funding covered 11 factions that have lately joined the “Repel the Invaders” operations room, leaving “Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham” out of the equation.
The Turkish conditions called for dividing these factions’ efforts in the fronts of the eastern countryside of Idlib and in Afrin, to participate in the “Olive Branch” operation. But one of the sources negated that the participation in the battle of Afrin would take the form of a condition; rather, it would be a request if the factions had the ability to undertake such a step.
The factions’ members, supposedly, will receive a monthly monetary compensation in Turkish Lira, to be exchanged for dollar inside Syria. The average of the fighters’ salaries will not change, regardless of the extent of the support offered by Turkey.
The sources explained that, currently, the amount of the salary is not definite to be declared early in next March (the average of the salary received by a Free Army fighter in Northern Syria is about $100).
In correspondence with the sources’ statement, “Jaysh al-Nasr,” (the Army of Victory), under the “Free Army,” published pictures of its fighters during their participation in the Afrin battles, on February 15, for the first time after it concentrated its military operations in rural Idlib and Hama.
Early in February, opposition factions in rural Idlib have formed a joint operations room, named “Repel the Invaders,” to unify their efforts in the battles against Assad’s forces and ally militias.
The operations room joined the following factions: “Ahrar al-Sham, Sham Legion, Jaysh al-Ahrar, Free Idlib Army, Jaysh al-Izza, Jaysh al-Nasr, Nour al-Din al-Zenki Movement, Elite Army, Second Army, Brigade 40 and 1st Infantry Division.”
According to the sources, “Ahrar al-Sham” is taking serious steps to participate in the “Olive Branch” operation and that it has, so far, sent a small patch of fighters, after many factions have already joined the battle, including “Nour al-Din al-Zenki” and “Sham Legion.”
“Tahrir al-Sham” Is in a State of Anticipation
Facing the status quo, “Tahrir al-Sham’s” position is yet ambiguous, amidst its movements and operational readiness, pointed by activists in the city of Idlib in the past a few days, which were also confirmed by affiliate sources on social media platforms.
The undertaken steps, movements, took the shape of accusations against “Nour al-Din al-Zenki Movement” about the death of Cleric Official, called Abu Ayman al-Masri, as HTS referred to as one of its members, which triggered talks about new confrontations between the two factions, month after the former “confrontations” ended.
According to former information that Enab Baladi managed to get, “Tahrir al-Sham” is living a state of division between a group that needs to put an end for the international detachment and another that wants to fight Turkey and the factions it supports, such as “Ahrar al-Sham” and the “Free Army.”
Abdullah al-Muhaysi, a Saudi Arabian Islamic cleric, led the group that resisted internal fighting, along with “Abu Harith al-Masri,” the General Religious Legislator.
“Abu Mohammad al-Julani,” commander-in-chief, and cleric “Abdul Rahman Attoun” (Abdallah al-Shami) and “Abbu Yusuf Halfaya,” the commander of the Hama sector, insisted on their position of the Turkish intervention and the other factions in the governorate, in addition to three Egyptian clerics, “Abu al-Fateh Farghaly,” “Abu Yakthan al-Masri” and “Abu Shuayeep al-Masri.”
Stressing the division, the cleric “Abu al-Fateh Farghaly,” on 11 February, said that all that has been said about providing an airbase for the Turkish aircrafts in Taftanaz, a position for the Turks in Saraqib, Wadi Deif, Khan Shaykhun, al-Lataminah, Kafr Zita or a police station in Sheikh Mansour is a false rhetoric.”
He also negated the information published on social media platforms about retreating from the areas to the west of Abu al-Duhur Military Airbase, including Talet al-Sultan.
Military sources told Enab Baladi that the “Free Army factions” are fully aware of the steps which “Tahrir al-Sham” might undertake against them, with a specific regard to the new “National Army,” supposedly to be formed in Idlib and which military range would reach rural Hama.
To Enab Baladi, the sources explained that most of the factions alerted their members demanding that they be “cautious,” about any attack by “Tahrir al-Sham” and the necessity for their commitment to working at their factions’ checkpoints in the areas they control.
An Allocation Process Away from the Local Powers
At the other side, at a distance from the active local entities on the ground, the two areas of Afrin and Manbij have entered the circle of international talks, in conjunction with the Turkish-American meeting, that also corresponded to the Kurdish Forces announcement about their intention to allow the admission of Assad’s forces to their areas in Afrin.
“Asharq Al-Awsat” newspaper has proposed an international map representing the allocation process of the two areas, on 17 February, stating that the map carries the features of international-regional agreements to distribute northern Syria, in a manner through which American-Turkish forces would be spread in the city of Manbij, in addition to a “symbolic presence” for Assad’s forces in the city of Afrin, sponsored by Russia.
It also quoted a leader in the Kurdish “People’s Protection Unites” that they have informed the head of the Syrian regime’s National Security Bureau Major General Ali Mamlouk of their approval of “the entry of Syrian representative forces of the army and security establishment to central Afrin, similar to other areas (Qamishli and al-Hasakah to the east of the Euphrates river).”
The official said that “it seems that Moscow, which disapproved the cooperation two weeks ago, has agreed upon a new formula that allows the presence of the [Syrian] Government in Afrin. It is expected that members of Assad’s forces would be heading from Aleppo to Afrin within the upcoming hours.”
In correspondence with the development in Afrin, Turkey has proposed a map to spread joint monitoring forces, American-Turkish- in the city of Manbij, following the Kurdish forces retreat from the area to the west of the Euphrates river.
The Newspaper also quoted Turkish sources speculations about Russia being a part of this discussion, especially that its forces are spread in the area of Arima in rural Manbij, corresponding to the American forces, spread in the city itself.
A Turkish official told “Reuters” News Agency, on 16 February, that the US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has promised Turkey to study the proposal of spreading joint forces in Manbij, within the frame of the agreements seeking to reestablish the relation between the two sides.
According to Turkish sources, if the Turkish-American agreement would enter a phase of implementation in Manbij, it be would a step to regain trust and conduct further steps between the two sides, including total coordination of the military operations in northern Aleppo between the American forces and the “Euphrates Shield,” in Manbij, Azaaz and Jarabulus, in addition to shifting attention to a later section of the talks concerning the discussion of creating Border Security forces in Northern Syria along the Turkish borders.