A new treaty exacerbates sectarianism and offers signals to the future of the political balance in Idlib.
Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), one of the largest armed opposition factions, has announced that it has brokered a treaty with the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to allow the evacuation of the residents of the majority-Shia towns of Al-Fu’ah and Kifraya, which opposition factions have besieged for several years but failed to capture.
The agreement was concluded with Russian and Turkish approval, meaning that it has a political significance for Idlib, the armed opposition’s last stronghold. The agreement is a supplement to another agreement that came out of the Astana talks, known previously as the Four Towns Agreement (including the towns of Al-Zabadani, Madaya, Kifraya, and Al-Fu’ah).
Russia, Turkey and Iran had all agreed to designate de-militarized zones in the northern Aleppo countryside, Ghouta and the Homs countryside and remove them from the conflict against Assad. The three countries also drafted a transitional plan for Syria’s future within the agreement’s provisions, the contents of which have not yet been disclosed.
Civilians under the rule of opposition factions in northern Syrian are saying that they fear the new treaty clears the way for a new situation for Idlib, whether a larger battle led by Russia and Iran with the green light from Turkey, or a political solution reached with Turkish and Russian approval. Either way, it would mean the end of the opposition, and leave them exposed to potential regime reprisals.
For HTS, which has been able to achieve several objectives leading up to this treaty, this is a price worth paying. It has imposed itself as the strongest faction on the ground, giving it a final say on war and peace. It has also shown itself able to work in concert with Turkey, which helps it balance against Iranian and Russian influence. It has done this while continuing to satisfy its hardliners that it is achieving ‘victories’. And the treaty itself, driven by sectarian motives, suits the HTS agenda.
For Iran, the evacuation of the two towns removes a potential weak flank during an attack with the regime on Idlib. Though the withdrawal will weaken Iran’s influence – the two towns are seen as social and sectarian incubators for Tehran – it also means they will not have to worry about protecting Shias in these areas as they advance.
As part of the agreement, Iran also struck a deal with Turkey which included renouncing Kurdish parties that threaten Ankara. Turkey still fears that Iran will take up the Kurdish cause against it in Syria for the benefit of Assad – though it also knows that Tehran faces its own issue of Kurdish restiveness at home, and will only want to expand Kurdish influence in Syria in a limited fashion.
The Al-Fu’ah and Kifraya Treaty has revealed the extent of the sectarian divide in Syrian society. For example, the Sunni rebel factions changed the two towns’ names to ‘Al-Sadiq’ and ‘Omar’ as a slight to Shias. The regime preceded the factions in this regard by opening Shia houses of worship (Hussainiyat) in Sunni regions. The regime has done so since it took control over of Al-Qusayr in the Homs countryside and as it eventually made its way into Darayya, Al-Zabadani, Ghouta, and Daraa, where many armed Shia groups repeatedly made sectarian comments against Sunni groups.
Continuous sectarian forced displacement further complicates the conflict and transforms it into a dangerous future problem. With this treaty, Idlib will become more firmly Sunni, as Shias are expelled from those two towns. Much like other remaining minority groups, these two towns have maintained their ties to the Syrian regime not only out of loyalty but also out of fear, of the opposition imposing its Sunni character on them. This is especially frightening, as many jihadist groups declare non-Sunni minorities as infidels.
All this plays into the hands of Sunni extremists like HTS. One of HTS’s Egyptian leaders appeared in a video clip in which he declared a resounding victory over Shiism, calling upon all of his followers to continue the fight against the Shias who support Assad.
Sultan Al Kanj is a Syrian Journalist and researcher born in rural Aleppo. He studied Philosophy at University of Aleppo and worked as a journalist covering Syria since 2012. He writes for Al-Quds Al-Arabi, Arabi 21 and Al Jazeera blogs. He has experience in academic research including philosophical research, history of religious groups, intellectual doctrines, and history of Islamic civilization.