Yet, the NLF represented only about half of Idlib’s varied cast of Islamist groups. The other half – united in HTS that originated from Jabhat al-Nusra and was inspired by Al-Qaeda’s doctrine of global jihad – turned down the 2018 Turkish offer/push to merge into the NLF. While Turkey’s NLF-based consolidation strategy was initially effective, before long HTS successfully moved against several Turkish-backed NLF groups in Idlib and defeated them in an inter-factional struggle through a mix of co-optation, intimidation and coercion. When it was over, HTS controlled about 90 per cent of Idlib. It also established the Salvation Government as a rival of the Syrian Interim Government. Its success once more contrasted an extremist vision of the Syrian civil war with a revolutionary one.
However, the HTS leadership does not hold a uniform view on the war in Syria. On the one hand, it features more pragmatic factions. These are led by Abu Muhammed al-Jolani, and comfortable with collaboration with Turkey, including supporting Turkish operations against the PYD east of the Euphrates river in exchange for Turkey’s support in ‘fortifying and defending’ north-western Syria. Collaboration between these pragmatic HTS elements and Turkey became apparent when Turkish Army units were escorted by HTS fighters (rather than NLF groups) in the initial phase of the Turkish de-escalation deployment into Idlib in October 2017. This ‘hybrid operation’ prevented a direct Turkish clash with the group but did not draw HTS into the Turkish-backed NLF alliance.
On the other hand, the HTS leadership also features more dogmatic elements, i.e. the Tanzim Hurras al-Din (Religious Guardians’ Organisation), which reject cooperation with Turkey. After a bloody inter-factional fight within HTS between March 2018 and February 2019, both factions forged an agreement to cooperate against their common enemy: the Syrian Regime. Despite this truce, Al-Qaeda veterans within Tanzim Hurras al-Din have continued to criticise HTS’s disassociation from Al-Qaeda and its alignment with Turkey’s strategy in Idlib. Furthermore, by rejecting Turkish-Russian agreements, Tanzim Hurras al-Din jeopardised the status quo in Idlib when it carried out several attacks on Syrian regime and Russian positions. This has been highly problematic for Turkey because it undermines Russia’s confidence in Turkey’s ability to establish informal control over Idlib and to defuse the Salafi-jihadi threat as per the terms of the Sochi and Astana agreements. Despite HTS arguing that its attacks were preceded by hostile acts on the part of the Syrian regime, its activities gave Russia and the Syrian regime the perfect pretext to advance against Khan Sheikhoun and conquer it. If this offensive is continued, it will endanger Turkey’s Idlib strategy because it would trigger large numbers of refugees heading towards Turkey and increase the pressure on Turkey to vacate the parts of Syria it controls.
In response to HTS influence, Turkey switched to a subversion campaign against it. More precisely, Turkey initiated a divide-and-rule policy that sought to separate dogmatic HTS groups (Al-Qaeda affiliates) from pragmatic ones (i.e. those receptive to cooperation with Turkey on the basis of the revolution against the Syrian regime). In August 2018, the Turkish foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, summarised this policy as ‘separating the moderate opposition from the terrorists’. Arguably it was because of Turkish support and pressure from armed groups linked to Turkey in Idlib that the pragmatic wing of HTS re-established its dominance within the organisation after its dogmatist wing, Tanzim Hurras al-Din, had been marginalised via repression and aforementioned brokered truce. Yet, despite the dominance of the pragmatists, the leader of the HTS, Abu Muhammed al-Jolani, continued to preserve the group’s autonomy. But he also agreed to form a [joint] operation room (Feth’ul Mubin) with the NLF, SNA and Tanzim Hurras al-Din factions to better resist the Syrian regime offensive(s) in Idlib. Furthermore, Turkey gained a pledge from Al-Jolani to help fight the PYD in exchange for Turkey’s acceptance of HTS territorial control in Idlib. Taken together, HTS continues to operate independently of the NLF and only collaborates with Turkey pragmatically on a peer-to-peer basis.
As a result, Turkey’s ‘control-through-centralisation’ policy in Idlib, which seeks to bring three groups (HTS, NLF and SNA) under a single organisational structure, remains vulnerable. The reality is that HTS and the nationalist Islamists do not see eye to eye, while Turkey has no control over Tanzim Hurras al-Din, which from a Turkish perspective acts as a spoiler through its ability to escalate violence that can provoke Russian and Syrian regime responses. A final problem for Turkey’s proxy strategy is that the Russian-Syrian assault on Khan Sheikhoun has put Turkey in the role of facilitator-cum-operator of Idlib’s assorted array of armed Syrian opposition groups rather than that of guarantor of the demilitarised zone around Idlib or that of the ‘nemesis’ of HTS.
On the upside, recent battlefield developments provided Turkey with a good opportunity to return to Idlib the NLF groups that had been chased out by HTS earlier in the year. It is conceivable that Turkey’s future strategy will consist of increasing its military observation posts, strengthening the recently restructured NLF forces (merged with the SNA), isolating HTS, and undertaking joint action with the US and Russia against Tanzim Hurras al-Din.