Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s plan to stabilize Syria’s Idlib province against Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham’s (HTS) growing aggression and territorial expansion struggles to be implemented (Russia: Deal 2019; Russia, Turkey 2019). Turkey and Russia planned for a de-escalation zone in Syria’s Idlib, where aggression is prohibited, so Syrian displaced peoples are allowed to return home. However HTS filled the power vacuum in the absence of state aggression. HTS now attempts to penetrate Aleppo from the Idlib province, which threatens the demilitarization deal between Turkey and Russia (Karaspan 2018).
The demilitarization deal prevented a Russian-backed Syrian regime from invading Idlib to draw out rebel forces in exchange for Turkey’s disarmament of HTS’ fighters. Turkey’s inability to combat HTS led to Russia’s support to help Turkey keep their end of the deal. Turkey needs to continue combatting HTS to keep their deal with Russia, but also because Syrian President Bashar al-Assad accused Turkey of violating a 1998 Adana protocol that asks for Turkey to not occupy northern Syria (Damascus 2019). As long as HTS controls Idlib and Turkey needs to combat their growth, tensions with the Syrian government will increase, Turkey and Russia’s deal remains unfulfilled, and HTS’ power will continue to grow, possibly replacing the Islamic State of Levant (ISIL) as the region’s leading terrorist power.
Turkey needs multilateral and diplomatic support to combat HTS and is gaining this support only from Russia. Although Russia has pledged its military support to help Turkey stabilize Idlib, Russia may be able to convince al-Assad that it is in his best interest to suspend the 1998 Adana protocol. Allowing Turkey to combat HTS allows al-Assad to minimize terrorist threats against his regime that Russia helped stabilize. As power brokers between Turkey and Syria, Russia is in a strategic place that supports Turkey’s fight against HTS. Turkey and Russia’s strengthening relationship as a result of their cooperation in defeating HTS may threaten Turkish relations with the United States even further. Erdgoan’s increasing authoritarianism may be enhanced by his relations with Putin, edging the United States away from one of their closest allies in the Middle East. The United States’ removal of troops from Syria allows for not only a power vacuum for terrorist groups to proliferate but also for Russia to move in on the United States’ Turkish allies.
The HTS’ growth in the Idlib threatens the resolution to the Syrian conflict. An increase in terrorist activity means even greater conflict for Syrians and also for the region. So far the HTS has only claimed their desire for jihadist control over Syria, but their previous affiliation with al-Qaeda has some analysts concerned that HTS will evolve the desire to expand past Syria into the greater region (Hoffman 2018). ISIL’s retreat also gives HTS the extra confidence to expand (Rasmussen 2018). The return of al-Assad’s regime to power may also push disenchanted young Syrians to join HTS. HTS’ potential to evolve into an international terrorist organization is cause for concern for the Middle East and other countries as well.
The proliferation of HTS and its control in Idlib implicates that there will be increasing contact and support between Russia and Turkey, pushing the United States out of the region even further. The inability of Turkey and Russia to restrict HTS’ growth means that HTS will continue to grow and replace ISIL as the largest terrorist threat in Syria, with the potential to destabilize the Idlib province even further from Syria’s, Turkey’s, and Russia’s control.
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