OE Watch Commentary: Turkey’s incursion into the Syrian city of Afrin (Operation Olive Branch) has sparked a fight between various Syrian rebel groups in a local power struggle. Clashes have broken out between Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and the Syrian Liberation Front (SLF) which consists of Ahrar al-Sham and the Nour al-Din al-Zenki Movement. Fighting started in the Aleppo Governorate and spread to the Idlib Governorate, which is a stronghold of HTS. HTS was formed by merger of five Salafist groups, including Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly the Al-Nusra Front) in 2017. The accompanying excerpted article, written by a Turkish journalist and researcher and published in Gazete Duvar, sheds light on how this power struggle might play out.
The article states that when Turkey launched Operation Olive Branch, it coordinated with HTS in Idlib in the outskirts of Afrin. This was a tactical alliance made by both groups against the common Kurdish enemy. The tactical alliance’s end was inevitable, because HTS was at the same time fighting for dominance of Idlib with Syrian rebel groups that were closer allies of Turkey, in particular Ahrar al-Sham. The Turkish military’s sudden presence on the outskirts of Idlib threatened HTS, and the plan which Ankara, Moscow, and Tehran reached during negotiations in Astana, Kazakhstan to create de-escalation zones also included eliminating HTS.
Turkey has positioned its soldiers in various areas of Idlib with the help of HTS, giving the group assurances that it will not be attacked. According to the author, Turkey’s challenge will be what to do when HTS is attacked by Turkey’s proxies and allies in Syria. Assessing the situation, HTS issued a statement claiming Turkey is going to encourage other Free Syrian Army groups from Afrin to fight against them. As such, Turkey’s tactical alliance with HTS will likely break soon.
The author argues that although the leader of Al-Qaeda, Aymen al-Zawahiri, is not in a position to give orders to HTS, his latest warning to those in Idlib is very important. Zawahiri called on “the mujahideen” to spread across the region and prepare for guerrilla warfare, which may last for a number of years. The author concludes that in light of all this, the future for HTS looks dark. Russian fighter jets, Iranian militias, and the Syrian Army will likely try to root them out of Syria. Also, while the SLF will continue clearing them from cities, towns, and villages, the possibility of HTS and Ankara’s confrontation is likely. End OE Watch Commentary (Gunduz)
The relationship between Ankara and HTS is not one of friendship, their alliance is tactical and is based on mutual interest. Let’s remember who HTS is.
In July 2016, Al-Nusra announced that it had severed ties with Al-Qaeda central and formed Jabhat Fateh al-Sham with other small groups…
However, at the beginning of 2017, Al-Nusra took one more step, further expanding the coalition of organizations and this time renamed itself as Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham [HTS]. It affirmed delinking itself from Al-Qaeda…
As a matter of fact, HTS, shortly after announcing its establishment, called upon all other armed opposition groups including Ahrar al-Sham to unite. Ahrar al-Sham and some other groups saw this as Al-Qaeda’s attempt to swallow them. In fact, Nour al-Din al-Zenki Movement, one of the important organizations that participated in the establishment of the HTS announced that they left the alliance. Thus, HTS started its attacks on the small groups in Idlib.
By this means HTS became dominant in Idlid. When it did, it faced an unwanted guest: Turkish military. Why didn’t it want [this guest]? Because Moscow, Tehran, and Ankara reached an agreement in Astana and projected to establish de-escalation zones in Idlib. This included getting rid of HTS.