'Radical' fighters 'capture 20 towns and villages' from rebels in western Aleppo
Civilians and rebels in Syria's last major opposition bastion told Middle East Eye they fear Russia and pro-government forces will begin bombing the area after "radical" fighters made major gains against rebels on the ground.
After four days of clashes, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) had seized more than 20 towns and villages from rival rebels in the northern province of Aleppo, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Friday.
"HTS was able to take control of areas previously held by Noureddine al-Zinki in the west of the Aleppo countryside," the UK-based activist group said, adding that more than 100 fighters had been killed.
Those areas lie in the northeast of Syria's last major rebel bastion, which includes a large part of Idlib province as well as adjacent parts of Aleppo and Hama provinces.
Al-Zinki is a major player in the National Liberation Front (NLF), a Turkish-backed rebel alliance that is part of the Free Syrian Army (FSA).
The clashes began after HTS, which is led by Syria's former al-Qaeda affiliate, on Monday accused al-Zinki of killing five of its fighters.
Fighting flared on Tuesday in the northern province of Aleppo before expanding to the provinces of Idlib and Hama.
Air strikes by government ally Russia hit west Aleppo province late on Friday, killing two civilians in the town of Darat Izza, the Observatory said.
They were the first such raids in the area since a deal made in September between Moscow and rebel backer Ankara to stave off a government offensive on the wider Idlib region.
'We were in the middle'
Civilians and rebels living in the western Aleppo countryside now fear that the Syrian government will use the HTS takeover to justify an assault on the area.
Khalil Mohsen, 34, who lives in Ezaz village, told MEE that the fighting went on around residential areas.
"Last night was horrible, clashes were unreal, tanks and heavy arms were used and we were in the middle as the fighting took place in residential areas," he said.
After HTS's capturing this massive lands, it will be a legitimate target for Assad and Putin's jets
- Khalil Mohsen, Ezaz village
"After the attacks ended, warplanes began flying and bombing around the city; we feel deserted by everyone, even the FSA, who should have stood up to stop HTS."
Commenting on HTS's takeover, Mohsen added: "Now, the regime and Russia will have no one to deny them from marking all of the Idlib and Aleppo countryside as radical; after HTS's capture of this territory it will be a legitimate target for Assad and Putin's jets."
In Urem in the Aleppo countryside, Ismael al-Barkat, a 29-year-old clothes-shop owner, told MEE: "We could hear heavy clashes and jets were flying back and forth; a few of them hit the southern part of Urem where two cars got burnt.
"Even though over the past months there were a few attacks and Assad was violating the Sochi and Astana agreements [establishing a demilitarized buffer zone in the area], we were OK in terms of feelings, but now we are very concerned and thinking of leaving to somewhere safer, because I believe that the coming days are going to be rough and that bloodbaths may be back," he said.
"Everyone is upset with the HTS and other factions - why would they let this happen within the liberated areas, and why would HTS attack the FSA, and why would HTS take these areas, only to give Assad and Russia the right to attack us again?"
'Blood and hellfire'
Sadam Rashed, a 34-year-old al-Zinki fighter who was displaced from the city of Aleppo with a group of friends and has been living in the countryside, said: "HTS has been trying to set up a fight between us and them.
"However, it didn't work until now; they've brutally attacked and killed our friends instead of fighting against Assad ... The tools and weaponry HTS used in this bloody offensive could have been launched against Assad's frontline and could have been used to recapture much of his territory, but instead they have attacked us, killed and executed many of our fellow fighters.
"I am now with other fighters with our family in the Afrin area and can't go back to where we've been living, not because Assad has captured the area but because HTS did, They're the same for us."
'Waiting for such an opportunity'
Colonel Ahmad Rahal, a Syrian army defector who lives in Turkey, also questioned the timing of the HTS takeover.
"The HTS attack, sadly, will inevitably result in another wave of attacks in north Syria," he told MEE.
"HTS has captured areas from the FSA, but what's the point of it in this critical time when Russia and Assad are waiting for an opportunity to attack the Aleppo countryside and Idlib, which is what happened yesterday in many areas."
Two HTS fighters and 14 rebels were killed in the fighting on Friday, the Observatory said.
The casualties bring the overall death toll to 61 HTS fighters, 58 rebels, and 10 civilians in four days, it said.
Over the past two years, HTS has regularly fought the NLF for territory in and around Idlib province.
Sparked by the brutal repression of anti-government protests in 2011, Syria's civil war has killed more than 360,000 people and displaced millions.
Zouhir al-Shimale contributed to this report.