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Intel: US Syria envoy says Turkey must put pressure on Idlib militants

Turkey should keep up the pressure on the hard-line Islamist group in control of Syria’s embattled Idlib province, the US special envoy for Syria said today.
Islamist rebels from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham are seen outside the villages of al-Foua and Kefraya, Syria July 18, 2018. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi - RC194E7A7120

Turkey should keep up the pressure on the hard-line Islamist group in control of Syria’s embattled Idlib province, the US special envoy for Syria said today. 

“We hope to see the Turks continue to put pressure on the terrorist organizations there, the most powerful of them Hayat Tahrir al-Sham,” Ambassador James Jeffrey said while speaking at a virtual panel hosted by the Washington-based Atlantic Council. 

“The problems with that organization and others have given the Russians and the Syrian government the excuse before to break the cease-fire,” said Jeffrey. "We don't want them to have that excuse this time." 

Why it matters: Syria’s Idlib province is home to a number of rival opposition groups, including Turkey-backed rebel factions and the al-Qaeda derivative Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. 

Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which wrested control of Idlib province from its more moderate rivals in January 2019, is considered a terrorist organization by Russia, Turkey and the United States, as well as the UN Security Council. The latest annual report by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, released this week, calls on Washington to designate Hayat Tahrir al-Sham an “entity of particular concern."

The group’s presence in Syria's last opposition stronghold is repeatedly invoked as justification by President Bashar al-Assad and Russia to launch what the United States has described as deliberate attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure, including schools and hospitals. Both Damascus and Moscow deny carrying out indiscriminate attacks and instead claim to be targeting groups such as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. 

A renewed government offensive in December displaced roughly 1 million people in Idlib, most of them women and children, according to the United Nations. The March cease-fire brokered by Russia, which supports Assad, and Turkey, which backs some of the opposition groups fighting the government, is the latest effort to quell the fighting. 

What’s next: The cease-fire tasks Ankara with reining in Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and other radical groups from Idlib, something Moscow says Turkey failed to do under previous accords with Russia and Iran.  

Hayat Tahrir al-Sham doesn’t recognize this cease-fire or support the joint military patrols conducted by Turkey and Russia along a strategic Syrian highway. If the truce fails to hold, aid agencies have warned of another all-out conflict and refugee crisis on Turkey's doorstep. 

Know more: Fehim Tastekin writes that Turkey might attempt a strategy shift in war-torn Idlib, and Semih Idiz explains how Syrian rebel groups remain Turkey’s Achilles heel in the region.

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