By: Patrick Hoover, Columnist
Photo by: The Century Foundation
The relationship between Turkey and al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS and previously known as Jabhat al-Nusra), is a complex and ambiguous one. Since the Syrian civil war began in 2012, Turkish-HTS dynamics have ebbed and flowed largely according to regional and local conditions. On one hand, Turkey’s broader geostrategic interests in Syria include ousting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and preventing the Kurdish-led Democratic Union Party (PYD) from establishing a foothold on its border. On the other hand, Turkey has sought to prevent the growth and infiltration of Islamic extremists into its territory. These two goals are conflicting since HTS’ predominant position within the environment. HTS has deeply embedded itself into various rebel coalitions by striking alliances with moderates and Islamists alike, forcing Turkey to overlook HTS’ ties to al-Qaeda in order to exert any influence in rebel-held Syria. While Turkey is invested in countering HTS’ long-term influence, its short-term tacit cooperation with HTS make US policy objectives increasingly difficult to achieve.
Using Al-Qaeda to Counter the Kurds and Syrian Regime
As it currently stands, the Turkish Land Forces (TLF) are active in both northern Aleppo province and eastern Idlib province. Both are rebel-held enclaves sandwiched between the Syrian regime and Kurdish forces. In October 2017, TLF intervened in Idlib province to establish a “de-escalation zone” as part of broader agreements brokered by Russia and Iran at Astana. Since then, the forces have built three forward operating bases in the eastern countryside. Russian leader Vladamir Putin, in part, desires a temporary cessation of hostilities in Idlib province to present himself as a peacemaker to his constituents ahead of the Russian March 2018 election. TLF’s positioning in Idlib province also facilitated the launch of Operation Olive Branch against Kurdish forces in Afrin.
To allow the intervention to transpire, the initial TLF convoys deconflicted with HTS at the al-Qaeda-held town of Darat Izzah, fifteen kilometers from the Turkish border.This is contrary to TLF’s stated counterterrorism mission to constrain Islamist influence.[i] Additionally, Turkey sponsored the formation of the “Repelling the Invaders’ Operations Room” on February 3rd to block the regime’s advance deeper into eastern and southern Idlib province – a battle in which HTS actively participates in.[ii] The Operations Room also includes Ahrar al-Sham (AAS) and Nur al-Din al-Zanki (NDZ), both well-known salafi-jihadist clients of Ankara. In support of the Operations Room, TLF established various bases along the front line and deep within HTS territory. This is an indicator of likely coordination with HTS, which has provided Turkish convoys and personnel key force protection and logistical resupply.
Long-Term Saturation of HTS
Despite its tacit coordination with HTS, Turkey ultimately views al-Qaeda as a liability and impediment to Ankara’s efforts to paint the opposition as “moderate” and attract greater international support. While Turkey depends on peaceful relations with HTS to protect its own forces and prevent a broader intra-rebel conflict, it has also steadily increased behind-the-scenes pressure on the group by propping up rival factions. As early as August 2016, Turkish intelligence was reaching out to AAS to discuss how to dismantle HTS’ stranglehold on Idlib province.[iii] Turkey rescinded this initiative temporarily after HTS aggressively took over dozens of AAS and other rebel associations’ headquarters in January and July 2017. However, Turkey recently reignited efforts when it greenlighted the formation of Jabhat Tahrir al-Suriyah (JTS) on February 18th 2018. Spearheaded by AAS and NDZ, JTS has significantly rolled back HTS, capturing nearly thirty villages and forcing HTS to evacuate the Atmah border crossing with Turkey.[iv] The Turkey-backed Syrian Islamic Council (SIC) – a group of 128 religious clerics that aims to unite Syria’s moderate opposition – released a statement calling for an uprising against the HTS “mercenaries.”[v] By waging war on HTS indirectly via local proxies, Turkey is able to establish some degree of plausible deniability vis a vis HTS while also holding off the pro-regime offensive and degrading the Kurds in Afrin.
Turkey’s involvement deep into Idlib province has created a number of challenges to US interests. First, Turkish operating bases continue to afford HTS militants a degree of mobility and autonomy. This is a direct contradiction to US strategy by outsourcing its anti-al-Qaeda efforts to Turkey. Second, Turkey’s focus on combating the Kurds is a significant focal point of U.S.-Turkey tensions in the region. While Turkey views the Syrian Kurds as an existential threat, the U.S. has pumped both money and manpower into Kurdish territories to degrade and prevent the re-emergence of ISIS. Moving forward, the U.S. must carefully encourage Turkey to prioritize its pressure on HTS and continue stability operations in Kurdish held areas — a seemingly impossible, yet imperative venture.
[i] “Turkish army vehicles enter rebel-held Syrian territory as Ankara vows to prevent ‘terror corridor’ along border,” Syria Direct, October 8, 2017, http://syriadirect.org/news/turkish-army-vehicles-enter-rebel-held-syrian-territory-as-ankara-vows-to-prevent-‘terror-corridor’-along-border/
[iii] Patrick Hoover and Omar Kebbe, “After Raqqa: The Next Jihadist Stronghold in Syria,” The Jamestown Foundation, September 22, 2017, https://jamestown.org/program/after-raqqa-the-next-jihadist-stronghold-in-syria/
[iv] “NW #Syria dynamics are being transformed at a rapid pace. In 7 days, #HTS has lost the following territory – almost cutting off multiple critical supply lines,” @Charles_Lister, Twitter, February 26, 2018, https://twitter.com/Charles_Lister/status/968128143465828352
[v] “The #Turkey-supported #Syria Islamic Council (SIC) has issued a new statement, labelling #HTS as ‘mercenaries’ and ‘aggressors’ & calling for a general ‘uprising’ against them NW #Syria,” @Charles_Lister, Twitter, February 26, 2018, https://twitter.com/Charles_Lister/status/968129998279278592