Al Qaeda-linked militants in Syria are strengthening their grip over rebel-held territory in Aleppo’s western countryside, nearly a year-and-a-half after wresting control of most of the north-western province of Idlib, like reported by thenational.ae.
The Hayat Tahrir Al Sham alliance, Syria’s strongest and largest militant group – often referred to by the acronym HTS – is moving to consolidate its hold over more of the rebel-held north in an attempt to strengthen its hand in any possible talks with key stakeholders in the conflict, including Turkey and Russia, analysts say.
“The more territory HTS seizes in northern Syria, the stronger its hand will be in future negotiations,” Nawar Oliver, a Syria specialist at the Turkey-based Omran Centre, told The National.
“Power comes from control of territory, so they are in need of this territory.”
Turkey is the most involved player in opposition-held areas in northern Syria, where it has established observation posts and backs rebels in commanding areas near its southern frontier.
A surprise campaign by HTS last week caught Turkey and Ankara-backed rebels on the back foot.
While thousands of rebels were stationed on front lines with Kurdish fighters before a planned Turkish assault on the Kurdish-held city of Manbij in the north-east, HTS seized a string of towns and villages from the Ankara-backed National Liberation Front in the western countryside of Aleppo to the south-east.
“Tahrir Al Sham chose the right moment to attack,” Mr Oliver said, suggesting that a concentration of HTS forces near Manbij left rebels in Idlib and Aleppo exposed.
As of Sunday evening, the nearly week-old clashes had killed 119 fighters, including 61 Al Qaeda-linked militants and 58 NLF fighters, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Clashes have also resulted in HTS capturing large areas of territory from its rivals.
“In less than one week, Hayat Tahrir Al Sham has managed to exert control over a large geographical zone extending from the outskirts of western Aleppo to the border with Turkey,” head of the war monitor, Rami Abdul Rahman, said on Sunday.
Last week, the group seized all territory previously held by the powerful Noureddine Al Zenki rebel group – a National Liberation Front affiliate – in Aleppo’s countryside, dealing a blow to one of its greatest rivals.
“[Noureddine Al ] Zenki had been a thorn in HTS’s side and one of the most stubborn challenges to its dominance, and now it has been defeated,” Sam Heller, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group, told The National.
The observatory said that hundreds of Zenki fighters and other defeated National Liberation Front affiliates have retreated to territory held by Turkey-backed rebels in Afrin, which Tahrir Al Sham has cut-off from other rebel-held territory in Idlib.
Beyond undermining its challengers, HTS is also establishing control over key zones that would be politically and strategically useful in future negotiations, including areas near the M4 and M5 main roads, Mr Heller said.
These highways run east to west and north to south, bisecting the Idlib region to link the government-held city of Aleppo with Damascus and the Mediterranean coast. Both have been cut off in Idlib since 2014.
Before the war, the M5 was a major trade route that connected the commercial hub of Aleppo to Damascus and on to the Jordanian border in the south.
Reopening them would help resume trade from Turkey through to regime-held areas and on to Jordan and the Gulf.
An agreement brokered by Turkey and Russia in Sochi in September last year to establish a demilitarised zone in Idlib also called for the reopening of the two strategic routes to traffic.
“It seems [Hayat Tahrir Al Sham is] positioning itself to negotiate the opening of the M4 and M5 highways,” Mr Heller said.
The Syrian government and its Russian allies have repeatedly used the presence of HTS in northern Syria to justify attacks on the area.
The groups expanded foothold may threaten the more than 2.5 million civilians in Idlib, half of whom have been displaced from other parts of the country.
It remains to be seen whether the group’s expanded territory will upend the Sochi agreement to create a demilitarised zone around Idlib. But air strikes resumed at the weekend in a sign that both Russia and the Syrian government may be more emboldened to carry out attacks following advances by the group.
Three civilians were killed and nine others injured in Russian air strikes in the northern Syrian province of Aleppo, Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency reported on Saturday, saying that most of the casualties were recorded in Darat Izza – a town that HTS captured last week.