Syrian jihadists belonging to al-Qaida's former Syrian affiliate Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) oppose a Turkish-Russian agreement to establish a demilitarized buffer zone around the country's Idlib province. This area in northwestern Syria remains the last area west of the Euphrates River outside the control of the Assad regime and its allies. HTS and other smaller rival jihadist factions dominate the province.
President Trump warned Bashar al-Assad earlier this month not to invade the province, saying it would be a "human tragedy." Clashes seemed imminent between Russia, Syria, Iran and the jihadists and triggered fears that millions of additional refugees might flood into Turkey.
Had Assad's troops intervened, they also could have risked accidental clashes with Turkish troops stationed in Idlib. Turkey promised to crackdown on HTS and other jihadists. Numerous Uighur and Chechen foreign fighters are in the province.
An HTS commander who identified himself as "Abu al-Fath al-Fergali" told the Syrian news website Enab Baladi that surrendering his weapon would be "treason" to his religion.
Zaid al-Attar, former head of HTS's political office, also rejected disarming because fighting provided "the only guarantee to the realization of the revolution's aims of attaining dignity and freedom." HTS's enemies only understand force, he said.
HTS has a high-stakes game ahead of it to keep from splintering. If it looks too weak, it could lose fighters to groups that are even more hard line such as the remnants of ISIS and al-Qaida's current affiliate Hurras al-Deen.
Turkey warned HTS and other jihadist groups they should disband or face elimination. Thus far, HTS has resisted those calls. The Assad regime has used HTS's existence as an excuse for carrying out a scorched earth policy.
The Turks and Russians plan to use drones to patrol the buffer area. Rebel groups that cooperate with Turkey and Russia will not be attacked, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said.
Stratfor predicts that the Assad regime and Iran could also eventually challenge the deal because they are motivated to weaken Russia's relationship with Turkey.