Although Turkey and Russia agreed last month to "withdraw" all jihadist groups from Syria's Idlib Province, a former Turkish National Police official warns that Turkey may use al-Qaida-tied Syrian fighters against Syria's Kurds.
Turkey's MIT intelligence agency started cultivating relations with Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) in 2014, Ahmet Yayla told the Investigative Project on Terrorism (IPT). MIT used Turkey's Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH) as an intermediary to arm the al-Qaida terrorists.
Yayla was chief of counterterrorism in the city of Sanliurfa near the Syrian border and now teaches at Georgetown University and MIT. Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan replaced all of his counterterrorism police chiefs in 2014 and ordered intelligence operations against al-Qaida be stopped.
"Anyone who is saying that Erdogan, AKP and al-Qaida are enemies are making a huge mistake," Yayla said. "They don't like democracy, but they see that Erdogan is the best way for them to reach their objectives."
So far, HTS refuses to withdraw from Idlib, but Yayla believes the Turkish army will coerce it into laying down its arms. Erdogan likely will incorporate former HTS jihadists into the forces he will use against the Kurds because he wants to create a buffer area controlled by men loyal to Turkey. Erdogan has already warned that Turkey will cleanse northern Syria of Kurdish militiamen linked to the Marxist PKK. Turkey seized control of the formerly Kurdish-held Afrin area in northwestern Syria earlier this year.
"It is logical for HTS to work with Turkey otherwise the Russians are going to crush them," Yayla said. "Eventually they are going to give in."
Members of the jihadist-dominated Free Syrian Army (FSA) appear ready to attack the Kurds further east in the city of Manbij from adjacent Turkish-held areas, Syrian Democratic Council (SDC) member Bassam Ishak told the IPT. U.S. troops currently are stationed in Manbij. The SDC is the political arm of the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) that works closely with the U.S. military against ISIS in eastern Syria.
"This has been the model. Using Syrian and foreign jihadis with the logistics and support of the Turkish military to conquer Syrian land, so we are concerned about that for sure," Ishak said.
Sunni Arab jihadists will form the backbone of future operations against the Kurds in eastern Syria, Yayla said.
It is plausible that some former HTS fighters may be used against the Kurds, but terrorism researcher Kyle Orton doubts they will be employed in areas where American troops are stationed.
Turkey's ultimate goal is to divide HTS and liquidate elements that refuse reconciliation, Orton said, suggesting that the U.S. mediate between the PKK and Turkey to defuse the situation and block Russia from chipping away at NATO in the process.