The best bad outcome for Idlib

The Turkey-Russia Sochi Agreement in September won Idlib a reprieve from what had seemed to be an imminent and catastrophic offensive by Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces and his Russian and Iranian patrons against the last insurgent-held province.

The ceasefire was meant to provide space for Turkey to dismantle the radical insurgents. Instead, those radicals consolidated their dominance in Idlib and the ceasefire has been visibly fraying. How to proceed is a matter of domestic security for the West.

The Sochi ceasefire favoured Russia and thus Assad and Iran. Militarily, the ceasefire left Iran surrounding Idlib, poised to attack, and carved the “de-militarised zone” entirely out of insurgent territory, weakening their position. Politically, Sochi diverted the focus from the crimes against humanity and regional instability entailed in an Idlib attack to jihadist insurgents, and put the onus on Turkey to deal with them.

If Turkey destroys the jihadists, it eliminates the greatest obstacle to Syria’s reconquest of Idlib and the dire fallout that would follow. If Ankara fails, Sochi implicitly legitimises a pro-regime military campaign and the same dire results.

The terrorism pretext for the pro-Assad coalition might not be very convincing, given the records of Iran, Assad, and Russia when it comes to al Qaeda and Islamic State (ISIS), but framing the operation as counter-terrorism is likely to dampen international protests.

The primary reason that there has not yet been an Idlib offensive is to allow Russia to retain relations with Turkey, cynically keeping NATO divided. In Syria, Russia has been the “ultimate hedger”, as Russia analyst Oved Lobel puts it, manipulating a weak hand by playing “with all parties to the conflict”. Russia did it again in Idlib, preventing a rupture with Turkey, and yet not siding against Iran in a meaningful way.

That said, Russia is unable to stop Assad and Iran if they attack on the ground. The Kremlin’s choice would then be watching its partners fail or joining in with air strikes. There is no serious doubt what Moscow would do, even at the cost of relations with Turkey, given its priority is stabilising Assad.

In the terms presented, of suppressing jihadism, an Idlib offensive would be counter-productive, and create a humanitarian crisis on a scale not seen so far, killing thousands and potentially displacing half a million people. The refugee spill over into Turkey, already a NATO problem, would flow on into Europe, further radicalising the political situation to Moscow’s advantage.

The military showdown remains the most plausible end-game scenario: the Syrian government and Iran want it, viewing Idlib as an unacceptable threat. Russia’s resumption of air strikes in the ceasefire zone at the end of November, the surge of violence over the weekend, and the open Russo-Turkish political tensions all point in the same direction.

Nonetheless, it is worth considering scenarios if a regime coalition offensive can be prevented.

Scenario one: the status quo. The two most prominent of the radical jihadist groups in Idlib are Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which has formally removed itself from al Qaeda’s command structure, and a group that splintered from HTS ostensibly in protest at this move, Tandheem Hurras al-Deen, which is openly loyal to al Qaeda. HTS dominates Idlib with 10,000-plus fighters. Hurras al-Deen is estimated to have 2,700 members.

If the status quo remains, it would involve HTS transitioning into a quasi-recognised governing entity akin to Hamas in Gaza or Hezbollah in Lebanon.

There are clear differences. Hamas, a nationalist-Islamist movement, has limited territorial ambitions. Hezbollah, though a transnational organisation, is an appendage of the Iranian government and benefits from the long, fruitless efforts to engage Tehran.

Crucially, “neither Gaza nor Lebanon were ever suspected of being, as a whole, Sunni jihadi emirates”, which “tend to be destroyed through foreign military intervention”, says Thomas Pierret, a senior researcher at the Institute of Research and Study on the Arab and Muslim Worlds in France, and an expert on Syrian Islamism.

HTS becoming an Idlibi Hamas would depend on two things: its own willingness to make the ideological compromises necessary to engage with an international order that jihadist doctrine officially says must be overthrown; and the international system’s willingness to accept, even tacitly, HTS.

HTS’s strategy was to embed itself in the indigenous dynamics of the Syrian revolution and foster co-dependency to spread its ideology. Despite continued lip-service to global jihad, some HTS clerics are publicly musing alternatives. One argued recently that HTS’s main requirement was to increase its capacity to deter enemies from uprooting it, making a direct comparison to Hamas in Gaza.

Pierret said HTS had not abandoned transnationalism, “but they’ve moved part of the way towards that”. They have eliminated “the strongest internal obstacle to that transformation” with the departure of Hurras al-Deen’s al Qaeda loyalists, he said, and the future now largely depended on external circumstances.

Hassan Hassan, a senior fellow at the Tahrir Institute and co-author of ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, said that “HTS and its previous incarnations have been focused on Syria, despite the transnational character of many of its cadres”, and agrees with Pierret that the formation of Hurras al-Deen strengthens this trend.

“HTS-dominated Idlib could be an exception” to the general rule of the destruction of jihadi-Salafi emirates, “and there’s a reasonable chance that it will be one”, Pierret said, though that is still some way off and the “probability is lower” than for Hamas or Hezbollah.

Hassan concurs that, while acceptance of HTS is “not likely under the current circumstances, … if the status quo is maintained for some years, that might become possible”. And it is what HTS leader Ahmad al-Shara (Abu Muhammad al-Jolani) wants. Al-Shara is trying “to (make HTS) a Sunni Hezbollah, with Turkey being its Iran,” said Hassan, but “all bets are off” if the situation unravels.

Pierret, too, notes that “many things can still go wrong”, not just a pro-Assad coalition attack but “rogue jihadis organising transnational terrorist operations from Idlib”. There is at least one such plot in HTS’s history, though how official it was remains uncertain, and it raises the whole issue of Hurras al-Deen’s relationship with HTS.

Al-Shara “continued communication” with al Qaeda leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, even after the public acknowledgment of differences in November 2017. Al-Zawahiri has not expelled HTS from al-Qaeda, and, notwithstanding the occasional scuffle, the rhetoric has stayed within bounds. HTS has not hereticized Hurras al-Deen, for instance, as ISIS has. The two also largely complement each other strategically, letting HTS present a more moderate face by inter alia outreach to Turkey.

The groups operate in the same ideological and geographic space, retaining various links, especially in the networks abroad. If the real relationship between HTS and Hurras al-Deen is, rather than schism, something more like the Palestine Liberation Organisation and Black September, it makes confrontation with HTS difficult to avoid—albeit that, even if this is the current state of play, evolution is possible.

Scenario two, less likely, is “Kadyrovtsky”: preserve HTS, but change its patron to Russia, as happened with Ramzan Kadyrov in Chechnya, where former extremist insurgents were turned into local proxies. For all the trouble this causes, it is cheaper than open warfare. Russia managed this in the south, convincing Israel to hold fire as the Assad-Iran forces came in virtually unopposed, repurposing Israel’s rebel assets. Moscow’s ideal is a repeat in the north, with Turkey playing the role of Israel. Russia has laid the groundwork already, engaging all comers, including HTS.

The most desirable scenario, for Western security and Idlib’s civilians, is the removal of HTS through a concerted campaign by Turkish-backed rebels. But both Pierret and Hassan agree it is implausible that Turkey can, as it apparently intends, splinter HTS, neutralising the most extreme elements and drawing the others into mainstream groups.  Recent events with Shuhada al-Sharqiya, a semi-criminal gang Turkey had to deport from Afrin to Idlib because its army and Arab allies were unable to disband it, underline this.

The Shuhada al-Shaqiya episode does not bode well. HTS is much stronger, and Turkey’s incentives are different. HTS’s presence keeps the pro-Assad coalition out, for now, even as it provides the pretext to invite them in. The United States’ anti-ISIS partners, Syrian Kurdish forces, are Turkey’s primary security challenge, an internal one. HTS only becomes such if Turkey attacks it. And HTS has weakened the rebels so they are no threat to it.

Which brings us full circle. Assuming Hurras al-Deen refrains from international terrorism, some form of Turkish-led management, pushing the trendline against the jihadists in Idlib over the medium-term, is about the best option available.

The United States could provide crucial support, first by deterring the pro-Assad coalition, providing space for the opposition to decouple from HTS. Perhaps the United States is thinking along these lines. “We no longer will rely only on diplomatic measures to hold (Russia and its allies) to agreements,” the U.S. Syria envoy told Congress. Or perhaps not. It is impossible to know.

The United States could also restore funding to what is left of Idlib’s civil society. This should be an end in itself, as Pierret says, as well as a long-term counter-weight to HTS. The recent murder of Raed al-Fares shows how challenging this will be, even if some subtlety is brought to the task.

The main impediment to U.S.-Turkish cooperation in Idlib remains the United States’ maximalist commitment to Syrian Kurdish forces, which isolates it in Syria. The announcement of further border posts to protect the Kurdish statelet in Syria suggest the United States is doubling down on this shortsighted strategy.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.