ANKARA: The deployment of a Turkish convoy with 15 armored cars and trucks laden with logistical materials to Syria’s last major rebel bastion Idlib is causing concern about an incoming military offensive.
The convoy reportedly entered Syrian territories from the Kafr Losin border crossing and is aimed at supplying Turkish observation posts.
Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS), which is still the dominant rebel group in Idlib, recently reinforced its military footprint in the region by increasing its pressure on radical jihadis.
But HTS has opted for a pragmatic approach toward Ankara after allowing the circulation of Turkish lira as an alternative to the devalued Syrian currency, even though Syria lists the group as a terrorist organization.
It was the Shura Council, linked to the HTS-backed Salvation Government in Idlib, that decided to replace the Syrian pound with the Turkish lira after convening a meeting in early June.
HTS has been criticized by its rivals for siding with Turkey after it was allegedly instructed by Ankara to prevent local attempts to block the strategic M4 highway, where Turkish and Russian soldiers conduct regular patrols.
HTS ended its infighting with a challenger group led by Huras Al-Din in Idlib through a cease-fire after the death of 30 militants. But it still continues a wide-ranging crackdown on alternatives to its regional domination as well as on defectors within its ranks. It has arrested some of its senior members, such as Abu Malek Al-Tali and Abu Salah Al-Uzbeki, over charges of insurrection and defection.
Aydin Sezer, an expert on Turkish-Russia relations, said that the ongoing situation in Idlib was like a ticking bomb.
“Anything can happen at any time, including a provocation which would mobilize the Syrian regime’s army or the Turkish armed forces,” he told Arab News.
Under the Astana, Sochi and March 5 Moscow deal with Russia, Turkey committed to eliminate all terrorist groups in the region including HTS.
“In the latest deal in March, Moscow reportedly gave a deadline to Ankara to eradicate them in six months,” Sezer added. “We already reached the fourth month of this period. I personally think that Russia prevented President Bashar Assad’s regime from taking any offensive against Turkish troops in this time frame.”
According to Sezer, the recent attacks by HTS and related groups toward Russian bases were some attempts of provocation against the Kremlin.
But, for the time being, the priority of Ankara is to prevent any refugee exodus from Idlib toward its borders and to avoid the anger of any Al-Qaeda-inspired group toward Turkey.
Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his wife Emine Erdogan recently donated dozens of briquette houses to displaced Syrians seeking shelter at camps close to Turkish borders, with the aim of keeping them within Syrian territory in the event of a possible violation of a cease-fire in the region.
Orwa Ajjoub, an affiliated researcher at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University, said that HTS had managed to develop a sort of interdependent relationship with Ankara.
“In January 2019 for example, in return for Turkey’s silence regarding the HTS offensive against the National Front of Liberation supported by Turkey, HTS leader Abu Muhammad Al-Jolani expressed his support for the potential Turkish operation in northeast Syria to uproot the PKK (the Kurdistan Workers Party),” he told Arab News.
Ajjoub said that the power dynamics shifted after the Turkish military intervention in May, without which the Syrian regime would have probably advanced to Idlib, while the latest developments, with the introduction of the Turkish lira, had already started to corner HTS with an increased dependency on Turkey.
“This should not suggest, however, that Turkey’s need for HTS is over. As the most potent group in Idlib, HTS provides security, stability and governance in Idlib. It, furthermore, can achieve Turkey’s commitment to Sochi and Astana by eliminating radical jihadi groups.”
But Navar Saban, a military analyst from the Istanbul-based Omran Center for Strategic Studies, said that if Turkey conducted any operation against HTS right now it would need to offer a “Plan B” for the administration and security services in Idlib that were currently being provided by HTS.
“Turks are not in a position to provide these kinds of services to the province,” he told Arab News. “It is the main reason that Turkey doesn’t conduct a large-scale operation against HTS. They keep a monitoring eye on them because, although HTS is not a well-accepted group, it keeps many governance responsibilities under its control.”
Experts were skeptical about Russia’s potential reaction to Turkey’s military presence in Idlib and the interdependent regional dynamics.
“For Russia, the Turkish military reinforcements in the north cannot be seen but with a suspicious eye,” said Ajjoub. “Nevertheless, I do not think that Ankara will break the March 5 deal, which came after the killing of more than 40 Turkish soldiers.”
Ajjoub said that the recent Turkish presence was meant to provide it with a better position for the coming rounds of talks.
“We should not forget also that Russia and Turkey have another open battlefront, which is Libya. What happens in Syria can be felt in Libya and vice-versa.”