Why does Washington prevent HTS from expanding in northern Syria?

A group of the HTS-led Othman Brigade fighters in Afrin city in the northern countryside of Aleppo - 13 October 2022 (Idlib Post /Telegram)

A group of the HTS-led Othman Brigade fighters in Afrin city in the northern countryside of Aleppo - 13 October 2022 (Idlib Post /Telegram)

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Enab Baladi – Khaled al-Jeratli

With reticence that continued throughout the days of infighting and with no intervention even by the key ally Turkey, the recent factional fighting between the Syrian opposition factions in the north of Aleppo has raised questions again about the nature of international roles in the region.

During the confrontations, media outlets based in northeastern Syria reported a Turkish plan that supports the stationing of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) forces in the area in an attempt to remove the HTS from the list of terrorism by merging it with other moderate factions.

The Middle East Eye website quoted several sources with knowledge on the matter as saying that the former al-Qaeda’s former Syria affiliate has largely withdrawn from Turkish-controlled Afrin almost two weeks after seizing the northern city.

According to a senior Turkish security source, the HTS, which is designated a terrorist group by Turkey and Nato allies, has pulled most of its forces from the Syrian Kurdish-majority Afrin.

“They will soon be completely out as they have already left with the bulk of their fighters,” the source told MEE.

The American side did not express a position regarding the fighting while expressing its rejection of the expansion of the HTS in the northern Aleppo governorate at the expense of the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA).

Questions arose about the reason for stopping Tahrir al-Sham’s advance towards the region, whether it was Turkish pressure or an American push, especially since the dispute between the warring parties did not even come close to a solution or a common formula.

US-Turkish relationship in the region

According to a summary of the UN Security Council session on the situation in Syria, which Enab Baladi received a copy of, the alternative representative for American special political affairs, Ambassador Robert Wood, said that Tahrir al-Sham, which is on the US sanctions list, must stop its escalatory movements in the region, which has suffered enough violence.

This was preceded by the apology of the US State Department spokesperson, Ned Price, for not giving an updated statement when asked by a journalist about the United States’ position on the expansion of Tahrir al-Sham north of Aleppo.

He pointed out at the time that the instability in Syria and the ability of “extremist and terrorist groups” to use Syrian territory to form a “planning base” is a source of concern for the US and its allies.

Political analyst Hassan al-Nifi told Enab Baladi that the changes in the summer of 2016 determined the American influence in the areas of northwestern Syria. It was specifically increased by the expulsion of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) from Afrin in 2018, he added.

With the exception of some indirect relations and links with forces located in areas north of Aleppo, the American influence in the region is almost non-existent following the recent series of events.

Al-Nifi added that these links were often “uncomfortable” for the Turkish side, which was keen from the beginning that these areas be under its direct supervision without the influence of any other international party.

Therefore, “it is not possible to acknowledge a direct American role in northern Aleppo in particular, with the exception of what was previously mentioned,” according to al-Nifi.

He added that the Turkish intervention had a “decisive role” in stopping the advance of Tahrir al-Sham fighters towards the northern cities, and at the same time, he did not rule out that the Turkish intervention came with an American push.

The researcher, Mzahem al-Saloum, supported the hypothesis of the decline in the American interest and confined it to the security level and intelligence work only.

Al-Saloum considered that Turkey was satisfied with the expansion of Tahrir al-Sham at the expense of the SNA north of Aleppo due to the state of the region’s factions, which Turkey has seen over the past years, and has recently become a source of inconvenience to it.

On the other hand, al-Saloum indicated that Turkey did not suffer with the HTS model, especially since some of the fighting factions north of Aleppo have recently entered the phase of not complying with Turkish orders.

Concern about possible expansion

A week after the military confrontations in northern Aleppo, the US embassy in Syria stated on its official Twitter account on 18 October, “We are alarmed by the recent incursion of HTS, a designated terrorist organization, into northern Aleppo. HTS forces should be withdrawn from the area immediately.”

The embassy added, “The U.S. is deeply concerned about recent violence in northwest Syria. All parties should protect civilian lives and property.”

Mahmoud Alloush, an expert in Turkish affairs, told Enab Baladi that for several years, the US activity in Syria had been limited to areas east of the Euphrates, leaving a clear decline in northwestern Syria.

But, of course, the absence of the American presence in the region does not negate the interest of the US in militant movements like the HTS and jihadist groups in the region.

Alloush added that this concern includes coordination between the US and Turkey on the security front to monitor the capabilities of Tahrir al-Sham and any other jihadist faction in the region.

The expert considered that it is in Turkey’s interest to preserve the situation in the northern countryside of Aleppo in its current form and to prevent Tahrir al-Sham from exploiting the situation to expand outside its areas of influence in Idlib governorate.

The HTS had taken control of several strategic cities and towns, most notably Afrin and Jindires.

Despite reports of its withdrawal, the HTS forces are still deployed in some areas in the countryside of Aleppo, amid warnings from local activists and media accounts close to the Third Corps of what they described as “the treachery of the HTS commander Abu Mohammad al-Jolani and his deception and evasion.”

The US and its interest with HTS

Washington, although it classifies Tahrir al-Sham on the terrorist lists, does not agree to its defeat against the Russians and the Syrian regime because it does not want Russian president Vladimir Putin to achieve any new influence or victory, says political researcher Hassan al-Nifi.

This justifies its actions against the HTS in the form of statements of condemnation and is satisfied with monitoring and gathering information in the northern region.

Al-Nifi considered that Washington’s targeting of Islamic State (IS) leaders in earlier times would not have been so accurate without the cooperation of Tahrir al-Sham with it.

This leads to the conclusion that the bridges of cooperation between the Americans and some forces in northwestern Syria are security bridges, not relations that would give Washington an influential role, according to the researcher.

Mzahem al-Saloum, for his part, believes that the relationship of Tahrir al-Sham with Washington is not new, especially since the latter passes security files to America through regional countries, most notably the files related to the Islamic State group and its hidden leaders in northwestern Syria.

On the other hand, during varying periods of time, the HTS passed the names of al-Qaeda figures who were former companions of Abu Mohammad al-Jolani to the Americans in order to liquidate them without direct intervention, according to al-Saloum.

The HTS strategy is similar to the Lebanese model, according to the researcher, where it legitimizes the presence of a “warlord” implicated in war crimes within a state, as has previously also happened with the Taliban movement in Afghanistan, especially with the state of American relative neutrality regarding the presence of Tahrir al-Sham in the region, which suggested to the Syrians that Tahrir al-Sham forced the Americans to negotiate with it.

HTS presence in northern Syria

The militant Tahrir al-Sham group appeared for the first time in Syria at the end of 2012. It was known as the al-Nusra Front for the People of the Levant, a faction distinguished by its emergence from the womb of al-Qaeda, the most prominent “jihadi” faction on the global scene, and later announced its separation from any jihadist group, and considered itself as a local Syrian force.

The most prominent HTS expansion was in taking control over the northwestern Idlib region, which came after the battles it waged against Ahrar al-Sham Movement, Nour al-Din al-Zenki Movement, and Suqur al-Sham between 2017 and 2018.

The HTS controls most of Idlib governorate, part of the western and southern countryside of Aleppo, parts of Latakia countryside, and the al-Ghab Plain northwest of Hama governorate, while it is still classified as a “terror” group in the UN Security Council, while Russia is using the faction as a pretext for its military attacks and assaults in northwestern Syria.

 

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