Protesters blocking the M4 highway in north-west Syria were dispersed by Turkish riot police yesterday. The incident revealed growing splits between major groups opposing the joint Russian-Turkish patrols.
Footage of the incident shows dozens of Syrians participating in a sit-in on the strategic highway linking the key cities of Saraqeb and Latakia. Their intention was to show their dissatisfaction at having Russian forces in the area.
HTS is trying to screw the Turkish – Russian deal by blocking the joint patrols on M4 highway in Syria's Idlib.
The situation is tense. It has been 30+ days. Turkey brought Turkish police and army to disperse the crowds with tear gas.
This is bad pic.twitter.com/SEKmxvtipC
— Ragıp Soylu (@ragipsoylu) April 13, 2020
Instead of deploying their troops, the Turks sent police officers to break up the protest. As they did so, however, the prominent militant umbrella group Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) detained members of Turkish-backed opposition groups, causing friction within the opposition forces.
An anonymous commander from a targeted opposition group told the London-based Middle East Eye that, "The tension escalated due to HTS's arrest of Lieutenant Ramadan Al-Dayoub with his brother and about 10 members of Faylaq Al-Sham." He added that his group immediately retaliated and "about 10 members of HTS have been arrested." Both of the factions released the detainees overnight.
The protests were reported to have been arranged by HTS itself. The police were apparently assisted by the Turkish-backed groups when breaking up the protest.
The director of Idlib's political committee, Mohammed Salameh, told MEE that while the protesters were mainly displaced Syrians living in the north-west province who are opposed to the deal and the subsequent Russian military presence, HTS also backed the protest. "It cannot be denied that there are military forces that finance part of the sit-in," said Salameh. "Without the consent of the military forces controlling Idlib, the sit-in cannot take place."
Following a crushing Turkish military assault against Syrian regime forces at the end of February in retaliation for the killing of 34 Turkish soldiers, a ceasefire agreement was struck between Turkey and Russia on 5 March. It established a new de-escalation zone reaching out 6 km on each side of the M4 highway with joint Turkish-Russian military patrols to be conducted along the road itself.
While the popular opposition to the patrols and the continued Russian presence is widely known, the increasing divisions and feuding between rebel groups – particularly the powerful HTS and the groups that Turkey backs – is a concern to many in the parts of Syria free from regime control. It also signals rising disunity, especially in the face of the continuation of the regime force's assault on the province, which many predict to be inevitable.