Decoding a Mysterious Attack in Idlib:
Turkey to Face a Tough Security Landscape
Dr. Can Kasapoglu, Security and Defense Studies Program Director
Emre Kursat Kaya, Research Fellow
- On March 19, 2020, an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) hit a Turkish convoy near the town of Muhambal along the M4 highway. Heavy exchange of fire followed the explosion.
- Turkey’s Ministry of National Defense announced that the incident claimed the lives of two Turkish soldiers. Notably, the MoD attributed the attack to “radical groups” without identifying a specific terrorist organization. So far, none of the armed groups active in the Idlib area has claimed the responsibility for the ambush.
Open-Source Intelligence Analysis
- In an attempt to prevent Turkish-Russian joint patrols, various armed groups continue to operate in the area.
- Recently, dangerous actors, including Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), Hurras al-Deen, and the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), have been organizing protests to undermine the patrols along the strategic M4 highway.
Turkish patrol advancing on the M4 highway after removing a mound.
- Muhambal, where the attack on the Turkish convoy took place, is controlled by the Hurras al-Deen group.
- Hurras al-Deen, an al-Qaeda affiliate and splinter from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, has a large number of foreign jihadi fighters at its ranks. Accounts linked to the group dismissed any involvement, and instead, pointed at the ISIS fractions as well as the Baath regime’s cells present in Idlib. So far, our open-source intelligence monitoring does not provide sufficient data to reach a conclusive assessment as to the perpetrator behind the attack.
Turkish forces have conducted several patrols in the Tronba-Mseibin portion of the M4 highway.
- Along with the attack, several important incidents also took place in Idlib last week. Two high profile rebel commanders have been targeted on March 18th, 2020. Alaa al-Omar (aka Abu Ahmad) a commander of Ahrar al-Sham has been assassinated through an IED attack in Jisr al-Shugur. Suheil Hammoud (aka Abu Tow), a popular Syrian National Army fighter, has escaped a kidnapping attempt.
- Although Ahrar al-Sham and the HTS have coordinated their military strategies against the Syrian Arab Armed Forces, one can still mark frequent high profile assassination attempts between the two groups. Ahrar al-Sham is part of the National Liberation Front (NLF), an umbrella organization for moderate rebel groups in Idlib. The HTS and the TIP have criticized Abu Ahmad for not providing enough support to the protests to block the M4 highway. The TIP controls most of Jisr al-Shugur, where the incident took place.
Alaa al-Omar (Abu Ahmad) a high-ranking commander of Ahrar al-Sham.
- At the time of writing, an important piece of evidence has popped-up with respect to the kidnapping attempt of Abu Tow. The incident has resulted in the deaths and injuries of several attackers. One of the injured assailants was identified as Abu Omar Binnish, a member of the HTS’ security apparatus.
Abu Tow a popular fighter of the SNA, known for his skillful use of Tube-launched, Optically-tracked, Wire-guided (TOW) weapon system to hit the Syrian Arab Army’s heavy armor.
- As illustrated below, recent days have witnessed some unusual developments in wider Idlib, suggesting a local bonanza in the making.
- An IED attack in Muhambal killed two Turkish soldiers. (2) Abu Ahmad, a high ranking Ahrar al-Sham commander, was targeted by an IED explosion in Jisr al-Shugur. (3) Abu Tow, a popular Turkish-backed Syrian National Army fighter, thwarted a kidnapping. (4) Turkey continues its planned patrols in some parts of the M4 highway.
- The very ambiguity behind the attack targeting the Turkish convoy itself is telling. The emerging threat landscape in the reloaded Idlib conundrum is vague and dangerous. The Turkish military, in its Syrian expedition, fought tough hybrid challenges such as the ISIS and PKK off-shoots. However, this time, ensuring the stability and security along the M4 highway demands totally different capabilities.
- The Turkish-Russian ceasefire agreement for Idlib has not translated into an immediate or widespread cessation of fighting in the area. Especially in the southern bank of the M4 highway, clashes between the Baath regime and radical opposition groups continue. Besides, some opposition groups are involved in heavy intra-rebel conflicts. Under these circumstances, Turkey’s patrol activities come under great risk.
- While Turkey’s military policy in Idlib was centered on pursuing bilateral talks with Russia and putting pressure on the Syrian Arab Army, from now on, Ankara has to walk a complicated path of micro-managing armed groups and facilitating a smooth implementation of the M4 patrols.