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Is this beginning of the end for Idlib's jihadi groups?

Hayat Tahrir al-Sham is facing several setbacks in Idlib including internal discord as foreign powers plan a military offensive against them.
A picture taken on March 22, 2017 near the town of Maardes in the countryside of the central Syrian province of Hama, shows an armoured vehicle carrying rebel fighters, and bearing the flag of the Tahrir al-Sham rebel alliance. / AFP PHOTO / Omar haj kadour        (Photo credit should read OMAR HAJ KADOUR/AFP/Getty Images)

The sixth round of Astana talks Sept. 15 were marked by an agreement between Iran, Russia and Turkey on a fourth Syrian de-escalation zone in Idlib and the deployment of about 1,500 observers in the northern region. Experts interviewed by Al-Monitor have spoken of a joint military operation between the three powers motivated by various geopolitical considerations.

This comes against the backdrop of attempts by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), al-Qaeda’s former affiliate, to secure its position by infiltrating local councils and rallying prominent figures in Idlib. HTS is, according to sources, under increasing pressure following a string of defections and assassinations.

The Astana talks appear to have paved the way for a military intervention in northern Syria. According to an Al Jazeera report, Turkey's pro-government Yeni Safak newspaper said in a Sept. 15 report that the three countries planned to divide the Idlib region into three areas of influence, with Turkish forces and opposition fighters in the northwest region bordering Turkey.

“There were protests in recent weeks against HTS. Idlib residents are worried because the implementation of the Astana deal remains unclear amid fears of wide-scale confrontations,” activist Ibrahim Idilbi told Al-Monitor.

Syria expert Sinan Hatahet from the Turkey-based Omran Dirasat told Al-Monitor, “Information circulating in Turkey points to a division of Idlib along the Hama-Aleppo highway. The southeast of Idlib would be taken over by Russia and the Iranians while the northwest will be occupied by a joint force including rebels and Turkish troops, similarly to the [areas liberated during] Operation Euphrates Shield. The deployment would aim to put an end to the domination of HTS over the Idlib region.”

On Sept. 14, Omran Dirasat issued a detailed paper highlighting a possible confrontation in Idlib, which was divided into three main zones of influence: the first to the east of the Aleppo-Damascus railway line that would be a demilitarized zone under Russian protection where rebels would be asked to leave; another zone dubbed “Area 3” would lie west of the Aleppo-Damascus highway under Turkish influence and run in cooperation with local rebel military factions; and the think-tank labeled Zone 2, consisting of the region between these two areas namely the railway and the highway, would include HTS, which will be pushed in a final endgame.

According to Hatahet, the various regional players — Turkey, Iran and Russia — have very different priorities in northern Syria. Turkey’s first preoccupation is to secure the border, consolidate the presence of the Free Syrian Army in the Bab al-Salameh border area as well as contain the Kurdish expansion. “Iran and Russia want access to the strategic Hama-Aleppo highway and want to put an end to the presence of HTS in the rural areas of Aleppo. Their other priority is to secure the Jisr al-Shughour region, which is the entry point to the coastal area [President Bashar al-Assad’s bastion],” he added.

HTS’ control over Idlib has provided these countries with a powerful justification to satisfy their geopolitical ambitions. Besides international pressure, the organization is facing increasing challenges in northern Syria. High-ranking HTS commander and Saudi national Abu Mohammed al-Sharie was assassinated Sept. 13 under mysterious circumstances in the city of Saraqib, located to the east of the provincial capital, in the northwestern province of Idlib. The assassination is one among many others that have targeted HTS, Sheikh Hassan Dgeim, a Syrian cleric who follows closely the jihadi scene, told Al-Monitor.

The organization has also been plagued by a series of defections. A string of leaks about conversations between HTS commanders criticizing members of the group’s Sharia council have led to the defection of charismatic Saudi Sheikh Abdullah al-Muhaysini. The conversation took place between the emir of the Idlib sector known as Mughira Bin al-Waleed or Abu Hamza Bensh, and the emir of the Hama sector known as Abu Yousef al-Hamwi. The Sharia council is comprised of the four most prominent jurists in HTS.

Besides the defection of such an influential figure, the organization was inflicted another significant blow by Jaish al-Ahrar, a group that previously belonged to Ahrar al-Sham and that decided to go its own way. This defection was preceded by another in July, with the split of the Nureddin Zengi Brigade from HTS.

In a Sept. 15 Foreign Affairs article, Syria expert Aron Lund estimated that with the defection of Jaish al-Ahrar, HTS was “back down to its historic core.”

According to Dgeim, the former al-Qaeda affiliate could witness further defections at the level of military commanders or individuals. “HTS does no longer offer a convincing and sustainable plan that could hold an appeal for other rebels,” he noted.

HTS is nonetheless attempting to prevail by infiltrating local communities, thus ensuring its long-term survival possibly in another political form. “HTS is trying to morph into a civilian body by working on creating new local councils where they are putting in place people who are not outwardly known for their affiliation with HTS,” Hatahet explained.

On Sept. 17, a local Idlib initiative — the Syrian General Conference — led to the establishment of a constituent body to name an “internal government” to be formed in Syria, as the legitimate government of the people. “The meeting agreed on basic principles based on the fact that Islamic law is the sole source of legislation, and the identity of the Syrian Muslim people must be preserved,” said the final communique of the conference, quoted by the newswire El-Dorar.

Idilbi explained that the meeting, which included prominent figures from the northern region that previously belonged to the revolution, appears to be now providing a safe umbrella under which HTS can operate in the future. “It is unclear if HTS has forced them [prominent Idlib figures] to mobilize or if they are trying to save the northern region from a confrontation,” Idilbi said. Other initiatives led by members of the opposition in Turkey are also trying to prevent a deflagration in Idlib by maintaining channels of communication with HTS, sources said.

HTS’ difficulties in Idlib, concomitant with the Islamic State losses, appear to herald the end of large jihadi groups in Syria. Yet HTS’ resilience, its successful Syrianization and the chaos that will still prevail in Syria in the coming years hint to a survival of the faction in some form.