Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham have swept other factions from towns and villages across Idlib and Aleppo. Now it has Maaret al-Nouman in its sights
Reeling from the successive losses of towns and villages in the northern provinces of Idlib and Aleppo, Syrian rebels are using a 15-day truce to prepare to defend the town of Maaret al-Nouman from al-Qaeda-linked militants.
The Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham militants have in recent days made sweeping gains in northern Syria, seizing more than 20 towns and villages from the National Liberation Front rebel alliance.
Following the conquest of al-Hamidiya, Dukmak, al-Zuqum and Qulaydin in Idlib’s al-Ghab plain, as well as al-Habit town and Jabal Shashabo, a truce was announced just as it seemed HTS would storm strategic Maaret al-Nouman in southern Idlib.
For now, the militants appear willing to negotiate a rebel pull-out, as seen in al-Atarib in Aleppo province on Monday, when HTS forced out rebels belonging to Noureddine al-Zinki, a key NLF faction.
We’re fully ready for any HTS attack or offensive. They’ve declared war with no reason against everyone who’s doesn’t join them
- Fazez Hamoud Hassan, rebel fighter
“Yesterday, their representatives came to negotiate, demanding we hand over our arms as they did in al-Atarib and Daret Eza before. But we refused and they left the city empty-handed,” Fazez Hamoud Hassan, a 34-year-old rebel fighter in Maaret al-Nouman, told Middle East Eye.
“They’ve been given only one message: ‘We’ll stand united together if they ever try to break into the town'.
“We are fully ready for any HTS attack or offensive. They’ve declared war with no reason against everyone who hasn't joined them,” he added.
Fearing the worst
Having seen the apparent ease with which HTS has shunted rebel groups aside, Maaret al-Nouman residents are fearing the worst if the assault resumes.
Bahr Nahas, a leading figure in the town’s civil society and editor of its Free Pen newspaper, says civilians there fear an HTS victory would be followed by a backlash against the many rebels, activists and opposition figures who have routinely criticised the group.
“On top of that the town will be tarred by HTS’s al-Qaeda affiliation, which will draw in Russian and regime bombardment. HTS know this, but it keeps capturing areas anyway,” he told MEE.
“We’re now fearful that even if HTS doesn’t enter, another wave of air strikes will occur,” he added, saying the militants' growing supremacy could encourage a fresh pro-government forces assault and a “bloodbath”.
Fighters from Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham (Reuters)
President Bashar al-Assad’s forces were poised to launch an offensive on the rebels’ last remaining stronghold in September, which aid groups warned would put millions of people at risk and cause a humanitarian crisis.
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At the 11th hour the battle was averted after Turkey and Russia agreed on a de-escalation zone to keep the warring parties apart.
This deal is now at risk, according to NLF spokesman Mustafa Sejari.
HTS “is gambling with four million souls living in north Syria for its own interest. It’s such a disgraceful act,” he told MEE.
“It is giving Iran and Russia the opportunity to tear up the Idlib agreement and put Turkey in a critical position."
A disunited front
Despite the agreement brokered by the Syrian government and Turkey, some opposition-held areas of north Syria have witnessed pro-government bombing in recent weeks.
According to HTS spokesman Hames Mojahed, this recent uptick in violence lies behind the militants’ recent moves towards consolidating control in northwestern Syria.
“Our fighters are on the front line with Assad’s regime and his militants, fighting back dozens of attacks he’s been trying to launch in the past few weeks,” he told MEE.
“What we are trying to do is set up a groundwork for the real united rule where everyone follows one leadership,” he added.
“We’ve had enough of division and western agenda over the past seven years. The revolution lost too much and we can’t sacrifice any longer with what we have left - someone needs to act.”
Though Mojahed insists that the militants’ differences with the rebels can be worked out through negotiations, saying the “latest campaign wasn’t meant to shed any blood”, the other side vehemently disagrees.
“Everyone realises that HTS isn’t trustworthy,” said Hassan, the rebel fighter.
“They’ve been breaking truces one after another, erasing rebel factions in north Syria and looting their weapons.
“How could we once again fight beside them?”