The developments that pushed Turkey to broker a new agreement with Russia on March 5 were quite dramatic. The killing of several Turkish soldiers in the region of Idlib forced Turkey to back down from its Syrian quagmire.
The so-called Moscow Agreement called for the opening of the M-4 highway, the forming of a 12-kilometer security corridor on both sides of the road and the elimination of those groups recognized as terror organizations by the UN Security Council. This opens a new chapter in Russia’s strategy of leaving Syria to the Syrians. Russia’s steps on the field are taken in the name of the agreement, yet it serves an unspoken agenda.
President Erdoğan allegedly sees this agreement as a new “control line.” If one looks at the map, Turkey has surrounded an area 30 to 40 kilometers-deep along the borderline starting from Hatay and ending in Mardin, except for an interruption in Kobani. Turkey is still seeking ways to complete the circle.
Since March 5, the buildup to Idlib continues from where it was left. Joint patrols with the Russians encounter obstructions from jihadist groups that Turkey has openly been supporting.
As if it sought to pretend the issue was military, Ankara deployed its police force in front of the militias that blocked the M-4. If was as if some protesters had blocked a highway in Istanbul and the riot police was called in to intervene. Yet this does not apply to Afrin, Tell Rifaat, Manbij or Tell Tamer where the howitzers can shoot freely.
The approach is simple: Turkey is asking its proxies to retreat a little so joint Turkish-Russian patrols can be conducted and at least one article in the agreement is carried out. This is merely for the sake of appearance.
Turkey’s proxies can be used against the Syrian army as well as against the Kurdish forces. Besides, they can prove useful in fronts beyond Syria, like Libya. In fact, the number of fighters that have been sent from Syria to Libya has now exceeded 5,000. Likewise, Rojava Peshmergas that were trained under the Barzani administration to pressure the YPG have also been sent to Libya. Some have died there.
For the past few weeks, it appears that Turkish military and intelligence personnel have been training and directing their proxies. Ankara was able to unite a segment of the armed rebel groups under the umbrella of the Syrian National Army by providing it with salaries, ammunition, support and a protection pledge.
Yet those fighters are still not part of a regular army. Each group has its own emir and flag. In other words, disorderliness prevails. Still, Turkey wishes to form a proper army with its proxies. Those Islamist groups that did not join the Syrian National Army on the field act under the umbrella of the National Liberation Front.
Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MİT) has undoubtedly played a role in the formation of this partnership. The newly formed structure is teeming with fighters that were linked to Al Qaeda until recently and retain their ties with it. They too are potential candidates for the new regular army.
However, the most powerful organisation in Idlib is Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). When Turkey brought some groups to sign the agreement in Astana and agree that those that remained on the field were terror organizations, HTS kicked those out of Idlib. The Moscow Agreement targets HTS and other such groups connected to Al Qaeda. Turkey, meanwhile receives all groups that accept to fall under its umbrella.
According to opposition sources, Turkey has been conducting work in military observation points – there are now 60 of them – toward the formation of a new army. When we journalists disclosed this, Ankara angrily denied. Now, armed groups are flocking to these bases. 300 militias are planned to be associated with each military point, which Turkey will train and equip. If an army with a fully functioning chain of command were to be formed, Turkey would ask for HTS disintegrate and join the structure.
As a reminder, HTS is the successor of the Al-Nusra Front, which was the structure from which ISIS emerged in Syria in 2012. These organizations have a “Salafi jihadi” philosophy, both mentally and operationally. For the public to accept this, Turkey has sought to promote the idea that HTS has become moderate and is focused on Syria rather than a global jihadist network like Al Qaida. According to the official discourse, the only threat is the Assad administration, not HTS.
TRT World has recently produced a news story that examined how HTS could be excluded from the list of terror organizations. They provide advice as to how HTS should be removed from the black list: the UN Security Council, which includes China and Russia as vetoing members, should first be convinced.
In early February, one of the prominent names of HTS, Abu al Fatih Yahya al Fergali, held a meeting with members of the group. This was the time when Turkey had begun run into the Syrian army on the M-5. During that meeting, Abu al Fatih Yahya al Fergali raised the question as to whether ties with Turkey were legitimate. This debate has begun after HTS allowed Turkish military observation points to be set up around Idlib in 2017.
Upon examination of this relationship in terms of religious law, Fergali said HTS considered Turkish people “Muslim” but the Turkish army as an “infidel organization.” He stated that HTS would accept to receive help from “an infidel against another infidel.” In other words, he referred to a basic rule in the book of jihadist ideology.
Fergali also argued that HTS would set the conditions while allowing the Turkish army to set up its observation points in 2017 and 2018. But despite this cooperation, he defined Turkey as “occupier.” He never excluded the option of war against Turkey: “We would fight against all occupiers because we would not shed our blood so that one occupier takes the place of another.”
Besides, Fergali emphasized that HTS, which was able to set its conditions beforehand, had now lost its superiority since the second half of 2019 and was no longer in position to push back Turkey.
An interesting point in Fergali’s speech was a reference to the three conditions they had supposedly made Turkey accept: the first one was that “the HTS would retain military control and, when necessary, send the Turkish army back.” The second was that Turks would not interfere with the administration in Idlib, including the Sharia courts. The third was that Turkey would refrain from restricting interventions as to where and how the jihadist groups would fight.
Aside from HTS, four other major groups are: Hurras al-Din, Ansar al-Din, Ansar al-Tawhid and Ansar al-Islam. Under the umbrella of Hurras al-Din, there are other organizations that object to HTS’s divorce with Al Qaida. Aside from these, there are foreign jihadist organizations led by Chechens, Uighurs, and Uzbeks. As long as the current status of Idlib is maintained, the city will remain a safe haven for all these organizations.
In short, the restructuring of Idlib entails Turkey’s dispersing of opponent groups and the formation of its own militias. Alongside this, Ankara plans to attack the Syrian army and defend itself from it. Turkey wants to turn its proxies into a parallel army that is affiliated to its national army.
What will it do with this army? The entire world can see what Turkey has been doing in Syria. Its Libyan experience also provides clues as to what it could do beyond Syria. Could it ever use these proxies in Turkey itself? Experience demonstrates that such prospects are not unlikely.