A dramatic shift of control has been underway in Afrin and other areas held by Turkish-backed groups in northwestern Syria since last week, raising questions about Ankara’s calculus in its quest to mend fences with Damascus.
Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the radical group that controls Idlib province and is designated as a terrorist group, aligned with factions from the Turkey-backed Syrian National Army (SNA) — the Hamza Division, the Sultan Suleyman Shah Division and Ahrar al-Sham — to storm into Afrin, the Kurdish-majority city that Turkey had seized in Operation Olive Branch in 2018. HTS and its partners ousted the Sham Front and Jaish al-Islam from the area on Oct. 13. The two groups make the backbone of the Third Legion, which is also part of the SNA.
Faylaq al-Sham — one of the groups closest to Turkey, which held a key area on the route from Idlib to Afrin — displayed no resistance, allowing the HTS to advance. In Jinderes, a town near Afrin, two other SNA factions put up only a brief resistance. As of Oct. 13, HTS seized 26 villages and towns, while the Sultan Suleyman Shah Division, advancing from the west, seized 13 villages and the Hamza Division took control of the area northwest of Afrin.
HTS had previously entered Afrin in June amid hostilities between Ahrar al-Sham and the Sham Front but retreated after Turkey stepped in. This time the group did not stop in Afrin and moved toward the border town of Azez, which is part of the Euphrates Shield pocket held by Turkey and its allies since 2016. Other SNA factions in the area went on alert and fierce clashes took place at Kafr Janna, a key town on the road to Azaz. A commander of the Third Legion said his men had withdrawn from Afrin to prevent civilian bloodshed.
Ahrar al-Sham and the Hamza Division seized Duwayr Al-Hawa and Ikhtareen in the northern Aleppo countryside as well as al-Hamran, which provides a passage to Manbij, a key town held by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The Sham Front lost positions also in al-Bab countryside.
HTS’ objectives became apparent on the night of Oct. 13 as it sat down for cease-fire talks with the Third Legion under Turkish supervision at the Bab al-Hawa border crossing. The group reportedly put forward conditions that boil down to letting it enter the Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch pockets. The conditions reportedly entail the following: uniting all armed groups in the area under a single command and disabling those refusing to comply; withdrawing armed groups from civil administration affairs and checkpoints in residential areas and deploying them along contact lines with regime- and SDF-controlled regions; and leaving internal security to the forces of the Salvation Government, the de facto administration that HTS installed in Idlib.
The conditions were reportedly accepted in a third round of talks on Oct. 16, though the deal was neither officially announced nor confirmed. Discussions are said to be continuing on how the deal will be implemented. There was also speculation that HTS might hand over the areas it seized in Afrin to Ahrar al-Sham. According to the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights, Turkish troops and HTS members were jointly patrolling Afrin on Oct. 16.
The feud between Islamist rebels allied with Turkey dates back to 2017 when Ahrar al-Sham lost members to the Sham Front. The subsequent return of the defectors led to clashes between the two factions, with Ahrar al-Sham getting support from HTS.
Ahrar al-Sham, the Hamza Division and the Sultan Suleyman Shah Division are seen as Trojan horses used by HTS to expand its presence to areas controlled by Turkish-backed groups. The latest confrontation erupted over the killing of an opposition activist and his pregnant wife in al-Bab on Oct. 7, which was blamed on the Hamza Division.
In Afrin, SNA factions have been accused of myriad violations such as looting, extortion and kidnappings. As HTS tanks rolled into Afrin, the group promised the Kurds protection and services, calling them “brothers.” In a sign that HTS has no intention of moving out, it quickly deployed members of its General Security Service to Afrin.
Turkey’s intelligence service has coordinated with HTS since the deployment of Turkish troops on Idlib’s peripheries under a deal reached in the Astana talks in 2017.
Ankara’s recent overtures to Damascus have unsettled SNA rebels, and HTS has taken advantage of the situation. Confident of his leadership in Idlib, HTS leader Abu Mohammed al-Golani said several months ago that HTS institutions would be ready to expand once the group gains new territory. His aides, meanwhile, were trying to conquer SNA factions from within.
Unlike its intervention in June, Turkey this time limited its role to mediation, suggesting a tacit approval of the HTS move. Yet Turkey’s attitude might change if the deal falls through and the clashes spread. Naturally, Turkish officials deny that Turkey is siding with HTS.
Ankara’s silence on the clashes and its mediation bid have given rise to two conflicting explanations of its calculus. The first holds that Turkey is planning to leave the region to HTS control as it revises its Syria policy. And in the case of reconciliation with Damascus, it will be HTS that Ankara throws under the bus.
The other argument rests on Turkey’s failure to grow the SNA into a united and disciplined alliance. The plan to unite the factions under a joint command hasn't been implemented, and a number of SNA factions have stuck to their pillaging habits. So, the argument goes, Ankara is using HTS to tidy the field up and have a united rebel force as it seeks some sort of agreement with Damascus. That would strengthen Turkey’s hand and pit Damascus against a strong opposition front with a joint command and management.
That Turkey is laying the ground to abandon opposition forces could be a premature conclusion. And though Turkey has usually turned a deaf ear to accusations of backing terrorist groups in Syria, an expansion of HTS control would strengthen Damascus’ and its allies’ argument of fighting terrorism. Such an outlook would also make it harder for Turkey to enlist international support. In short, a reconciliation with Damascus requires Turkey to back down from any position shielding HTS.