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Syrian militant leader slams Turkey and defends evacuations in new video

Abu Mohammed al-Jolani said that the former al-Qaeda affiliate Hayat Tahrir al-Sham had become the 'greatest defender of Sunnis' in Syria
Abu Mohammed al-Jolani addresses the camera from an unknown location in Idlib (screengrab)

The leader of the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) militant group has described it as the only legitimate defender of Sunni Muslims in Syria, and said Turkey was not a reliable ally against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government.

In a video posted on Facebook, Abu Mohammed al-Jolani, leader of the group formerly known as the Al-Nusra Front, said that both HTS's enemies and allies recognised that the group had "now become the greatest defender of Sunnis in Syria".

He warned that the ceasefires agreed between rebel groups and pro-government forces in the south of country would not be repeated in the north, and urged rebel forces to shun negotiations with Assad.

Most previously rebel-held areas of Syria, including the major cities of Homs and Aleppo, have returned to government hands in recent years. Idlib, which is largely controlled by HTS and its allies, is the last remaining rebel stronghold in the country.

"The weapons of the revolution and jihad... are a red line on which concessions are unacceptable, and they will never be put on the negotiations table," said Jolani.

“We urge our people in Aleppo to remain steadfast. The mujahideen will not fail you."

He added that the rebels should not expect Turkish observation posts to protect them against Assad's government. Under an agreement inked in Kazakhstan, Iran, Russia and Turkey have established observation posts across Syria to monitor "de-escalation zones" nominally designed to prevent hostilities.

He warned that the Turkish posts were "something we cannot rely on because the political positions may change at any moment".

Jolani also defended the decision to allow the evacuation of the Shia-majority villages of Foua and Kafraya, claiming it had removed the danger of "sectarian militias" and denied Iran an excuse to attack.

The two villages, located in the Idlib governorate, had been besieged by rebel forces since 2015, and has been a major point of contention between the rebels and the government.

The evacuation saw 7,000 people leave the two villages in return for hundreds of prisoners being released from Assad's prisons.

Idlib infighting

Idlib has seen massive unrest in recent years due to rebel infighting, the capture of much of the province by Turkish-backed forces, and the looming threat of an assault by Assad and his allies to retake the province.

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, since April, 270 people - including 55 civilians - have been killed in attacks from all sides in Idlib, and adjacent parts of Hama and Aleppo provinces.

While much of the violence has been attributed to HTS and the Turkish-backed National Front for Liberation, others have blamed sleeper cells belonging to the Islamic State (IS) group.

The Observatory said that the province had been witnessing "mass assassinations" and that since Monday alone at least 13 rebel fighters had been killed.

Although IS and Al-Nusra Front both originated as part of the al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State in Iraq, the two became enemies after the former declared a caliphate in 2014. Al-Nusra Front rebranded as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham in July 2016, officially severing ties with al-Qaeda. In January 2017 they merged with other rebel groups to form HTS.

Inside Foua: A Shia town in the eye of the Syrian storm
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On Wednesday, US President Donald Trump's national security adviser warned Assad against the use of chemical weapons in any future assault on Idlib.

"We now see plans for the Syrian regime to resume offensive military activities in Idlib province," John Bolton told a press conference during a visit to Jerusalem.

"We are obviously concerned about the possibility that Assad may use chemical weapons again," he said.

He added that the US would respond "very strongly" to any chemical attack.

The US, France and Britain launched joint missile strikes on Syrian in April targets in response to an alleged chemical weapons attack in eastern Ghouta that killed scores of people.

Since 2011, following the brutal repression of anti-Assad protests, Syria's civil war has killed more than 400,000 people and displaced millions.

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