Syria Rebel Coalition Defending Idlib Is a Wild Card for Turkey

Haid Haid

The Syrian regime’s recent success recapturing most rebel-controlled areas has put Idlib in the crosshairs of its loyalist forces. As a result, Turkey has pressured most key opposition armed forces in northwestern Syria to merge into a unified structure now branded as the National Liberation Front (NLF), which is widely viewed as part of Ankara’s plan to prevent the regime from overrunning the last rebel-held pocket in the country. Taking into consideration Turkey’s previous failed attempts to unite rebel forces, however, analysts are skeptical about the ability of the NLF to prevent or counter an attack.

As the Syrian regime and its Russian allies threaten an Idlib offensive, millions of civilians, many of whom have been displaced from other conflict areas, are under threat. And although Ankara is negotiating with Moscow, in part to forestall a potential humanitarian crisis, there is a very real possibility that the major regional powers could become further embroiled in a proxy war.

With the imminent prospect of a battle for Idlib, the durability of the Turkey-backed coalition remains very much in doubt. The formation of the NLF was announced in late May after long and difficult negotiations sponsored by Tukey between various rebel leaders. The Front initially included about 11 small- to medium-sized armed factions operating in northern and central Syria, including Failaq Al Sham, the Free Idlib Army, the Martyrs of Islam Brigade and Jaish Al Nasr, forming the largest rebel force in the country with more than an estimated 15,000 fighters. By August, under continued Turkish pressure, the remaining key rebel forces, including Jabhat Tahrir Souria (Ahrar Al Sham and Al Zenki movement), Jaysh Al Harar and Suqour Al Sham, had joined the coalition, bringing together 16 factions and more than 40,000 fighters.

Despite that recent success in unifying the disparate groups, serious reservations persist. Many Syria analysts, as well as residents on the ground, have little faith in the consolidation of the NLF and the durability of the merger of the various factions, which still have their own leaders, operational structures, agendas and areas of influence. Any project to create a strong and unified coalition is viewed as a threat to individuals who benefit from their own fiefdoms. To avoid open conflict with Turkey, rebel groups that were pressured to unite in the past agreed to a nominal merger while maintaining their factional structures, chains of command and areas of operations.

A previous recent example of Turkey’s attempt to unify disparate rebel factions in a central structure was the effort to create a national army in December 2017. After months of negotiations, 33 Syrian rebel groups backed by Turkey signed a document agreeing to unite in three army corps as a first phase, which was to be followed by a complete merger. Apart from a cosmetic unification, however, the national structure largely failed to materialize on the ground.

Advocates of the NLF argue that the new coalition was formed under different circumstances, and thus faces a different fate. The Syrian regime’s gains, the argument goes, mean that rebel groups have no option but to agree to the merger. Whereas armed groups previously could get away with acting as spoilers to maintain their influence or interests, failure to unify now means an almost certain defeat. Similarly, unlike previously when rebel groups were receiving support from multiple donors, the majority of the NLF factions are directly funded by Turkey.

While that last argument has some merit, it is built on the false assumption that Turkey is willing to strictly enforce the merger. Turkey is interested in creating a unified military structure, but it is still not willing to deal with the chaos that might be caused if it were to take disciplinary measures. Ankara has too much on its plate right now, and it wants to avoid the potential security vacuum or even armed resistance that might be expected in such a scenario.

While Turkey is expected to make use of the NLF to manage its allies, providing them with instructions and coordinating between them, in reality their fragmentation still serves Turkey’s interests. The small, divided and rival groups have an increased dependency on Turkey for support and protection, from each other as well as from the regime.

Regardless of the NLF’s long-term ability to consolidate its power over the various factions, just bringing together the majority of rebel forces in northern Syria into a single operations room has bolstered their ability to defend against an expected offensive. The coalition might still not be enough to prevent the regime from capturing Idlib, but it makes the task much more challenging. If it holds together, the NLF can also improve Turkey’s position in its ongoing negotiations with Russia to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe in Idlib through political means.

Haid Haid is a research fellow at the International Center for the Study of Radicalization at King’s College London. He is also a consulting research fellow of Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa program.