Uncertainty looms around Idlib’s future after Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham(HTS) maintained its hold over the rebel’s last major stronghold. HTS concluded an agreement that stipulated a ceasefire with the Turkish-backed rival faction National Liberation Front(NLF) on January 10th, ending a period of unrest shaped by military confrontations that killed more than 130 fighters. The NLF relinquished its administrated areas to HTS’ self-proclaimed ‘Salvation Government’, and fled towards the Turkish-held areas in the north. This fractured the HTS-NLF quasi-alliance which was established in November 2017 to govern what they referred to as the ‘liberated areas’and consolidated the Salvation Government which serves as Idlib’s de facto administrator.
HTS’ territorial control extends to the west of rural Aleppo and governs more than 2.5 million inhabitants, representing 1.5 times more than Damascus’ population. With around 15,000 fighters in its arsenal, HTS is an instrumental actor in any of Idlib’s future scenarios. However, there are two main components that should be taken into consideration. First, HTS is a coalition that comprises several armed groups with al-Nusra Front, previously known for its ties with al-Qaeda, serving as the nucleus of the coalition. Al-Nusra Front is designated as a terrorist organization by the US, Russia, Turkey, and the United Nations. Although HTS repudiated any affiliations with al-Qaeda, many observers believe that HTS still has ties with al-Qaeda and consider the coalition as a change in name and not a change in political tendency.
Second, HTS’ power consolidation violated the Russian-Turkish Memorandum of Understanding that was signed in Sochi in September 2018. Sochi’s MoU outlined a roadmap in which ‘all radical terrorist groups will be removed from the demilitarized zone by October 15’for the purpose of preventing a Syrian military solution. This raises the question of in what form will Moscow’s response occur particularly after Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov expressed his concerns by stating “About 70% of this territory is already occupied by terrorists (..) they are trying to threaten our military air base in Hmeymim”.
Idlib’s current status quo is arguably more intricate than what it was before Sochi’s Summit. The ouster of the Turkish-backed rebels obstructs Turkey’s interests in the region. With its main allies out of the picture, Ankara is alarmed that a military incursion launched by the Syrian Government would galvanize a new influx of refugees, particularly after the United Nations warned that 800,000 people are at risk of displacement. Furthermore, an escalation in Idlib would cause HTS’ fighters to withdraw northwards, causing a legitimate security threat on Turkey’s border.
However, perpetuating the status quo would create a predicament for Syria and its allies. As Lavrov explained: “one of the acutel problems [of the status quo ] because it is infinitely impossible to maintain this last major hotbed of terrorism in Syria”. Finding a solution to address the situation is thus inevitable for Syria and Russia. Damascus already took some ‘retaliatory’ measures in southern Idlib after what seemed as an HTS attempt to infiltrate into Hama, state news SANA reported. The Syrian Government is reportedly deploying more troops to the north, increasing its military presence in the region.
Events are fluctuating at a fast pace in Syria. In line with the developments taking place in Idlib and the US decision to withdraw from Syria, the Astana Group is preparing for a trilateral summit in Russia to address these changes. Meshing the interests of the participating states is naturally challenging after more than 7 years of turmoil. However, Syria is on a crossroads and the need for an inclusive dialogue is essential.