The end of the road for Syria’s opposition? • The Syrian Observatory For Human Rights
The Syrian Observatory For Human Rights

The end of the road for Syria’s opposition?

No matter how the Turkish-Syrian rapprochement progresses, these are uneasy times for Syria’s opposition in Idlib; those who fight and those who simply long for an end to years of suffering.

Turkey’s efforts to normalise diplomatic relations with the Syrian regime have fuelled unease among Syria’s armed opposition groups, leading some opponents of President Bashar Al Assad’s government to fear the end of their decade-long cause.

Among those most concerned is Hayat Tahrir Al Sham (HTS), a Sunni Islamist political and armed organisation that controls most of northwest Syria. While there is no evidence that Turkey supports HTS directly, Ankara has been a major backer of other opposition groups during the 12-year-long Syrian conflict. Turkey has mutual interests with HTS and they have coordinated on specific issues. Now Turkey and Syria have begun working to restore ties and if they find common ground, it could upend efforts to challenge the Assad regime and effectively mark the end of HTS.

Assad has repeatedly conditioned reconciliation with Ankara on the complete withdrawal of Turkish troops from northern Syria. Damascus also insists on the termination of Ankara’s support to armed opposition groups.

While some armed groups might be able to survive the regime’s territorial expansion, HTS is unlikely to be among them. That is because the group is designated as a terrorist organisation by both Ankara and Damascus due to its former affiliation with al-Qaeda. In fact, Turkey’s efforts to reconcile with Al Assad pose an existential threat to HTS.

The deployment of Turkish forces to Idlib in 2017, designed to prevent the Syrian regime from seizing the last rebel stronghold, was enabled by HTS, which helped provide a safer environment for Turkish troops. Today, the group fears that this history might lead supporters to conclude that HTS favours Turkey’s talks with Assad, a perception that could threaten the group’s unity and fuel public anger.

HTS leader Abu Mohammad Al Jolani was quick to denounce the Syrian-Turkish rapprochement. In a video statement, Al Jolani said he would not reconcile with Al Assad and promised to continue the fight until Damascus is liberated. Al Jolani also pledged not to cede territory to Damascus. HTS is widely viewed as the strongest and most coherent armed group in northwest Syria. Therefore, it is important for rebel groups to secure its participation in the fight against the regime to better defend their territories.

To hammer the point home, HTS has increased its attacks against the Syrian regime in recent weeks. In contrast to the relative calm during the last year, HTS reportedly carried out 11 operations against regime forces in the last month and targeted pro-government cells operating in Idlib.

But HTS is also pursuing a nuanced strategy, aware that its survival depends on maintaining good ties with its northern neighbour.

For instance, rather than engage in direct confrontations with regime forces, HTS has focused operations on defensive military sites behind enemy lines. This is likely because HTS wants to avoid fuelling tensions with Turkey, which maintains a ceasefire brokered with Russia in March 2020.

Moreover, HTS has refrained from directly criticising Turkey’s foreign policy and assumed a more conciliatory tone. In a December statement, HTS blamed the Al Assad regime for its unwillingness to address Turkey’s concerns and urged Ankara to “preserve its values and moral gains in supporting the oppressed.”

It also expressed understanding for the “pressures that Turkey is facing at the local and international levels.” These include Turkey’s need to make progress on facilitating the return of Syrian refugees and countering the “Kurdish threat” before Turkish elections in May.

Privately, HTS has been more direct. Local sources tell me that HTS held a meeting in December with Turkish officials, during which the group’s leaders expressed concern about reconciliation with Syria and reiterated their commitment to honouring agreements with Turkey.

HTS’s calculated response appears to be driven by an assessment that negotiations between Ankara and Damascus are unlikely to yield results. The group’s view is shared by many Syria observers who predict that the talks will stall because Turkey and Syria remain far apart on many issues (not to mention the regime’s unwillingness to compromise).

This could explain why HTS’s reaction so far has been designed to assure its domestic audience of its commitment to the fight, rather than to aggressively persuade Turkey to terminate talks with Al Assad.

Of course, all bets are off if talks between Ankara and Damascus produce 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 preserve, to the extent possible, its interests. These could include, for example, withdrawing from specific areas in Idlib in exchange for expanding into northern Aleppo.

Failing a mutually-accepted compromise with Turkey, the group would undoubtedly turn to more aggressive means of survival.

No matter how the Turkish-Syrian rapprochement progresses, these are uneasy times for Syria’s opposition in Idlib; those who fight and those who simply long for an end to years of suffering.


Source: The Arab Weekly

By: Dr. Haid Haid

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of the Observatory.