Ankara attempted a similar ‘control-through-centralisation’ approach towards nationalist Islamist armed groups in northwest Syria (particularly Idlib), albeit with less success. Between 2013 and 2016, Turkey acted as a silent partner – along with Saudi Arabia and Qatar – in the provision of direct and indirect financial assistance to such Islamist armed opposition groups. Despite limited evidence of direct state involvement, donations gathered in Saudi Arabia and Qatar found their way unhindered to nationalist Islamist armed groups via Salafi support networks in Kuwait, hawala agents, and middlemen in Turkey. Turkish, Qatari and Saudi political and military support resulted in Ahrar al-Sham, the leading coalition of nationalist Islamists and Salafi jihadists in the Islamic Front, becoming arguably ‘the most powerful armed opposition group’ from 2015 onwards. In addition to Ahrar al-Sham, Turkey also supported Faylaq al-Sham (the Islamic Front’s ‘successor’) presumably because of the affiliation of its top leadership with the ideology of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. After 2016, once Ahrar al-Sham and Faylaq al-Sham became involved in the Turkish military Operation Euphrates Shield, Turkey acknowledged and increased its financial and military support for these groups. Through this support, Turkey sought to merge and consolidate those Islamist groups aligned with its own agenda and enhance its influence. As ideological and leadership differences made integration into the SNA problematic, Turkey constructed a new organisational umbrella in May 2018: The National Liberation Front (NLF). Although this organisation consisted initially of 15 armed groups – of which six were ‘moderate’ nationalist Islamists and nine FSA-affiliated – it was led by the commander of Faylaq al-Sham (see Box 1).
The strategic, long-term plan behind the Turkey-sponsored consolidation of several ‘moderate’ nationalist Islamist and FSA-affiliated armed groups into the NLF was to expand Turkey’s influence in Idlib, to create a counterweight to more extremist Islamist groups, and to attract fighters away from them. The idea was that this would subsequently ‘force’ the armed groups operating in Idlib to align their views with the revolutionary objectives of the Syrian National Coalition and accept Turkish sponsorship. With time, this might have paved the way for a deal with the Assad regime, enabled the NLF to undertake an auxiliary security role in the area and reassured Russia of Turkey’s ability to manage the concentration of ‘moderate’ and extremist Islamist armed groups in the province of Idlib. In the short term, creating the NLF to weaken Idlib’s Salafi-jihadi groups (like HTS) allowed Turkey to honour its commitments under the September 2018 Astana agreement. In parallel to the NLF undermining the Salafi jihadist groups from the inside, the construction of 12 Turkish military posts was intended to constrain them from the outside, in effect cordoning off Idlib.
Initially, Turkey’s approach worked. The NLF assembled around 55,000 to 70,000 fighters. It expressed both a commitment to resist Syrian regime expansion into Idlib and to defend the area against the PYD. The NLF also proved willing to collaborate with the Turkish-backed SNA during Turkish military operations in northwest Syria, as well as with the Syrian National Coalition. Despite a strong presence of nationalist Islamists in its ranks, the NLF leadership stuck to a secular-revolutionary – rather than Islamic – discourse, describing the organisation as ‘the formation of FSA elements under a single roof in Idlib’. Accepting such rebranding enabled the Islamist factions of the NLF to benefit from closer association with Turkey, as well as from Turkish protection against Russian-backed Syrian regime attacks. In exchange, NLF groups undertook tasks aligned with shared Turkish-NLF priorities in north-western Syria. Ahrar al-Sham worked mostly to support deradicalisation in Idlib by counter-balancing HTS and other Al-Qaeda affiliates, while Faylaq al-Sham and many other NLF groups participated in Turkey’s anti-YPG operations in Afrin in 2018.
But while Turkey has been able to temporarily ‘buy’ NLF loyalties by paying salaries and providing appreciable amounts of military equipment, the armed groups that united under the NLF umbrella were nevertheless not (yet) full Turkish proxies (as was and is the case for the SNA). In an interview, the head of the political bureau of the NLF, Hussam Tarsha, expressed the organisation’s full support for Turkey ‘as the most significant ally [but not the only one – author’s note] of the NLF, after God’.
On balance, Turkish-NLF collaboration is perhaps best described as a mutually beneficial, pragmatic alliance that is reinforced by compatible political and ideological outlooks. Commanded by groups close to the Muslim Brotherhood (Faylaq al-Sham), Kuwaiti Haraki/political Salafists aligned with Turkey and Qatar (Ahrar al-Sham), and nationalists (Jaysh al-Nasr), the NLF shares Turkey’s antipathy towards the Salafi jihadists and Syria’s Kurds. Domestically, the Muslim Brotherhood-oriented views and policies of the Turkish government (AKP, to be precise) have enabled key Turkish leaders to build bridges between Muslim Brotherhood-inspired NLF groups and the Turkish community. Many NLF groups also have an historical affinity with the FSA and view the Syrian regime as their main enemy. All these elements have stimulated pragmatic forms of Turkish-NLF collaboration.
Broadly speaking, Turkish-NLF collaboration increased Turkey’s influence in Idlib by means of power projection via the NLF’s irregular forces and provided Turkey with an additional ally in its fight against the PYD-led Syrian Kurds. In return, the NLF has its back covered and benefits from a sizeable package of material support. This collaboration was for example apparent when a Turkish convoy to reinforce its military post in the Khan Sheikhoun area was escorted by an armed pickup truck of Faylaq al-Sham in August 2019.
Once NLF had been re-established in Idlib after prolonged NLF-HTS clashes in 2018 and early 2019 (discussed in the next section), Turkey persuaded the NLF to merge with the SNA in the course of 2019. The SNA technically operates under the direct command of the Syrian Interim Government’s (SIG) Ministry of Defence, but is in reality controlled by Turkey. Despite ideological and leadership differences between the NLF and the SNA, the strategic priority of ‘defending the liberated territories and regaining lost ground in Northern Hama and Idlib’ against Russian and Syrian Regime attacks incentivised sceptical NLF commanders to come to terms with Turkey’s pressure to merge. The unification has generated a more centralised force that comprises seven corps and about 80,000 fighters. During the announcement ceremony in Sanliurfa (Turkey), SIG’s defence minister, Salim Idris, announced the intention to crack down on terrorist groups such as HTS and the PYD/PKK. In sum, Turkey’s ‘control-through-centralisation’ strategy ultimately achieved consolidation of the major proxy elements of its hybrid warfare strategy – SNA and NLF - in Afrin, Al-Bab/Jarabulus and in parts of Idlib.