Turkey approves former Al-Nusra Front crackdown on Islamist rivals in Syria

Hayat Tahrir al Sham (HTS), the dominant armed group in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province formerly known as Al-Nusra Front, launched a military campaign against rival extremist groups with approval from the Turkish military, Sirwan Kajjo wrote for Voice of America on Sunday citing London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Arab Saeed village in western Idlib was targeted on Sunday by the HTS, who arrested the leader of Hurras al Din alongside several jihadists, Kajjo said.

Jihadist groups including Hurras al Din, al Qaeda’s main affiliate in Syria, had come together two weeks ago to form a joint operations room to fight against the Syrian government and its allies, he said.

An HTS-backed local administration, in tandem with the raids on Sunday, announced that armed groups not affiliated with HTS would not be allowed to operate in Idlib. The subsequent clashes forced Hurras al Din to agree to a ceasefire and withdraw from some of their positions in the province, according to the SOHR.

HTS “coordinates efforts with the Turkish forces,” as Ankara tries to “neutralize groups that are more radical than HTS,” Kajjo cited SOHR Director Rami Abdulrahman as saying. Turkey rejects the allegations.

In a 2018 deal between Ankara and Moscow, Turkey agreed to clear the rebel-held province of extremist groups. Damascus maintains that Turkey failed to do so, and started an offensive in April last year to take control in the province with support from Russia. Several Turkish soldiers were killed in Idlib in February following an escalation of the conflict. A ceasefire was declared in March.

Turkey, despite having designated HTS a terrorist organisation in 2018, has decided to “unofficially support HTS efforts to weaken the jihadists in Idlib,” Abdulrahman said, to fully implement the ceasefire deal with Russia. The groups in question object to the ceasefire, which involves joint patrols by Russian and Turkish forces.

HTS’s motivations may differ, according to some experts.

The group has been trying to signal to Turkey and the wider international community “that it can be an acceptable long-term actor in Syria,” Syria researcher Kyle Orton told Kajjo, “and attacking an avowed al-Qaida group like Hurras al-Din is certainly a way to do that.”