Turkey is reinforcing the armored columns it started deploying last month in the northern Syrian province of Idlib, the stronghold of an increasingly fractious al-Qaida-linked group, in what analysts describe as a phased incursion.
The campaign to pacify Idlib, which has been coordinated with Russia, has been accompanied by a string of assassinations of jihadist commanders who have been unwilling to collaborate with Ankara, according to analysts and Syrian rebel commanders. Other jihadist commanders, eager to avoid an all-out fight with the Turks, have been negotiating both with Turkey and Russia.
Seven Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) commanders have been slain in apparently targeted killings in recent days — the latest being Monday when a commander by the name of Abu Ali Dumar was killed near the town of Ma'arat al-Nu'man.
Turkish officials deny involvement in the killings and no group has claimed responsibility.
An additional column of Turkish soldiers, along with tanks and armored personnel carriers, crossed the Turkey-Syria border near Iskenderun on Thursday.
It is the third major Turkish reinforcement since October 22, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a network of political activists, which says Turkey apparently intends to link territory it is carving out in Idlib with the buffer zone it established in the countryside northeast of Aleppo last year.
The Turkish incursion in Idlib, west of Aleppo, appears to have a three-fold aim, analysts say: to contain Syrian Kurdish forces, considered a security threat by Ankara, from breaking out of their enclave of Afrin, adjacent to Turkey, thus preventing them from expanding deeper into the countryside near Idlib and Aleppo; to transform Idlib into a de-escalation zone, the fourth across Syria agreed to by Russia, Turkey and Iran at talks on September 15 in the Kazakh capital of Astana; and to reduce the strength of Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham, which controls more than half of the province.
Erdogan and the YPG
Speaking this past week, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told reporters Turkey is "in solidarity with Russia on Idlib" when it comes to de-conflicting the province.
Erdogan, however, emphasized his goal of blocking the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) from expanding across northern Syria, and linking the Afrin canton with the main body of Kurdish territory east of Aleppo.
"Afrin could present threats to us at any moment. Members of the separatist terror organization may try to reach the Mediterranean through the north by occupying Idlib," he said.
Turkey will "never allow the YPG to expand its influence in the region," Erdogan said.
Ankara considers the YPG, an ally of the U.S. in the campaign against the Islamic State terror group, an affiliate of Turkey's outlawed Kurdish separatist organization, the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK.
The Turkish deployments so far have involved positioning troops in areas between Syrian rebel forces opposed to President Bashar al-Assad and the YPG. Turkish units have not so far been positioned between rebel militias and forces loyal to the Syrian president.
Insurgent commanders told VOA that Ankara, now the main backer of anti-Assad insurgent groups in the area since the U.S. discontinued arms supplies to them, are being discouraged by their Turkish patrons from launching offensives against the Syrian regime.
Further east around Aleppo, anti-Assad rebels are being encouraged to hand over their positions to Turkish forces that were deployed last year in an incursion that gained Ankara control over the Syrian towns of Jarablus, Azaz and al-Bab. On Thursday, Nour al-Din al-Zenki, an anti-Assad rebel militia, said it had agreed to withdraw from some of its positions in rural Aleppo allowing Turkish troops to occupy them.
Syrian Kurds say the Turkish incursions are intended only to harm them; but, some analysts argue the Turkish operation in northern Syria is more complex.
"Turkey's deployment of a measured force in a strategically important zone of northern Idlib may primarily be intended to project force on the YPG in Afrin, but it also introduces a new and public source of pressure on HTS," said Charles Lister, an analyst with the Middle East Institute, a Washington-based policy research group.
In an article for the website War on the Rocks, Lister argued that while Turkey's Idlib intervention looks "like an entirely self-interested affair to contain the YPG," it is also "designed in part to be the first step toward weakening HTS."
He notes that last year when Turkey launched operation Euphrates Shield around northern Aleppo, HTS commanders reacted angrily, withdrew from the area, and threatened to retaliate against Syrian rebel groups that collaborated with Ankara.
This time around, Turkey's entrance has forced a more pliant line from HTS leader Abu Mohammed al-Jolani, who has been anxious to avoid a confrontation with Turkish forces and their Syrian rebel partners, Lister says.
That has aggravated divisions within the jihadist group.
Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham has gone through several name changes. It was called Jabhat al-Nusra initially and has been plagued by internal disputes, often pitching al-Qaida veterans from outside Syria against Syrian-born members. There has been mounting public criticism of HTS leader al-Jolani by al-Qaida ideologues.
In early October, a new jihadist group in Syria emerged from the disputes, calling itself Ansar al-Furqan Fi Bilad al-Sham, or the Supporters of the Quran in Syria. The breakaway, which has been strengthened by the arrival of al-Qaida veterans from South Asia and the Arabian Peninsula, has sworn allegiance to a son of Osama bin-Laden, Hamza, although it remains unclear how involved he is in its running.
According to the U.S.-based jihad and terrorism monitoring group the Middle East Media Research Institute, Ansar al-Furqan has sworn to target U.S. interests primarily but in a statement released October 10, two days after Turkey started its incursion in Idlib, the breakaway group said it was ready to fight the Turkish army.
The string of assassinations in Idlib of jihadist commanders opposed to Turkey appears to be a covert campaign aimed at aggravating divisions within HTS, say political activists. The contents of intercepted phone conversations among commanders of Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham have also been leaked and posted on social media sites, adding to disarray in jihadist ranks.