End of the road for Syria’s opposition?
End of the road for Syria’s opposition?
Turkiye’s efforts to normalize diplomatic ties with the Syrian regime have fueled unease among Syria’s armed opposition groups, leading some opponents of Bashar Assad to fear the end of their decades-long cause.
Among those most affected is Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham, an armed organization that controls most of northwestern Syria. While there is no evidence that Turkiye directly supports HTS, Ankara has been a key supporter of other opposition groups during the 12-year Syrian conflict. Turkiye has common interests with HTS and has coordinated with the group on certain issues. Turkiye and Syria are working to restore ties, and if they find common ground it could overturn efforts to challenge the Assad regime and effectively mark the end of HTS.
Assad has repeatedly made reconciliation with Ankara dependent on the complete withdrawal of Turkish troops from northern Syria. Damascus also insists on ending Ankara’s support for armed opposition groups.
While some armed groups may survive the regime’s territorial expansion, HTS is unlikely to be among them. This is because the group is classified as a terrorist organization by both Ankara and Damascus due to its past affiliation with al-Qaeda. In fact, Turkiye’s attempts to reconcile with Assad pose an existential threat to HTS.
The deployment of Turkish forces to Idlib in 2017, intended to prevent the Syrian regime from capturing the last rebel stronghold, was made possible by HTS, which helped create a safer environment for Turkish troops. Today, the group fears this story could lead supporters to conclude that HTS favors Turkiye’s talks with Assad – a perception that could threaten the group’s unity and fuel public anger.
HTS leader Abu Mohammed Al-Jolani was quick to condemn the Syrian-Turkish rapprochement. In a video statement, Al-Jolani said he would not reconcile with Assad and vowed to continue the fight until Damascus was liberated. He also promised not to cede any territory to Damascus. The HTS is widely regarded as the strongest and most cohesive armed group in north-west Syria. It is therefore important for rebel groups to secure their participation in the fight against the regime in order to be able to better defend their territories.
To be clear, HTS has stepped up its attacks against the Syrian regime in recent weeks. In contrast to last year’s relative calm, the organization reportedly conducted 11 operations against regime forces in the past month, targeting pro-government cells operating in Idlib.
But HTS is also pursuing a nuanced strategy, aware that its survival depends on good relations with its northern neighbor. For example, instead of engaging in direct confrontations with regime forces, it has focused its operations on defenses behind enemy lines. This is likely because it wants to avoid stoking tensions with Turkiye, which is maintaining a ceasefire negotiated with Russia in March 2020.
Regardless of how the Turkish-Syrian rapprochement progresses, these are turbulent times for the Syrian opposition in Idlib.
dr Haid Haid
In addition, HTS has refrained from directly criticizing Turkiye’s foreign policy and has adopted a more conciliatory tone. In a December statement, HTS blamed the Assad regime for its unwillingness to address Turkish concerns and called on Ankara to “preserve its values and moral achievements in supporting the oppressed”.
It also expressed understanding for the “pressures Turkiye is facing at the local and international levels”. That includes Turkiye needing to make progress on facilitating the return of Syrian refugees and combating the “Kurdish threat” ahead of Turkey’s May elections.
In private, HTS was more direct. Local sources tell me that HTS held a meeting with Turkish officials in December, where the group’s leaders expressed concerns about reconciliation with Syria and reiterated their commitment to honoring agreements with Turkiye.
The group’s calculated response appears to have been driven by the assessment that negotiations between Ankara and Damascus are unlikely to yield results. That view is shared by many Syria watchers, who expect talks to stall because Turkiye and Syria remain far apart on many issues, not to mention the regime’s unwillingness to compromise.
This may explain why the HTS response so far has aimed to convince their home audience of their commitment to the fight, rather than aggressively persuading Turkiye to end talks with Assad.
Of course, all bets will be off if talks between Ankara and Damascus result in an unexpected breakthrough. In such a scenario, HTS would likely first use its diplomatic channels with Ankara to reach a compromise that would allow it to protect its interests as much as possible. This could include, for example, withdrawing from certain areas in Idlib in exchange for expansion into northern Aleppo.
Without a mutually accepted compromise with Turkiye, the group would no doubt turn to more aggressive means of survival.
Regardless of how the Turkish-Syrian rapprochement progresses, these are turbulent times for the Syrian opposition in Idlib – those who are fighting and those who simply yearn for an end to years of suffering.
• dr Haid Haid is a Syrian columnist and a consultant to Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa programme. Copyright: Syndication Bureau
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