On August 31st, Turkey designated the militant group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) as a terrorist organization, according to a presidential decision. This happens as Damascus prepares for a military assault on Idlib, in Northwestern Syria, which is primarily under the group’s control.
Turkish President Recept Tayyip Erdogan’s decision was released in State Gazette, and it is in line with a decision made by the UN in June 2018, which also included Tahrir al-Sham to the list of people and organizations whose assets are to be frozen because of links to militant groups al-Qaeda and ISIS. On May 31st, the US State Department also released a statement of amendments to the “Terrorist Designations of al-Nusra Front.” It said the following:
“The Department of State has amended the designation of al-Nusrah Front – an al-Qa’ida affiliate in Syria – to include Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and other aliases. These aliases have been added to al-Nusrah Front’s designations as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) under Section 219 of the Immigration and Nationality Act, and as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT) under Executive Order 13224.”
As reported by Rudaw, HTS first appeared in Syria in 2012, as the al-Nusra Front, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Russia still refer to the group by that name. It is classified as a “terrorist” group by the United States, the European Union, and the United Nations, it arrived in Syria as an extension of Al-Qaeda in Iraq. The group’s current leader, a Syrian who uses the nom de guerre Abu Mohammad al-Jolani, is a veteran of fighting in Iraq. In 2013, the group became part of al-Qaeda, before declarig a split with the global movement in July 2016 and renaming itself to the Fatah al-Sham Front. In 2017, it once again rebranded into the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, cited by Rudaw, the group numbers about 30,000 fighters. It currently controls almost 60% of the Idlib province.
The Nusra Front was already designated as a terrorist organization in Turkey.
Turkey officially does not support HTS, however in November 2017, the militant group accepted Turkish intervention in Idlib. Ankara has a small military presence in Idlib, and many of its observation posts are within the area which is under HTS control. Turkey has so far disregarded any calls that Idlib is controlled by the terrorists thus desribing Hayat Tahrir al-Sham as the “opposition.”
The Syrian assault on the Idlib province is nigh-unavoidable, due to negotiations between the various parties in Syria have failed to end the conflict so far.
Moscow, Ankara and Tehran have been taking part in talks to attempt to solve the Idlib issue by peaceful means allowing illegal armed formations to disarm and disband. However, so far, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and its allies have showed no interst in negotiations.
Russia said on August 31st that the Syrian government had every right to chase terrorists out of Idlib, adding that talks were underway to set up humanitarian corridors there. Russia has also urged for the moderate Syrian opposition to be separated from militants such as those in Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said that it would be disastrous to seek a military solution in Idlib, despite the presence of militants there. “It is important for all of us to neutralize these radical groups,” he said. “But we have to distinguish the civilians from the terrorist groups.”
U.N. Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura said on August 30th that there was a high concentration of foreign fighters in Idlib, including an estimated 10,000 who he said belonged to HTS and al-Qaeda. He also said that there is no need to rush military action and that more time should be provided to Turkey, Russia and Iran to find a solution.
Turkish President Recept Tayyip Erdogan is to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at a three-way summit in Iran on September 7th.