HTS gains military and administrative control of Idlib
Turkey - SMART
The Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) has gained military and administrative control of Idlib, western Aleppo, and northern Hama, following clashes with the Free Syrian Army (FSA). The clashes killed and injured dozens of fighters and civilians, and ended after the FSA and HTS reached agreements to hand over the FSA’s heavy weapons and transfer the control of the area to the Salvation Government operating in areas controlled by the HTS. The agreements also included terms that remain unknown.
The HTS is an Islamist opposition faction previously known as the al-Nusra Front, consisting of fighting groups including the Haqq Brigade, Jabhat Ansar al-Din, and Jaysh al-Sunnah.
HTS negotiates with factions separately, tightening its control
After ten days of clashes between the HTS and factions of the FSA’s National Liberation Front (NLF) in Idlib, western Aleppo, and northern Hama, the HTS contacted the NLF factions separately to reach a permanent agreement to end the infighting.
Negotiations were impossible between the HTS and the FSA’s Nour al-Din al-Zenki Movement in western Aleppo while clashes continued in favor of the HTS, which gained entire control of the area after the al-Zenki fighters withdrew to the Afrin area in northern Aleppo.
The HTS negotiated with the NLF’s Ahrar al-Sham Islamist Movement in northern Hama, agreeing that Ahrar al-Sham should dissolve its branch in the al-Ghab Plain and the Shahshabou mountainous area and hand over its heavy weapons. The agreement allowed the Ahrar al-Sham fighters to keep their light weapons and evacuate to the Afrin area if they wanted to.
The agreement also transferred the control of the area to the Salvation Government, which was formed on October 7, 2017. The Salvation Government operates in areas controlled by the HTS. Earlier, local councils refused to recognize the Salvation Government, which hindered the work of the Syrian Interim Government, closed its offices, and arrested some of its employees.
The HTS reached independent agreements with NLF factions and other general and comprehensive agreements to stop the clashes in Northern Syria and transfer control of the area to the Salvation Government.
A source from the NLF reported that the agreements included unofficial terms, such as the Ahrar al-Sham and Suqour al-Sham Legion’s handover of their heavy weapons to the NLF’s Dimashq Gathering faction, which did not participate in the infighting. The Ahrar al-Sham and the Suqour al-Sham also handed over their checkpoints on the Aleppo-Latakia and the Aleppo-Damascus highways to the al-Sham Legion. The checkpoints will be run by the HTS from mid-February.
The sources added that among the unofficial terms were the HTS’ establishment of military headquarters in the cities of Maarrat al-Nu’man and Ariha, southern Idlib, and the deployment of the HTS’ Islamist Police instead of the Free Police in the region.
Ammar Dashirni, the media official of the al-Ahrar Army, said that they reached an agreement with the HTS to hand over their military checkpoints in northern Latakia and Idlib. The factions agreed that the al-Ahrar Army should hand over the rest of the checkpoints and heavy weapons and equipment to the Dimashq Gathering in return for the HTS’ promises not to attack military checkpoints that the agreement did not include.
Subsequently, HTS media outlets broadcasted a televised interview with the HTS commander Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani. Al-Jawlani said that the military factions operating in areas outside of the Syrian government’s control in Northern Syria must be separate from civil administrations.
Al-Jawlani added that it is necessary that the military factions unite under a military entity and that all public facilities and institutions must come under a unified civil administration supervised by academics.
Analysts say that al-Jawlani’s statements stem from his sense of power after the HTS became victorious in Northern Syria. Other analysts see an attempt to change the public opinion of the HTS and readiness to remove the terrorist status from the HTS.
How did the clashes erupt?
The HTS attacked the al-Zenki movement in western Aleppo after accusing the latter of killing four HTS fighters in the village of Tal ‘Ada in northern Idlib. The HTS also accused the al-Zenki movement of violating the agreement that both sides reached in late December 2018.
The HTS said that its issue was with the al-Zenki movement and that it would not attack the remaining NLF factions. The NLF said that the HTS attempts to benefit from the killing of the HTS fighters to expand its control. The Ahrar al-Sham and Suqour al-Sham emphasized that they would fight the HTS. Civil and military committees called on the HTS fighters to defect.
The HTS used its full military power in the clashes against the al-Zenki movement in western Aleppo, and the clashes lasted a week.
The clashes expanded to Idlib and northern Hama as the FSA advanced against the HTS and HTS-controlled villages and towns. The FSA also expelled the HTS from its last outpost east of the city of Maarrat al-Nu’man in idlib. The HTS regained control of all the areas that it withdrew from, entering some of the areas after agreements and others by force, finally gaining control of the entire area.
Clashes between HTS and factions kill and injure fighters and civilians
Forty-six civilians, including women and children, were killed and injured during the clashes between the HTS and other factions. The clashes killed 171 fighters on both sides, and 22 fighters were captured and later exchanged.
The most significant number of victims was recorded in the western Aleppo countryside, where five civilians were killed, including a child, and 34 others were injured. In Idlib, the clashes killed a child and injured six civilians, including a woman.
Once the HTS gained control of the area, it committed violations and aggressions, mostly against civil institutions. Humanitarian organizations and donor countries suspended its support of educational and medical institutions and other institutions that care for women and children.
SMART will publish reports about the violations and aggressions and suspense of support.