Long satisfied to attempt to dominate pan-Arab media and battle it out with Qatar’s state-owned Al Jazeera television network, Saudi Arabia has now set its hegemonic sights on influencing the media landscape of the non-Arabic speaking greater Middle East.
In the wake of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s concentration last year of control of Saudi-owned pan-Arab media in an anti-corruption power and asset grab, Saudi Research and Marketing Group (SRMG) this week announced a tie up with Britain’s Independent news website to launch services in Urdu, Turkish, Farsi and Arabic.
The announcement provided no details of the business model or whether and, if so, how the SRMG-owned, independent-branded websites would become commercially viable. That may not be an issue from the Independent’s perspective, given that the deal amounts to the British publication licensing its brand and content to a Saudi partner.
The bulk of the content of the new websites is slated to be produced by SRMG journalists in London, Islamabad, Istanbul and New York, with the Independent contributing only translated articles from its English-language website.
The sites, operated out of Riyadh and Dubai, would produce “highest-quality, free-thinking, independent news, insight and analysis on global affairs and local events,” the Independent said.
SRMG publishes the English-language Arab News and Arabic-language Ash-Sharq al-Awsat, newspapers operating within the constraints of tight Saudi censorship that do not challenge Saudi policies.
SRMG was chaired until he recently was appointed minister of culture by Prince Bader bin Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Farhan Al Saud. An unknown member of the Saudi ruling family, Prince Bader made headlines last year when he paid a record $450m for a Leonardo da Vinci painting of Jesus Christ, allegedly as a proxy bidder for Prince Mohammed.
Sultan Muhammad Abuljadayel, a Saudi banker with no track record in media acquisitions, last year bought a 30 percent stake in the Independent. An executive of NCB Capital, a subsidiary of government-controlled National Commercial Bank, Mr. Abuljadayel said at the time he was investing on his personal account.
A cache of Saudi diplomatic cables leaked in 2015 documented a pattern of Saudi chequebook diplomacy that aimed to buy positive coverage of the kingdom by European, Middle Eastern and African media who were encouraged to put “learned” Saudi guests on talk shows and counter “media hostile to the kingdom.”
Cables by the late Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al Faisal, suggested that Ash-Sharq Al-Awsat, and another Saudi-owned pan-Arab daily, Al Hayat, refrain from criticizing Lebanon and Russia.
Saudi funding ranged from the bailout of financially troubled media to donations, the purchase of thousands of subscriptions, and all-expenses paid trips to the kingdom. It was often driven by Saudi Arabia’s covert public diplomacy war with Iran.
Saudi Arabia’s near monopoly on staid pan-Arabic media was broken in 1996 with the launch of Al Jazeera and its free-wheeling, hard hitting reporting and talk shows. Al Jazeera’s disruption of conservative, Arab state broadcasting prompted Waleed bin Ibrahim Al Ibrahim, a brother in law of the late King Fahd, to launch Al Arabiya as an anti-dote.
The rise of Al Jazeera cemented a realization in the kingdom that it needed to expand from print media into broadcasting. The need for broadcasting was initially driven home six years earlier when Iraq invaded Kuwait. Saudi authorities banned Saudi media from reporting the invasion only to discover on the third day that Saudis were getting their news from foreign media outlets, among which CNN.
The Saudi-Qatari battle for control of the air waves escalated in the run-up to this year’s World Cup in Russia. With Al Jazeera and beIN, the network’s sports franchise, blocked in the kingdom as part of the 13-month-old Saudi-UAE-led economic and diplomatic boycott of Qatar, Saudi Arabia initially turning a blind eye to beOutQ, a bootlegging operation operating out of the kingdom that used a satellite that is co-owned by the Saudi government.
Threatened by FIFA with punitive action, Saudi Arabia began cracking down on beOutQ and said it welcomed legal action in the kingdom being initiated by the world soccer body. At the same time, Saudi Arabia explored ways to challenge beIN’s broadcasting rights.
The choice of languages for the Independent websites suggests that SRMG sees the deal as strengthening its brand while supporting the kingdom in its battles with Qatar and Iran and quest for regional hegemony.
The launch of a Farsi website targets the kingdom’s arch rival Iran. Leaving politics aside, Iranians, confronted with an economic crisis that is being exasperated by harsh US sanctions, are unlikely to subscribe or advertise on the website. The same is true for Saudi businesses in the absence of diplomatic relations and given Saudi backing for the sanctions.
The Independent’s Turkish website will have to compete in a heavily populated media landscape that has largely been muzzled by President Recep Tayeb Erdogan. The website’s significance lies in the fact that Turkey supports Qatar in the spat that pits the Gulf state against Saudi Arabia and its allies, maintains close ties to Iran, and challenges Saudi regional ambitions in Palestine as well as the Horn of Africa.
In many ways, Urdu-speaking Pakistan, one of the world’s most populous Muslim nations that borders on Iran, has long supported the kingdom militarily, and is home to the world’s largest Shia Muslim majority, could prove to be the most lucrative element of SRMG’s tie up with the Independent.
In contrast to Turkey, Saudi Arabia enjoys empathy in major segments of Pakistan’s population, hosts a sizeable Pakistani community, has strong support among the country’s religious scholars as well as ties to influential militants whom the military is seeking to ease into mainstream politics, and funds religious media outlets.
At the bottom line, the SRMG-Independent tie-up may be for the kingdom less about business and more about soft power.
“A channel is a very economical way to influence people. Bang for your buck, it’s much cheaper than guns. It is about controlling the discourse, and for Saudis about being in charge,” said Hugh Miles, author of Al-Jazeera: How Arab TV News Challenged the World. Mr. Miles’ analysis applies as much to broadcasting as it does to online media.
Mohammed bin Salman: For better or for worse?
Embattled Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman could prove to be not only a cat with nine lives but also one that makes even stranger jumps.
King Salman’s announcement that Prince Mohammed was put in charge of reorganizing Saudi intelligence at the same time that the kingdom for the first time admitted that journalist Jamal Khashoggi had been killed in its Istanbul consulate signalled that the crown prince’s wings were not being clipped, at least not immediately and not publicly.
With little prospect for a palace coup and a frail King Salman unlikely to assume for any lengthy period full control of the levers of power, Prince Mohammed, viewed by many as reckless and impulsive, could emerge from the Khashoggi crisis, that has severely tarnished the kingdom’s image and strained relations with the United States and Western powers, even more defiant rather than chastened by international condemnation of the journalist’s killing.
A pinned tweet by Saud Al-Qahtani, the close associate of Prince Mohammed who this weekend was among several fired senior official reads: “Some brothers blame me for what they view as harshness. But everything has its time, and talk these days requires such language.” That apparently was and could remain Prince Mohammed’s motto.
Said former CIA official, Middle East expert and novelist Graham E. Fuller in a bid to identify the logic of the madness: “As the geopolitics of the world changes—particularly with the emergence of new power centres like China, the return of Russia, the growing independence of Turkey, the resistance of Iran to US domination in the Gulf, the waywardness of Israel, and the greater role of India and many other smaller players—the emergence of a more aggressive and adventuristic Saudi Arabia is not surprising.”
Prince Mohammed’s domestic status and mettle is likely to be put to the test as the crisis unfolds with Turkey leaking further evidence of what happened to Mr. Khashoggi or officially publishing whatever proof it has.
Turkish leaks or officially announced evidence would likely cast further doubt on Saudi Arabia’s assertion that Mr. Khashoggi died in a brawl in the consulate and fuel US Congressional and European parliamentary calls for sanctions, possibly including an arms embargo, against the kingdom.
In a sharp rebuke, US President Donald J. Trump responded to Saudi Arabia’s widely criticized official version of what happened to Mr. Khashoggi by saying that “obviously there’s been deception, and there’s been lies.”.
A prominent Saudi commentator and close associate of Prince Mohammed, Turki Aldakhil, warned in advance of the Saudi admission that the kingdom would respond to Western sanctions by cosying up to Russia and China. No doubt that could happen if Saudi Arabia is forced to seeks alternative to shield itself against possible sanctions.
That, however, does not mean that Prince Mohammed could not be brazen in his effort to engineer a situation in which the Trump administration would have no choice but to fully reengage with the kingdom.
Despite pundits’ suggestion that Mr. Trump’s Saudi Arabia-anchored Middle East strategy that appears focussed on isolating Iran, crippling it economically with harsh sanctions, and potentially forcing a change of regime is in jeopardy because of the damage Prince Mohammed’s international reputation has suffered, Iran could prove to be the crown prince’s window of opportunity.
“The problem is that under MBS, Saudi Arabia has become an unreliable strategic partner whose every move seems to help rather than hinder Iran. Yemen intervention is both a humanitarian disaster and a low cost/high gain opportunity for Iran,” tweeted former US Middle East negotiator Martin Indyk, referring to Prince Mohammed by his initials.
Mr. “Trump needed to make clear he wouldn’t validate or protect him from Congressional reaction unless he took responsibility. It’s too late for that now. Therefore I fear he will neither step up or grow up, the crisis will deepen and Iran will continue to reap the windfall,” Mr. Indyk said in another tweet.
If that was likely an unintended consequence of Prince Mohammed’s overly assertive policy and crude and ill-fated attempts to put his stamp on the Middle East prior to the murder of Mr. Khashoggi, it may since in a twisted manner serve his purpose.
To the degree that Prince Mohammed has had a thought-out grand strategy since his ascendancy in 2015, it was to ensure US support and Washington’s reengagement in what he saw as a common interest: projection of Saudi power at the expense of Iran.
Speaking to The Economist in 2016, Prince Mohammed spelled out his vision of the global balance of power and where he believed Saudi interests lie. “The United States must realise that they are the number one in the world and they have to act like it,” the prince said.
In an indication that he was determined to ensure US re-engagement in the Middle East, Prince Mohammed added: “We did not put enough efforts in order to get our point across. We believe that this will change in the future.”
Beyond the shared US-Saudi goal of clipping Iran’s wings, Prince Mohammed catered to Mr. Trump’s priority of garnering economic advantage for the United States and creating jobs. Mr. Trump’s assertion that he wants to safeguard US$450 billion in deals with Saudi Arabia as he contemplates possible punishment for the killing of Mr. Khashoggi is based on the crown prince’s dangling of opportunity.
“When President Trump became president, we’ve changed our armament strategy again for the next 10 years to put more than 60 percent with the United States of America. That’s why we’ve created the $400 billion in opportunities, armaments and investment opportunities, and other trade opportunities. So this is a good achievement for President Trump, for Saudi Arabia,” Prince Mohammed said days after Mr. Khashoggi disappeared.
The crown prince drove the point home by transferring US$100 million to the US, making good on a long standing promise to support efforts to stabilize Syria, at the very moment that US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last week landed in Riyadh in a bid to defuse the Khashoggi crisis.
A potential effort by Prince Mohammed to engineer a situation in which stepped-up tensions with Iran supersede the fallout of the Khashoggi crisis, particularly in the US, could be fuelled by changing attitudes and tactics in Iran itself.
The shift is being driven by Iran’s need to evade blacklisting by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an international anti-money laundering and terrorism finance watchdog. Meeting the group’s demands for enhanced legislation and implementation is a pre-requisite for ensuring continued European support for circumventing crippling US sanctions.
In recognition of that, Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei dropped his objection to adoption of the FATF-conform legislation.
If that were not worrisome enough for Prince Mohammed, potential Iranian efforts to engage if not with the Trump administration with those segments of the US political elite that are opposed to the president could move the crown prince to significantly raise the stakes, try to thwart Iranian efforts, and put the Khashoggi crisis behind him.
Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh, head of parliament’s influential national security and foreign policy commission, signalled the potential shift in Iranian policy by suggesting that “there is a new diplomatic atmosphere for de-escalation with America. There is room for adopting the diplomacy of talk and lobbying by Iran with the current which opposes Trump… The diplomatic channel with America should not be closed because America is not just about Trump.”
Should he opt, to escalate Middle Eastern tensions, Prince Mohammed could aggravate the war in Yemen, viewed by Saudi Arabia and the Trump administration as a proxy war with Iran, or seek to provoke Iran by attempting to stir unrest among its multiple ethnic minorities.
To succeed, Prince Mohammed would have to ensure that Iran takes the bait. So far, Iran has sat back, gloating as the crown prince and the kingdom are increasingly cornered by the Khashoggi crisis, not wanting to jeopardize its potential outreach to Mr. Trump’s opponents as well as Europe.
That could change if Prince Mohammed decides to act on his vow in 2017 that “we won’t wait for the battle to be in Saudi Arabia Instead, we will work so that the battle is for them in Iran, not in Saudi Arabia.”
A gruesome murder bares world powers’ flawed policies
Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s gruesome murder raises fundamental questions that go far beyond Middle Eastern geopolitics.
They go to the risks of support for autocratic regimes by democratic and authoritarian world powers, the rise of illiberal democracy in the West, increasing authoritarianism in Russia, and absolute power in China in which checks and balances are weakened or non-existent.
Mr. Khashoggi’s killing is but the latest incident of hubris that stems from the abandonment of notions of civility, tolerance and plurality; and the ability of leaders to get away with murder, literally and figuratively. It also is the product of political systems with no provisions to ensure that the power of men like Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman is restrained and checked.
Mr. Khashoggi was an advocate of the necessary checks and balances.
In his last column published in The Washington Post posthumously, Mr. Khashoggi argued that “the Arab world needs a modern version of the old transnational media so citizens can be informed about global events. More important, we need to provide a platform for Arab voices. We suffer from poverty, mismanagement and poor education. Through the creation of an independent international forum, isolated from the influence of nationalist governments spreading hate through propaganda, ordinary people in the Arab world would be able to address the structural problems their societies face.”
Mr. Khashoggi’s words were echoed by prominent journalist and political analyst Rami Khouri. “We are heading to the law of the jungle if big power and Mideast state autocracy is not held accountable,” Mr. Khouri said.
In a similar vein, a survey by the Arab Barometer survey concluded that public institutions in the Arab world, including the judiciary enjoyed little, if any, public trust.
“Part of the lack of trust comes from the disenfranchisement felt by many, especially youth and women… The lack of alternative political forces is adding to the fatigue and lack of trust in institutions. Citizens in the region struggle to find an alternative to the ruling elite that might help address the issues of ineffective governance and corruption,” said a report by the Carnegie for Endowment of Peace.
“Citizens are increasingly turning toward informal mechanisms such as protests and boycotts, and focusing more on specific issues of governance, such as service provision, particularly at the local level. Furthermore, with democracy under threat across the globe, calls for broad democratic reform have been replaced by more basic demands,” the report went on to say.
What puts the price Mr. Khashoggi paid for advocating controls of absolute power in a class of its own, is the brutality of his killing, the fact that he was murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul rather than, for example, by an unknown killer on a motorbike; and the increasingly difficult effort to resolve politically the crisis his death sparked.
Beyond the support by world powers of often brutal autocrats facilitated by a lack of checks and balances that in the past three decades has destroyed countries and costs the lives of millions, Mr. Khashoggi’s murder is also the product of the failure of Western leaders to seriously address the breakdown in confidence in leadership and political systems at home and abroad.
The breakdown peaked with the 2011 popular Arab revolts; simultaneous widespread protests in Latin America, the United States and Europe; and the increased popularity of anti-system, nationalist and populist politicians on both the right and the left.
Mr. Khashoggi joins the victims of extrajudicial poisoning in Britain by Russian operatives of people who like him may have been a thorn in the side of their leaders but did not pose an existential threat – not that that would justify murder or attempted murder.
He also joins the millions of casualties of failed policy and hubris caused by Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s gassing of Kurds in the 1980s and reckless 1990 invasion of Kuwait, support for Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s determination to cling to power irrespective of the human cost, the Saudi-UAE-led war in Yemen that has produced the worst humanitarian crisis since World War Two, and China’s attempt to brainwash and socially engineer what the country’s leaders see as the model Chinese citizen.
And those are just some of the most egregious instances.
No better are the multiple ways in which autocratic leaders try to ensure conformity not only through repression and suppression of a free press but also, for example, by deciding who deserves citizenship based upon whether they like their political, economic or social views rather than on birth right.
Take Bahrain whose minority Sunni Muslim regime has stripped hundreds of its nationals of their citizenship simply because it did not like their views or Turkey with its mass arrests of anyone critical of the government.
The irony is that if elections in democracies are producing illiberal leaders like US President Donald J. Trump, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Hungary’s Victor Orban, in Asia and Africa they are bring forth governments mandated to reverse Belt and Road-related, Chinese funding of projects that primarily benefit China rather than the recipient economically and pave the way for greater Chinese influencing of domestic politics as well as the export of systems that enhance unchecked state power.
In some cases, like Malaysia, they produce leaders willing to take on China’s creation of a 21st century Orwellian surveillance state in its north-western province of Xinjiang.
It matters little what label world powers put on their support for autocrats and illiberals. The United States has long justified its policy with the need for regional stability in the greater Middle East. Russia calls it international legality while China packages is it as non-interference in the domestic affairs of others.
Said Middle East expert and former US official Charles Kestenbaum building on Mr. Khashoggi’s words: “If they (Middle Eastern states) want to compete with the globe in IT (information technology) and tech more broadly, they must encourage risk, innovation and freedom to fail. Such social and political freedom does not exist adequately in the region. The opposite in fact, authoritarian regimes repress such initiative and openness. So what do they have to compete and globally engage in the 2020’s? Nothing.”
Can the Idlib Memorandum Freeze the Conflict?
During their Sochi talks in September 2018, Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan reached an agreement on preserving the de-escalation zone in Idlib and abandoning the military operation that the Assad regime had been preparing to launch against the opposition groups in Idlib. The main provisions of the Sochi agreements boil down to the establishment of a demilitarized zone, 15–20 kilometres deep in the de-escalation area and the withdrawal by the conflicting parties of their heavy weaponry, including armoured vehicles, artillery, mortars and multiple launch rocket systems (MLRS) by October 10, and of radical terrorist groups by October 15 (the units of moderate rebels will hold their positions). Free movement and freight carriage is set to be restored on the M4 (Aleppo to Latakia) and M5 (Aleppo to Damascus) roads.
A Step Toward a “Turkish Republic of Northern Syria”?
Ankara has consistently advocated for the preservation of the opposition-controlled de-escalation zone, and it was the efforts of Turkey, and of Erdogan personally, that averted the military threat to Idlib, even if temporarily. Many provisions of the Sochi agreements rely on the so-called “white paper” that Turkey conveyed to Russia back in July. Ankara’s demonstration of military power also played a role. Between the Tehran summit of the “Astana troika” and the Sochi talks, the Turkish military was actively building up its forces in the Idlib de-escalation zone, boosting them with tanks and artillery. At the same time, additional weapons were supplied to the Syrian National Army units deployed in the Turkish “buffer” zone in Northern Aleppo, and its forces were ready to move to Idlib to assist the local opposition groups.
These steps indicate that Turkey is ready to press for the Province of Idlib to gradually turn into a Turkish “protectorate,” as happened in the regions of Northern Aleppo, which fell under the country’s “security umbrella” following the Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch operations. Accordingly, preserving the opposition’s control over the regions remaining under its power gives Turkey a chance to head up and supervise the peaceful process together with Russia. Should Idlib transition under Assad’s control before a final political settlement in Syria is achieved, Turkey would essentially be left out of Syrian settlement, which would strip its fosterlings in the ranks of Syria’s opposition of any say and the opportunity to be represented in the transitional governmental bodies.
Therefore, it is important for Turkey to prevent the fragmentation of Idlib’s de-escalation zone and keep it under Turkish control without allowing the Russian military police to “take root” there as patrols or outposts, let alone as any administrative bodies of the Syrian regime. This is why Ankara supported the position of the Syrian rebel groups that opposed the Russian military presence in the demilitarized zone or their deployment along M4 and M5 routes. Ankara believes that Turkish troops are capable of handling the task independently. A compromise with Russia could be achieved on the issue. Turkey agreed to the demilitarized zone going exclusively through opposition-controlled territories. Consequently, the withdrawal of heavy weaponry will only apply to the insurgents, and not to the “conflicting parties” as the memorandum stated. In response, Ankara insists that any Russian military presence in the demilitarized zone is unacceptable.
Additionally, Syrian refugees pose an extremely grave problem for the Turkish leadership. The country’s population is growing progressively more discontented with accommodating several millions of Syria’s forced migrants in the long term. Applying the Lebanese scenario to resolve this problem is unacceptable for Ankara, since it would mean pushing the refugees back into Syria while the current regime is in power. Recep Erdogan has repeatedly stated that Bashar al-Assad is guilty of the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Syrians and has even called him a “murderer.” For Turkey, the most convenient solution would be to create the necessary conditions for accommodating Syrian refuges in opposition-controlled territories. Camps are being built in Northern Aleppo that can take in over 150,000 forced migrants. Nonetheless, the Turkish “protectorate” areas in Northern Aleppo may not be enough. Therefore, the de-escalation zone in Idlib could become the principal region for returning Syrian refugees from Turkey once the required infrastructure is in place. However, it will only be possible if the danger of Syria’s governmental troops conducting a military operation there is averted and if the issue of terrorist groups present there is resolved.
Has the Triumphant Progress Stopped?
For Damascus, the Sochi agreements effectively put an end to a victorious 2018. Over that time, Damascus took control over opposition enclaves one by one: Eastern Ghouta, Al-Dumayr and Eastern Qalamoun, Yarmouk, Homs, Deraa and Quneitra. It seemed that one last push would have been enough to ensure a complete triumph for Bashar al-Assad. Therefore, there is reason to believe that, despite official statements, the Syrian authorities were not satisfied with the terms of the Sochi memorandum. The Syrian regime insisted on a military operation without taking into account many risks, such as the large numbers, motivation and equipment of the Idlib insurgents, who, unlike in other regions where Bashar al-Assad had achieved success, could count on military and other support from Turkey. In addition, Ankara had 12 observation points transformed into fortified bases along the perimeter of the de-escalation zone.
Nonetheless, Damascus did not resign itself to the current situation, and its representatives have said that the opposition has until December to reconcile and put down their weapons, although there are no such provisions in the Sochi agreements. For the Syrian regime, transforming Idlib into a Turkish “protectorate” is all the more unacceptable because it essentially rules out a military solution to the Idlib problem in the foreseeable future. That is, al-Assad’s regime would like to view the Sochi agreements as the first stage of the process to force the Syrian opposition to lay down their arms and reconcile following the scenario implemented in the south of the country. Damascus is likely to put pressure on Russia to pay greater attention to Syria’s wishes and channel the process of implementing the Sochi agreements into the direction that Damascus needs.
Moscow between Ankara and Damascus
Moscow is in a rather tricky position as, on the one hand, it is forced to take the position of Damascus into account, while, on the other, it understands that it is futile to engage in an open confrontation with Ankara. Moscow is still forced to look for compromise options in implementing the Sochi agreements. Nonetheless, Russia has demonstrated that it still has a decisive word in Syrian affairs, as well as enough influence on both Damascus and Tehran to prevent a military operation with as much as a decision only. In addition, Russia can count on Turkey making concessions on the political track of the Syrian settlement process. In practice, Turkey can be expected to promote various “frozen” projects more actively within the peace process that would stand no chance of being implemented in the event that military actions were to start. This applies in particular to those initiatives that were spearheaded and elaborated by Moscow, such as forming a constitutional committee where serious shifts were taking shape following the Geneva talks on September 10–11. Such a situation could have a positive effect on Russia’s plans to involve the countries of the European Union and the Persian Gulf in restoring the Syrian infrastructure, which would allow the process of returning the refugees to start.
Therefore, if the military escalation around Idlib continues to defuse, Ankara will be able to influence the Syrian opposition, forcing it to be more receptive to suggestions coming from Russia as part of the political settlement process. Thereby, Turkey will attempt to preserve Russia’s interest in further deferring the military operation until it is removed from the agenda completely, which, on the one hand, will promote the success of Russia’s peaceful initiatives and, on the other, oppose radicals in Idlib and demonstrate specific steps taken in that area.
Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham
Turkey consistently works to undermine the standing of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) that in early 2017 subsumed Jabhat al-Nusra (Jabhat Fatah al-Sham) in Idlib. In summer 2017, the large group Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zenki split from the HTS. The presence of Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zenki had made it possible to claim that the transformation of Jabhat Fatah al-Sham into Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham was not another re-branding of Jabhat al-Nusra. The HTS’s positions were further weakened when Jaysh al-Ahrar split from it as it set a course for restoring ties and developing cooperation with its “parent” structure Ahrar al-Sham. Turkey appears to have played the key role in the HTS split, since the excessive strengthening of the radicals, who had established their control of the province’s capital of Idlib shortly before that, was against Turkey’s interests. Ankara still has influence over various groups that are part of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, as well as over the leaders of the organization. Apparently, further steps should be expected from Ankara to stimulate individual HTS factions capable of reaching and maintaining an agreement to split from the alliance and join the moderate opposition. To make the HTS more amenable, Ankara put the alliance on the list of terrorist groups in late August. Thus, even though today Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham controls a little over a half of Idlib’s de-escalation zone, it remains significantly weakened compared to the winter–summer of 2017. The HTS numbers have fallen almost twofold since then and are now estimated at 12,000–15,000 militants. Additionally, the Turkistan Islamic Party consisting of 2300 Uighur militants actively interacts with the HTS.
The HTS units are highly combat-effective and, in terms of their combat capabilities, are no worse than the larger groups of moderate opposition. Nonetheless, during the fighting that took place in February–April 2018 between Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham and Jabhat Tahrir Suriya (the Syrian Liberation Front), the former lost many of its positions in Idlib. After moderate groups assembled in the National Front for Liberation, these factions gained even greater superiority in numbers, which could push the HTS to make further concessions and comply with the provisions of the Sochi agreements on the HTS withdrawing from the 15-kilometer demilitarized zone.
The HTS is split on the issue of implementing the Sochi agreements. Consequently, as of the writing of this article, this group has not yet declared its position. The debate between followers of the two major factions still continues in the HTS’s Shura Council. One faction is the pro-Turkey Syrian bloc that insists on withdrawing the HTS forces from the demilitarized zone and further integration into the moderate opposition, since they connect their future with Syria. The other group is comprised of hard-liners, the “intractables,” many of whom are foreigners who may make their presence known once again in the event of a fresh exacerbation. And in case of failure, they plan to leave the country and continue their subversive activities in other regions.
The “Syrian” part of the HTS is ready to gradually transition to the moderate opposition camp. Should the group continue to fragment, its radical wing is ready for a rapprochement with their former partners who had split from the HTS when it declared it was cutting ties with Al-Qaeda. These radicals have formed their own association, Hurras ad-Din, which is currently an Al-Qaeda branch in Syria. However, it is not a serious force, with no more than 800 people. Another group of the “intractables” is Ansar al-Din, numbering 300 people, which is a part of the HTS that refused to join the organization, judging it to be too moderate. Thus, radical groups in Idlib number up to 20,000 people in total. The province also has IS units, however, they are represented solely by secret underground cells.
The National Front for Liberation (Jabhat al-Wataniya lil-Tahrir)
In addition to causing dissent among radicals, Ankara has been working successfully on rebuilding the positions and consolidating the forces of the moderate opposition. In February 2018, Jabhat Tahrir Suriya (the Syrian Liberation Front), an alliance that proved capable of opposing the HTS and of pushing back against HTS radicals in Idlib, was established. The next stage was deploying the National Front for Liberation in May 2018; Jabhat Tahrir Suriya joined in August.
Establishing the National Front for Liberation in May 2018 was an important step on the way toward installing Turkey’s control over the armed opposition in Idlib with the prospect of its further integration in the united Syrian National Army. Establishing the National Front for Liberation drew a line under the process of separating moderate opposition from radicals: all the groups (besides Jaysh al-Izzah) that are outside the National Front for Liberation in Idlib can be called “radical.”
The next stage, in turn, envisions the merger of the National Front for Liberation deployed in Idlib with the Syrian National Army (SNA) formed in the Syrian protectorate of Northern Aleppo. The plan is to gather all the moderate opposition forces under its banner. However, the National Front for Liberation can merge with the SNA if the Idlib problem is resolved in accordance with the “Turkish scenario,” i.e. after de facto transforming the region into Turkey’s “protectorate.” It should be kept in mind that the SNA forces did not take part in the military operations against Assad’s regime in Idlib. They operate solely in the regions covered by the Turkish “security umbrella” and were primarily geared for military operations against Syrian Kurds from the Democratic Union Party.
Virtually all factions surviving into the eighth year of the Syrian conflict and operating under the Free Syrian Army “brand” joined the National Front for Liberation: the Free Idlib Army, Jaysh al-Nasr, Jaysh al-Nukhba, the Free Syrian Army 2nd army (Jaysh al-Thani), the Free Syrian Army 1st Coastal Division, the Free Syrian Army 2nd Coastal Division, the Free Syrian Army 23rd Division, Daraya’s Shuhada al-Islam, Liwa al-Hurriya and several other small Free Syrian Army factions, including units brought into Idlib from Damascus and other regions. Nonetheless, the National Front for Liberation’s principal assault force is comprised of moderate Islamist groups such as Faylaq al-Sham, Jabhat Tahrir Suriya (a coalition of Ahrar al-Sham and Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zenki), Suqour al-Sham and Jaysh al-Ahrar (with the exception of the first group, they all joined the National Front for Liberation somewhat later, in August 2018). Today, the National Front for Liberation numbers 50,000–55,000 militants.
The Syrian National Army
Even though the Syrian National Army (SNA) is not deployed in Syria’s de-escalation zone, it does have an immediate influence on the situation in the region. Should the army’s units be retrained, re-armed and equipped by Turkey and shifted to Idlib, the situation there could change in terms of both possibly repelling Bashar al-Assad’s offensive and suppressing radicals there. Additionally, should the need arise, SNA units may come over to the National Front for Liberation side and join their “parent” units on the front, since both the National Front for Liberation and the SNA often comprise brigades from the same groups, for instance, Ahrar al-Sham.
The SNA is formed in the regions of the so-called Turkish “protectorate” or “buffer,” i.e. in those Syrian regions where the Turkish military operates and which are covered by Turkey’s aviation, thereby minimizing the possibilities of al-Assad’s regime and its allies carrying out a military operation.
The SNA includes five legions or corps. Three (the 1st, 2nd and 3rd) were deployed in Northern Aleppo and one (the 4th) in Homs. After the region was surrendered to al-Assad’s regime in May 2018, it was also deployed in Northern Aleppo. In July, the 5th legion began deployment in north-eastern regions of Idlib’s de-escalation zone (the Aleppo province). Factions from the National Front for Liberation are expected to join it, and the legion may become a transition model for integrating the National Front for Liberation’s Idlib factions into the SNA.
The 1st legion was formed from Turkoman brigades such as Mehmed the Conqueror Brigade and the Samarkand Brigade that formed the legion’s core. It also includes the Descendants of Saladin Kurdish Brigade (pro-Turkish), Victory Brigades, the 21st united Free Syrian Army division, the 101st Free Syrian Army division etc. The SNA’s 2nd legion is also considered Turkoman, and its principal parts are the al-Sultan Murad Division and the al-Hamza Division. Additionally, the legion includes the Mutasim Billah Brigade, the al-Safwa Battalions and others. The 3rd SNA legion may be called “Islamic,” since it comprises moderate Islamic groups, such as three factions of al-Jabhat al-Shamiya: the Northern Storm Brigade, the Sword of the Levant Brigade and the Soldiers of Islam Brigades, as well as some Ahrar al-Sham units operating in Northern Aleppo such as Tajammu Fastaqim Kama Umirt and Liwa al-Manbij, among others. The 4th SNA legion is also considered “Islamic.” It comprises Liwa al-Haqq, Faylaq Homs and Ahrar al-Sham brigades that had previously operated in Homs. As of August 2018, the SNA numbers 35,000 militants in total.
The process of units from other factions integrating into the SNA continues. The SNA may be boosted by units of Faylaq al-Rahman and Jaysh al-Islam being withdrawn from around Damascus and positioned in two camps around Afrin and al-Bab in the Turkish “protectorate” of Northern Aleppo. Today, at least Jaysh al-Islam already operates under the SNA’s “umbrella,” although it has not been fully integrated into its corps structure. Therefore, once fully deployed, the SNA may number 50,000 troops. Accordingly, if the NFL joins the SNA, they will number 100,000 troops total: these are the forces at the disposal of Syria’s moderate opposition.
In addition to the National Front for Liberation and the SNA, the Jaysh al-Izzah group should also be counted as moderate opposition. It is the only faction flying the Free Syrian Army’s flag that still preserved its independence and did not join alliances. It numbers 3500 fighters.
Thus, the balance of power between the moderate opposition and radicals gives reason to hope that Ankara’s measures to ultimately free Idlib from terrorist groups will succeed. Although the Sochi memorandum does not provide a timeframe for “cleansing” the region of terrorist groups, or indeed the terms and methods of doing so, the temporary or long-term preservation of Idlib’s status quo will largely hinge on the resolution of this very question.
First published in our partner RIAC
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