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Turkey faces mysterious jihadi enemies in Idlib

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Obscure jihadist teams have stepped up assaults on Turkish forces in Syria’s rebel-held province of Idlib, including to Turkey’s dilemmas amid the delicate established order within the area. 

Al-Qaeda-inspired teams corresponding to Hurras al-Din stood out as potential troublemakers when Turkish forces started to bolster their presence round the important thing M4 freeway final yr, coordinating with Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the dominant insurgent group in Idlib. Caucasian fighters, concentrated in Jisr al-Shughur and the Latakia countryside, weren’t seen as a right away menace, although they share the jihadi ideology.

The assaults on the Turkish forces, nonetheless, have come from sudden assailants.

A bunch calling itself the Khattab al-Shishani Brigade claimed the primary three assaults, which focused Turkish-Russian patrols alongside the M4 on July 14, July 17 and Aug. 25. “Shishani” means “Chechen” in Arabic and has grow to be the hallmark of Chechen-led teams in Syria. After the July 14 automobile bomb assault, Russia stated three of its troopers had been injured, whereas Turkey spoke solely of harm to autos. A press release from the assailants, in the meantime, slammed the most important jihadi teams within the area for inaction towards the Turkish-Russian patrols. It contained quotes from al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden and referred to Russian troopers as “crusaders” and Turkish forces and HTS as “apostates.” 

Then, on Aug. 27, a gaggle known as the Ansar Abu Bakr Al-Siddiq Squadron claimed a automobile bomb assault near a Turkish statement publish near Jisr al-Shughur, lauding the suicide bomber who drove the car. A second assault by the identical group killed a Turkish soldier and wounded one other near Ariha Sept. 6. The most up-to-date assault claimed by the group focused a Turkish outpost within the western Aleppo countryside Jan. 16. Its assertion stated a “sniper detachment” attacked “one of the main bases of the Turkish NATO army,” whereas native reviews stated three troopers had been injured.

An equally obscure third faction, calling itself the Abdullah bin Unais Group, rained rocket-propelled grenades on Turkish forces Jan. 4-5 earlier than attacking an HTS checkpoint Jan. 8. In its first ever assertion, the group known as HTS “apostate” and accused it of betraying Islam and the jihadi battle towards invaders.

The almost similar jargon of the three teams would possibly counsel they’re linked to a standard heart, however given their shared al-Qaeda ideology, the similarities in rhetoric are hardly uncommon.

Numerous radical factions in Idlib had overtly objected to the Turkish-Russian patrols, initiated beneath a bilateral deal in March 2020, however they’ve stored quiet because the three aforementioned teams — all exceptional earlier than — mounted their assaults. This brings to thoughts three prospects. First, the brand new teams could be comprised of jihadists who defected from factions reluctant to confront Turkey. Such schisms have grow to be commonplace within the Syrian battle, however it’s too early to conclude that these teams are actually splinters performing independently. Second, the brand new names could be merely fronts for radical factions unwilling to overtly antagonize Turkey. Finally, they could be a canopy for Islamic State cells cautious of brandishing their very own flag in a area the place they’ve made too many enemies. 

Various Salafi jihadis — with or with out hyperlinks to IS — have advocated jihad towards Turkey as a part of inside debates, referring to Turkey as an “infidel” state and its authorities as unIslamic. 

For teams bearing the “Shishani” tag, the battle in Syria is just not solely about combating “infidels” but in addition about rating settling with Russia over a misplaced battle in Chechnya. Turkey, nonetheless, has not confronted any open enmity from the Chechens. They proceed to see Turkey as a secure haven, regardless of Ankara’s rapprochement with Moscow and a sequence of assassinations of Chechen exiles in Turkey, blamed on Russian intelligence or hit males from Chechnya’s pro-Russian chief. 

After the eruption of the Syrian battle, Turkish intelligence dragged many Chechens alongside to Syria, the place they earned a repute as powerful fighters. Despite their shift to jihadism, the Chechens have continued to set Turkey aside, by no means overtly calling it an enemy. No doubt their angle has had a realistic facet, as many Chechens take refuge in Turkey or use it as a route from the Caucasus to Europe. The identical goes for Uzbek, Kyrgyz and Uighur fighters in Syria.

For the jihadi teams in Idlib, Syrian authorities management of the M4 freeway, which connects Latakia and Aleppo, would imply the top of the sport. Jisr al-Shughur, the primary base of international jihadis, lies on M4 as effectively. The Turkish-Russian patrols, which goal to reopen the street to visitors, triggered a rift in jihadi ranks from the very outset. For these bent on resistance, opposing the patrols turned synonymous with difficult the dominance of HTS, which selected to accommodate Turkey.

HTS had opted to collaborate with Turkey earlier — on the institution of Turkish navy statement posts. It had already triggered rows in jihadi ranks that erupted into armed clashes after Syrian forces took management of the M5 freeway in February 2020 and Turkey and Russia agreed on joint patrols to reopen M4 the next month. The clashes noticed HTS dismantle a joint operation heart created by Hurras al-Din and 4 different al-Qaeda-inspired outfits in June. 

The growing assaults on the Turkish-Russian patrols quantity to elevated stress on HTS, which claims to be the boss of the area. HTS’ failure to rein within the assaults would change the rules of the sport.

Following the assaults in early January, the Turkish forces arrange a brand new checkpoint near Maarat Misrin and deployed autos outfitted with explosive-detection techniques on the M4. Continued assaults might power Turkey to tackle the attacking teams, both immediately or by way of its Syrian proxies. 

Thus far, Turkey has completed its greatest to keep away from clashes with the jihadis, regardless of its dedication to uproot terrorist teams in two separate offers with Russia. It has maintained coordination with HTS and handled it as a “reasonable” group, though HTS stays on the record of terrorist teams and controls 90% of Idlib. By suppressing rival jihadi factions, HTS has served Turkey’s pursuits. To display rapport with Turkey, the group even agreed to the circulation of Turkish liras in Idlib final summer season. 

Turkey’s increasing navy presence by way of dozens of checkpoints is, after all, a menace to HTS’ territorial management within the area, however on the identical time, constitutes a barrier towards Syrian and Russian forces, a significant upside for the group. 

Turkey continues to bolster its presence across the M4, although it has evacuated all its statement posts alongside the M5 after they had been surrounded by Syrian forces. On Jan. 18, Turkish forces deployed to the city of Qastun within the al-Ghab Plain, which kinds the road of fireplace between Idlib and Hama. Several days earlier, they arrange two checkpoints near Saraqib.

The deterrence that Turkey’s navy posture creates is dictating pragmatism on HTS. Accordingly, it feels compelled to rein within the assaults of radical teams, which threaten to disrupt the established order. Still, such a method is just not a assure of calm. Mutual salvos have by no means ceased for the reason that cease-fire took impact final March. Moreover, continued assaults from Idlib on government-held areas might simply give Russia a pretext to squeeze Turkey and escalate operations within the area.

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