It became obvious that, the persistent calls and strict warnings from the UN, the United States, the EU and Turkey about the inevitability of a catastrophe and mass casualties in the event of a military operation on the Idlib Province, the last major rebel holdout in western Syria and home to about four million people, has begun to bear fruit. A military operation in Idlib was cancelled and the world sighed with relief.
The Price of Peace in Idlib
On September 17, 2018, in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Ankara and Moscow signed a memorandum to create a demilitarized buffer zone in Syria’s Idlib region to separate government and rebel forces, in which acts of aggression are prohibited. The memorandum provides for a “withdrawal of all radical fighters” from Idlib including Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. Moscow and Ankara also agreed on the withdrawal of “heavy weaponry from this zone,” including tanks, multiple-launch rocket systems, and rocket launchers belonging to all armed opposition groups by October 10. The demilitarized buffer zone will extend between 15 to 20 kilometers (9-12 miles) deep into Idlib.Russia and Turkey will conduct joint patrols along the zone’s perimeter.
Ankara’s diplomatic victory is that the National Liberation Front (NLF) — a rebel coalition in Syria formed in May 2018 under Turkey’s auspices — will remain in Idlib as a “new owner”. The NLF includes Sunni groups Ahrar al-Sham, Nur al-Din al-Zenki as well as several factions battling under the banner of the Free Syrian Army, which Western countries consider “moderate armed opposition. According to The Sochi Memorandum, Moscow, Damascus and Tehran have practically recognized NLF as the only moderate armed opposition in Syria.
The Sochi Memorandum, which at the last minute stopped the bombing of Idlib, completely suits Ankara. De facto, Turkey is expanding its presence deep into Syria, and takes the political and economic management of Idlib into its own hands, as was done in Afrin.In the past Turkey conducted a military operation, code-named Olive Branch, against the Kurdish-led Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syria for more than two months,in order to achieve the conquest of Afrin. However,in contrast, Ankara has now seized Idlib as a result of its diplomatic initiatives. It should be expected that in the near future Ankara will immediately begin to establish pro-Turkish self-government by Idlib province.
Today more than 60 percent of the Idlib province is controlled by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, former al Qaeda linked Al Nusrah Front. According to The Washington Institute, HTS has 30,000 combatants. It should be noted that in order to turn Al Nusrah Front into a serious political player in the intra-Syrian conflict and in order to avoid international sanctions, the group’s leader of Abu Muhammad al Julani in July 2016 announced that he would break off their ties from al Qaeda. HTS has managed to expand its political and governance efforts, coordinating them through a civilian-run “Salvation Government” in Idlib. The group has expanded and energized initiatives to provide core services, from education and healthcare to electricity and water.
Now Turkey will seek the transfer of the reins of political, military and economic government by the province from HTS to NLF. But a clear mechanism for the transfer of power has not yet been developed. It is not excluded that a new redistribution of spheres of influence in the province may be accompanied by armed conflicts between “new” and “old” owners. A significant share of the HTS budget came from customs and tax collections in the territory of “Salvation Government”, arms smuggling and human trafficking along the border with Turkey.
But the most difficult challenge for Turkey is cleaning radical jihadists out of Idlib, first of all, from HTS. Ankara has taken on an excessive responsibility for separating the moderate opposition from the Islamist extremists in Idlib which is not easy to implement. If Turkey manages to withdraw weapons from armed members of al Qaeda, HTS, Uyghur, Uzbek and Chechen Salafi-jihadi militants, and drive them all out of Idlib, then a new impulse will be given to the world struggle against Islamist radicalism. Then Erdogan, who positions himself as a defender of Sunni Islam in the world, would strike a tangible blow to the ideology of ISIS and al Qaeda.
On the other hand, if Ankara is able to include all foreign terrorists and jihadists from Central Asia and China in Idlib into the National Liberation Front and the NLF becomes for them a new “amir”, then the Sochi memorandum would become the next survival tool for these al Qaeda linked radical groups.
Foreign fighters from the former Soviet Union and China in Idlib
Syria’s northwest, long a hotbed of armed resistance and the heartland of al-Qaeda-linked operations, has become a real-life shelter for Uyghur, Uzbek, Tajik and Kyrgyz militants and their families from Central Asia. The militants from the former Soviet Union and Chinese Xinjiang are the largest foreign jihadists in Idlib Province.
Which Russian-Speaking Foreign Salafi- jihadi groups operating in Idlib were ready to defend the “Sham’s Liberated Lands” (Hayat Tahrir al-Sham calls these lands his possession) from attacks by the Assad army and pro-Iranian Shia militant formations?
The Turkestan Islamic Party is one such group, mainly consisting of Uyghur Islamic fighters from the Chinese province of Xinjiang. The Islamic Movement of Eastern Turkestan established in the 80s of last century in Chinese Xingjian was later renamed into the Turkestan Islamic Party and since 1997 it has been known to be based in Afghanistan. Since then, TIP is actively cooperating with the terrorist groups al Qaeda and Taliban. The amir of TIP is Abd al-Haqq al Turkistani. In February 2012 Uyghur militants moved to Idlib province and together with Al Nusrah Front are fighting against government forces of Bashar al-Assad. The al Qaeda’s jihadi doctrine is the basis of the TIP’s ideological platform. From 8 to 10 thousand Uyghur militants with their families are concentrated in Jisr al-Shughur.
Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad is affiliated with the Al Nusrah Front and its ancestor al Qaeda. The Salafi-jihadi group includes citizens of Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Abu Saloh (Sirojiddin Mukhtarov) is the amir of the group whowas born in the Osh region of Kyrgyzstan. He speaks emotionally, confidently and often quotes the Quran. Abu Saloh is a faithful and aggressive propagandist of the al Qaeda’s ideology. He organized jointly with the Uyghur terrorists from the Turkestan Islamic Party the explosion in the Bishkek-based Chinese embassy in August 2016 in Kyrgyzstan. Also, the Federal Security Service of Russia has accused him of organizing an explosion in the metro of St. Petersburg on April 3, 2017. The approximate number of the KTJ militants is about 400 people, mostly Uzbek jihadists.
The Katibat Imam al-Bukhari detachment was created in Afghanistan on the basis of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and pledged loyalty to the Taliban. After the outbreak of the civil war in Syria in 2012 KIB moved to Syrian Idlib Province and distinguished itself as one of the major rebel groups fighting against the regime of Bashar Assad. Today one group of the KIB’s jihadists is based in Afghanistan and fighting together with the Taliban. Abu Yusuf Muhojir, the Uzbek militant from Tajikistan, is the amir of the group. About 300-350 militants are known to fight in the KIB. The US State Department designated KIB as global terrorist organizations on March 22, 2018. KIB takes a close position by its military and ideological views to the al Qaeda linked Al Nusrah Front and Ahrar al-Sham. Later both groups formally announced the break in their relations with al Qaeda, although their ideological jihadi platforms did not change. Despite the fact that KIB claims to be an “independent” faction, al Qaeda’s radical Salafism and militant Takfirism are the fundamental basis of the jihadi ideology of the KIB. During the bloody conflict between Hayat Tahrir al-Sham led by Al Nusrah Front and the Syrian Liberation Front headed by Ahrar al-Sham in February 2018, KIB took a neutral stance and tried to play an intermediary role in their reconciliation.
4.The so-called “Chechen groups“, which have been formed from the inhabitants of the North Caucasus of Russia and Georgiaare also involved in this conflict.Today in Idlib there are groups from the North Caucasus calling themselves “independent” factions Ajnad al Kavkaz (lider – RustamAzhiev), Junud al-Sham (lider – Murad Margoshvili), Jaish al-Usrah (lider – Peizulla Margoshvili), Jamaat Katibat Ibadar-Rahman (lider – Tarkhan Gaziyev) and Liwa al Muhajireen wal Ansar, which are part of the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. The number of militants in these Russian-speaking groups from the North Caucasus are much less than the Turkic-speaking Salafi-jihadi groups from Central Asia. Unlike the Uzbek and Uygur jihadist groups, there is no singular identical ideological doctrine among the “Chechen groups”. As a result, they did not always enter into a coalition with Syrian opposition groups of local Arabs and did not accept the ideology of the global players of the world jihad.
After analyzing ideological platforms, it can be concluded that all these foreign Salafi-jihadi groups from Central Asia, Western China and the North Caucasus, which are stationed today in Idlib, have two factors in common.
First, they all have close cooperation with Al Qaeda and consider his leader Ayman al-Zawahiri their ideological leader.
Secondly, they coordinate all their military operations in Syria and conduct them under the leadership of the HTS. Practically Uzbek and Uighur militants became an integral part of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. The jihadists of Central Asia became the link between Al Qaeda and HTS after their quarrels.
So far, neither the HTS, nor the Central Asian jihadists, nor the militants from the North Caucasus have expressed their opinion on the Sochi Memorandum
Where will the Central Asian jihadists go, if they leave Idlib?
After the signing of the Sochi Memorandum, the fate of the foreign jihadist groups in Idlib became dependent on Turkey. Now, the Turkish armed forces will apply pressure on foreign radical groups to leave the territory of Idlib for the creation of a 15-20 kilometer demilitarized belt by October 15, 2018, in order to fulfill the provisions of the memorandum.North Caucasus and Central Asian jihadist groups will react to Turkish pressure based on the positions of HTS. That is, they will follow the example of the HTS, the largest and well-armed group in Idlib.
First option. HTS surrenders its heavy weapons, dissolves itself and integrates into the Turkish backed National Liberation Front. In this case, Chechen, Uzbek, Tajik and Kyrgyz jihadists will look for ways to stay in Idlib and join the NLF. But Russia and China will be opposed to this path and will likely present an ultimatum to Ankara for their detention and transfer.
The second option. If the HTS does not agree to disarm, then the intervention of the Turkish Armed Forces in Idlib will become inevitable. If conflict flares up between the HTS and the Turkish military, the North Caucasus and Central Asian jihadists will likely not interfere in it and will try, as far as possible, to leave Syria and move to Afghanistan to join the Taliban.It is unlikely that the kinship of Uzbeks and Uyghurs to the Turks will prevail over their religious-political jihadi ideology and cause them to disarm.
The third option. After the establishment of the pro-Turkish government in Idlib, led by the moderate opposition of the NLF, Russia and Turkey would jointly conduct military operations to eliminate Chechen and Central Asian Islamists.
In conclusion, it is likely that a decision about the future of the foreign Salafi-jihadi groups in Syria is drawing closer to a resolution each passing day.