Jihadi takeover of Idlib could spell trouble for Syrian Kurds

The top jihadist militia in northern Syria on Thursday reached a deal with Turkish-backed forces to take control of restive Idlib province, possibly clearing the way for Turkey to attack Syria’s Kurdish militia, according to analysts. 

The agreement between Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a jihadist coalition led by Al-Qaeda's former Syria affiliate, and the National Liberation Front (NLF) is expected to end fighting in a large swathe of Syria’s last opposition-held enclave, news service Agence France-Presse reported.

"This morning, HTS and the NLF signed an agreement to put an end to ongoing fighting... and establish the control of the Salvation Government in all areas," said AFP, which sourced its report to the pro-jihadist website Ebaa.

The Syria Salvation Government is the administrative arm of HTS, which has been gaining ground in and around Idlib in recent days, AFP said. 

Turkey and Russia signed a deal in September over Idlib to prevent a potential military assault by the Syrian government. The deal included the establishment of a demilitarised zone, with Turkey taking the responsibility for dissolving jihadi groups.

Turkey also promised to open nearby highways that link Syria's coastal province of Latakia - home to Assad’s Alawite minority and Russia's airbase in Syria - to the main northern city of Aleppo by the end of 2018. 

HTS controlled much of northern Idlib, while Turkey-backed forces were mostly in the south, which made it difficult for Ankara to provide them supplies. 

In the past week, HTS captured several villages and aimed to acquire more territory to strengthen its hand against Russia and Turkey, Al Jazeera said on Wednesday. HTS is also making inroads into strategic areas such as Atareb, a town near the main highways.

Joshua Landis, director of the Centre for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, told Al Jazeera that the al-Qaeda-affiliated militia was stronger and better led, while Turkey-sponsored NFL collapsed.

“HTS's conquest of Atareb and Darat Izza dashes any notion that the National Liberation Front that was cobbled together by Turkey to act as a new Syrian national army is actually a cohesive or effective fighting force,” Al Jazeera quoted Landis as saying. 

While the exit of Turkish-backed rebels put locals at risk, it also increased the possibility of an attack by the Syrian government and Russia. 

Hashem, a father of two in al-Atareb in Western Aleppo, told Al Jazeera that Bashar al-Assad government would not stand HTS seizing control of the town and would attack Atareb and kill civilians while bombing HTS fighters. "Now Russia and the regime can attack us because we are terrorists - but we are not terrorists," he said.

Some analysts think Turkey and Russia may have quietly agreed that territories taken by HTS could be attacked and occupied by the Syrian army, in return for Russia allowing Turkey to do what it wants against the Syrian Kurdish militia, Al Jazeera said. 

Elizabeth Tsurkov, Syria-focused Research Fellow at the U.S.-based Forum for Regional Thinking, tweeted a similar view on Thursday: “Fighters among the National Liberation Front and civilians expected Turkey to back them against HTS, but now many believe that Turkey is allowing HTS to take over Idlib to justify regime offensive on the area in return for Russian permission to take Manbij and Kurdish areas.

The effect of recent developments on the Russia-Turkey deal for Idlib is uncertain, according to Aron Lund, a fellow with The Century Foundation. He said the outcome would depend on the "big-picture dynamics" of the Moscow-Ankara relationship.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu on Thursday said the Idlib agreement had been successfully implemented despite some temporary problems. “We did not bring terrorist organisations to Idlib. The [Syrian] regime intentionally guided terrorist organisations to go Idlib,” he said. “Steps have been taken to end heavy fighting in Idlib.”

On Wednesday, the Kremlin said it expected Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan to visit Russia for talks with President Vladimir Putin soon, but that no date had yet been agreed, Reuters reported