What did Turkey offer the HTS and why was it rejected?

The Turkish state has offered the terrorist organization HTS, which has come under pressure in Idlib, to dissolve and to move to the Turkish-occupied Afrin zone.

The Syrian armed forces, with Russian and Iranian support, continue to advance towards Idlib and have freed several areas covered by the Sochi Agreement from Turkish-backed jihadist groups. On Sunday the Syrian regime took the western part of Aleppo without resistance.

Over the past two days, the Turkish state has held talks with the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) group, led by al-Nusra. These talks take place at a time when relations between the Sochi guarantors Russia and Turkey are extremely tense because of the situation in Idlib.

The meetings were attended by officials of the Turkish secret service MIT, the HTS and the so-called "Free Syrian Army" (FSA). Discussions were held on dissolving the HTS and integrating its members into the FSA. The Turkish state was thus planning to take the argument of “fight against terrorism” away from Russia and give the impression that the obligation from the Sochi agreement to divide the jihadists in Idlib into "radicals" and "moderates" would be fulfilled.

According to sources that are following the diplomatic and military developments in the region, the Turkish state has proposed to HTS to dissolve and join its members to the FSA as a fourth corps. According to the Turkish proposal, HTS commander Muhammed al-Julani, other council members and high-ranking emirs were to go to Afrin to remain there under the aegis of Turkey.

After the two-day talks, al-Qaida and HTS rejected this proposal. HTS issued a statement that it would not disband and would continue on its way. According to the HTS statement, the doors are open to newcomers.

A source from the region said: "HTS has already changed its name several times. The fact that it is not dissolving this time and is not adopting a different name is due to the distrust of Turkey. ISIS leader Baghdadi has been killed while under the protection of Turkey. It would be foolish for al-Julani and his team to trust in the protection of the Turkish state. Al-Qaida has already accused the Al-Nusra front, i.e. the HTS, in earlier statements of relying too much on Turkey."

Withdrawal from the Muslim Brotherhood stronghold

Immediately before the HTS declaration, armed groups withdrew from areas in western Aleppo, leaving the forces of the Syrian regime in control there. The Turkish state is said to be behind the withdrawal without a fight from this area, known as the stronghold of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Syrian army, with Iranian and Russian support, has been advancing into this area since the beginning of February. The FSA, which is controlled by Turkey, has sent reinforcements to HTS. After HTS refused to disband itself, the FSA groups transferred to the region were withdrawn on Turkish orders.

It is conspicuous that the steps against the HTS were taken after the statements of Turkish politicians. For example, the Turkish Minister of Defence, Hulusi Akar, has vowed measures against all groups that do not abide by the ceasefire. Also President Erdoğan had made similar statements.

Turkish delegation in Moscow

A Turkish delegation is in Moscow today for talks with Russian officials. Meanwhile, the Syrian regime has captured a large part of the territory defined in the Sochi Agreement. The agreement concluded between Russia and Turkey on 17 September 2018 provided for the creation of a 15 to 20-kilometre-wide demilitarization zone to the south of the Idlib and north of Hama, and to the east of the Idlib. The M4 (Aleppo-Latakia) and M5 (Aleppo-Hama) motorways were set to be handed over to the control of the Syrian regime, and the armed groups were set to be divided into the categories "radical" and "moderate".

Except for the complete opening of the M4, Russia has implemented most of the provisions of the agreement in practice, despite the resistance of the Turkish state. In the run-up to today's meeting in Moscow, Turkey has reportedly endeavoured to expand its political scope by transforming the terrorist organisation HTS.

Al-Qaida has appeared in Syria for the first time under the name Jabhat al-Nusra. In 2015, additional organizations were added to the structure and the name was changed to Fatih al-Sham. On January 28, 2017, more small groups were added and the name Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) was adopted.