Idlib in the Grip of “Tahrir al-Sham”

Troops of the “National Front” in a training camp, rural Idlib – 2018, (Aref Watad, AFP)

Troops of the “National Front” in a training camp, rural Idlib – 2018, (Aref Watad, AFP)


 “Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham” (HTS) assumed full control of Idlib at the civil and military level, following the military operation it launched against the factions of the “Free Army,” functioning in the governorate, contrary to what “Abu Mohammad al-Julani” stated after the governorate was seized in March 2015.

Back then, he said that “al-Nusra Front” does not consider ruling the area, as much as, it plans to run it with “the even-handed Sharia of God, which preserves the people’s religion, their money and honor, and put Shura (consultation) into practice and achieves justice among them.”

It seems that the project of “al-Nusra,” now part of “Tahrir al-Sham,” has been realize. However, it corresponded to a “sensitive” point in time, while “Sochi” deal, signed by Turkey and Russia in September 2018, is in action, providing for the establishment of a demilitarized zone between the areas held by the opposition and those held by the regime and reopening the international highways for trade and civilians, which paves the way for many scenarios, addressing Idlib’s fate, swinging between a military operation to eliminate “terrorism” and achieving an agreement in return for concessions on the part of “Tahrir al-Sham.”

Though “Tahrir al-Sham” has been excluded from the Turkish-Russian agreement, it committed itself to the deal’s terms in the past period, the ceasefire in particular.

It did not undertake any military operations against the posts of Assad’s forces, and it had already approved the deployment of Turkish observation posts in the governorate and accompanied the Turkish conveys on their way into western rural Aleppo in the beginning of the Turkish intervention.

With the rapid developments that Idlib witnessed as a beginning to 2019, analysis about Idlib’s future went massive, but, in general, it is ambiguous with the lacking Turkish statements and the state of confusion reigning over the governorate’s factions, which failed to preserve control of their posts despite the threats they issued in the beginning of “Tahrir al-Sham’s” attack.

Old Project Awaits “Tahrir al-Sham’s” Movements

The steps undertaken by “Tahrir al-Sham” in Idlib, including the expansion of its influence’s area on the ground and the administrative influence of the “Salvation Government,” might be interpreted by its intention to fully control the joints of Idlib, a move to pave its way to the negotiations concerning the governorate, “Sochi” deal particularly, especially the second term of it, the reopening of the highways, which is supposed to be implemented in the current period.

“Tahrir al-Sham’s” entrance to the negotiations is indirect, for its participation is not the result of the current phase but beforehand plans, dating back to the reinforcements it brought into the vicinity of Darat Izza town, western rural Aleppo, and Maarrat al-Nu’man, early in December 2018.

A source from the “Free Army,” informed of the Free Army factions’ communication with Turkey, indicated that the old Russian-Turkish project, concerning Idlib governorate’s future is yet in action, and it proposes launching a joint, Russian-Turkish, military offensive against “Tahrir al-Sham” incase it attempts to obstruct the implementation of their deal’s terms.

The project is supposed to change based on “Tahrir al-Sham’s” movements in the next two weeks, whether through facilitating for the implementation of the second term or the elimination of the hardliners within it, in a first step to integrate with the rest of the factions and formulate a “unified Army” in Idlib, the source told Enab Baladi.

On January 11 and 12, the Turkish army brought in military reinforcements, which it focused in Hatay province, along the Turkish-Syrian borders from Idlib’s direction. The Turkish steps were not limited to this, for high-level-officials conducted a meeting on the Syrian borders to discuss the latest developments in Northern Syria and Idlib city in particular.

On January 12, the Turkish Ministry of Defense stated, on “Twitter,” that the meeting brought together the Minister of Defense, Hulusi Akar, Commander-in-Chief, Yaşar Güler, Land Force Commander, Ümit Dündar and the Head of the National Intelligence Organization Hakan Fidan.

Turkish media outlets, including CNNTURK, described the meeting as “resolute,” tackling the developments in Northern Syria.

In the Interest of the Regime and Russia

The principal fronts of the Syrian regime, after “Tahrir al-Sham” expanded the area of its control, have also witnessed military movements, for reinforcements were brought in to northern rural Hama.

Enab Baladi’s correspondent quoted a young man from the town of Al-Jarniyah as saying that Assad’s forces demanded that some of the people evacuate their houses, in which they will establish posts once they reach the area.

The former head of the “Astana” delegation, Brigadier General Ahmad Beri, believes that what is currently taking place in Idlib is that the Russians, Iranians and Bashar al-Assad, head of the Syrian regime, wish for.

He said that Russians need a coherent faction with a unified decision to be in control of the roads to be reopened under the “Astana” deal.

He added: “The faction should also be weak internationally and classified as a terrorist group by the U.S., the UN and the majority of the countries around the world.”

“Russia can receive international support and funding and a universal approval of eliminating al-Nusra. The functional role of the current state is 100% in the service of Russia and the regime,” Beri said.

“We noticed that, when Russia and Iran decided to launch a campaign about three months ago, there was American and European opposition, led by Germany and France, in addition to Turkey. So, Russians decided to shift to plan (B), represented by Tahrir al-Sham’s control of the area, after which there would not be any objection or international action as to stop them from attacking Idlib, exploiting the presence of Shiite militias, which will play their last role in Syria with this operation,” he pointed.

Beri’s vision agrees to that of the media spokesperson of the opposition’s delegation to “Astana,” Ayman al-Assmi, who considers that the operation launched by “Tahrir al-Sham” lies in the interest of the Syrian regime and Russia. However, he says that it did not affect the “Sochi” deal, since the confrontations were all internal and did not involve the fronts of the Syrian regime.

“We will be witnessing a very soon solution, in the upcoming days, I expect. All the scenarios are possible,” al-Assmi told Enab Baladi.

About the probability that “Tahrir al-Sham” would be present in the negotiations, he added that terrorism-related classifications are not fixed, and they keep changing, such as the Taliban movement which became a part of the negotiations as a power on the ground, which is similar to what “Tahrir al-Sham” is doing today.

“Salvation Government” Sets up Administrative Plans

Turning to the “Salvation Government,” which headed the agreement statements between “Tahrir al-Sham” and the rest of Idlib’s factions during the confrontations, it is setting up new plans for running Idlib completely after entering the areas recently controlled by “Tahrir al-Sham.”

Bassam Suhyoni, head of the founding committee under which the “Salvation Government” was established, says that “there is a plan for managing the liberated areas, designed previously as to allow all the areas a chance to be part of the founding committee, functioning like a parliament.”

“We are moving in several directions, the most prominent of which is the parliament and organizing it as to allow the participation of all those present on the ground from the different governorates. […] This marks the beginning of a new management,” he told Enab Baladi.

“There is a mechanism and intensive meetings for the ministries to discuss these issues. On a practical level, the belongings and contents of the new places that recently became a part of the government have been regulated and undergone an inventory process,” according to Suhyoni.

Suhyoni’s comment, of the already designed plan aiming at running the “Liberated areas,” leads us to contemplate the procedures undertaken by “Tahrir al-Sham” previously, as to reach the current step, which is monopoly over Idlib governorate as to impose a new status quo, the main objective of which is paving a way to be present at the Russian-Turkish negotiations.

The government was established in the shadow of the complexities endured by the area, international interventions and internal tensions, on top of which “Tahrir al-Sham’s” indirect control of the governorate’s joints and the continuity of the “Syrian Interim Government.”

While considerations contradict, gesturing at the necessity of the Salvation government for saving Idlib and its being formed by the Military commander of “Tahrir al-Sham,” “Abu Mohammad al-Julani,” as to spread its control over the area secretly, the formation of the “Salvation Government” in northern Syria was announced on November 2, 2017.

The application of any of the above proposed scenarios depends on the out come of the upcoming summit, which is to join the Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Moscow this month, which comes in the shadow of the political and military developments in the Syrian landscape, led by Idlib and Manbij, eastern rural Aleppo, which the Kurdish “People’s Protection Units,” control.

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