The end of 2022 saw a shift in regional politics in north-west Syria. Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) – the current incarnation of the al-Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s Syrian offshoot – made a move long in the offing. Taking advantage of infighting between the 30 or so militias which make up the Turkish-controlled Syrian National Army (SNA), HTS collaborated with Turkey’s favoured militias among the SNA and advanced from their stronghold in Idlib into Turkish-occupied regions.
The situation has now stabilized, with HTS allowed to retain a security presence in Turkish-occupied Afrin, seized from the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in a 2018 operation, but withdrawing most of their boots on the ground. The shift in local control feeds into wider regional issues, as Ankara and Damascus tentatively approach a much-discussed rapprochement and Turkey assesses its immediate objectives and long-term future in northern Syria.
Alex McKeever is a researcher who produces a regular newsletter on the situation in northern Syria, while his work with Syrians for Truth and Justice has been covered by Bellingcat and Al-Monitor, among others. He spoke to Medya News to explain more:
What is Turkey’s role in HTS’ recent entry into Afrin, and the shift in regional power dynamics?
Turkey has moved to put the power in the hands of its more direct proxies [among the SNA militias]. It has a relationship with HTS, but Turkey’s strategy is somewhat piecemeal for these areas. It has one strategy for Idlib, where it works with HTS, but in these other areas it has more direct proxies it’s happier to work with…
Turkey doesn’t ever disempower the personalised leadership of these factions, but continues with this warlord system. It has been saying it will turn over checkpoints to the Military Police, [albeit] these are also implicated in a string of abuses, torture, kidnap, detentions… But this would at least create a more uniform system than what you have now, where factions use these checkpoints for financial gain, to arrest people from other factions or civilians.
What is Turkey’s long-term strategy in occupying these regions?
I don’t think Turkey necessarily has a long game. Their direct interventions into Syria, beginning in 2016 with operation Euphrates Shield, have two functions: preventing the connection of the cantons of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, and further walking back the territorial gains of the Syrian Democratic Forces in general; and then also to prevent another influx of refugees into Turkey, which potentially means freezing the lines of contact around Idlib.
People talk about neo-Ottomanism, Turkey wanting to annex northern Aleppo: I don’t think that’s really what they have in mind at all. Negating Syrian sovereignty and the Syrian borders doesn’t really look good considering their forty-year conflict with the PKK…
There are two goals, as I mentioned earlier. Walking back any Kurdish gains in Syria, and preventing another refugee influx.
Might Turkey then accept Syrian regime control to these regions as part of ongoing rapprochement between Damascus and Ankara?
That’s definitely what Damascus wants, and I think Turkey envisages that in the long-term. In the short-term, it’s very hard to see how that would happen. The local populations absolutely do not want this to happen – a return to Damascus would mean a lot of them would be detained or imprisoned, given either personal activities in the opposition, whether civil or military, or if their family members were involved…
But I think Turkey sees it as in its long-term interests to do this.
How does the refugee issue fit into the 2023 elections in Turkey?
Almost the entire Turkish opposition want to see reconciliation with the Assad regime, and what they really want to see is the deportation of 3.3 million Syrian refugees within Turkey as well. So you also have to factor in the campaigning calculus of Erdoğan right now, as he goes through these reconciliation meetings.
The AANES present themselves as a better alternative for governing these areas. Do they have any option besides waiting for Ankara, Damascus and Moscow to strike a deal?
The position the AANES is in right now is very difficult. They don’t really have any international political backers. The US is there, in essentially a pure counter-terrorism capacity. The US is not going to leave any time soon, but it is not there to support the AANES’ governance project, but to prevent the return of ISIS and deal with the tens of thousands of ISIS fighters detained in AANES prisons.
Without a primary international backer willing to support their political claims and support them within negotiations for the future, I don’t see how the AANES is going to be able to expand its control back to areas it formerly governed.
Matt Broomfield is a freelance journalist, poet and activist. He writes for VICE, Medya News, the New Statesman and the New Arab; his prose has been published by The Mays, Anti-Heroin Chic and Plenitude; and his poetry by the National Poetry Society, the Independent, and Bare Fiction. His work was displayed across London by Poetry on the Underground, and he is a Foyle Young Poet of the Year.