Why is Turkey backing of a former al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria? - analyst

The latest developments in northwest Syria have revealed the burgeoning relations between the Turkish authorities and the jihadist Hayat Tahrir al-Sham group, formerly linked to the Qaeda network, Jonathan Spyer, research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies (JISS),wrote in the Jerusalem Post.

While the reason for the ties between Ankara and HTS are in dispute, a close look at the Turkish-controlled northwest Syria lays bare the “highly dysfunctional nature of life in region,” where Islamist militias are vying for power and control and Turkish forces function as ultimate arbiters, the analyst said.

Once an ally of Damascus, Turkey maintains an involvement in Syria’s civil war on the side of the opposition. The country has since 2016 launched four cross-border operations into northern Syria targeting Kurdish forces linked to an insurgency on its own soil and to prevent the formation of what it calls a terror corridor and controls swaths of territory in northern Syria with allied Syrian rebels.

Syrian jihadist group HTS - a merger between al-Nusra Front and several other groups - earlier this month took over Syria’s Kurdish-majority Afrin, a key town that was controlled by Turkish-backed groups in northwest Syria, U.S.-government funded Voice of America outlet reported.

The group also seized some 26 towns and villages to its southwest amid administrative infighting among the Ankara-backed Syrian National Army (SNA), which point to deep divisions among the group’s factions, VoA said.

Analysts maintain that infighting between HTS and Syrian rebel groups reveals the extent of the nightmare Turkey has created for civilians in Syria, where the former civil rebellion has been transformed into proxy groups. 

Designated as a terrorist organization by both the United States and Ankara, the HTS “is able to rule this area because of the Turkish military presence, without which it is clear that the Assad regime would move in,” according to Spyer.

Following the fall of Afrin, opponents of HTS began “claiming that Turkey’s apparent acquiescence to the loss by its clients of Afrin reflected an emergent strategy with broader implications,” the analyst wrote.

The views, echoed by analysts in the region, maintains that “Turkey’s true intention is to negotiate the return of the Assad regime to northwest Syria as part of a larger effort to normalize Ankara’s relations with Damascus, and draw a line under the period of civil war in Syria,” Spyer said.

Ankara in recent weeks has signalled its willingness to take tentative steps to restore ties with the neighbouring war-torn country despite backing rebel groups in the country’s civil war.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu earlier this week called for reconciliation between Syria’s Assad regime and the opposition for the establishment of “permanent stability” in the war-torn country.

While the events of the past few weeks does not necessarily mean that “Turkey has a plan to back HTS and then hand the area over to Assad,” it likely signals that Ankara is simply “aware of HTS’s relative cohesion and strength when compared to the corrupt, divided and squabbling factions that comprise the SNA.”

The events of the last weeks in the region show the extent to which the “Turkish government cooperates with Sunni jihadi factions as a matter of policy, including organizations that Ankara itself designates as terrorists,” Spyer wrote.

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