Turkish government's sham fight in Idlib

Turkish government's sham fight in Idlib

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Turkish Armed Forces, or TSK, announced the start of the expected operation in Syria's Idlib on October 8.

TSK listed the objectives of the operation as follows: enhancing ceasefire regime, ending violence and clashes, delivering humanitarian aid to those in need, ensuring favourable conditions for the return of those displaced by the war and for the peaceful settlement of the ongoing conflict.

According to the statements of TSK, they "have started reconnaissance activities on October 8 to establish surveillance posts."

In other words, the official statements argue that the operations of the TSK in Idlib are not part of combatant force activities, but aim to monitor ceasefire regime and guarantee the process. In the first statements, it was said that 500 Turkish soldiers would be deployed along the north-west of Idlib to monitor de-escalation, that Iran and Syria would be positioned below and Russia would be in between.

However, these statements are far from giving us a holistic picture.


Russia has been propagating the argument "The US is helping al-Qaida and Islamic State" quite courageously for a while.

Russian diplomacy used to say "The US condones al-Nusra Front to defeat [Syrian President] Assad" during the presidency of Obama, and yet now, the allegations of Russia about Islamic State and al-Qaida are quite daring.

The content of this article leaves aside Deir ez-Zor and the war against Islamic State. However, Russia's accusations against the US are connected with Deir ez-Zor.

As the Syrian army and its allies broke the siege of Deir ez-Zor and moved along the eastern bank of the River Euphrates, and the developments in the Iraq-Syria-Jordan border triangle demonstrated that Damascus and its allies were close to victory.

And yet, the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces started its onslaught in Deir ez-Zor right at that moment and attacked the Syrian Army in Deir ez-Zor and Homs with all its ammunition. In addition to the Islamic State attacks, Al Qaida (Tahrir al-Sham) and its allies started a great attack on the Syrian Army in North Hama.

Russia has given a direct address about the Hama attack for the first time: Russia said that Tahrir al-Sham and its allies had started an attack in Hama with the directives of the US intelligence to stall off the Syrian Army.

This meant the violation of ceasefire regime in Hama which was one of the four de-escalation zones defined in Astana agreements. Was the message directed at only Washington since it was not one of the guarantor countries in the Astana agreements?

The answer of Russia for the Hama attack was a fierce raid. That was quite weird considering that the expectation of Moscow from Astana agreements was the segregation of al-Qaida and the "moderate groups".

The below map shows the logistic support behind the attacks in Hama countryside. The existence of a transition road between northern countryside of Hama and the south of Idlib, and the fact that Tahrir al-Sham retrieved its forces to the south of Idlib raise doubts about Turkey's Idlib operation.


On top of all these developments, the fact that Tahrir al-Sham militants escorted Turkish army reconnaissance units into Idlib on September 8 raised more question marks about Turkey's Idlib operation.

Journalist Hassan Hassan, known close to be to the "moderate" militants, was the person who called attention to these questionable points. Hassan argued that the TSK had established three surveillance posts in Dar el Izze in western Aleppo in coordination with Tahrir al-Sham.

A senior Tahrir al-Sham leader spoke to the journalist Musa al Omar and said TSK will not be able to control "for now" any place other than these three surveillance posts.

When Musa al Omar asked Tahrir al-Sham leader whether they expect any conflict with Turkey, the leader said "No. Everything went well so far, and if Turkey does not change its position it will go well."

A commander of the Nour al-Din al-Zenki group, an ally of Tahrir al-Sham, also said Turkish forces, escorted by Tahrir al-Sham militants, moved towards Deir Semaan to the south of Afrin.

Charles Lister, a pro-opposition from the Middle East Institute, spoke to Syria Deeply and said Tahrir al-Sham and Turkey has reached an agreement to establish a buffer zone from the Idlib border village Atme through Darat Izza to Anadan to be protected by Turkey. Lister added that Turkey and Tahrir al-Sham militants had around three or four meetings so far.

In the statements by Tahrir al-Sham and its allies, "those that ally with Russia" was targeted rather than Turkey. In other words, the Euphrates Shield Operation forces, with whom Turkey acted together, were targeted by them.

The Free Syrian Army (FSA) militants of the Euphrates Shield Operation has no chance before al-Qaida without the direct intervention of Turkish army. Much to that, FSA do not show any sign of conflict with Tahrir al-Sham. Tahrir al-Sham, projected as a "front", is composed of Nour al-Din al-Zenki group (left in July), Jaysh al-Sunna, Ansar al-Din Front and Liwa al-Haqq along with al-Nusra.

Leaving aside some allegations, the positioning of TSK to the south of Afrin and west of Aleppo without any conflict raises a doubt whether TSK uses ceasefire regime in Idlib to besiege YPG in Afrin. Although Turkey deems al-Qaida and its affiliates "terrorist organizations", it seems that it does not consider Tahrir al-Sham a "threat to national security".

The position of TSK on the west of Aleppo seems favourable to prevent intrusions to the southern city Hatay in Turkey and to start a possible attack on the supply lines along Aleppo towards Afrin.

The area where TSK established surveillance posts. It is a strategic area between Dar el-Izze, Atme, Dana and Anadan. This area can serve useful for a possible operation to Afrin.

Based on this information, Tahrir al-Sham’s transfer of its forces towards the south of Idlib makes sense. al-Qaida does not expect a fierce confrontation with TSK and piles up its forces ready for order.

Tahrir al-Sham does not deny contacting with TSK. A top official of Tahrir al-Sham confirmed last month that Tahrir al-Sham had reached out to some countries, naming only Turkey specifically, “without being an agent of them”.

In addition to this, Zaman al-Wasl, an opposition newspaper, argued that a negotiation had been carried out about the surveillance posts in Idlib and yet these negotiations were not brought to successful conclusion.

Al-Rai chief international Elijah J. Magnier argued that Turkey would not take the risk of a full-scale conflict with al-Qaida in Idlib due to the military insufficiency of the forces that TSK forces are dependent on and the previous failure of TSK in the war against Islamic State. According to Maigner, Turkey expects that Tahrir al-Sham would retrieve its forces from Idlib willingly or that they would keep controlling Idlib under another capacity.

It is difficult to determine how far these arguments reflect the truth. However, they are not compatible at all with the statement of TSK: "Turkish Armed Forces carry out their duties in the region in line with the engagement rules defined by the guarantor countries in Astana agreements." Hoping that Iran, Russia and Syria would accept the presence of Tahrir al-Sham forever is the new dice Turkey rolled.


It is estimated that Tahrir al-Sham has around 30 thousand militants in the whole Syria and 20 thousand of which is thought to be in Idlib.

Tahrir al-Sham, which has been keeping the region between Jisr al-Shughur and Bab al-Hawa under its control, also managed to disperse powerful groups like Jund al-Aqsa along with the Free Syrian Army. It is impossible to drive Tahrir al-Sham away from Idlib (and Syria) by means of weak and unorganized Free Syrian Army militants, which has formed an alliance with Turkistan Islamic Party and jihadist groups like Ajnad al-Kavkaz in Idlib and Latakia.

Maybe, the expulsion of al-Qaida in the Levant region is not wanted!

Ayman al-Zawahiri, a leader of al-Qaida, also proposed a model instead of establishing an "Islamic State" emirate of al-Qaida: "The jihadist strategy in Bilad al-Sham should focus on a guerrilla war... Do not waste time in area domination."

Tahrir al-Sham, which is of al-Qaida origin in another shape, shrunk to its core after Nour al-Din al-Zenki group separated from it, Ahrar al-Sham was neither integrated in nor annihilated, and some Ahrar groups separated from it.

The hand of Qatar and Turkey in this should not be overlooked. Ahrar al-Sham has to assume a different strategy given the allegations that Turkey has been targeting al-Qaida with intelligence operations and the fact that some organizations like Ajnad al-Kavkaz has halted its operations in Syria.

Yet, there is also no unconventional force to fight against Ahrar al-Sham. Hamza bin Laden, the son of Osama bin Laden, emphasized that jihad in Syria should not be given up and called on "the jihadists" never to sign peace agreements in his audio message for the anniversary of 11th September. Hamza also called on the "opposition militants" allied with "the US, Russia and their Rafidhi allies" and demanded them to choose their side.

To drive away al-Qaida from Idlib and Syria a decisive struggle is needed. It is clear that the operation Turkey has started in Idlib does not have such an objective. Turkey is neither willing to separate the "moderates" from Ahrar al-Sham, nor to drive Ahrar al-Sham away from Idlib, its firmest stronghold in Bilad al-Sham.

Even Turkey's state-run Anadolu news agency calls Ahrar al-Sham a "local group" or "opponent group", and TSK is "not expected to clash with local groups..."

12 October 2017


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