Since the Assad regime’s victory in Aleppo, the battlefield has moved to Idlib province, where armed groups opposed to Assad are battling for influence and a say in the future of the area. The first upshot of that struggle was that the extremist group Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly the Nusra Front) ousted several moderate Syrian rebel factions supported by Washington and the Friends of Syria Group (a group of mainly-opposition supporting countries that convene outside of the United Nations).
The reason for the dispute and the resulting clashes was the difference in positions on the Astana and Geneva talks. Fateh al-Sham accused its rivals of giving in to international pressure. Some saw the clashes as an attempt by the extremist group and its allies to impose their hegemony on the area and weaken moderate factions there, apparently fearing any internationally supported group of local factions that might form against it.
As a result, armed factions in Idlib have split into three main coalitions. The most powerful is Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham, formed when several armed groups joined forces with Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. It includes several factions that used to belong to the Free Syrian Army, including the Nourredine al-Zinki movement. The second group is Ahrar al-Sham, an Islamist group that is taking part in the Astana talks and gained many new fighters when several moderate factions joined it.
The third and least powerful of these coalitions in terms of manpower includes the remaining moderate opposition groups, which have tried to unify themselves and regroup after the events described above. They include fighters from the 13th Division, the Northern Brigade, and Liwa Suqur al-Jabal.
In recent months, an operations room in Turkey dubbed MOM (from the Turkish Müşterek Operasyon Merkezi) and overseen by the Friends of Syria, has paused its support for moderate armed factions following the recent attacks against them and their inability to resist. The MOM would supposedly resume its support if the moderate groups restructured into a more unified force capable of withstanding other attacks.
That has pushed leaders within the Syrian opposition to accept the creation of a joint operations room led by Colonel Fadhlalla Haji, a Faylaq al-Sham commander, in return for the MOM resuming monthly wage payments to members of the factions as well as provision of arms that could include American TOW missiles. The decision affects 30,000 to 35,000 fighters in factions present across the Aleppo, Hama, and Lattakia countryside, as well as Idlib province. They include Jaysh al-Nasr, Jaysh al-Izza, the Free Idlib army, al-Firqa al-Wusta, Jaysh al-Mujahideen, Fastaqem, and two coastal battalions.
These forces have succeeded in establishing their presence in Hama countryside and northern Lattakia. Some Aleppo-based factions aligned with the FSA have focused their efforts on moving fighters to fight the Islamic State group in northern Aleppo countryside, where most of them are now stationed.
Lieutenant Colonel Khaled al-Asaad, a defector from the regime army, said that in Idlib province, “the moderate factions are still weak and still don’t have clear areas of control.” He said that despite popular support for those groups compared with other factions in the province, they have not been able to take the initiative or protect themselves. That, said Asaad, is because of “their fragmentation and the lack of coordination between them.”
Asaad said the situation had forced those factions to move their fighters to other fronts in Lattakia, Hama, and Aleppo, leaving a vacuum that Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham and Ahrar al-Sham filled, which took control of inspection checkpoints and administering the area.
Asked about the future of these factions in the province, the officer, who currently lives in Turkey, said that would depend on what they decide, under pressure from states that support them, regarding the transfer of their fighters to northern Aleppo province to fight IS. It will also depend on whether they can form a broad alliance to restore their effective presence and domination of the province, he said.
What is the National Army being prepared by Turkey?
In the same context, military and media sources in northern Aleppo province said the Turkish authorities have started preparing Syrian fighters from moderate factions and deploying them in areas the Euphrates Shield operation has liberated from IS, in an attempt to unify more than 17 factions and integrate them under an organised central command to prepare for the creation of a national Syrian army to “administer and preserve the liberated areas.”
That comes after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s announcement a few days ago that Turkey “wants to set up secure no-fly zones in northern Syria and prepare a national army to protect them; Saudi Arabia and Qatar could support this army.”
Such an army could attract what remains of the moderate factions in Idlib and from Aleppo, especially given that most front lines have become quiet since the latest cease-fire deal between Russia and the regime on the one side and the states that have supported the Syrian uprising on the other.
With the changing international situation and US-led coalition preparing for the battle to take the Islamic State’s (ISIS, ISIL, or Daesh) Syrian capital Raqqa, northern Aleppo media activist Mustafa al-Halabi thinks Turkey will work to push these factions into the battle for Raqqa to prevent Kurdish units from dominating it.
He said Turkey was racing to train more than 10,000 Syrian fighters with so they can play a future role in controlling the areas that ISIS loses in Syria. Turkey will “depend heavily on factions from Aleppo and Idlib as they have a lot of fighting experience that enables them to take part in these battles.”
Al-Halabi said the armed groups supported by the MOM operations center will face a major problem because of the changing interests of the states backing them, with Turkey primarily concerned with preventing the spread of Kurdish units and the United States focused on destroying Jabhat Fateh al-Sham in Idilb. But the current situation and the fact the population is against engaging in such battles while Assad is still in power could prevent those factions from participating in both.
The Free Idlib Army, one of the most prominent rebel factions in the province, a few days ago denied media reports of coordination with the Turkish side over a military operation against Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham in Idlib.
Despite the moderate opposition forces’ weakness, they have played the biggest role in recent months in preventing regime forces from advancing into Idlib province and seizing swathes of territory in rural northern Aleppo from ISIS. Those groups have also been able to oust Jund al-Aqsa, an ISIS affiliated-faction, from the Idlib and Hama countryside—further evidence of how important it is to rely on them and not play down their role.
Hosam al-Jablawi is a Syrian citizen journalist.