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Reviewing the Turkey–HTS Relationship

Relations between Turkey and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) have fluctuated depending on changes in the stance of HTS along with developments in the region and on the battlefield in Syria. They have also depended on Turkey’s shifting position and its alliances with Western countries and Russia, especially after the US backed Kurdish forces in their fight against ISIS, a move seen by Turkey as amounting to a coalition with its enemies.

The relationship between the two began as a cautious, hostile one in which Turkey was bound to laws and treaties on fighting terrorism, while HTS (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra), ideologically inspired by Al-Qaeda, opposed Turkey’s secular, democratic system.

But HTS has revised its position in the face of the military reality on the ground and the costly intensification of the international coalition’s war against ISIS. The defeats inflicted on ISIS pushed HTS to offer contractual and military concessions for fear of facing a similar fate.

Hostility between HTS and Turkey has turned into a form of peer-to-peer coordination. This was clear when HTS allowed Turkish patrols to enter territories under its control and protected Turkish observation points in northern Syria, despite previously expressing disapproval at their presence.

This nascent coordination turned into wide-ranging cooperation, with HTS exclusively facilitating Turkish logistics and military operations in the north. The group prevented any other armed group being involved except with itself as an intermediary. Even Faylaq al-Sham, which had been very close to Turkey, cannot liaise with the Turks without the approval or agreement of HTS.

This situation has grown out of interests shared by the two sides. HTS needs political cover both regionally and internationally to protect it from being targeted as a terrorist group. Turkey needs ties to an armed group with military and organizational discipline that is able to control the territory and that is not subordinate to any foreign power.

This is not the case with Syria’s other armed factions, which are linked to the Gulf countries, the United States and Russia, meaning they have been subjugated to those countries in ways that threaten Turkish national security. This was shown with factions in Homs, Ghouta and Deraa, where armed groups became tools for exerting pressure on Turkey rather than cards in Turkey’s hand.

Meanwhile, the other factions have a one-way relationship with Ankara and are forced to bow unconditionally to Turkish demands. This was very clear in the areas targeted by the Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch operations, in which Turkey became involved in every aspect of administration, military affairs and security, controlling the groups’ channels of support, arms procurement and finance.

However, the relationship between Turkey and HTS will continue to be determined by political and military developments, including the situation east of the Euphrates River; the case of Idlib; rapprochement between Turkey, Russia and Iran; the changing approach of Turkey’s political parties and leadership in light of the results of municipal elections; and calculations of Turkish interest, which can change according to multiple variables on the ground.

Shared interests

Throughout the conflict between HTS and rebel groups allied to Turkey, such as Ahrar al-Sham (formerly the biggest Syrian rebel group) and other armed groups, Ankara saw ever more structural shortcomings and fragmentation among the factions it backed. These factors meant such groups were unable to be influential allies on the ground and prevented them from building a social base.

They also failed stop the advance of the jihadists, which pushed Turkey to rethink its alliances. Seeing HTS as a strong, organized group with influence on the ground as well as being unsullied by ties to states Turkey sees as hostile to its interests or not serious about cooperating with it, Ankara started to build closer ties with HTS.

Turkey has an interest in HTS as a tool for applying pressure against the Syrian regime and Russia in negotiations between Ankara and Moscow. HTS also controls the Turkish border. People-smuggling into Turkey is therefore only possible with its agreement and in an organized way. HTS has detained many people wanted by the Turkish security services, as well as hunting down ISIS sleeper cells trying to slip into Turkey. Ankara sees this as serving its national interests.

Furthermore, under HTS there is almost zero drug smuggling, a trade which flourished when other factions controlled the frontier. The presence of HTS reassures Turkey, allowing it to deal with an organized, quasi-state entity that helps protect the Turkish border.

HTS in turn sees Turkey as simultaneously providing it with legitimation and protection. The group has altered many of its policies, on Turkey’s request, to avoid being classified as a terrorist group. The alliance has also enabled it to avoid air strikes by the international coalition which wants to target many of its leaders.

Through its unofficial alliance with Turkey, HTS has been able to exert its domination over all the factions in Idlib at a reduced cost: by winning over Turkey, it bought Ankara’s neutrality in the factional fighting, pitting it against factions that had formerly enjoyed Turkish backing.

Future relations

Relations between HTS and Turkey have gone through various stages of accord, disagreement and conflicting interests. Turkey wants HTS to join the political opposition groups that have taken part in the Astana process. HTS has so far avoided doing so officially even if it has de facto acquiesced to it.

There is a wing of HTS that sees rapprochement with Turkey as killing the revolution and the Syrian jihadist movement, according to jihadist literature. This faction sees Russia and Turkey as more or less in agreement over the situation in Syria, sharing interests that could turn the Syrian revolution into chips for bartering between Turkey and Russia.

HTS is still wary of dealing with Turkey, despite their implicit agreement. The group realizes that Turkey does not want jihadist groups on its doorstep and that Ankara could use it and then throw it away, or support other factions to destroy it. This has reduced the group’s enthusiasm for dealing with Turkey.

Turkey on the other hand sees itself as obliged, at least for a time, to deal with HTS, especially as the group currently maintains its presence with Turkish agreement and support. Ankara could confront the group indirectly through allied factions, but that is unlikely at this point because there is no disagreement or conflict of interest between the two sides.

Turkey sees HTS as a card it could one day play in its war against the Kurds. The group’s emir, Abu Mohammad al-Jolani, has given his blessing to any future Turkish operation targeting the area east of the Euphrates. By using HTS against the Kurds, Turkey could achieve two things: battling Kurdish forces with a disciplined, ideological armed group and weakening HTS through battlefield losses.

Turkey could also use HTS as justification to get out of the Astana accords. If and when Turkey reaches an agreement with Russia, Turkish forces could easily withdraw from Idlib and leave it to the Syrian regime on the pretext that HTS is genuinely a terrorist organization.

Turkey could thus use HTS as a way to justify its departure from Idlib to the Turkish public and to Syrian rebels, who still see Ankara as their final source of support.

The relationship between the two sides is determined by many interests, some conflicting and some shared. Each side still believes it may need the other in its future battles. Turkey has become suspicious of its traditional allies, the United States and Europe, as well as remaining apprehensive about its new ally, Russia. This increases its need for ties with HTS, which still controls important areas of northern Syria along the Turkish border.