Syria: Turkey's hidden war against HTS in Idlib


On the character of the military offensive of Nour al-Din al-Zenki and Ahrar al-Sham against Hayyat Tahrir al-Sham


By Michael Pröbsting, International Secretary of the Revolutionary Communist International Tendency (RCIT), 25.02.2018,




The ongoing war in Syria is rightly in the centre of attention of the world public opinion. This is the case, first, because it is part of one the longest ongoing popular liberation struggles which started in March 2011. And, secondly, this is the case because it would be more accurate to speak about the ongoing wars, i.e. in plural, as there are currently several conflicts taking place in this war theatre. The imperialist Great Powers Russia and U.S. as well as regional powers like Iran and Turkey have launched military interventions in Syria both in order to defeat the popular liberation struggle as well as to expand their spheres of influence in the Middle East at the cost of their rivals. (1)


All of these powers, we remark as a side-note, are justifying their military interventions in Syria and their attacks against allies of their rivals by the notorious phrase of “war against terrorism”. This show, as we have warned many times since 2001, that the so-called “war against terrorism” is a hypercritical phrases of the ruling class to legitimize and cover-up their imperialist and reactionary goals. (2)


In the last days and weeks most public attention has focused on Assad’s merciless massacre against the 400,000 Syrians who are besieged in East Ghouta (3) as well as on Turkey’s invasion in Afrin. (4) However another important conflict, which has began on 20 February, has received hardly any attention. We are talking about the civil war in Idlib – the last significant area under control of the liberation forces where two million Syrians are living. This civil war has been started by two pro-Turkish rebel factions – Nour al-Din al-Zenki and Ahrar al-Sham (5) - against Hayyat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). (6) It takes place admits the siege of the northern enclave by the Assadist army, Iranian militias and the ongoing bombardment of the Russian Air Forces.


For those, like us, who continue to support the Syrian Revolution, this conflict is of crucial importance and it necessary to have a correct assessment of its nature. Hence, we want to briefly elaborate the RCIT’s characterization of this conflict and which position revolutionaries should take.




Background: The Astana Deal aimed at Liquidating the Syrian Liberation Struggle




A correct understanding the nature of this civil war in Idlib can not start with looking at the specific ideologies of the combatants. As Marxists we do not judge political events or its participants by their ideologies. As Trotsky once formulated: “Neither classes nor parties can be judged by what they say about themselves or by the slogans they raise at a given moment.” (7)


Irrespective of different nuances, all parties are basically petty-bourgeois Islamist-nationalist forces in terms of their official ideology. However, as we have explained many times to all those “leftists” who are incapable of dialectical materialist thinking, different political and social roles can hide behind similar ideologies. (8) To give a few examples we refer to the civil war between the social democratic-led governments in Germany 1918/19 and the communist workers uprising when formally both sides adhered to Marxism; the conflicts between various bourgeois statesmen like Kenyatta or Mugabe and oppositional movements who all adhered to the ideology of Pan-Africanism; or conflicts between the Chinese regimes and leftist dissidents where both sides formally adhere to the ideas of Mao Zedong.


No, the concrete political character of different rebel factions has to be linked to the major political questions in the current conjuncture and the political powers with which they are allied. As we have explained in past documents, the imperialist Great Powers Russia and U.S. as well as regional powers like Iran and Turkey basically agree to bring the liberation struggle which started in 2011 to an end. (9)


Of course there are conflicts between the robbers who will get which share but they agree in their hostility to the ongoing popular revolutionary struggle. This is the meaning of the numerous negotiations in Astana, Sochi and Geneva and agreements reached between these powers. In these agreements the powers have reached consensus about the desire to end the civil war, to keep the Assad regime in power and to transform the remaining liberated areas, currently are under control of the rebels, in so-called “de-escalation zones” which will be directly or indirectly controlled by foreign powers. As part of this Astana deal, the powers have agreed to try incorporating “moderate” rebel factions and to liquidate the “extremists” (denounced as “Al-Qaida terrorists”). At this place, we will not analyze the Astana deal in detail as we have done this in past documents. (10)




Turkey and Russia Cooperate to Squeeze, Split and Smash HTS




The main force in incorporating and pacifying the “moderate” rebels is Turkey’s Erdoğan regime as it has traditionally links to several of them. It has systematically and relatively successful bought off a number of rebel factions. This is reflected in the participation of various FSA factions and other groups in Turkey’s invasion in Afrin. In fact, with several thousand fighters participating (some sources give numbers of up to 25.000), these factions are the main infantry force of the invasion and bear most of the losses. This is, as we have said from the beginning, a scandalous desertion of these FSA factions from the liberation struggle in Idlib in order to serve as foot soldiers for Erdoğan’s plan to suppress the Kurdish people in Afrin. (11)


Another expression of their willingness to capitulate to the Russian/US/Turkish/Iranian pressure is the fact that the leaderships of various factions (FSA, Ahrar al-Sham, etc.) have participated in the Astana negotiations. Furthermore, we saw in the past few months a significant decline of their participation in the struggles against the Assad forces and Daesh in the past months in Idlib.


In addition, there has been a series of assassinations. 45 people were killed in assassinations in Idlib only within 12 days from 2–13 February – the majority of them fighters and leaders of HTS! We can take it for granted that many of these assassinations have been organized by the Turkish secret service MİT and their treacherous lackeys among the “rebels”. Just a few days ago, as the prelude to the Zenki/Ahrar offensive against HTS, Zenki fighters killed Abu Ayman al-Masri, a top HTS commander and his wife when they were driving in a car. (12)


However, as we also pointed out in the last 12 months, there has been also a massive and growing opposition of the Syrian people against the Astana deal and against the liquidation of the liberation struggle. This is reflected in the fact that the most important force which is openly opposing the Astana deal and which rejects the liquidation of the liberation struggle – Hayyat Tahrir al-Sham – has massively gained in popular support and has become the hegemonic force in Idlib, despite the massive military and financial aid of Turkey for their rivals. (13)


While there has been an opportunist tendency of the al-Julani leadership to avoid open political attacks against Turkey, the HTS is now forced to openly denounce the Ankara’s capitulationist policy. It denounces the factions allied with Turkey as “Euphrates Shield Gangs”. (“Euphrates Shield” is the name Turkey gave to its large military operation in Northern Syria in 2016/17.) (14) In a recent public statement by Shaykh Abu Abdullah Shaami, HTS accuses Zenki of collaborating with the pro-American SDF militia and says: “Zinki (has) recently expanding its foreign relations to a dangerous extent, as they entered a new project with the Americans, in addition to their arrangement with other countries.” (15)


A key goal for HTS in the current struggle is to disable Zenki and other pro-Turkish factions to have a direct access from the Turkish “Olive Branch”-controlled areas in Afrin to the Idlib, i.e. HTS wants to keep a cordon around the Turkish army outposts in North Idlib and Western Aleppo to reduce its dangerous potential. (See the Map below)


However, the petty-bourgeois Islamist HTS movement is in a desperate situation. It is under constant attack by the Assadist army and its Iranian and Russian masters, by the counter-revolutionary Daesh forces (which collaborated repeatedly with Assad against HTS) (16) and it faces an assassination campaign by the Turkish-supported factions. And now, as the latest climax, the Zenki/Ahrar alliance has launched a military offensive in the back of the front.


Given these pressures, the disadvantageous relation of forces, and also because of the limitation of its petty-bourgeois Islamist outlook, the HTS leadership around Abu Mohammad al-Julani tries to avoid an open confrontation with the Turkish army. Until now it has limited itself to control its movements and to accompany their intruding military columns.


Turkey, in coordination with Russia, began the military invasion of Idlib in early October 2017, as we stated at that time. Against those who ignored the meaning of the Turkey’s army entry, we warned that it was aimed against those forces, like HTS, who rejected the Astana deal. We warned: “Now, the assassins of the Syrian Revolution – Assad, Putin, Rouhani, and Erdoğan, with the support of Trump – are all uniting now to smash the last free citadel of the Syrian people in Idlib. (17)


In recent weeks the Turkish army has massively increased its pressure on HTS. Erdoğan himself is under strong pressure by Putin. In exchange for allowing the Turkish army to invade Afrin, Ankara promised to rapidly increase the number of their troops in Idlib so that they help to liquidate the liberations struggle. Turkey and Russia had agreed some time ago that the Turkish army will establish 12 outposts at the borders of the liberated areas in the north (encompassing most of Idlib, parts of Western Aleppo and Northern Hama). Each outpost is designed to accommodate one mechanized infantry company.


Following a phone conversation between Erdoğan and Putin on 31 January, Turkey intensified its efforts to set up these outposts. Until now six outposts are ready: in Salwa (north of Idlib), Tal-Tukan (the southern suburb of Idlib city), al-Ais (south of Aleppo), Qal'at Sama'an and Sheikh Aqeel (west of Aleppo), and al-Surman, near the strategic city of Maarat al-Numan. All in all, almost two Turkey mechanized brigades (nearly 1,400 troops) reinforced with tanks, engineer and construction units are already there, and more are expected. (18)


As part of its pacifying campaign, Turkey is trying now to organize various factions under its control so that it can bring Idlib under its control with their help. According to Charles Lister, the following factions in Idlib, Hama and Aleppo receive Turkey’s financial and military assistance: Ahrar al-Sham, Faylaq al-Sham, Jaish al-Nasr, Free Idlib Army, Jaish al-Nukhba, Jaish al-Ahrar, Jaish al-Izzeh, Nour al-Din al-Zinki, Jaish al-Thani, Liwa al-Arba’in, and al-Firqa al-Owla Mushat. (19)




Character of the pro-Turkish Zenki/Ahrar Offensive in Idlib




In summary, Turkey is intensifying its efforts to bring Idlib under control in coordination with imperialist Russia. It aims on one hand to expand its influence in Syria and on the other hand to liquidate the liberations struggle and to pacify the situation so that it can send back the millions of Syrian refugees. (According to Turkey’s Directorate General of Migration Management, the number of Syrian refugees in Turkey has reached 3,2 million at the end of September 2017.) (20)


This cooperation between Turkey and Russia aimed at the pacification of Idlib is no secret and publicly admitted by both sides. Russian state media openly claim that Turkey is dealing with the Syrian opposition. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan stated that Russia will provide security beyond Idlib while Turkey will take care of security matters in Idlib. (21)


This is the context in which the current offensive of Nour al-Din al-Zenki and Ahrar al-Sham, which are closely aligned with Turkey, against HTS takes place. STRATFOR, a renowned US think tank, made the following summary of the character of the civil war in Idlib from an imperialist point of view:


While Turkish military convoys are streaming into Idlib to set up posts for monitoring the de-escalation agreement, a battle is raging between the various rebel groups. The militants in Idlib have never been unified, and at this point they fall mostly into two camps: those who are more closely allied with the Turkish military and those who are more independent and extreme. The largest rebel group in the first camp is Jabhat Tahrir Souriya, which formed after Ahrar al-Sham and Nour al-Din al-Zinki merged. The largest rebel group in the second category, meanwhile, is Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which was previously linked with al Qaeda. Buoyed by the expanded Turkish military presence, and likely encouraged by Ankara, Jabhat Tahrir Souriya and smaller groups have begun to assert more control over Idlib, driving Hayat Tahrir al-Sham out of several important locations. The trend indicates that Turkish troops and their affiliated rebel forces will strengthen their control of the area. (22)


In other words: the character of the current civil war in Idlib is that Zenki/Ahrar act as allies of Turkey, as foot soldiers to implement Ankara’s plan to pacify the region and to smash HTS as the most important obstacle for this goal. They are executors of the counter-revolutionary Astana conspiracy which aims to liquidate the Syrian Revolution. HTS on the other side currently represents those forces which oppose the Astana deal and which stand for the continuation of the liberation struggle against the Assad tyranny and the imperialist occupation of the country, despite all its petty-bourgeois Islamist limitations.




Revolutionary tactic: Defeat the treacherous Zenki/Ahrar Offensive!




In such a conflict revolutionaries can not remain neutral. All those who reject the reactionary Astana conspiracy and who favor the continuation of the liberation struggle must defend HTS and its allies. Of course this does not include any political support for the program of HTS.


In past statements the RCIT has called for a united front of all anti-capitulationist liberation forces. By this we meant that all those factions – among which the HTS is the strongest one – which reject the counter-revolutionary Astana deal and which are determined to continue the struggle against the Assad tyranny should form a military bloc in order to defeat the attempts of Turkey and treacherous leadership factions among the rebels to liquidate the liberation struggle.


We are fully aware of the extraordinary difficult state of the Syrian Revolution. The enemy has nearly unlimited resources in terms of heavy weapons; the Syrian and Russian air force can wage one bombing campaign after the other without any serious challenge; Turkey is systematically pressuring the rebel forces to capitulate and has already bribed important sections of the rebel leaderships. In addition to military threats and attacks via its Syrian foot soldiers, Turkey also tries to break sections of HTS away. It can not be excluded that given its military inferiority and its petty-bourgeois nature, sections of the HTS leadership might capitulate in the future. However this has not been the case until now and HTS, as well as other militant factions like the Turkistan Islamic Party, have withstood the pressure and continue the liberation struggle. (23)


Despite all these dangers and difficulties, or rather because of them, it is urgent that the international workers’ movement and popular mass organizations defend the anti-capitulationist liberation forces which are continuing the struggle against the Assad regime and the Great Powers and their allies. This includes, but is not limited to, the defense of Idlib and the liberation forces deployed there (including HTS) against any assault of the US, Russian or Turkish armies or their local allies.


We repeat a conclusion which the RCIT stated in a past statement: “Let's be clear: Without a defense of the limited achievements of the Syrian Revolution – like the liberation of Idlib – there can be no future for the liberation struggle! The RCIT calls upon Syrian revolutionaries to unite the defense of Idlib with a socialist perspective – the organization of the popular masses in independent councils and armed militias fighting for a consistent democratic and socialist program.” (24)








(1) The RCIT has covered the Syrian Revolution and the intervention of foreign powers in numerous documents and articles which can be viewed in a special section of our website Our latest comprehensive analysis can be read in the recently published book by Michael Pröbsting: World Perspectives 2018: A World Pregnant with Wars and Popular Uprisings. Theses on the World Situation, the Perspectives for Class Struggle and the Tasks of Revolutionaries, Chapter V. Middle East and North Africa: Reactionary Offensive, Wars and Popular Uprisings, 10 February 2018,


(2) Such we wrote in September 2001, shortly before the start of the US invasion against Afghanistan: “The war is not about terrorism or Islamism. It is about imperialism’s determination to crush any opposition around the globe. Imperialism wants to have the right to dictate to any country in the world what type of government it should have. The USA wants the right to intervene within other states at any time on the pretext of a “war on terrorism". The USA also wants control of the central Asian region and to secure territory for its oil supplies. From the Afghan side this war is about the defence of the country’s sovereignty against the imperialists’ grip.” (LRCI: Questions & Answers on the Afghan War, 30/09/2001,


(3) Our take on the current tragedy in East Ghouta: Michael Pröbsting: Syria: Assad’s Massacre in East Ghouta and the Western Hypercritics, 23.02.2018,


(4) Our assessment of the Turkish invasion is summarized in RCIT: Syria: No to Turkey’s Attack on Afrin! Defend the Syrian Revolution against Annihilation! The Syrian Revolution must reject sectarianism and strive to create multinational unity among Arabs, Turks and Kurds! Rally all forces against the Assadist-Iranian-Russian Aggression in Idlib! 22.01.2018,


(5) Nour al-Din al-Zenki Movement and Ahrar al-Sham announced on 18 February that they have merged to form “Jabhat Tahrir Suriya” (Syrian Liberation Front). However, one has to wait and see if this alliance holds or if it is just another botched attempt of fusion between different factions. On the merger see e.g. Syria Direct: Two of the largest factions in Syria’s northwest merge, challenge HTS dominance, Feb. 22, 2018,; Nedaa Syria: Ahrar al-Sham and Nur al-Din al-Zanki movements merger into "Liberation Front of Syria", 18 Feb, 2018; Qasioun News: Ahrar Sham And Nor Al-Din Zenki Factions Form A New Unified Body, 19 February 2018,


(6) For a more detailed analysis of HTS we refer readers to chapter V of the World Perspectives 2018 book mentioned above as well as to our pamphlet by Michael Pröbsting: Is the Syrian Revolution at its End? Is Third Camp Abstentionism Justified? An essay on the organs of popular power in the liberated area of Syria, on the character of the different sectors of the Syrian rebels, and on the failure of those leftists who deserted the Syrian Revolution, 5 April 2017, For a characterization of HTS and its history from a Western imperialist point of view (which nevertheless contain many useful information) we refer to the following books and essays: Charles R. Lister: The Syrian Jihad. Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and the Evolution of an Insurgency, Oxford University Press, Oxford 2015; Aymenn al-Tamimi: The Formation of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham and Wider Tensions in the Syrian Insurgency, in: CTC Sentinel, Volume 10, Issue 2 (February 2017), pp. 16-20; Charles Lister: Al-Qaida’s Complex Balancing Act in Syria, in: Perspectives on Terrorism, Special Issue on Al-Qaida, Volume XI, Issue 6 (December 2017), pp. 122-129; Aymenn al-Tamimi: Success for al-Qaida in Syria? In: ibid, pp. 130-138; Sam Heller: The Strategic Logic of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, in: ibid, pp. 139-152; Charles Lister: How al-Qa`ida Lost Control of its Syrian Affiliate: The Inside Story, in: CTC Sentinel, Volume 11, Issue 2 (February 2018), pp. 1-9


(7) Leon Trotsky: An Analysis of the Slogans and Differences, in: Leon Trotsky: The Challenge of the Left Opposition 1923-25, New York 1975, p. 390


(8) For a Marxist analysis of the nature of Islamist movements see e.g. Michael Pröbsting and Simon Hardy: Theses on Islamism,; Yossi Schwartz: The Marxist View of Religion in General and Islam in Particular,; ISL: Islam, Islamism and the Struggle for Revolution,


(9) Contrary to the myth of the pro-Assad pseudo-“leftists”, U.S. imperialism has no interest in supporting the Syrian liberation fighters and overthrowing the Assad regime. Washington’s interest is rather to occupy a part of the country so that it can keep geostrategic influence in the region and to counter the rise of the Russian-Iranian bloc. All this takes place under the pretext of the “war against ISIS”. U.S. President Trump said recently in a speech: “We’re there for one reason, we’re there to get ISIS and get rid of ISIS and go home,” Trump said of the U.S. role in and around Syria. “We’re not there for any other reason and we’ve largely accomplished our goal.” (Jennifer Epstein: Trump Criticizes Russia, Iran for ‘Disgrace’ in Syrian War, 23 February 2018, Bloomberg,


(10) On the RCIT’s assessment of the Astana deal see e.g.: Michael Pröbsting: Syrian Revolution: The Moment of Truth is Approaching! Rally to defend the Syrian Revolution against the Imperialist conspiracy called the "Astana Deal"! 20.09.2017,; RCIT: Syria: Defend Idlib against the Great Powers! Down with the reactionary Astana Deal! Defend the Revolution against the butcher Assad, against Russian and US Imperialism and the local Allies! Victory to the Struggle of the Workers and Oppressed! 04.08.2017,; Michael Pröbsting: Syria: The Astana-Deal Struggle Intensifies. Some Notes on Recent Developments in the Syrian Civil War and the Dangers for the Liberation Struggle, 28 July 2017,; RCIT: Syria: Condemn the Reactionary Astana Deal! The so-called "De-Escalation Zones" are a First Step towards the Partition of Syria and a Conspiracy by the Great Powers to Defeat the Revolution, 7 May 2017,


(11) We stated in our above mentioned statement on the invasion of Afrin: “Furthermore, the RCIT strongly denounces those FSA factions which participate in the attack on Afrin. What are they doing in Afrin when the Revolution is threatened with annihilation in Idlib?! They fight the YPG in Afrin, from which no immediate danger for the Syrian Revolution has emerged, instead of fighting Assad’s killers who are currently slaughtering the Syrian people in south Idlib! True, the YPG are Washington’s merchants. But those FSA factions attacking Afrin are no longer fighting under the banner of the Syrian Revolution but, instead, under the banner of the Turkish state. They are Ankara’s merchants; they are traitors of the Syrian Revolution!” (RCIT: Syria: No to Turkey’s Attack on Afrin!


(12) Zenki admits this killing but states that this was “an accident”. See e.g. AFP : Top Tahrir al-Sham commander killed by rival rebels: monitor, 2018-02-16; see also the HTS statement: About the transgression of Zinki and around the aggressor turn the alterations of misfortune, 21.2.2018,


(13) There exist numerous reports about the attempts of Turkey and its local allies to squeeze, split and smash HTS. One of them has been published by Charles Lister: Turkey’s Idlib Incursion and the HTS Question: Understanding the Long Game in Syria, October 31, 2017, Lister is an U.S. expert on the Middle East who has given testimonies to the U.S. Congress.


(14) See e.g., and


(15) Shaykh Abu Abdullah Shaami responds to the court proposal of the scholars, 22.2.2018,


(16) See on the repeated attacks of Daesh/ISIS against the liberation forces in the Idlib region: Michael Pröbsting: Syria: Assad opens once again a Corridor for ISIS/Daesh. Another instructive episode about the collaboration of Assad’s Army and their Iranian and Russian Masters with ISIS/Daesh so that they can fight against the Liberation Forces in Idlib, 09.02.2018,; Michael Pröbsting: Syria: A Very Instructive Episode. Counterrevolutionary ISIS/Daesh collaborates with Assad’s Army (as well as Erdoğan and Putin) in Attacking the Syrian Liberation Fighters in Idlib, 10.10.2017,


(17) Michael Pröbsting: Syria: The Turkish-Russian Invasion against Idlib has begun! All out to defend the Syrian Revolution against the Astana Conspirators! For an anti-Assad, anti-imperialist and anti-capitulationist united front, 07.10.2017,


(18) Metin Gurcan: Turkey works to secure its future relevance in Syria, February 23, 2018




(20) Daily Sabah: Number of Syrian refugees in Turkey reaches 3,2 million, October 4, 2017


(21) Anton Mardasov: Al-Qaeda could stand to gain from changing Syrian situation, Al-Monitor, February 22, 2018


(22) STRATFOR: Three Flashpoints in the Syrian Civil War, 23.2.2018,


(23) See e.g. Statement by the Turkistan Islamic Party concerning the infighting, 23.2.2018,


(24) Michael Pröbsting: Syrian Revolution: The Moment of Truth is Approaching! Rally to defend the Syrian Revolution against the Imperialist conspiracy called the "Astana Deal"! 20.09.2017,




* * * * *




For the RCIT’s analysis, reportage and perspectives of the Syrian Revolution, we refer readers to our numerous articles and documents which can be accessed at a special section of our website:


Furthermore we refer readers to the following documents:


Michael Pröbsting: World Perspectives 2018: A World Pregnant with Wars and Popular Uprisings. Theses on the World Situation, the Perspectives for Class Struggle and the Tasks of Revolutionaries, Chapter V. Middle East and North Africa: Reactionary Offensive, Wars and Popular Uprisings, 10 February 2018,


Michael Pröbsting: Is the Syrian Revolution at its End? Is Third Camp Abstentionism Justified? An essay on the organs of popular power in the liberated area of Syria, on the character of the different sectors of the Syrian rebels, and on the failure of those leftists who deserted the Syrian Revolution, 5 April 2017,


RCIT: Revolution and Counterrevolution in the Arab World: An Acid Test for Revolutionaries, 31 May 2015,




Map: Area in North-West Aleppo which Nour al-Din al-Zenki tries to bring under control