Ankara on verge of military clash with radical groups in Idlib
Enab Baladi – Ali Darwish
The Turkish Armed Forces (TAF) stationed in north-western Syria, have come under a missile attack that killed two Turkish soldiers and injured another.
Turkey’s capital of Ankara, accused “radical” militant groups of standing behind the attack, according to a statement by the Turkish National Defense Ministry, on 19 March.
Before the attack, residents on the rebel-held parts of the key M4 international highway, which links Syrian regime-held cities of Aleppo and Latakia, staged a sit-in in rejection of Russian troops (Syrian regime’s key military ally) patrolling the road.
On 6 March, President Erdogan and his Russian counterpart Putin agreed on a ceasefire agreement that stipulated the formation of joint Russian-Turkish land patrols along the M4 highway between Trinbeh area east of Idlib, and Ain al-Hawr village southwest of Idlib.
The attack on the Turkish patrols and the prevention of Russian troops from patrolling on the M4 threatened to rip up the Moscow agreement; besides, the killing of the two Turkish soldiers put Ankara in a future possible confrontation with groups of a “radical” ideology operating in the region.
Radical groups’ attacks serving interests of Syrian regime and its allies
Turkish political analyst Ali Bakir said to Enab Baladi that the radical factions’ attack against the TAF deliberately intends to strengthen the position of Russia, al-Assad regime, and Iran against Ankara, on the one hand, and on the other hand the attack serves as a necessary pretext to resume the military operations and target civilians in Idlib, thereby, weakening the Turkish position again.
He regarded the attack as a threat not only to Turkey but also to the Syrian population, including the refugees and the internally displaced persons (IDPs).
Bakir added, “the extremist groups’ position serves only al-Assad’s regime and its allies eventually, as the regime has always used these groups as a ready excuse to end the Syrian revolution,” he wondered, “are the factions returning the regime’s favor by granting it what it wants?”
He pointed out that the recent battles against the Syrian regime revealed to the factions, the Syrian people, Russia, Iran, and the international community “the key player that can inflict losses on al-Assad and deter him” as expressed by Bakir.
Bakir further stated that “radical groups have done nothing to defend civilians, and have proven day after day that they are knowingly or unknowingly morphing into a claw of the regime. However, they can change this fact by abandoning their radical approach and denying the regime the opportunity of using them as a pretext, taking into consideration the interests of the Syrian people, who are now suffering more than ever.”
Will Turkey respond to radical factions’ attacks? And where does HTS stand on the control map of Syria?
The researcher in jihadist Islamic groups, Abbas Sharifa, in an interview with Enab Baladi, said that Turkey is more likely to postpone the confrontation with the “radical” factions. He said Turkey believes that the lines of contact with the regime are unstable and that the battle might be renewed with the Iranian militias, especially that Ankara does not trust the Russian guarantor, not to re-escalate military operations in Idlib.
However, Bakir believes that if the extremist groups continued their acts of aggression, Turkey would be forced to target them, directly or indirectly, by itself, or in cooperation with the Syrian opposition factions, or with key international players. He pointed out that there seems to be no compromise with these groups, as they put the lives of millions of Syrian civilians at risk.
Sharifa explained that Idlib was entirely controlled by Hay’ at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS); however, after the Turkish intervention and the entry of the Syrian National Army (SNA) into Idlib, the HTS became concerned that it was losing its position as the central controller in favor of Turkey’s reliance on the SNA.
Hence, after the ceasefire announcement and talks about conducting joint Russian-Turkish patrols, the HTS found a chance to move its “invisible hands” within the area.
The HTS along with the Syrian Salvation Government (SG) conducted a tour among the villages and cities’ dignitaries to stage civilian demonstrations against Russia, demanding the return of citizens to their home and refusing to allow the Russian patrols pass via the M4 highway, which was seen as a faultless right, according to Sharifa.
He added that the real problem started when photos and videos of armed masked men threatening the Russians and questioning the Turkish role were circulated on social media sites, including a video recording of a leader called Abu Bakr Hass.
These videos were followed by the targeting of a Turkish column with an explosive device.
Back then, the accusation was directed against the Guardians of Religion Organization; however, the latter denied its responsibility, which enhances the idea that the attack was a clear message from the HTS to the Russian and Turkish guarantors.
The HTS was likely sending a message through some of its affiliated militant groups, that no one can protect the joint patrols except the HTS. In other words, the HTS is not aiming at preventing the conduct of the joint Russian-Turkish patrols as much as it is searching for a new role, according to Sharifa.
Furthermore, the HTS held an implicit agreement with Turkey through which it became an escort and guard for the Turkish points. Nevertheless, the HTS is seeking today a new role for itself in escorting and protecting the Russian-Turkish patrols, which means acknowledging it as a force on the ground and thereby reducing the likelihood of being targeted.
It is worth noting that HTS benefits from the fact that the contact lines between Turkey and the Syrian regime are unstable as well as the Turkish side’s apprehension of renewed battles, which create an opportunity for the HTS to promote its authority on the opposition-controlled areas in the absence of consensus over these territories.
Brief on current political conflicts in Syria
Turkey’s Defense Minister, Hulusi Akar, threatened on 13 of last February all those not complying with the Russian-Turkish “Sochi” ceasefire agreement of 2018, including the “extremists.”
Akar added that his country is sending military reinforcements to Idlib to ensure a sustainable ceasefire and to control the area.
On 12 January, Turkey and Russia signed a “calm” agreement that ensured a ceasefire in north-western Syria; nevertheless, the regime bombed the opposition-held areas and resumed its military operations with full Russian support on the 15 of the same month.
Back at that time, the regime claimed that missiles fell on its areas, and accused the opposition factions of standing behind this attack.
Then, the Syrian regime launched a military campaign in which it controlled strategic cities and towns, such as Maarat al-Numan, Saraqib, Hayyan, Hreitan, and Jabal al-Shehshabu, in the provinces of Aleppo and Idlib.
On the other hand, the Turkish side continued issuing threats, and mobilizing more military reinforcements to its observation points; besides, it established new additional points in the opposition-controlled regions. At that time, 16 Turkish soldiers were killed in an aerial bombardment by the government of the Syrian regime.
Nonetheless, Turkey did not confront or strike the Syrian regime forces only after a Turkish military convoy was targeted in an air raid in Idlib, killing 33 soldiers and wounding 32 others, according to Governor Rahmi Dogan of Hatay province in southern Turkey, on 27 February.
The Turkish army then launched Operation Spring Shield against the Syrian regime, forcing it to return behind the lines of the “de-escalation” zone outlined in the 2018 “Sochi” agreement.
However, on 5 March, and in the Russian capital, Moscow, Russian, and Turkish delegations, in the presence of the two countries’ presidents, reached an agreement that stipulated to conduct joint patrols on the M4 highway in the opposition-controlled areas.
The agreement was shrouded in mystery, especially after the Turkish Foreign Minister, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu released a statement which indicated that the regions located within the de-escalation zone 6km (four miles) south of the security corridor are under the Russian supervision. At the same time, the north side is to be supervised by the Turks.
The agreement was met with a sit-in where several protesters gathered on the M4 highway, preventing the first Russian patrol from completing its mission. The Russian Ministry of Defense accused the protesters of being armed and considered them as terrorists after some militants appeared to be threatening to target and kill the Russians if they passed the road.
Radical factions’ rejection of Russian and Turkish guarantors
The Rouse the Believers Operations Room, a coalition of four jihadist groups centered in north-western Syria, rejected the Russian-Turkish Sochi agreement signed in September 2018, as well as the latest deal that was reached by the same sides on 5 March.
The Rouse the Believers Operations Room, include “Jabhat Ansar al-Din,” “Ansar al-Tawheed,” “Jabhat Ansar al-Islam,” and “the Guardians of Religion Organization.”
These factions are considered to be “jihadist” in Syria; their work is concentrated in the northern countryside of Latakia and the countryside of Hama.
On 15 March, the Rouse the Believers Operations Room issued a statement that said: “the international understanding and their resulting conspiracies, including the latest Moscow agreement, are nothing more than a venomous snake that keeps biting the reached hands of the Syrian people whom they sacrifice to serve the international interests.”
On 7 March, the head of the Guardians of Religion Organization, Abu Humam al-Shami, warned in a recorded statement that was accessed by Enab Baladi, that the guarantors’ false promises must not deceive the Syrian people.
The Rouse the Believers Operations Room’s jihadist groups:
In February 2018, Guardians of Religion Organization was formed from the coalition of seven Islamic factions operating in Idlib “Army of Malahem, Army of al-Sahel, Army of al-Badia, Saraya al-Sahel, Sariyat Kabil, Jund al-Sharia, and remnants of Jund al-Aqsa.
They are led by the former leader of HTS, Abu Humam al-Shami in partnership with the leaders of the al-Qaeda in the Shura Council, including Abu Jleibib Tubas, Abu Khadija al-Urduni, Sami al-Aridi, Abu al-Qassam, Abu Abdul Rahman al-Makki, as well as several former leaders in al-Nusra Front who refused to disengage from the al-Qaeda.
In March 2018, Ansar al-Tawheed was formed from dissident groups of the Jund al-Aqsa faction in the Sarmin city of Idlib province, where it operates beside the al-Nayrab area in rural Aleppo.
Ansar al-Tawheed is a Salafi jihadist faction, and one of the closest factions to the previously known as “al-Nusra Front.” It is known to be sympathetic and supportive of the so-called Islamic State group (IS) as it refrained completely from fighting it, which led to the disagreement with The Army of Conquest/ Jaish al-Fatah factions in late 2015, particularly the Islamic movement “Ahrar al-Sham.”
The Faction of Ansar al-Tawheed is accused of carrying out assassinations against fighters and leaders of opposition factions, as well as belonging or being affiliated with the IS.
In February 2017, the last group of fighters of Ansar al-Tawheed headed to al-Raqqa province as by an agreement imposed by HTS and Ahrar al-Sham movement.
As for Jabhat Ansar al-Din, it split off from Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) in February 2018 after being one of the most prominent founders of it back in January 2017.
Jabhat Ansar al-Din’s dissension statement announced that it is an independent administrative and organizational group, not affiliated with any party, whether inside or outside Syria.
Jabhat Ansar al-Din also said in its statement that its relation with other civil or military parties locally and abroad is governed by the sharia law, while taking in consideration the political Islamic legitimate policies that preserve the fundamentals of Islam. The group considered itself as “part of the Islamic project to overthrow (the tyrant of Damascus) Bashar al-Assad’s regime, and an integral part of the Islamic nation.
In 2014, the Jabhat Ansar al-Islam was established in the provinces of Damascus, and Rif Dimashq, and al-Qunaytirah, after the integration of the Osama bin Zeid Brigade, al-Ezz bin Abdul Salam Brigade, and al-Adiyat Brigade. In February 2015, the group announced the creation of a division in Idlib province in north-western Syria.
Back then, the commander of the northern branch, Mustafa al-Said, said in a statement that “the main objective of establishing the northern division is to unify the ranks to form bigger entities, especially in the regions of Damascus, Daraa, and al-Qunaytirah.”
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