In another twist in the complex tale of opposition-held Idlib Province in northwest Syria, reports circulated on Sunday that Turkey and the jihadist bloc Hayat Tahrir al-Sham are cooperating as Ankara intervenes in the area.
On Friday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s declaration that Ankara would support a “landmark operation” by the Free Syrian Army, to prevent “the formation of a terror corridor along our border”, raised the prospect of Turkey’s shelling and even bombing of HTS positions to assist the FSA advance.
However, by Sunday the story had shifted. Rather than the FSA attacking HTS, which tooks parts of Idlib this summer in an offensive against the rebel faction Ahrar al-Sham, local sources said HTS had assisted as Turkey personnel moved to a line between Idlib and areas held by Kurdish forces.
There were scattered clashes on Saturday, with Turkish shelling into Idlib and HTS claiming the destruction of a Turkish bulldozer. Ahrar al-Sham, supported by Turkey, skirmished with HTS, and Turkish howitzers fired into Syria on Sunday.
However, US-based analyst Charles Lister, claiming multiple sources, said “several days” of talks had culminated in an agreement at a higher level between Ankara and HTS leader Abu Mohammad al-Joulani
— Charles Lister (@Charles_Lister) 8 October 2017
Lister said al-Joulani is “keen to avoid inevitable losses (from fighting & defection) that would result from all-out conflict in Idlib”, while Turkey had the double goal of “securing its border” from HTS and “imposing greater threat” on the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Party (PYD) and its YPG militia in the Afrin canton near Idlib.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu emphasized the official goal of implementing a “de-escalation zone”, agreed with Russia and Iran last month in talks in the Kazakh capital Astana. Under the plan, Turkish personnel will be stationed inside the province, with Russian and Iranian counterparts on the borders.
But the unofficial objective of containing — and perhaps attacking — Afrin has been promoted by pro-Erdoğan outlets, which have declared, “Ankara assumes that following the liberation of Idlib, it will be easier to defeat the YPG in Afrin.”
Meanwhile, Turkey — which already hosts 3.2 million Syrian refugees — is facing the question of what happens to 1 million displaced Syrians near the border if tensions turn to confrontation.
In an attempt to stem any attempted crossings, Turkey’s Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency and aid organizations have said they will set up safe havens and tent camps within Syrian borders, while border gates will remain shut.
Russia-Regime Continue Airstrikes on Idlib Province
Meanwhile, Russia and the Assad regime continued their effective violation of the Russian-declared “de-escalation zone” with more airstrikes on Sunday.
Footage showed destruction and a burning market in the town of Ma’arat al-Num’an, with claims of multiple casualties:
— شبكة الثورة السورية (@RevolutionSyria) October 8, 2017
— Husam Hezaber (@HusamHezaber) October 8, 2017
Russia and the regime renewed their attacks on September 19, using the pretext of an attack by rebels and HTS on regime positions in neighboring northern Hama Province that day. More than 200 people have been killed since then.
Pro-opposition accounts also reported regime attacks in northern Hama Province, perhaps retaliating for the HTS capture of the trading point of Abu Dali elsewhere in the area:
— Qalaat Al Mudiq (@QalaatAlMudiq) October 8, 2017