Syrian militants of the Hayaat Tahrir Al-Shaam (HTS) faction have consolidated their control over the northern province of Idlib after nine days of infighting amongst opposition groups.
Fighters from the Turkey-backed National Liberation Front (NLF) accepted a peace deal recognising civilian control by an HTS-backed administration yesterday, with some 1,700 fighters from the former agreeing to relocate to areas secured by Ankara as part of “Operation Olive Branch”. Respective prisoners were released and NLF groups were allowed to keep their weaponry, marking an end to clashes that have killed dozens of fighters on both sides.
However, the success of HTS militants has raised questions regarding the longevity of the Sochi ceasefire deal mediated by Turkey, Iran and Russia; Damascus had made the eventual removal of HTS from the area a condition for the cessation of hostilities against the opposition-held stronghold which is home to some three million people.
“The complete control of (HTS) will be a pretext for the regime and the Russians to end the Idlib deal, and this is the coming danger,” said Major Youssef Hamoud, spokesman for the NLF.
Military reinforcements amassing on the border of the opposition-held zone have already been reported by witnesses, with Syrian forces conducting heavy artillery shelling on towns in the south of Idlib and Aleppo earlier this morning.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu acknowledged yesterday it would not be “so easy” to maintain the deal with Russia, but said so far it was being “implemented successfully”.
“The radical groups have mounted an attack against the moderate opposition. And of course we are taking the necessary precautions,” Cavusoglu said in an interview with broadcaster NTV.
However, an opposition official close to Turkey’s intelligence service said Ankara had played a key role in preventing the fighting from spreading further by pressing rebels to accept a deal. Turkey has been largely preoccupied with its preparation to launch an attack against Kurdish-militia groups east of the Euphrates, with the support of Syrian-allied opposition groups on the ground.
The Assad regime has previously stated that in the view of the Syrian government the ceasefire deal is a “temporary one“, and that the government’s objective to control all of Syria remains the same. Such rhetoric has prompted concern amongst opposition groups in Idlib about the gradual erosion of the deal, with the regime preparing to retake the north from a position of strength.
The UN and aid organisations have repeatedly warned that a fully-fledged offensive on Idlib could spark the worst humanitarian catastrophe of the country’s civil war so far.