The curious case of Idlib’s “extremists”

Translator: 

Syria’s most powerful jihadists have neither agreed to nor impeded the creation by Turkey and Russia of an “extremist”-free buffer zone in Idlib Province. For now, all actors seem content to leave the matter at that.

Ever since Turkey and Russia reached an agreement in the city of Sochi last month on averting a military offensive in Syria’s Idlib, Moscow has noticeably made less mention of the Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) militant group (formerly the official Syrian al-Qaeda franchise, Jabhat al-Nusra). It would seem that, for the sake of facilitating the deal’s smooth implementation—which involves the creation of a demilitarized buffer zone in the province, free of all “extremist” groups—Russia deems it appropriate to cease holding HTS responsible for escalation. The continued existence of HTS, indeed, offers benefits to numerous parties at the present moment.

For one thing, HTS retains a large number of foreign fighters in Syria, keeping them away from the borders of many countries that have no desire to see those fighters returning home. HTS’ presence also creates a form of balance between the even-more-extremist jihadist current—represented by the Islamic State (ISIS) and other groups such as Hurras al-Din (“The Guardians of Religion”), which has sworn allegiance to al-Qaeda—and the other opposition factions in the province. This balance helps prevent the jihadists from absorbing more factions or territory.

However, the same equilibrium—which appears to allow the current situation in ldlib to continue, guaranteeing that HTS remains the most effective military force in the area—rests on two major potential landmines. The first is its vital connection to the fate of the foreign fighters, which can only be temporary until such time as a clear international strategy is formed in that regard. The second is that the execution of the Sochi deal in its current manner involves substantial willful ignorance of HTS’ situation, making the latter’s presence an ever-ready pretext for the Russians to breach or annul the agreement.

What’s in no doubt is that HTS benefits from the present circumstances, especially after the great pressures it faced prior to the agreement. The continuation of this balance in this fashion would seem to provide new momentum to the group to extend its influence further in Idlib Province, at the expense of other opposition factions, first and foremost the National Liberation Front umbrella group, which has failed thus far to establish itself as the most powerful actor in Idlib.

The statement issued by HTS on Sunday appears to have been an implied declaration of the group’s acceptance of this role created for it by the Sochi agreement. Quite apart from the fact that the statement offered no clear opposition to the agreement (despite the inclusion of general statements about their continued bearing of arms and readiness to fight), HTS did indeed withdraw its heavy weapons from the proposed buffer zone, per the terms of the pact. It also, according to numerous leaks, offered to join in any military operation against factions described as “extremist,” such as Hurras al-Din, in the event that the latter stood against the Idlib agreement.

At a time when such jihadist organizations could become sacrificial lambs for the Sochi agreement’s implementation, this role for HTS—if permitted—would be a new lever for its role in northwest Syria as a whole. That this should happen with the consent and blessing of Moscow should be no surprise, as the latter sees in such brittle arrangements a great opportunity to maintain its influence and its ability to bring an end to the agreement at any moment.

In spite of HTS being the principal Russian pretext for the potential launch of any new slaughter campaign in Idlib, HTS itself plays a leading role in the equation that Russia was so essential in creating, and in the balances secured by this equation in a crucial region of Syria. As for the fate of this organization, it is certainly no longer in the hands of its own members or leadership, for they have repeatedly accepted to become a part and parcel of the strategies of the regional and international actors in the neighborhood, tying the existence of their group to the desire of those actors to employ the “Nusra” card in maneuvers that are much easier made with disciplined tools.

[Editor’s note: This article was originally published in Arabic on 15 October, 2018]