As Ankara and Damascus edge toward reconciliation, the remnants of Syria’s rebels in the north are concerned that their long-standing Turkish patron will soon abandon them.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu has insisted that Ankara will continue to support the opposition. However, it is unlikely that Damascus will accept any deal that allows for permanent rebel strongholds, with Syrian President Bashar Assad having long pledged to recapture “every inch” of territory lost during the civil war. With his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan seemingly keen to move the detente forward before the upcoming elections in May, the remaining rebels are understandably nervous.
There are two significant remaining rebel areas in northern Syria. Firstly, the three pockets around Afrin, Azaz and Tal Abyad, carved out by the Turkish military to keep Syrian Kurdish militants away from Turkiye’s border. These are nominally ruled over by the Syrian National Army, a collection of rebel militias armed, trained and salaried by Ankara. However, Turkiye is widely accepted to be the true authority, with Ankara running schools and other essential services.
Second is Idlib and its environs, originally captured from Assad by the rebels during the civil war and administered by various militias. While some of these have also been armed and supported by Turkiye, by far the most powerful is Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham, known as HTS, which remains largely independent of Ankara, despite some cooperation. HTS has sought to moderate in recent years, encouraged by Turkiye to disown its origins as an Al-Qaeda affiliate, but Western governments remain unconvinced, keeping it listed as a terrorist organization.
Both rebel regions oppose Turkiye’s moves to reconcile with Assad. Angry protests broke out in Azaz and other Turkish-ruled towns after Syria and Turkiye’s defense ministers met in Moscow in December, while Syrian National Army factions, HTS and other militias have come out against reconciliation. However, most have been careful not to be too critical of Erdogan.
Despite sharing opposition to a deal between Ankara and Damascus, a reconciliation would likely impact the two rebel areas differently.
Fehim Tastekin of Al-Monitor reports that Turkish officials have mooted the Syrian National Army being integrated into the Syrian Army. This would echo reconciliation agreements made between surrendering rebel groups in Rastan and Deraa earlier in Syria’s war, whereby oppositionists remained in the areas they held, but their units accepted Assad’s rule. These agreements, brokered and guaranteed by Russia, were frequently broken, with Rastan’s former rebels deployed elsewhere and some of Deraa’s launching a low-level insurgency. However, in principle, folding Syrian National Army units into Assad’s army, with Turkish guarantees, could be one way for Ankara to persuade some rebels to accept normalization with Damascus.
Any renewed fighting or the prospect of an Assad takeover would likely prompt many of them to seek refuge in Turkiye
However, no such agreement would work with HTS or the other Islamist militias in Idlib. The Syrian National Army fighters have already shown themselves willing to shift allegiance in search of pay and stability by signing up for the fight against Syria’s Kurds, rather than Assad. The Idlib rebels, in contrast, have remained steadfast in their resistance to Damascus and will not likely be won over. Nor would Assad want them, as he regards HTS as unreconstructed extremists and is wary of inviting the enemy into the regime’s military.
The improbability of HTS and other Idlib rebels reconciling with Assad therefore raises the prospect that any Ankara-Damascus deal will reopen fighting in northwest Syria. With Assad unwilling to accept Idlib’s de facto independence, he and his Russian and Iranian allies will likely look to recapture the rogue province as soon as Turkiye’s support for it ends — even if Ankara has transferred control of Afrin, Azaz and Tal Abyad.
This, of course, would be problematic for Turkiye. Idlib is far more populous than the three northern pockets, currently hosting up to 3.4 million people, including many refugees who fled Assad’s control elsewhere in Syria. Any renewed fighting or the prospect of an Assad takeover would likely prompt many to seek refuge in Turkiye. Erdogan would strongly oppose this, given his reconciliation with Assad is partly driven by a desire to repatriate the increasingly unpopular 4 million Syrian refugees his country already hosts. An Assad invasion of Idlib also raises the prospect of HTS and other militants themselves fleeing to Turkiye, giving Erdogan another headache on home soil he would rather avoid.
Ankara is well aware of this dilemma and it is no minor footnote in an inevitable reconciliation between Erdogan and Assad. Indeed, Idlib and HTS’ fate could well prove such an insurmountable problem that it derails the whole process. Erdogan, of course, may be conscious of this. Much of his courting of Damascus is aimed at winning over anti-refugee voters and it is unlikely that a full reconciliation deal with Assad will be worked out before the polls in May. After that, provided he is reelected, he will be under less pressure to accept a full abandonment of Idlib and may try to persuade Assad to accept some kind of compromise.
Indeed, this might explain the rebels’ cautiousness in condemning Ankara’s recent diplomacy with Damascus: Their best chance for survival is an Erdogan victory in May and they do not want to alienate him. In contrast, were victory to go to his opponents, who feel less attachment to Syria’s rebels, the chances of a deal with Assad and their abandonment would increase considerably.
• Christopher Phillips is professor of international relations at Queen Mary University of London, author of “The Battle for Syria” and co-editor of “What Next for Britain in the Middle East?” Twitter: @cjophillips