On March 19, Turkey’s defense ministry announced the death of two Turkish soldiers at the hands of “radical elements” in northwest Syria’s Idlib. The men were killed in a de-escalation zone that Turkey and Russia first delineated in 2018 and reaffirmed with a ceasefire deal on March 5. Hurras al-Din, an al-Qaeda-affiliated jihadist group, may have been responsible, although the group hasn’t claimed responsibility for the attack. The killings highlight Ankara’s challenges, as the deal with Moscow forces the Turkish government to either coopt, confront, or reach some other accommodation with the al-Qaeda-affiliated jihadists living and operating in Idlib.
The ambush targeted Turkish soldiers patrolling the M-4 motorway, a major road that runs from east to west through Idlib. It took place northwest of the town of Mahambel and came after a March 15 video by a joint operations room, which also includes Hurras al-Din, calling for embracing the fighting and rejecting “surrender solutions” of the ceasefire deal. A pro-Syrian regime journalist also claimed in a tweet that Hurras al-Din was responsible for the attack, although the militant group rejected its involvement. Turkey’s defense ministry refrained from naming the group responsible, but claimed that its forces “retaliated in proportion.”
Ankara’s attempts to implement joint patrols with Russia along the M-4 motorway result from the shaky ceasefire deal Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin brokered on March 5. Since the joint patrols began on March 15, they have met with significant opposition. On the first day of the joint patrols, civilians and several jihadist groups, such as Ansar al-Islam, blocked the path of Turkish forces patrolling along the highway. The implementation of the ceasefire will continue to present new challenges for Turkey, as Erdogan must now compel Idlib’s various jihadist factions to at least tacitly accept Turkey’s increased role as the dominant patron of the insurgents in Idlib.
One of these jihadist groups, Hurras al-Din, or “Guardians of the Religion,” was formed when several factions merged in February 2018 as a protest to Hay’at Tahrir al Sham’s (HTS) decision to publicly “disassociate” from al-Qaeda. HTS is the most powerful rebel faction in Idlib, and its leadership decided to accommodate Turkish forces. This decision led to controversy in jihadist circles, with al-Qaeda’s senior leadership warning that Erdogan shouldn’t be trusted. Several al-Qaeda veterans formed Hurras al-Din as a rebel force expressly loyal to al-Qaeda’s global emir, Ayman al-Zawahiri.
Although the relationship between Hurras al-Din and HTS has been tumultuous, they have often shown a willingness to resolve disputes and establish joint conflict resolution committees. Additionally, both groups continue to cooperate on military matters, as exemplified by the formation of the “Incite the Believers” joint operations room in October 2018. This operations room was established by Hurras al-Din and other al-Qaeda-affiliated groups, all of which fight alongside HTS against their common foes.
The tension with jihadist groups such as Ansar al-Islam and Hurras al-Din may present a two-fold challenge by undermining Ankara’s ability to cobble together a united rebel front while simultaneously frustrating Erdogan’s ability to negotiate with Putin regarding Idlib.
Since Russian- and Iranian-backed pro-Assad regime forces launched the second phase of “Operation Dawn of Idlib” on December 19, seeking to capture Idlib’s insurgent-held territory, Turkey has intensified its engagement with HTS. Within the last two months, there have been reported deliberations between HTS and Turkey-backed groups as part of Ankara’s efforts to push HTS to adopt a more moderate stance in exchange for Ankara’s support for international recognition and legitimacy. But groups such as Hurras al-Din seek to preserve their autonomy and operational capacity by frustrating Turkey’s bids to form a united rebel front.
In February 2019, Ayman al Zawahiri criticized Turkey as a “secular” regime, warning its Syrian affiliates not to trust or rely on Turkey as well as the “secular Turkish checkpoints” present in Idlib. These statements from al-Zawahiri undoubtedly fueled the suspicion and mistrust of al-Qaeda commanders in groups such as Hurras al-Din, thus providing an ideological basis on which these groups will continue to resist Ankara’s influence in Idlib as well as the implementation of any Russo-Turkish agreements. Whatever the future of Turkey’s involvement in Idlib may look like, Ankara will have eventually be forced to deal with the al-Qaeda-affiliated jihadists in one fashion or another.