When Tahrir al-Sham forces accompany a Turkish military convoy in Idlib
The topic first caught my attention when I read the news report titled “Attack against the convoy in Idlib” by daily Hürriyet’s deputy Ankara representative Uğur Ergan on Jan. 31.
The report said Yasin Tanboğa, an employee at the General Directorate of State Hydraulic Works (DSI), was killed in an attack carried out against a Turkish convoy as they were moving toward the Syrian town of al-Ais to establish an observation point in the de-escalation zone.
What caught my attention in Ergan’s report was that “Tahrir al-Sham forces were accompanying [the Turkish convoy] for security reasons” en route to al-Ais.
The footage later revealed on social media also showed elements hinting that the vehicles accompanying the Turkish convoy belonged to Tahrir al-Sham forces.
What does it mean when a Turkish military convoy consisting of military vehicles including tanks belonging to the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) moves toward Idlib alongside Tahrir al-Sham forces?
It is inevitable for this footage to surprise the viewer.
The reason why is because Tahrir al-Sham is a Salafist network that was formed in early 2017 by merging a number of Syrian groups including al-Nusra, which is labeled a terror organization. Nusra is a group that was formed as a Syrian offshoot of the Afghan-rooted al-Qaeda. However, Nusra cut ties with al-Qaeda in 2016.
Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL), al-Qaeda and al-Nusra have all been listed as terror organizations in the Astana process—a platform that brought Turkey, Russia and Iran together to discuss the conflict in Syria.
For example, the three countries vowed they would “take all precautions against fighting these terror networks” in the memorandum released on May 4, 2017.
Meanwhile, Tahrir al-Sham or al-Nusra, are in front of the Turkish military convoy en route to Idlib.
From what it seems, this is not even the first time.
In the report titled “Preventing Disaster in Syria’s Idlib Province” released by “the International Crisis Group (ICG), which aims to prevent conflicts around the world, it talks about how a similar picture unfolded last fall when a Turkish military convoy established three observation points in northern Idlib bordering the Afrin canton ruled by the Democratic Union Party (PYD).
For example, Tahrir al-Sham militants were seen to have been accompanying a Turkish military discovery unit in the Dar Taziah province on Oct. 8, 2017.
It was also identified that 30 vehicles belonging to the Turkish Armed Forces traveled the same route alongside Tahrir al-Sham fighters on Oct. 12, 2017. It was understood this was the Turkish military convoy that established the first observation point in Syria.
All these examples indicate that the Tahrir al-Sham fighters play a role in making it easier for the Turkish military to establish observation points. The ICG report said these observation points were established only after an alliance with the Tahrir al-Sham and that “otherwise it would not have been possible.” The report also underlined that Russia had given permission for these conditions.
But how could this be?
All these bring us face-to-face with a dilemma. If Turkey takes the Astana agreement seriously, it must fight against Tahrir al-Sham. However, the Astana decision also gives Turkey a mission to de-escalate tensions in Idlib. Turkey’s responsibility is to establish these control stations in order to de-escalate tensions in Idlib.
Turkey holds responsibility for its mission, not only by using the three observation points in the north, but also by establishing more observation points vertically on the line separating the regime-controlled areas and the areas controlled by Tahrir al-Sham.
One of Turkey’s most important strategic interests here is to convince the Syrian regime to avoid attacking Idlib with heavy weaponry because of the risk of 2.5 million residents migrating to Turkey if there is a bloody conflict there.
With more than 15,000 militants, Tahrir al-Sham has control over Idlib—a province subject to numerous doomsday theories.
Setting up observation points in an area controlled by Tahrir al-Sham requires some sort of coordination with the ruling group.
From what it seems, Tahrir al-Sham is content with eliminating the risk for the regime to attack Idlib due to the established observation points. However, it is also understood that the coordination established with Turkey has become a topic of dispute among Tahrir al-Sham itself.
Still, looking at the ICG report, one can understand the issue was settled and their cooperation was authorized upon a decision by the Tahrir al-Sham Sharia Council.