One year ago, the Syrian regime launched a military offensive of unprecedented scale on opposition-held territories in the northwest of the country. After two successive bouts of intense hostilities from April-August 2019 and December 2019-March 2020, pro-regime forces have now recaptured at least 40 percent of opposition territory and regained full control over the strategically key M5 highway. Those gains were secured in large part due to a brutal carpet-bombing campaign launched from the air and ground by Syria and Russia against populated areas — the regime’s tried and tested method of flattening and depopulating territory, “softening” it up for capture. In so doing, the regime’s offensive killed several thousand civilians and displaced over a million others — the largest single time-bound incident of displacement anywhere in the world for decades.
In the wake of a similarly unprecedented Turkish air intervention — which killed hundreds of pro-regime personnel and destroyed dozens of regime tanks, armored vehicles, howitzers, artillery, and as many as eight air defense systems — a swiftly-arranged bilateral summit between Russia and Turkey in Moscow on March 5 resulted in an immediate cease-fire. What remains of opposition territory in the governorate of Idlib has since experienced a period of relative calm. While near-daily regime violations may have continued, none have been allowed to spiral out of control. Meanwhile, the spread of COVID-19 within regime areas and the terrifying prospect of its arrival into densely populated Idlib has been widely expected to distract or deter actors on all sides from seeking escalation. Nevertheless, given the regime’s penchant for brutality, it remains possible that it may seek to renew fighting in due course, aiming to take advantage of the inevitable outbreak of the virus in what remains the world’s worst humanitarian crisis area.
That risk notwithstanding, Idlib may be set to feel the effects of another catalyst for instability, as its internal dynamic transforms in potentially explosive ways. For the last three years, Idlib has been dominated by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a former al-Qaeda affiliate that was once known as Jabhat al-Nusra but that has since turned increasingly inward, focusing solely on its local Syrian environment and associated goals (including holding territory, consolidating military dominance, and expanding governance and legitimacy). While al-Nusra had built bridges with mainstream opposition groups and civilian communities, its evolution into HTS was realized through aggression. HTS never managed to rebuild its bridges of the past and has remained widely distrusted throughout Idlib, forcing it to exist in the area in a manner more dependent on an iron fist than might have been necessary in earlier years.
With its territory under increasing pressure, its finances dwindling, and manpower more challenged than ever, HTS’s ability to balance its extremism with controlled uses of pragmatism is under strain. Internally, HTS’s leadership is bitterly divided over decisions of the past, present, and future and externally, its rivals and enemies all appear to be conspiring against it. In an attempt to protect internal cohesion, HTS has become determinedly self-assertive in recent weeks, pursuing unpopular policies such as trading with the regime and lashing out at those brave enough to express their dissatisfaction. In response to HTS aggressions, a wider array of opposition voices — both moderate and Islamist — are declaring loudly that HTS now represents a threat to their revolution. This is an eventuality that Turkish policy in Idlib has sought to realize since 2017, but to what end remains to be seen. By forcing it into a corner, can HTS be coerced into submission or will this pressure campaign result in a debilitating internal conflict in Idlib?
Taking everything into account, the fate of Idlib is of existential importance to Turkey, and particularly to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP). Were Idlib to be squeezed much more, the sheer scale of the internally displaced person crisis would raise the real likelihood of a new refugee flow across the border into Turkey. Though Turkey has constructed walls and fences and placed the border on lockdown, the desperation that would result from further regime gains would almost certainly guarantee an eventual “run on the border” at some point. Domestically, the prospect of additional refugees is political poison for all parties and is something Erdogan has promised will be avoided at all costs. Were it to happen, his prospects of re-election would plummet, as would Turkey’s military credibility elsewhere across northern Syria, possibly leading to a domino effect in which Turkish military occupations in northern Aleppo and in northeastern Syria were challenged and eventually removed. That too would humiliate Erdogan and degrade national security interests perceived in Turkey to be vital.
This explains why Turkey has been militarily involved in Idlib since October 2017, when several hundred Turkish troops crossed the border and began establishing “observation posts.” At that time, Turkey’s objectives were two-fold: (1) in the immediate term, to block any possible westward expansion by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and (2) looking longer-term, to assert Turkish influence inside Idlib and transform the area into a more manageable challenge in which a more permanent military presence might be possible, thereby empowering Turkey’s position within the Astana group. Blocking the YPG was the easy part and was realized the moment Turkish troops first set foot on Idlib’s soil, but the latter goal was far more complicated given HTS’s dominant position and the presence of dozens of other armed groups, both mainstream and even more extreme than HTS.
From the start of its Idlib deployment, Turkey’s approach to the HTS challenge was, as officials and Syrian partners explained to me at the time, to “engage to control and divide.” HTS had already revealed a willingness to sustain a dialogue with Turkey and indeed, the initial Turkish deployments into Idlib in October 2017 came after days of direct negotiations with HTS. “Those negotiations were very hard … they [HTS] were tough and offered no compromises,” a now former HTS commander from Aleppo told me on the condition of anonymity.
Having fostered intimate ties with Islamist groups like Faylaq al-Sham and Ahrar al-Sham, Turkey had developed an intricate understanding of HTS’s internal dynamics. Both groups’ leaderships were engaged extensively in October 2017 as Turkey drew up plans for its deployment into Idlib. While the international community and Russia in particular had long called upon Turkey to attack and defeat HTS militarily, Turkey and its opposition allies maintained a different perspective on how best to deal with the group. Neither Faylaq al-Sham nor Ahrar al-Sham favored an armed conflict with HTS, instead favoring a gradual empowerment of HTS’s rivals alongside Turkey, while simultaneously engaging the group and attempting to empower its pragmatic side and disempower or isolate its irreconcilable, extremist tendencies, as then Ahrar leader Hasan Soufan told me in person at the time. “Hitish are fast to act and well placed to defeat an uprising,” Soufan said — using a term adopted for HTS that was purposefully similar to the derogatory use of “Da’ish” for ISIS — but “they will become vulnerable if Turkey and the [opposition] factions are united on the ground … this is what we are calling for.”
It was no secret that after the tumultuous evolution of al-Nusra into Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS) and then HTS, the group had attracted a great deal of hostility from those both less and more extreme, and destabilized power dynamics within its own command. Therefore, in deciding to enter militarily into Idlib, Turkey sought both to engage and coordinate with HTS while sustaining “a slow, methodical campaign of subversion, seeking to create divisions rather than open warfare.”
As it was in late 2017, HTS remained in a seemingly unassailable position of internal advantage within Idlib and as such, its negotiations with Turkey were at the time just that: negotiations. HTS came to the table with leverage, even when the party on the other side of the table had the second-largest standing army in NATO. When agreements were reached to allow Turkish troops entry into Idlib, they were escorted by HTS fighters to locations pre-determined by HTS’s military command. That HTS retained a semblance of control over developments provided its leadership with an element of cover for engaging with Turkey in the first place — a deeply sensitive issue for jihadists and one that has earned HTS a position of revile and infamy within the al-Qaeda movement to which it used to belong. As one self-identified “independent” cleric who provides “advice” to al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, Tanzim Huras al-Din, told me, HTS will “pay” and “suffer eventually” for its “betrayal” of al-Qaeda and “strategic alliance with the pig Erdogan.”
Of course, HTS and its leader Abu Mohammed al-Jolani were also acting entirely in their own self-interest. Entering into a relationship of interdependence with Turkey was in their minds a means to an end: a potential guarantee not just for HTS’s continued primacy in Idlib, but for HTS’s very survival. But there can be no underplaying the controversy that it has sparked.
Nevertheless, through 2018 and into 2019, this interdependence served both HTS and Turkey well. HTS consolidated its position of power in Idlib and expanded the scope of its governing proxy, the Salvation Government, while Turkey’s military presence in Idlib steadily grew in scale and acquired international status through a formal agreement with Russia in September 2018. Collectively though, the evolving dynamics may have been shaping up more to Turkey’s benefit than HTS’s. Every additional Turkish deployment into Idlib raised tensions between HTS and al-Qaeda loyalists, while eroding HTS’s independence of decision-making and empowering — albeit very minimally — the position of more mainstream opposition factions in Idlib and elsewhere in Syria’s northwest.
Presumably aware of these creeping changes, HTS leader Jolani began to modify his rhetoric to be more explicitly locally focused and detached from displays of ideological conservatism. Out went talk of jihad, Islamic emirates, and apostates and in came references to the “great Syrian revolution,” the “liberated territories,” and the “Alawite communities.” In private meetings with armed opposition leaders, Jolani at one time offered a proposal to establish a unified “government of liberated northern Syria” under the leadership of a “prime minister.” HTS’s political office, which manages a facility in southern Turkey and is run by a young Syrian with a master’s degree in political science, began putting out feelers through intermediaries for opening engagement with European governments, several of which eventually answered and have entered into secretive exploratory dialogues.
It is possible that such adaptations were genuine — he would not be the first figure with an al-Qaeda pedigree to shed globalism in favor of local resistance — but they were undoubtedly stimulated by the changing environment in Idlib and a desire to embed more deeply and credibly within what remained of the northwestern Syrian revolutionary milieu.
Beyond posing a mammoth military challenge to HTS, the regime’s initiation of major hostilities in April 2019 set in motion a chain of events that accelerated HTS’s loss of influence within Idlib’s broader dynamic. Turkey’s subsequent deployments and establishment of new observation posts were from that point on and almost without exception, done without HTS’s express permission. As the regime advanced in the second phase of hostilities in late 2019 and early 2020, Turkey began deploying back into Idlib sizeable Free Syrian Army (FSA) units now associated and restructured within the Syrian National Army (SNA) — many members of which had been forcibly expelled in the past by al-Nusra, JFS, or HTS. “With Turkey’s support, our return to liberated Idlib will bring the demise of Jolani’s gang,” one nine-year FSA veteran leader declared. “Our strategy will be patient as time is on our side,” another FSA commander told me, “but our bullets will pierce the jihadists’ chests once again.”
Still, HTS was primarily concerned with facing down the regime and its attempts to do so arguably benefited from Turkey’s increased efforts to support its opposition partners in Idlib through intelligence, weapons, ammunition, and occasional partnered operations. Some weapons found their way straight into HTS hands, raising the strong likelihood of Turkey knowingly empowering select HTS sub-units to fight on frontlines important to Turkish interests. As such, limited coordination between HTS and Turkey continued and HTS had little reason to challenge Turkey’s role in Idlib.
It was the March 2020 cease-fire deal reached in Moscow that provided the ingredients for a potential deterioration in this complex internal dynamic. Beyond agreeing to a cease-fire, Turkey and Russia also agreed at the Moscow Summit to establish a “secure zone” along the M4 highway, running east-west across the southern belt of opposition territory. On paper, the creation of the zone implied that the opposition would eventually be expected to relinquish control of territory 6 km deep on the northern and southern sides of the highway, effectively severing a third of opposition territory, irreversibly. That was a concerning implication passed along to commanders within several Idlib-based opposition groups by their Turkish intelligence handlers. Concurrently, the Russian and Turkish military planned to conduct regular joint patrols of the highway to assert the neutrality of the area. For HTS, this was an absolute non-starter and the group has worked studiously to spoil it ever since.
For several weeks now, an HTS-sanctioned and facilitated unarmed blockade in the village of Nayrab has successfully prevented seven attempted Russian-Turkish joint patrols from traveling more than 6 km along the M4 from their starting point in the town of Saraqeb. Many participants in the blockade have been bused to the protest sites by HTS’s governance front, the Salvation Government. Official HTS media channels and others linked to the group have sustained an intensive propaganda campaign attacking the joint patrols and encouraging civilians to join popular actions to prevent them. In other times, that call might have fueled massive mobilizations, but turning against Turkey is an option fraught with risk given the fact that it remains Idlib’s best — if imperfect — chance of avoiding total obliteration by the regime, Russia, and Iran. HTS’s calls, therefore, have garnered only minimal popular support.
After a previous attempt on April 13, Turkish troops tried to disperse the blockade at Nayrab on April 26, sparking gunfire that left three civilians dead. In short order, an HTS unit then fired on a Turkish armored vehicle stationed at a nearby post, triggering an incident the nature of which remains disputed, either an armed clash or a Turkish drone strike targeting the HTS unit responsible. HTS personnel then set up a blockade in the village of Hazano on the main road leading into Idlib’s interior from the region’s major crossing with Turkey at Bab al-Hawa (threatening Turkey’s main supply route) and proceeded to open a trade crossing with regime territories in western Aleppo, sparking uproar within much of Idlib. Thirty-six hours later, the Turkish military took that new HTS trade crossing out of action, by employing bulldozers to block the road between Maaret al-Naasan and Mizanaz, shuttering any and all chance of traffic. A series of tit-for-tat incidents around the prospective crossing continued in the days that followed, and HTS attacked a civilian protest against it on April 30, killing one protester. Hours later amid proliferating protests condemning HTS and calling for the arrest of Jolani, HTS issued a statement backing away from its hopes to maintain a crossing in the area and insisting that the HTS fighters responsible for the violence would be prosecuted. Still, anti-HTS protests were reported in multiple areas of Idlib on Friday, May 1.
The issue of trade crossings is a sensitive one for HTS. Until earlier this year, HTS managed two crossings into regime areas, one in Qalaat al-Madiq in northern Hama and another near al-Eis, southwest of Aleppo. Both have since been shut down by fighting, resulting in a substantial reduction in HTS’s revenues. With less income, HTS’s ability to exert itself and maintain its dominant position in Idlib will markedly weaken over time, making it vulnerable to external and internal threats. If realized, Turkey and Russia’s plans for the M4 look set to cripple HTS’s financial superiority compared to other groups in Idlib yet further, as any trade and customs benefits from a re-opened highway would — if Turkey’s designs in northern Aleppo are anything to go by — end up providing FSA factions (within the Turkey-backed SNA) now present in Idlib with a sustainable source of income of their own.
Tensions have also erupted within HTS’s senior leadership over the consequences of Jolani’s investment in ties with Turkey. That engagement with Turkey has been a source of contention within HTS is neither new nor a secret, but it has become a far more significant issue in recent weeks, at times in public. For example, in late March, leading HTS shari’a official Abu Fateh al-Farghaly was revealed in a leaked recording to have addressed HTS fighters and lamented HTS’s loss of influence since partnering with Turkey, a force he described as representing kufr (disbelief) and likely now worthy of HTS hostility. Then in April, senior HTS military commander Abu Malek al-Talli quit HTS in protest at the group’s shuttering of mosques in response to the coronavirus, and to the group’s “ambiguous” political positions — a clear reference, in part, to its ties to Turkey. According to three well-placed sources close to HTS, at least three other members of its Shura Council have threatened to defect in the last two weeks, amid heightening tensions with Turkey.
As Abu Malek al-Talli and Abu Fateh al-Farghaly are both well-known critics of Jolani’s pragmatic approach toward HTS’s position in Idlib and its options vis-à-vis Turkey, their criticism is not by itself a shock — especially given the prevailing circumstances. However, the timing presents Jolani with a serious internal challenge. For now, Farghaly remains in his place, al-Talli has been convinced to return to HTS, and no other defections have occurred. But that raises the question: what has convinced them to fall back in line? It is likely that having been forced into a corner, Jolani has now been persuaded to promise a more challenging, or even hostile posture in Idlib, though his intent to follow through with such a promise is another question. Throughout the last nine years of his leadership in al-Nusra, JFS, and now HTS, Jolani has managed multiple transitions between phases of aggressive self-assertion and extremism on the one hand, and measured cooperation and controlled pragmatism on the other. All have been driven entirely by a thirst for self-preservation and until now, all have worked. This time around, the stakes are higher than ever before and HTS has fewer tools to bring to the “table” than ever.
Whether this whole state of affairs is in line with Turkey’s original thinking is highly unlikely, but there can be no doubt that the Turkish military presence in Idlib today and the actions undertaken by Turkey since October 2017 have strengthened Ankara’s hand and weakened HTS. It is also not a coincidence that Turkey’s SNA proxies have begun talking in increasingly fever-pitched tones about confronting HTS and removing its rule from Idlib. But as the past has demonstrated, the rhetorical threats made by Turkey’s FSA proxies are not always indicative of Turkey’s preferred or intended policies. Turkey’s FSA partners were making similarly bellicose threats in October 2017, including in meetings I convened on the border at the time, but in the end, their warnings set the scene for Turkey’s negotiations with HTS over its desire to deploy troops into HTS territory.
It remains most likely that Turkey still prefers to avoid all-out conflict with HTS and instead seeks to coerce it into submission. Through a council of Islamic intermediaries, most Syrian but some foreign, Turkey has sustained a channel of talks with HTS’s leadership for several years in which the group is being encouraged to either rebrand and merge into an evolved form of the SNA or to dissolve altogether, leaving its entire membership the option to determine their own paths. Turkey has used a similar approach in the past, when a group of Islamist clerics managed to convince Jolani to push for al-Nusra’s rebrand to JFS in the spring and summer of 2016. The stakes at play today though are far greater and laden with risks for Jolani than the situation he faced four years ago.
Jolani’s nine-year balancing act, managing internal and external dynamics and stretching ideological parameters, may soon meet its end. To enter into a path of gradual escalation with Turkey would be to assuage concerns held increasingly vocally by his hardline wing, but in so doing, risk losing everything. To submit to Turkish demands, meanwhile, would be more likely to perpetuate his influence within what remains of the armed struggle in Syria, while representing an abrupt surrender of unilateral influence and a viscerally divisive betrayal of HTS’s jihadist values.
For now and given precedent, Jolani’s preferred path of action will be to sustain the current balance: to assert HTS interests wherever possible while avoiding an uncontrollable spiral of escalation with Turkey, even as it continues to explore (and draw out for as long as possible) talks with Turkey about future mechanisms for controlling Idlib. Should such “balancing” continue, something will eventually lose its footing. As tensions rise, the chance of miscalculation will increase and opportunities for spoilers — particularly hardliners within HTS ranks or al-Qaeda loyalists in the likes of Huras al-Din — will thrive. Were there no risk of COVID-19 or renewed hostilities with the regime, an eventual explosion inside Idlib would be highly likely, but with both external challenges in play, an eventual destabilization of Idlib’s internal dynamic looks almost guaranteed. The only question is when.
Charles Lister is a senior fellow and director of MEI's Countering Terrorism and Extremism Program. The views expressed in this article are his own.
Photo by OMAR HAJ KADOUR/AFP via Getty Images