Al-Qaeda-backed Islamist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) took control of the northern Syrian city of Afrin on 13 October after a Turkish-backed Syrian opposition faction withdrew from the city. The Kurdish city of Afrin has been under the control of Turkish forces and groups supported by Turkey since the “Olive Branch” Turkish military operation in March 2018.
HTS’s takeover of Afrin surprised analysts and observers and the U.S. Embassy in Syria issued a statement on Tuesday regarding a call for the immediate withdrawal of HTS, formerly known as al-Nusra Front, from Afrin and other occupied areas.
We are alarmed by the recent incursion of HTS, a designated terrorist organization, into northern Aleppo. HTS forces should be withdrawn from the area immediately.
— U.S. Embassy Syria (@USEmbassySyria) October 18, 2022
The Democratic Union Party (PYD) Co-Presidency Council member Aldar Xelil said it was part of Turkey’s plan, which had been designed in line with Damascus’ demands.
According to Xelil’s statements to Hawar News on Tuesday, unlike the Turkish-backed opposition factions known as the Syrian National Army (SNA), groups like HTS and Jabhet al-Nusra are globally considered illegitimate. So the Damascus government prefers these groups to take control of the region because they lack legitimacy and can be easier to get rid of as they are designated as terrorist organisations.
Turkey has been recently been trying to renegotiate with the Damascus government after years of supporting Syrian opposition forces; hence its plan to give Damascus what it demands, the control of Afrin passed to HTS. Xelil said that the opposition groups that Turkey has supported are now weak and ineffective and added: “Turks will keep their presence for use at the time of need. But it will not give them political, military and economic support. Furthermore, they will try to find alternatives to them in Afrin and elsewhere.”
Xelil, who said that the government of Damascus could consider these developments as a victory and agree to reconciliation with Turkey, called on Damascus “not to be fooled by Erdoğan’s words.”
Xelil argued that the Turkish president seeks to exploit the government of Damascus and use it to pressurise the Autonomous Administration of North-East Syria (AANES), the opposition, and other states. “This is not in the interest of the Damascus government,” the PYD official said.
According to a Reuters exclusive, Russia would need Turkey and Syria to reach an agreement so as to be able to direct its troops towards Ukraine without losing power in the Syrian region. Moscow has been gradually withdrawing military resources from Syria since early summer but does not wish to see Iranian influence expanding.
HTS’s takeover of the Kurdish region of Afrin coincided with a meeting between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Russian leader Vladimir Putin in the Kazakh capital Astana.