Civil war within civil war: HTS battles rival militants, defectors in Syria's Idlib
Clashes between hardline groups have erupted in Idlib, the last rebel-held stronghold in northwestern Syria, amid a crackdown by Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) targeting prominent defectors from its ranks, rival militants and foreign nationals.
The latest fighting pits HTS, the dominant force in Idlib which evolved out of al-Qaeda's former Syrian branch, against a rival coalition of militant factions calling themselves the "Be Steadfast" Operations Room, including Hurras al-Deen, which is now considered to be al-Qaeda's main affiliate in the province.
Fighters from both sides as well as at least one civilian have been killed in gun battles in the area known as Prison Road in the west of Idlib province. At least two civilians, understood to be displaced people, were also injured.
Local sources told Middle East Eye that HTS fighters had attempted to storm areas held by Hurras al-Deen six times but were unsuccessful and lost two tanks, an armoured vehicle and machine guns.
After that the two sides agreed on a ceasefire and the removal of military barriers created during the clashes, with Be Steadfast fighters retreating to northern Latakia province bordering Idlib, where some of its affiliated groups have been guarding the frontline opposite Russian-backed government forces.
HTS then issued a declaration that there was no operations room in the area except for the "Fatah Mubin" operations room it administers. The “Be Steadfast” operations room has not yet issued a response.
On Thursday, HTS tanks could be seen heading to areas that had seen continuous clashes with heavy machine guns, according to videos seen by MEE.
"Abu Mohammad al-Jolani, HTS commander-in-chief, was storming the village of Arab Said, west of Idlib, with tanks," Ola Sharif, a militant based in Idlib, said on her Telegram channel.
"Jolani hid tanks in the battles against Russia, and showed them when a group emerged capable of stopping his actions and attacks," she said.
Meanwhile, dozens of pro-HTS newsrooms on Telegram have shared allegations about the leaders of the new operations room and others detained in the crackdown, as well as calling on HTS fighters to join the assault on the rival group.
The pro-HTS Ebaa news agency accused militants linked to the operations room of robbing civilian facilities west of Idlib and of surrounding the house of Mohammed al-Sheikh, the former head of Idlib's HTS-backed civilian administration known as the Salvation Government.
Other pro-HTS media said that some Be Steadfast-aligned factions, including Jihad Coordination, were avoiding fighting HTS and remained neutral, and accused Abu Malek al-Tali of seeking to split the ranks.
Tali is a prominent former HTS commander who defected in April in opposition to a Turkish-Russian deal that halted a Syrian government offensive against Idlib earlier this year.
Tali, who leads the Ansar Fighters Brigade and was key to the formation of the new operations room, was arrested on Monday when HTS forces surrounded his home in Sarmada.
Jolani had previously urged Tali to return to HTS and asked him not to form new groups. Following his arrest, HTS said in a statement that Tali had followed the wrong path and it had a duty to stop him, using all available methods.
It also issued a statement forbidding its fighters from defecting or forming new groups without its permission.
'Arrogance and aggression'
In response, Abu al-Abd Ashidaa, another HTS defector who is currently in charge of Jihad Coordination, accused pro-HTS media of spreading lies about the new operations room.
"After Tahrir al-Sham arrested immigrants and jihad leaders, and its failure to comply with sharia, and its insistence on arrogance and aggression, the 'Be Steadfast' factions put their barriers west of Idlib to stop the arrests," he said on Telegram.
"We do not want a fight, but we defend ourselves, and we are able to extend our control and spread many barriers."
Erecting checkpoints and barriers between areas under the control of rival militant groups is often done to establish a balance of power and ease tensions during local disputes.
In another apparent move to ease tensions, the two sides issued a joint statement on Friday in which they said they had agreed that the cases of those detained by HTS would be referred to the judiciary of the Turkistan Islamic Party, an independent Uighur militant group, who the two sides have accepted as an intermediary.
Among those arrested by HTS is a British aid worker, Tauqir Sharif, who was detained on Monday evening. Sharif denies links to any armed groups.
It is unclear if Sharif's case is one of those being referred to the Uighur judges, and MEE understands that the deal remains fragile.
Tali, whose name derives from the city of al-Tal on the outskirts of Damascus, is previously best known for orchestrating the kidnapping of a group of nuns in Maaloula in 2013. The nuns were later released in return for a large ransom payment.
However, he is considered to have been an ineffective commander in his home region, where he did not provide military support to the besieged moderate opposition, and eventually left for Idlib.
The involvement of Tali and Ashidaa, who is from Aleppo, in the new operations room may prove attractive to other fighters displaced from elsewhere in Syria with ambitions to return to their own lands.
The situation in Idlib has changed over the past six months, as Russian-backed government forces have taken control of large parts of Idlib, undermining the authority of HTS and leading to the emergence of internal opposition.
HTS has always sought to assert its dominance over rival militant factions, having previously neutralised Ahrar al-Sham and Nour al-Din al-Zinki with which it had long fought in alliance against pro-Syrian government forces.
But defections have accelerated since HTS allowed Russian forces into Idlib to conduct joint patrols with Turkish forces, with many looking to Hurras al-Deen and now the new operations room as an alternative.
A dilemma for HTS is that it still needs Hurras al-Deen as a battlefield ally in the fight against Syrian government and allied forces in areas of opposition control near the Syrian coast and in Jabal al-Zawiya, southwest of Idlib City.
'Every Hurras al-Deen fighter is equivalent to five from HTS in terms of the strength of the fighting doctrine, and his ferocity'
- Idlib activist
Hurras al-Deen retains operational command in these areas, which has contributed to a separation between its battle-hardened fighters and those under HTS's command elsewhere in Idlib.
Hurras al-Deen also includes several senior former HTS commanders within its ranks who still retain authority over many rank-and-file HTS fighters.
"Every Hurras al-Deen fighter is equivalent to five from HTS in terms of the strength of the fighting doctrine and his ferocity," an Idlib activist told MEE.
"Most of the fighters of HTS are remnants of previous groups, and they have joined them under duress, and they may defect at any moment," he said.
Another activist told MEE that HTS could be usurped by Hurras al-Deen over the former's apparent willingness to prepare for an internationally negotiated long-term ceasefire in Idlib.
Such an outcome could result in further international intervention to dislodge the al-Qaeda affiliate, he predicted.
"As it refused to resolve itself in preparation for a long-term ceasefire, we may see the dissolution of the HTS by Hurras al-Deen, then the countries will gain greater legitimacy for intervention and the dissolution of the al-Qaeda wing," he said.