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Syria: HTS militants partially withdraw from Afrin after Turkey steps in

Turkish army has been conducting patrols in northern city in effort to de-escalate rebel infighting and reduce tensions
Syrians gather around the body of a victim of the battles between rival Syrian factions competing for power in al-Bab on 14 October (AFP)
Syrians gather around the body of a victim of the battles between rival Syrian factions competing for power in al-Bab on 14 October (AFP)

Syrian militant group Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) began to partially withdraw its forces from Afrin on Saturday after the Turkish military stepped in and de-escalated rebel infighting in northwest Syria

Turkish security sources told Middle East Eye that the Turkish-backed civilian and political administration in Afrin has been functioning as normal despite some rebel groups in the Syrian National Army (SNA) coalition fighting with HTS in the region. 

HTS, the former al-Qaeda branch that controls most of Idlib province to Afrin's west, on Thursday pushed convoys of militants into Afrin and the surrounding countryside. 

The militant group, designated as a terror group by Turkey, is by far the strongest remaining rebel faction. 

This week, it allied with some rebel groups in the Turkish-backed SNA, such as the Hamzah Division, Sultan Suleiman Shah Division and Ahrar al-Sham, and launched an offensive against the SNA's Third Legion, which includes prominent rebel groups including the Levant Front and Jaish al-Islam.

The fighting was sparked by the assassination of a prominent Syrian opposition activist in the Aleppo province city of al-Bab. The murder, blamed on Hamzah Division fighters, cracked open festering disagreements between rebel groups.

Members of Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham advance towards the village of Jindayris in the Afrin region on 12 October (AFP)
Members of Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham advance towards the village of Jindayris in the Afrin region on 12 October (AFP)

The Turkish security sources said the situation was calm and stable in the centre and south of Afrin city, and Turkey had invited the parties to resolve their issues through dialogue. The sources denied that Turkey had taken sides with HTS. 

One Turkish source also denied that it has conducted a three-way meeting between the warring parties. 

Turkish army units patrolled in the area on Friday with armoured vehicles, decreasing the tension. 

A senior Syrian opposition source based in Afrin said that there had been structural problems within the Syrian National Army since the Turkish-backed force captured the area from Kurdish forces in 2018. 

"There was serious criticism from the locals on how they operate," the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "Some local SNA forces didn't resist HTS as they entered the area because they were too tired of the infighting."

The source said many minor SNA rebel factions abandoned their positions and allowed HTS an easy land grab. "HTS captured Basuta in less than two hours. Many SNA fighters appreciate the comparative stability in Idlib that was achieved by the HTS," the source said. 

'Some local SNA forces didn't resist HTS as they entered the area because they were too tired of the infighting'

- Senior opposition source

Sources said HTS will hand over the military positions it has seized in Afrin to Ahrar al-Sham, another militant group that, unlike HTS, is part of the SNA, following a deal brokered by Turkey. 

Amir Seyh, a general commander for Ahrar al-Sham, announced the deal through his social media account. Ahrar al-Sham, once a powerful rebel group, was pushed out of Idlib by HTS but nonetheless maintains relations with the group.

The faction is often embroiled in disputes involving militant leader Abu Soufan, who aims to merge it with HTS. Ahrar al-Sham has fought against the Third Legion rebels in the past week in Afrin alongside HTS. 

Another Syrian source claimed that HTS has also signed an economic and security deal with the Third Legion. A second senior Syrian opposition source said that HTS wasn't withdrawing all of its forces from Afrin and the group could maintain some presence in the area. 

Ragip Soylu has contributed to this report.

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