Dispatch

The view from the ground.

Turkey Combats Jihadi Expansion on Syria Border

An extremist alliance with links to al Qaeda is making headway across northern Syria, drawing Russia and Iran deeper into the conflict and posing problems for Turkey.

By , a senior investigator at the Zomia Center for the Study of Non-State Spaces, and , a senior Syria researcher at the Zomia Center for the Study of Non-State Spaces.
A fighter from the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army is deployed on a checkpoint in the area of Kafr Jannah on the outskirts of the Syrian town of Afrin on Oct. 19.
A fighter from the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army is deployed on a checkpoint in the area of Kafr Jannah on the outskirts of the Syrian town of Afrin on Oct. 19.
A fighter from the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army is deployed on a checkpoint in the area of Kafr Jannah on the outskirts of the Syrian town of Afrin on Oct. 19. OMAR HAJ KADOUR/AFP

AZAZ, Syria, and GAZIANTEP, Turkey—On Oct. 14, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a Syrian jihadi alliance led by former factions of al Qaeda, took over the large city of Afrin in northern Syria from an alliance of moderate rebels led by the internationally recognized Syrian Interim Government (SIG). Founded in March 2013, when Syria’s opposition seemed on the verge of overthrowing President Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian Interim Government served as the nominal authority governing the northern half of the country, then-controlled by a collection of rebel groups.

However, following the rise of the Islamic State and its defeat by a U.S.-led coalition, along with major gains by both Kurdish and regime forces—the latter aided by Russia and Iran—the SIG was reduced to a rump state limited to divided pockets of the Aleppo, Raqqa, and Hasakah countryside along the Turkish border.

In Idlib, Syria, another rebel-held province south of Afrin, HTS set up a parallel Syrian Salvation Government to rival the SIG in November 2017. Since then, both entities have mostly avoided intervening in the other’s affairs. Viewed as more moderate, SIG territories have mostly been spared attacks by regime forces since 2016.

AZAZ, Syria, and GAZIANTEP, Turkey—On Oct. 14, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a Syrian jihadi alliance led by former factions of al Qaeda, took over the large city of Afrin in northern Syria from an alliance of moderate rebels led by the internationally recognized Syrian Interim Government (SIG). Founded in March 2013, when Syria’s opposition seemed on the verge of overthrowing President Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian Interim Government served as the nominal authority governing the northern half of the country, then-controlled by a collection of rebel groups.

However, following the rise of the Islamic State and its defeat by a U.S.-led coalition, along with major gains by both Kurdish and regime forces—the latter aided by Russia and Iran—the SIG was reduced to a rump state limited to divided pockets of the Aleppo, Raqqa, and Hasakah countryside along the Turkish border.

In Idlib, Syria, another rebel-held province south of Afrin, HTS set up a parallel Syrian Salvation Government to rival the SIG in November 2017. Since then, both entities have mostly avoided intervening in the other’s affairs. Viewed as more moderate, SIG territories have mostly been spared attacks by regime forces since 2016.

However, the latest move by HTS threatened to upset this balance. Within hours of its capture of Afrin, HTS convoys moved east toward Kafr Jana, a town six miles west of the SIG capital of Azaz, where dozens of people were killed in six days of clashes to halt the jihadis’ advance. Two moderate rebel groups in the area that HTS had cultivated as allies over the previous year assisted by shelling positions of the Levant Front, the main group defending Azaz, in other cities nearby.

After several failed cease-fires, HTS seized Kafr Jana on Oct. 18 and appeared ready to enter the SIG capital; however, it was stopped by the last-minute deployment of a large contingent of Turkish troops, thousands of whom occupy the area.

After seven days of uncertainty—including the first Russian airstrike carried out in the region in years, which killed 10 people—by Wednesday night, news emerged that HTS had withdrawn from Afrin under intense pressure from the Turkish military.

Nevertheless, its entry represented the first major penetration of jihadi groups into the region since Turkish-backed rebels liberated the countryside east of Azaz from the Islamic State in 2016. The fact that several moderate groups affiliated with the SIG aided in its assault is cause for concern—and the HTS’s withdrawal does not necessarily signal loss.


In the six years since the Islamic State’s expulsion from the north Aleppo countryside, Turkish troops occupying the area worked hard to rebuild the SIG’s authority and unite the several dozen rebel groups within it under the banner of the Syrian National Army.

Turkish government ministries have taken responsibility for some education and utility services in the area while branches of Ankara’s PTT postal service can be found in some of the area’s larger cities, such as Azaz, Marea, and Bab.

Most importantly, Turkish cooperation with Russia has been key to preventing regime forces from attacking the area since 2016, sparing the region the type of violence seen elsewhere throughout the country over the last 11 years.

The north Aleppo countryside in turn has become a testing ground for Turkey’s state- and institution-building capacities that it may seek to replicate as its armed forces become more involved in other theaters further abroad, including Libya, Somalia, and Iraq. It is also a key buffer zone between Turkey and regime-held parts of Syria, where millions of internally displaced Syrian opponents of the Assad regime can live without seeking to flee across Turkey’s borders.

Preventing new migrants from entering Turkey is a top priority for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Preventing new migrants from entering Turkey is a top priority for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who faces low approval ratings ahead of elections in 2023, caused in part by hostility toward the nearly 4 million Syrians already in the country who many voters blame for the nation’s economic downturn.

However the weeklong takeover of Afrin by HTS—recognized by Turkey as a terrorist group in 2018—and its attempt to overthrow the SIG risked sabotaging this stable arrangement.

A de-escalation agreement signed by Moscow and Ankara in September 2018 required that Turkey limit HTS and other jihadis’ expansion in Idlib province as a condition to halting regime attacks on the area.

In January 2019, these agreements fell apart when HTS took total control of Idlib after 10 days of clashes with rival rebel groups.

In response, both Russia and Iran—which have sent thousands of advisors, troops, and military contractors to prop up the Assad regime—launched two ground campaigns over the course of the next year that killed thousands of people and risked pushing millions of refugees into Turkey. The threat of new migrants sparked an international crisis in early 2020 when Ankara threatened to allow refugees to cross European Union borders unless the latter pressured Russia to stop its assault.

As fighting drew to a close in March 2020, the amount of territory controlled by HTS and its allies in Idlib had been cut in half, with the roughly 4 million civilians living under its control packed into an ever-narrower strip.

Had HTS remained in Afrin, the prospect of Russia responding with new waves of strikes—as it did on Oct. 16 just outside Azaz, killing 10 people—would have been likely, in turn provoking more refugees to cross into Turkey.

HTS territory in Idlib sits 35 miles northeast of Hmeimim, Russia’s command and control center in Latakia province, itself less than 40 miles from the Tartus port, where Russia has docked 11 warships, including some that are nuclear equipped.

Protecting this base was a top motivation for Moscow’s September 2015 intervention in Syria. Just months before, a successful campaign led by HTS’s predecessor organization, the Nusra Front, put jihadis within firing range of Latakia city, threatening both the city’s Alawite majority and the Tartus port.

Limiting HTS’s expansion in northwest Syria has since been a key Russian goal, as the group operates largely independently of Turkey, which Moscow can rely on to control moderate groups. On the contrary, its control of over 4 million Syrians living along large swaths of the Syrian-Turkish border has given HTS key leverage over Turkey.

Any expansion in its remit of control would increase that leverage and make the group more dangerous. This is particularly the case as Russia is now fully preoccupied with the war in Ukraine and does not have the resources or attention to lead new campaigns in Syria.

Turkey’s entanglement with HTS is further complicated by the fact that the Hamza Division and Suleiman Shah Brigades—the moderate groups that fought alongside HTS in Afrin—are two of its top proxies in Syria.

In 2020, commanders from both factions recruited thousands of mercenaries to fight in support of Turkish-led military operations in Libya and Azerbaijan, making them favorites in the eyes of Turkish military and intelligence forces in the area.

Furthermore, like HTS, Turkey has had a troublesome relationship with the Levant Front, whose control of fuel smuggling has granted its leaders a great deal of independence from Ankara, creating tensions on both sides. Following its withdrawal from Afrin, control of these smuggling routes shifted to a collection of rival factions with whom HTS has closer ties, a major win for the group.


The shifting balance of power within rebel-held areas does not bode well for future stability in Syria nor for the prospect of continued cease-fires between Syria’s regime and opposition forces. Although Moscow has withdrawn significant ground forces and equipment from Syria—including an S-300 surface-to-air missile system—since the launch of its war in Ukraine in March, this has not led to a significant weakening of the pro-Assad coalition or its ability to wage war.

Rather, it created a series of gaps that Assad’s other, more hard-line patron, Iran, has managed to fill. Since March, thousands of Iranian-backed Lebanese, Iraqi, Afghan, and Syrian Shiite militia fighters have replaced outgoing Russian forces at hundreds of bases and military positions across the country, a significant step toward achieving Tehran’s broader aims.

Unlike Russia, which seeks to protect its naval infrastructure on Syria’s narrow coast, Iran seeks to preserve a friendly Alawite-Shiite regime in Damascus that it can rely on to grant its proxies full freedom to move across the country by land. Land access is critical for Iran to supply weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon and project power against regional rivals, including Israel, Jordan, and the Persian Gulf states.

Iran’s reliance on networks of foreign Shiite militias over Syria’s armed forces originally served as a long-term hedge against the overthrow of the regime: In the event that Syria’s opposition removed Assad, militias loyal to Tehran could still lead an insurgency against a new government and carry out covert weapons deliveries.

That said, when hundreds of Russian Wagner Group private military contractors withdrew from the Muhin arms depot in southern Homs in April, Iranian-backed units reportedly raided the facility’s large warehouses, transporting large numbers of weapons to new front-line positions across the country.

Obtaining land access in Syria is also key for Iran’s economic agenda. Iran hopes to link the much-discussed Shalamcheh-Basra-Damascus rail to the port of Latakia on Syria’s coast to gain access to the Mediterranean Sea for Iranian exports, including oil and gas, should sanctions be lifted.

Russia’s withdrawal and Iran’s expansion may facilitate rather than discourage conflict.

Iranian officials have proposed linking sections of its rail network already built in Iraq to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a tangible possibility in light of a $400 billion economic partnership agreement signed by both countries in 2020. After many years of seeking to do so itself, Syria’s government also joined the BRI In January of this year.

Russia’s withdrawal and Iran’s expansion may therefore facilitate rather than discourage conflict. Unlike Moscow, which has sought accommodations with Turkey to reach a political solution to the conflict that helps lift sanctions and opens up investment in Syria, Iran opposes any denouement that would see elements of the opposition hostile to its agenda obtain a role in government.

As a result, its proxies have been keener than Moscow to recapture all territory seized by Syria’s armed opposition since 2011.

Already, there are signs that Iran has become bolder and more aggressive since Russia’s disengagement. Speaking to the Hoover Institution in May as part of a broader lobbying effort in Washington to address Iran’s expansion throughout southern Syria, Jordan’s King Abdullah II stated that: “We’re seeing border attacks on a regular basis, and we know who’s behind that. … The presence of the Russians … was a source of calm because they were making sure we could de-conflict. … That vacuum will be filled by the Iranians and their proxies, so unfortunately, maybe we’re looking at an escalation of problems on our borders.”


All this comes as Turkey prepares for a presidential election in June 2023, in which opposition to the presence of Syrian migrants will likely be one of the few issues uniting voters of all stripes. Since the nation’s economic downturn in 2018, many voices from the far left and far right, including in Erdogan’s own Justice and Development Party, have blamed refugees for Turkey’s 83 percent inflation rate and demanded that the millions of people already in the country be deported.

After years of unwavering support for migrants and Syria’s battered opposition, Erdogan’s attitudes toward both were forced to change beginning in 2016, when domestic turmoil forced the president to seek new partners both in parliament and the military.

Among the first to benefit was Dogu Perincek, leader of the far-left Patriotic Party and promoter of Turkey’s “Eurasianist” movement that seeks to distance Ankara from NATO in exchange for closer ties with Russia and China.

Perincek has demanded Turkey abandon Syria’s opposition and work with Assad to both fight the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and repatriate the millions of refugees already in the country, once telling Erdogan to “cooperate with Syria or resign.”

Despite holding no seats in parliament, large numbers of Patriotic Party ideologues were promoted to high ranks in the military after the failed 2016 coup attempt in Turkey, to the extent that Perincek has since been dubbed by some as the country’s “shadow defense minister.”

Erdogan’s next embrace of anti-migrant forces came in 2017, when leaders of the ultranationalist National Movement Party (MHP) supported a “yes” vote in a controversial referendum that weakened Turkey’s parliamentary system, limited separation of powers, and concentrated power in the hands of the presidency.

Umit Ozdag, the MHP’s former deputy chairman who was expelled from the party in 2016, formed his own ultranationalist Victory Party in 2021 that is even more focused on refugee deportations—to the exclusion of most all other issues. If given power, Ozdag has pledged to repatriate all refugees in Turkey within one year.

Although the true extent of his appeal is unknown, Ozdag’s radical message and attention-grabbing headlines have made him one of the most visible political figures in the country.

With an approval rating hovering at just over 40 percent, Erdogan has already begun echoing claims that his government will seek to repatriate upward of 1 million refugees in the near future. The Turkish president’s sensitivity and weakness in the lead-up to this election represents a key point of leverage that Russia and its allies can exploit by threatening to attack the north Aleppo countryside following HTS’s expansion, potentially sending more refugees across the border.

Turkey, Russia, and what’s left of the country’s moderate opposition, find themselves in a sensitive position, unable to adequately take steps to protect what they view as existential to their interests.

A volatile situation exists in northern Syria for all parties involved. After a period of relative calm, the region’s most radical actors—Iran and jihadis linked to al Qaeda—are more active and bolder than they have been in years.

Jeremy Hodge is a senior investigator at the Zomia Center for the Study of Non-State Spaces.

Hussein Nasser is a senior Syria researcher at the Zomia Center for the Study of Non-State Spaces.

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