Residents of Syria’s northwestern Idlib province do not expect a battle between Turkey and al-Qaida-linked militants in their region anytime soon. But, if a confrontation were to take place, many told Syria Deeply they would readily side against the militants.
Their widespread support for Turkey’s recent cross-border campaign in northern Syria is a stark reminder that, despite its military gains, the Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham alliance (HTS) has failed to carve out a significant support base in its main stronghold in Syria leading to a growing hostility toward the group.
Turkish troops first deployed in Idlib last Thursday with the purported aim of enforcing the so-called de-escalation zone that Russia, Iran and Turkey agreed to in the Kazakh capital of Astana last month. In a statement last week, Turkey’s prime minister said that the operation also aimed to reduce refugee flows into Turkey, prevent conflicts between civilians and militants in Idlib, and establish control points for future deployment in the area.
A wide-scale military campaign against HTS, however, was not listed among the objectives, and Turkey has not demonstrated any hostility toward the group. The two are believed to have coordinated operations in Idlib and HTS has escorted Turkish troops into the province at least four times in the past month.
“I don’t think there will be a confrontation between Turkey-backed rebels and HTS in the near future,” Abed al-Salam al-Ahmad, a resident of southern Idlib, told Syria Deeply. “HTS has made some concessions to Turkey and it has accepted the Turkish operation in the province,” the 50-year-old architect from Maarat al-Numan said.
A number of reports surfaced this week that corroborate al-Ahmad’s claim. Citing unidentified rebel sources, Reuters said this week that Turkey would be taking up positions 25 miles (40km) deep inside Idlib province and HTS would retreat further south in a phased withdrawal as per a negotiated settlement. Similarly, Charles Lister of the Middle East Institute told Syria Deeply last week that HTS has agreed not to interfere with Turkish operations along a stretch of Turkey’s border with Idlib.
Another resident of Maarat al-Numan, in southern Idlib, echoed a similar sentiment. He said that Turkey was trying to secure its borders and deter Kurdish forces in Syria instead of engaging with the al-Qaida-linked militant group.
“Turkey is trying to keep an eye on [Kurdish-held] Afrin. The establishment of observation posts in positions that overlook the area is an indication of this,” the Idlib resident who chose to be identified as Ali, told Syria Deeply, referring to observation posts established in the Sheikh Barakat mountains.
Around 200 troops are now stationed in areas that separate Kurdish-held and opposition-held territory in northwestern Syria. On Saturday, a new batch of Turkish troops and armored vehicles arrived on the Turkish side border ahead of the second phase of deployment and Turkish bulldozers were spotted setting up observation posts and digging fortifications along the frontier. The unit, however, has yet to cross into Syria.
If a confrontation, where to take place both Ali and al-Ahmad say they would side with Turkey-backed opposition groups. “I have many reasons not to support HTS,” al-Ahmad said. “Although the group has shown some military success, it has completely failed in administering Idlib.”
Idlib’s residents launched a strike in the provincial capital last week. They closed down their businesses to protest lax security and ineffective policing. Demonstrations broke out after a local jeweler was slaughtered by robbers who stormed his shop last Monday.
A resident of the Saraqib District, in eastern Idlib province, told Syria Deeply that a state of lawlessness has gripped Idlib since HTS captured most of the province and added that lax security was one of the primary reasons he is opposed to the group.
“There is no security or stability for civilians. At night, you can not leave your house. Assassinations are happening all over the place. Kidnappings, robberies and theft are also rampant,” said the 23-year-old media activist who identifies as Ahmad.
“For this reason, I support any force that gives us the slightest chance to improve our conditions.”
Beyond lax security, residents also blame HTS for an intense Russian airstrike campaign that targeted the province last month. Russian warplanes carried out a number of airstrikes and launched a cruise missile attack on Idlib after HTS militants encircled Russian military police in the province. The strikes and ensuing violence shattered months of relative calm in the area.
Ahmad said he hopes that the Turkish campaign would stop airstrikes on Idlib, especially as Turkish troops continue to deploy in the area.
Residents who spoke to Syria Deeply also complained that HTS was encroaching on almost every aspect of civilian life. The militant group has in recent months demonstrated an intention to impose control over civilian affairs: It has monitored money transfers, prohibited education projects that do not have its approval and sought control over bakeries, and water and transportation directorates in the province.
“What concerns us as civilians is that HTS is intervening in all aspects of social life, they are even telling us how to dress and when to close our shop,” Rami, a 28-year-old civil engineer from the Kafr Nabel district said. “I will definitely stand with the Turkish-backed Syrian opposition if a confrontation takes place,” he said.
While most respondents conveyed all-out support for Turkey’s campaign, some residents are still on the fence. Sami, a 28-year-old teacher from Saraqib, said that he has not adopted a position because Turkish intentions for Idlib are not yet clear. He said that Turkish coordination with HTS undermined the possibility of an effective campaign against the militant group.
Mahmouh Abu Rass, a 32-year-old media activist from the al-Haybit village in southern Idlib, was undecided. “Both HTS and the Turkey-backed opposition have made a lot of mistakes in the past,” he said, explaining that he is not willing to support either group.
Meanwhile, at least three Idlib residents said that they completely oppose the operation. Ousamma al-Faraj, a 25-year-old perfume seller from southern Idlib, believes the campaign will only lead to high civilian casualties. “We are tired of war and infighting,” he said.
Ahmad al-Wajdah, a 35-year-old teacher from southern Idlib, said that he was against the operation because it serves the interests of Turkey and not Idlib province.
Mohammad al-Hussein, a 19-year old HTS fighter, also believed the campaign would bring bloodshed to Idlib, however, he said that an all-out military confrontation was not in the cards.
“If a confrontation were to happen, I would side with HTS because it has unified most rebel groups and we do not want to return to factionalism,” he said. “But Turkey is not going to enter deep into Idlib and there will be no military confrontation.”