After months of cajoling leaders of Hay’at Tahrir el-Sham (HTS), ex-al-Nusra Front, to disband in order to avoid a Russian/Syrian régime attack on Idlib Province, Turkey has listed HTS as a terrorist organisation, now paving the way for the advance. The long negotiations with HTS did see many of their fighters join the force organised by the Turks in the province, Jabhat al-Wataniyya lil-Tahrir (National Liberation Front/NLF).
Now only hardcore elements remain in the rump ex-al-Qaeda organisation, who are sworn to fight to the bitter end. Unlike previous encounters between rebel fighters and the Russian/Syrian military in the Damascus and Aleppo environs, there is no longer anywhere for the HTS units to retreat.
A pincer movement against its fighters by the Assad régime, from the west and the south of Idlib, with Russian air support is planned. HTS is held up in Khan Sheikun, Jisr al-Shughur, Kafr Nabal, Idlib, and parts of Jabal al-Zawiya, Salqeen, Darkush, Harem, Sarmada, Sarmin and Ma’ra Misrin. However, the Turks have given clearance for an advance in only three areas:
- Jisr al-Shughur to secure the approach to the Russian airbase at Kmeimim
- Southern Idlib countryside to secure Hama airport
- The Hama-Aleppo main Road
The scenario that is unfolding has been planned by the Russians in agreement with the Turks, who are ensconced in 12 heavily fortified positions around Idlib. It is cautiously envisaged as unfolding in stages in order to minimise civilian casualties. Turkey is conducting joint intelligence work to identify the positions of the blacklisted organizations. Turkish intelligence (MİT) is crucial to this operation, which is why its head, Hakan Fidan, has been to Moscow so many times recently. Furthermore, Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said that he has asked the US to share their intelligence over the jihadist groups in Idlib to help the pinpoint operation. This might, however, be optimistic, given that the move against HTS will reduce the US footprint in the Idlib area. Still, not all US agencies are involved there, and some may help.
So now that Turkey has thrown its hat in the ring formally and agreed the terms of any advance, should it happen, there is little doubt that HTS’ days are numbered. Intermittent negotiations are likely to continue between Turkey and the HTS leadership for the group’s disbandment and surrender. Meanwhile, Russian naval exercises off the Syrian coast are intended to ward off any unexpected succour for the beleaguered HTS units that might prolong the conflict.