Turkey left face-to-face with jihadist groups in Syria

HTS was supposed to have been eliminated with the Sochi Agreement. But HTS swept the groups Turkey was supporting and formed its own emirate in Idlib. They have now reunited with the “revolutionary” spirit of pre-2015. The story is this clear. This is the profile of Turkey's ally in the field.

The number of military vehicles transferred from Turkey to the field has reached 2,100, and the number of troops 7,000. After all this military build-up, there is only one aspect left that holds this unclassified war back from becoming a war of fronts. This last aspect consists of a gesture from Russia. The sake of strategic relations is behind this expectation.

Turkey is making threats such as “If the regime does not withdraw to the zone established by the Sochi Agreement, then we will continue until the end of February,” followed by phrases such as “The relationship with Russia will not be affected.”

This is a manipulation enacted to create pressure. Well, it has not worked up until now. The Syrian army has crossed, in a couple of months, more than 200 points including Khan Shaykhun, Ma’aret al-Numan, Seraqip, Rashidun and the Al-Eis heights, the places Turkey thought were “insurmountable.” The M-5 highway, which we wanted to stay closed, is wide open now. The next target of the Syrian army must be blocking the route of Turkish military shipments. 

As of Feb. 16, Aleppo is totally under the army’s control. The Syrian army has reached this point after warring on hundreds of fronts and more than a thousand individual locations. They were killing and being killed. They were destroying and being destroyed. They gave more than 150,000 casualties. In front of an army that has come there at such a cost, when you put a barrier based on such provisional planning, then the situation becomes open to all kinds of scenarios. Everybody sees this. In other words, the Russian fuse that we rely upon can blow at any time.

While the dust has not yet settled, everything is fake on the diplomatic front. Defense Minister Hulusi Akar asked for help from allies in the NATO meeting, the ones Turkish politicians were shaking their fingers at only a short while ago. This demand was repeated by Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu at the 56th Munich Security Conference. Our top diplomat also tried to test our partners: “We want our allies to work with us. We expect them to exert maximum pressure to stop the regime. This is a critical test for our allies.” 

Nobody from Europe has any intention of confronting Russia. If they had dared, they would have done it in Ukraine. That means that there is no hope from the Western front, and Turkish diplomats are sulking. 

Then, Çavuşoğlu gets to the point when he meets his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov. He said, “The tension at Idlib does not affect relations between Ankara and Moscow, including the S-400 agreement.”

However, the steps Turkey is continuing to take do carry the risk of burning everything. 

As we have said before, our Western partners are indecisive, wary and mistrustful. Those partners of ours in the field, though, are happy with Turkey’s decisions. New weapons, armored vehicles and rocket launchers that hit helicopters… The tanks and mortars of the Turkish Armed Forces on the other side of the border are extra firepower. NATO is at the service of the so-called “revolution.” What else one can want? 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan says, “It is illicit for us to have a good night’s sleep unless Syria is cleansed of the regime’s oppression.” He goes on to say, “Since Turkey’s security lies there, then we would do anything to achieve this. Russia’s attempt to help gain territory for a regime that is an enemy to its own people is nothing more than artificial ventilation. After a while, resuscitation will not work; the entire regime will turn into a corpse in one sitting.”

I took a look at an interview conducted with the number one actor in the field, the leader of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), Muhammad al-Julani. He seems to agree. 

He says, “The negative consequences of the war will reflect on the Turkish people from the economic, political, security and even military aspects. The Russians have never been friends to the Turkish people. They will not be in the future either. For this reason, fighting against the occupying Russians in Idlib is directly in the interest of the Turkish people. If the war lasts in favor of the revolution, this will have positive reflections on the Turkish people.”

The person giving advice to Turkey and promising a good future was the emir sent to Syria by the ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. He is the person who set up the Nusra Front. He became at odds with Baghdadi at a certain point and started following al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.  

He was one of the most important commanders of the Army of Conquest that conducted the collapse operation of Idlib. He changed the organization’s name to Hayat Tahrir al-Sham to make it seem more like a moderate opposition group. 

He declared he had no connection left with the global al-Qaeda. But again, he was not successful in erasing their group’s name from terror lists. When Erdoğan carried the partners of HTS to the Astana process, things changed. HTS was supposed to have been eliminated with the Sochi Agreement. But HTS swept the groups Turkey was supporting and formed its own emirate in Idlib. They have now reunited with the “revolutionary” spirit of pre-2015. The story is this clear. This is the profile of our ally in the field. There is no exaggeration. 

It may be a good idea to look at casualties to see who is conducting the war. According to the Syrian Human Rights Observatory, three-fourths of the militants who died in the recent conflict belonged to jihadist organizations. According to the Russians, HTS is taking its share of Turkish military support. Well, one does not need Russian reports to see this — all the images from the field attest to this.

Well, there are others also. According to a publication of HTS, the National Front for Liberation becomes visible together with HTS at the defense lines. It is also whispered that about 500 fighters from the Nurettin Zengi Movement that HTS has wiped out from the field have returned to the front after an intervention by Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization’s (MİT).

However, this addition does not change the Salafi jihadist character of the front. The National Front for Liberation is conducting its operations with Turkey’s help. It is formed of Salafi jihadist structures. Inside them are elements who have a past with the al Qaeda. Being a moderate is a crude deception that still seems to work with certain audiences.

Turkey is trying to draw NATO into the dispute to force Russia to negotiate. From the beginning, Russia has been trying to avoid the feared scenario of the Syrian crisis turning into a problem with NATO through Turkey. This is also what NATO does not want. These kinds of attempts also make dialogue with Russia more tense.

The Russian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Maria Zakharova has not just said, for the sake of saying, that Turkey should think twice before referring to the brain-dead NATO.

Can an exit strategy be found in Idlib? Of course, it can. There is still time for this. However, Erdoğan keeps aggressively acting as though he can afford to go to war. Is he counting on the promise of help from the U.S.? On one hand, Turkey’s rulers are defining the U.S., together with the YPG, as “occupying forces,” and on the other hand, they expect American assistance to occur that would change the power equilibrium in Idlib. What came out of the Erdoğan-Trump talks? Nobody knows. Even if help comes from the U.S., what would the result be? Peace or stability? Neither of those would be the result. 

Europe’s reaction is weak and a workaround. Erdoğan’s former Arab partners have long closed that book. Even Turkey’s foul-weather friend Qatar seems to have snuck out of Idlib. 

On the opposing side, Russia is directly inside the operation with its air and coordination forces. Iran is sending its militia forces from one front to the other. While contact with Moscow has been emphasized, which acts as a form of insurance, the Ankara-Tehran line seems to be broken. 

Really, what is Erdoğan’s calculation? Is the whole issue to create a louder voice to suppress the domestic hum? The entire world is trying to understand, but there is no way to make any sense out of this. 

It is like a coil spring that is being discharged and charged between unrestrainable ambitions and an incompetent political-military-diplomatic capacity. A decision-maker wriggling at the U.S.-Russia clamp. A field strategy that does not know how to connect the military operations that have been started without an exit plan. 

Where to now? What is the calculation? Is there a plan? It was yesterday when the number of military observation points under siege reached 11. Is there any information from there? Is the whole strategy of leaving our troops in the middle of the fire an attempt to use them as a trump card? 

The front line is nearing the Turkish border. When tens of thousands of armed men are left with nowhere to withdraw, the tension will reach dangerous dimensions. 

In the remaining area, its partners are stronger than HTS and al-Qaeda. In other words, the areas lost up until now were the ones where groups supported by Turkey were able to be active under the shadow of HTS or were able to act together with them. Foreign fighters are concentrated in the remaining areas. When the time comes for the fall of closer towns, then we will be hearing more about these Afghan, Uzbek, Kyrgyz, and Turkmen jihadist organizations. 

Those who are supporting this front will be remembered for this in history.