Long before Turkey's revenge attacks against the Syrian regime in February, and even before the regime's offensive to recapture Idlib and its bombardment of the province, Turkey and Russia struck a now apparently forgotten agreement in September 2018. This focused on the "demilitarised zone" which Turkey hoped to create in the province, one clause of which stipulated that it would be Turkey's responsibility to rid the area of any radical or extremist groups. This was also the case in the Astana process the year before.
The agreement lost impetus with the Bashar Al-Assad regime's launch of the offensive to capture Idlib in April last year and subsequent events, but now might be the time for Turkey to fulfil that clause. Last week, the US Special Envoy to Syria urged Turkey to crack down on radical elements within the last major opposition stronghold; this followed earlier praise by Russia's Foreign Ministry spokeswoman for Turkey's efforts to curb the actions of the "terrorist" groups. Such action is in Ankara's own interests, not just America's and Russia's.
The fact is that just as Assad is becoming troublesome and a burden for Russia's long-term aims in Syria, some of the opposition groups that hold sway in Idlib are becoming likewise for Turkey. Over the past month, for example, Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) – an indirect and distant offshoot of Al-Qaeda under the leadership of Abu Mohammad Al-Golani — has been backing popular protests on the strategic M4 highway linking the key cities of Saraqeb and Latakia. While these protests condemn Russia's military presence rather than Turkey's, they oppose the ceasefire deal struck between Turkey and Russia on 5 March which established their joint military patrols along the road.
The obstruction caused by protesters has prompted Turkish forces and even riot police to intervene over the past few weeks. This particular crisis came to a head when clashes broke out on the M4 last weekend, and
Turkish forces killed three HTS members with a number of Turkish soldiers being wounded in the process.
This not only broke the uneasy peace between Turkey and HTS, but it also raised the tension significantly between the militia and Turkish-backed groups, setting the stage for even further clashes. In the following days, HTS prevented a Turkish military column from passing into a city in Aleppo province, and attempted to open a trade route with the Syrian regime against Turkey's wishes.
The internal politics of the network of opposition groups in Idlib and much of northern Syria is complex. Turkey backs groups and militias affiliated with the opposition in the Liberated Territories, forming a buffer against regime-held territory. There are some like HTS, however, which are more radical and are not allied overtly with Turkey but have been on friendly terms, receiving supplies throughout the Syrian civil war while allowing Ankara to establish observation posts within the territory it controls.
To understand the importance of this situation, we need to look at what happened decades ago further to the east. A scenario that Turkey's current dilemma almost mirrors was seen in Pakistan, with the government's struggle between foreign expectations and strategic alliances. Throughout the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan (1979-1989) and the anti-Soviet struggle taken up by various Mujahideen groups, neighbouring Pakistan was a key player by supplying arms, training and intelligence to the resistance.
Following the Soviet withdrawal, the bloody Afghan civil war that ensued and the US toppling of the Taliban government in 2001, Pakistan's links to the radical groups came under scrutiny as they largely turned on the government in Islamabad. Pakistan then had its own "war on terror" against the groups it once supported, in the middle of which the US gave a stern warning to Islamabad to crack down on the groups and arrest militants and those affiliated with them, many of whom were notable former detainees in Guantanamo Bay. Pakistan was thus criticised on one hand for tolerating the groups at one stage — more for military and geostrategic rather than ideological reasons — and on the other for betraying them and allowing the US to force its hand.
Turkey faces a similar quandary in its strained relations with HTS and other opposition groups. If it starts to crack down on these radical elements along the lines that it did in Afrin and northern Syria against the Kurdish militias, it would probably result in a bloodbath between former strategic allies. The Assad regime could then have the perfect opportunity to relaunch its offensive against a divided Idlib.
The government in Ankara is conscious of its observation posts and military build-up within the province, so is unlikely to take that option. Both Turkey and HTS know this, and have taken steps to patch up their relationship by holding talks in recent days.
If successful — and HTS has a history of collaboration and its leader Al-Golani is nothing if not pragmatic, with the group trying to distance itself from its extremist roots — the threat could well come from more radical, though less powerful, groups such as Ansar Al-Din, Ansar Al-Tawhid and Hurras Al-Din which have openly rejected all deals between Russia and Turkey. Indeed, they have at times branded Turkey as an occupying enemy alongside Russia.
Radical factions within HTS have also emerged. The hard-line Abu Al-Fath Yahya Al-Farghali described Turkey and its army as "infidel" and "apostate" in a leaked recording earlier this year.
Such new-found enmity against Turkey presents a new threat that it may well have to deal with in the near future. Coupled with the ever-increasing pressure from the US and Russia, this would mean that it can no longer afford to use the militias to its strategic advantage. It could soon be time to tackle the rebels in Idlib.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.