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Russia warned the United States against holding talks with the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham militia in Syria on Monday. The group controls most of Idlib, which has become a battlefield in a proxy war between Russia and Turkey, which Washington is backing.

The US has been allied with the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces, which have fought against both the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and terrorist factions. Recently, the SDF liberated the Idlib town of Maarat al-Numan from the control of Hayat Tahir al-Sham. 

Hayat Tahrir al-Sham’s Shifting Focus

However, the group’s leader has made overtures that the group would like to transition from a terrorist cell to a more “political manifesto.” Doing so ⁠— which could bring a reduction in fighting ⁠— would require a safe zone around Idlib, said Muhsen Almustafa, an Omran-based researcher. 

Almustafa believes the group’s leader, Abu Muhammad al Jolani, wants his group to become an organization like Hamas or Hezbollah, holding political power. It is increasingly losing territory, however, and therefore bargaining power as well. 

Russia would prefer the US keep the fight going against the terror group, but Washington has placed less emphasis on it. Speaking Monday, February 24, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said he was “concerned with the attitude of some Western states” toward the terror group, which is classified as such by both the US and United Nations, as Newsweek reported. 

Russian FM Lavrov: US Rebranding Hayat Tahrir al-Sham as Non-Terrorists ‘Completely Unacceptable’

American diplomats have “repeatedly made statements that mean that they consider Hayat Tahrir al-Sham to not be a terrorist organization as such and that it would be possible under certain circumstances to enter into a dialogue with it,” Lavrov said. “This is not the first time we hear such transparent hints, and we consider them completely unacceptable.”

Previously, James Jeffrey, US special representative on Syria and special envoy to the US coalition against the Islamic State, proclaimed he had not seen Hayat Tahir al-Sham “planning or carrying out international terrorist attacks.”

That view gives less importance to fighting the group over the Islamic State and al-Qaeda-linked factions. In a sense, Washington’s reorganization of its priorities could be an attempt to scale back its Middle Eastern entanglements. Trump recently pulled American troops out of northern Syria to cede more control to Turkish forces and the war is increasingly becoming one that the US sees little value in carrying on. 

Idlib: Hotbed for Terror Groups

Consequently, the Trump administration may be looking to broker talks in Idlib to bring stability to the region, even if it entails negotiating with a terror group. 

“In Idlib, hundreds of thousands of innocent people are subject to suffering/persecution under the regime’s oppression and attacks,” the Turkish Defense Ministry tweeted Monday. Turkey and the US place the blame for civilian casualties on Russia and Assad.

Idlib in particular has become a hotbed for terrorist activity.

“Idlib province seems to be a magnet for terrorist groups, especially because it is an ungoverned space in many ways,” said U.S.-led coalition spokesperson Army Col. Myles B. Caggins III.

Russia has aimed for a withdrawal of jihadist groups such as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham from Idlib since a September 2018 ceasefire between Moscow and Ankara. Turkey is not living up to the deal, Moscow asserted, by allowing the groups to leave.

For Russia, eliminating terror groups is the only option toward a sustained peace. It is easier for Moscow to exert its influence over the Assad regime, which is supplied by Russia, but for that to work, he must be in control of the entirety of Syria. Hayat Tahrir al-Sham stands in the way in Idlib. 

The UN estimated 1,506 civilians have been killed from April 2019 to January 2020. More pertinently, violence has forced 358,000 from their homes in Idlib since an escalation in December. Food and medical supplies run short and the nosediving Syrian economy only exacerbates the dire humanitarian situation.

Turkey risks an influx of more Syrian migrants seeking to escape the violence, but Ankara wants to deter that. It has pushed Kurdish forces from the Syria-Turkey border to create a safe zone to eventually deport Syrian migrants to. Idlib, which shares a border with Turkey, also presents a security threat to the state. 

For these reasons, the US and Turkey may benefit from a possible deal with Hayat Tahrir al-Sham if it can manage to maintain peace across the region, although talks have yet to begin.

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