Key Idlib highway remains focal point of protests

Key Idlib highway remains focal point of protests
A baker displays traditional bread in Syria’s northwestern city of Idlib. (AFP)
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Updated 28 April 2020

Key Idlib highway remains focal point of protests

Key Idlib highway remains focal point of protests
  • Locals in Idlib lost their faith in the HTS as a protector from the regime and Russia after they saw that the group is not protecting their political and economic interests

ANKARA: The strategic M4 highway, which runs east-west through Idlib province, continues to be the focal point of local protests, turning the opposition-held Syrian province into a litmus paper for the success of Turkish and Russian joint moves.
This weekend, the region witnessed the first military confrontation between Turkish forces and Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) militants.
As retaliation for Turkish forces opening fire on HTS militants on Sunday — killing four protesters participating in Al-Karama sit-in — the militant group targeted a Turkish armored vehicle with a missile in Al-Nayrab.
On Sunday morning, Turkish forces destroyed tents in Al-Karama and reportedly fired tear gas and live rounds to open the road for the passage of four Russian cars, enabling joint patrols with Russian forces on the M4 highway.
But the protesters retaliated by throwing stones at the Turkish troops.
Turkey’s drones also targeted HTS positions for the first time on Sunday, near the village of Al-Nayrab, hinting at a possible large-scale operation in the near future. The attack killed two members of the HTS and injured three others.
Emre Kursat Kaya, a researcher at the Istanbul-based EDAM think tank, said a Turkish counter-terrorism operation is looming in Idlib.
“We should look at yesterday’s events as yet another step in the escalatory trend between the Turkish forces in Idlib and the HTS. Prior to Operation Peace Shield, Turkish troops were only present in observation posts and were hardly in contact with the militants,” Kaya told Arab News.
“Since then, areas previously controlled by the HTS and others have been filled by a significant number of elite Turkish troops.”
According to Kaya, while using the excuse of “anti-Russia” protests, the HTS is attempting to inspire popular support to undermine Ankara.
“Several reports from the region suggest that the HTS is conducting a heavy disinformation campaign to portray Ankara as an occupier. The HTS is clearly trying to shift moderate rebels’ allegiance in its favor.
“Unlike other jihadi groups, the HTS has built its legitimacy on portraying itself as the primary protector of the liberated Idlib,” he said, adding that Turkey’s presence in the region and its role in stopping further regime advances is seen as a challenge by the HTS militants.
Over recent weeks, Turkey provided more training to moderate rebels in Idlib.
“Locals in Idlib lost their faith in the HTS as a protector from the regime and Russia after they saw that the group is not protecting their political and economic interests. On the other hand, they are making deals with the Assad regime. The locals did not approve of the ideology that the HTS offers to Idlib,” Bassam Barabandi, a former Syrian diplomat and co-founder of People Demand Change Inc., told Arab News.
Barabandi thinks that the US should be part of the stabilization process in Idlib by supporting Turkish efforts in dealing with Russia and giving strong guarantees to the locals that Russia will be kept away from the region.
“Such a scheme will end the presence of the HTS. The locals have concerns over the possible maneuvers of Russia. They fear that Russia may put pressure on Turkey in the future to change the deal and take more lands. The HTS takes advantage from this doubt by closing the M4,” he said.
The March 5 deal between Moscow and Ankara on reopening the M4 highway and establishing a 6-kilometer-deep security corridor in Idlib has deepened rifts among the rebel groups having their own control areas in the region. But how the HTS — the dominant group in Idlib — will be compelled into cooperation and neutralized is still the key concern.
Navvar Saban, a military expert from the Istanbul-based Omran Center for Strategic Studies, believes that there are sub-entities from the HTS among the civilians in Idlib who use protests to attack Turkish troops.
“The HTS claims that it doesn’t have any authority on these factions and that it also wants to destroy these entities,” he told Arab News.
According to Saban, these latest demonstrations were the last straw and they are the signal of a larger security operation that will be led by the Ankara-supported Liberation Front to secure the area.
“The Russians are not willing to launch an attack and don’t want to destroy their relationship with their allies. They don’t have the logistic means to launch an operation. The coronavirus pandemic risk is also keeping Russians away from any intervention,” he said.