Can Turkey Win Over HTS?
Turkey has pressured factions belonging to the Free Syrian Army and National Front for Liberation into combining into a single entity, the National Army. It is made up of seven units (three in the northern countryside of Aleppo and four in Idlib) and numbers 80,000 fighters under the command of the Syrian Interim Government’s Ministry of Defence led by Salim Idris.
According to a statement made by the president of the Syrian Interim Government and its minister of defence, Turkey integrated the factions into a unified, central administration to combat what it sees as separatist organizations (represented by the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF), counter the Syrian regime’s aggression against the remaining opposition areas, and attempt to regain areas recently lost by the opposition factions.
This integration was an urgent necessity for Turkey that allowed Ankara to create a military wing inside Syria operating under Turkish auspices, secure Turkey’s interests and national security, and mitigate external criticism of Turkey’s sponsorship of extremist groups. Turkey will attempt to involve this entity in international negotiations and discussions regarding Syria, in order to achieve Turkish interests, ensure its national security, and realize its strategic interests in an arena of conflict replete with foreign intervention.
The first practical mission of this army begins with Operation Spring of Peace, in conjunction with the Turkish army, to establish a 30-kilometre-deep buffer zone along the Syrian-Turkish border and completely expel the SDF from the border strip. This leaves the door open to speculation as to whether the National Army will fight Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and the various jihadi factions in Idlib that spun off it, such as Hurras al-Din and Ansar al-Tawhid. Such a confrontation will remain temporarily on hold until the National Army finishes its mission in the east Euphrates campaign.
There are many signs pointing to a conflict between the National Army and HTS, but Turkey currently favours winning HTS to its side by forming a new entity that incorporates HTS fighters and sidelines its leaders, who are already international pariahs. Turkey wants to create an entity that includes HTS and a comprehensive government for all areas outside regime control. However, this is a tall order because HTS’s influential wing, represented by its leader Abu Mohammad al-Julani, does not accept Turkish sovereignty over Idlib and will not renounce ‘jihad’ as he understands it.
Nevertheless, Turkey is working on another option, which is to add HTS into the existing Syrian coalition government, with HTS acting as the executive instrument. Changes would be made to the group, including jettisoning some of its hardline leadership and removing non-Syrian leaders such as Abu Maria al-Qahtani. This possibility is currently being studied by HTS leaders, and there are indications that HTS may accept the merger of its Salvation Government with the coalition government. There are reports that some leaders of the coalition government met with HTS leaders under Turkish mediation.
However, this scenario faces both foreign and domestic obstacles. Domestically, the coalition government has been unable to effectively control Idlib after HTS seized it. In addition, many HTS brigade leaders are likely to reject joining the coalition government because it is ‘infidel’ in their view and thus will weaken HTS. The biggest beneficiaries will be Hurras al-Din and Ansar al-Tawhid, since most of the rejectionists will join those groups that maintain the core jihadist ideology.
Another domestic obstacle is the lack of charisma on the part of the political opposition affiliated with the coalition and its inability to influence society. The coalition is a virtual opposition with no real existence in the eyes of local society. This will favour HTS remaining influential, even if it accepts the coalition government.
The foreign obstacles are the refusal of the West and Russia to accept HTS as a solution and legitimize it. Turkey will find itself compelled to use other options, such as comprehensive change within HTS and its integration into the National Army, to turn it into a form acceptable to the West
As a last resort, Turkey may use the National Army to eliminate HTS militarily once it deals with the issue of the Kurdish presence in east Euphrates. But with this option, Turkey would lose a strong military chip in Idlib should the regime revive its military operation. Turkey prefers to dissolve HTS quietly, by winning over more elements hostile to HTS leadership and incorporating them into the new entity of the National Army.
Tough to eliminate militarily
There is no doubt that HTS is a well-trained and well-equipped faction whose organization is better than the National Army’s. It is militarily difficult for the National Army to eliminate HTS, since it is currently entrenched in all the mountain regions.
For many reasons, the National Army has been unable to turn the conflict toward its own interest, including its failure to establish ties with the local populace in the areas of Afrin and Jarablus. It remains a collection of groups riven by internal conflicts, even within battalions themselves. Although many communities are almost fed up with HTS, especially with HTS’s economic policy, they still considers HTS the best option available on the ground because it is more organized and works semi-institutionally, in contrast to the chaos that exists in the areas controlled by the National Army.
This situation makes it difficult for local communities to support the National Army in the elimination of HTS, especially since HTS – unlike ISIS during its conflict with the factions – appointed all its influential leaders from within Syrian society, who formed groups in each influential village supportive of HTS. Many communities were resentful of ISIS because its leaders and legitimacy were not Syrian. HTS redressed this by handing over leadership to leaders from important families in every city and town.
One result of the formation of the National Army has been the increasing polarization between the factions that make it up, both national and jihadist, and each side’s attempt to justify the action they took with regards to integration (whether they accepted or rejected it). This came after they emerged from the battle for the northern countryside of Hama, where these factions lost swathes of important territory under their control to the Syrian regime, backed by its Russian and Iranian allies.
Many national factions believe that it has become necessary to rally under international and regional auspices to help preserve the remaining free areas and strengthen their position and presence vis-à-vis the Syrian regime, which has benefited greatly from the Russian umbrella and the military support of its Russian and Iranian allies.
Thus, HTS and the jihadists have come to be seen as an obstacle in the face of the Russian threat. Because HTS has declared it is not hostile towards the West, Western partners are less concerned about it, making it difficult for National Army leaders to make their case.
Meanwhile, many jihadist groups see the dissolution of HTS as a betrayal of the founding principles of the Syrian revolution, and believe that accepting Turkey’s conditions is a restriction over decision-making and independence.
HTS remains in a good position, with a functional, well-trained force and room to manoeuvre in negotiation. Turkey must now try to persuade its leaders that working with them is a better option than fighting on.