Dr. Haid Haid
Turkiye’s efforts to normalize diplomatic relations with the Syrian regime have fueled unease among Syria’s armed opposition groups, leading some opponents of Bashar Assad to fear the end of their decade-long cause.
Among those most concerned is Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham, an armed organization that controls most of northwest Syria. While there is no evidence that Turkiye supports HTS directly, Ankara has been a major backer of other opposition groups during the 12-year Syrian conflict. Turkiye has mutual interests with HTS and has coordinated with the group on specific issues. Turkiye and Syria are working to restore ties, and if they find common ground, it could upend efforts to challenge the Assad regime, and effectively mark the end of HTS.
Assad has repeatedly conditioned reconciliation with Ankara on the complete withdrawal of Turkish troops from northern Syria. Damascus also insists on the termination of Ankara’s support for armed opposition groups.
While some armed groups might be able to survive the regime’s territorial expansion, HTS is unlikely to be among them. That is because the group is designated as a terrorist organization by both Ankara and Damascus due to its former affiliation with Al-Qaeda. In fact, Turkiye’s efforts to reconcile with Assad pose an existential threat to HTS.
The deployment of Turkish forces to Idlib in 2017, designed to prevent the Syrian regime from seizing the last rebel stronghold, was enabled by HTS, which helped provide a safer environment for Turkish troops. Today, the group fears that this history might lead supporters to conclude that HTS favors Turkiye’s talks with Assad — a perception that could threaten the group’s unity and fuel public anger.
HTS leader Abu Mohammed Al-Jolani was quick to denounce the Syrian-Turkish rapprochement. In a video statement, Al-Jolani said that he would not reconcile with Assad and promised to continue the fight until Damascus is liberated. He also pledged not to cede territory to Damascus. HTS is widely viewed as the strongest and most coherent armed group in northwest Syria. Therefore, it is important for rebel groups to secure their participation in the fight against the regime in order to better defend their territories.
To hammer the point home, HTS has increased its attacks against the Syrian regime in recent weeks. In contrast to the relative calm during the last year, the organization reportedly carried out 11 operations against regime forces in the past month and targeted pro-government cells operating in Idlib.
But HTS is also pursuing a nuanced strategy, aware that its survival depends on maintaining good ties with its northern neighbor. For instance, rather than engage in direct confrontations with regime forces, it has focused operations on defensive military sites behind enemy lines. This is likely because it wants to avoid fueling tensions with Turkiye, which maintains a ceasefire brokered with Russia in March 2020.
Moreover, HTS has refrained from directly criticizing Turkiye’s foreign policy and assumed a more conciliatory tone. In a December statement, HTS blamed the Assad regime for its unwillingness to address Turkish concerns, and urged Ankara to “preserve its values and moral gains in supporting the oppressed.”
It also expressed understanding for the “pressures that Turkiye is facing at the local and international levels.” These include Turkiye’s need to make progress on facilitating the return of Syrian refugees and countering the “Kurdish threat” before Turkish elections in May.
Privately, HTS has been more direct. Local sources tell me that HTS held a meeting in December with Turkish officials, during which the group’s leaders expressed concern about reconciliation with Syria and reiterated their commitment to honoring agreements with Turkiye.
The group’s calculated response appears to be driven by an assessment that negotiations between Ankara and Damascus are unlikely to yield results. This view is shared by many Syria observers who predict that the talks will stall because Turkiye and Syria remain far apart on many issues, not to mention the regime’s unwillingness to compromise.
This could explain why the HTS reaction so far has been designed to assure its domestic audience of its commitment to the fight, rather than to aggressively persuade Turkiye to terminate talks with Assad.
Of course, all bets are off if talks between Ankara and Damascus produce an unexpected breakthrough. In such a scenario, HTS would likely first use its diplomatic channels with Ankara to reach a compromise that would allow it to preserve its interests as much as possible. These might include, for example, withdrawing from specific areas in Idlib in exchange for expanding into northern Aleppo.
Failing a mutually accepted compromise with Turkiye, the group would undoubtedly turn to more aggressive means of survival.
No matter how the Turkish-Syrian rapprochement progresses, these are uneasy times for Syria’s opposition in Idlib — those who fight, and those who simply long for an end to years of suffering.