For the first time, Ankara hinted Sunday that it would launch a military operation against the extremist Hayat Tahrir al-Sham group in Syria in a repeat of the Olive Branch operation that it waged in opposition-held Idlib.
The comments, delivered by one of the advisors of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, mean that Turkey decided to engage in a military confrontation with the former al-Nusra affiliate, which is on the verge of collapse.
Erdogan’s advisor said that the presence of HTS fighters inside Idlib grants the Syrian regime and Russia a pretext to attack the northwestern province.
Last week, the leaders of the Astana guarantor countries, Turkey, Iran and Russia gathered in Ankara for the fifth trilateral summit on the Syrian conflict. They agreed on the need to eliminate terrorists located in the area east of the Euphrates River in Syria.
Military sources said Ankara had previously tried to persuade the HTS to disband and it sought to break it up from the inside. It appears to have failed and has now turned to the military option to impose complete Turkish control over Idlib, as it has done to Afrin, with Moscow’s blessing.
This will ultimately mean the isolation of the regime and Iran from the area, achieve a permanent ceasefire there and prevent a new wave of refugees from crossing over from Idlib to Turkey.
Ankara wants to control the M4 and M5 highways running through Idlib, vital arteries that connect the regime-controlled cities of Aleppo and Hama and the regime's Alawite heartland in Latakia on the Mediterranean coast.
Turkey already has 12 observation posts in Idlib as part of an agreement to establish a buffer zone in the area.
In April, the Syrian regime, backed by Russia, launched an offensive against opposition and extremist factions led by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham in Idlib.
Observers said that in wake of Ankara’s latest stance, the HTS is left with few options. It may choose to disband or be confronted with a Turkish military operation that would be backed by Russia and the United States.
Observers believe that the HTS will reject becoming embroiled in a confrontation with Turkey. It will instead show some flexibility by accepting some measures that would strengthen Ankara’s position against Russia. It realizes how important it is for Ankara to preserve the Sochi agreement. Ankara will, however, not hesitate to wage a military operation if it realizes that its interests were being undermined.