Syria's Idlib province seized by HTS militants after deal with rebels
Rebels in northern Syria agreed overnight to allow an administration led by al-Qaeda-linked militants to run areas they previously controlled, jeopardising a Russian-Turkish deal that has staved off a Syrian government offensive on the area.
The last remaining opposition stronghold in north Syria has been rocked in recent days as Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) militants have steamrollered other rebel factions and seized control of more than 20 towns and villages.
Earlier this week they stopped short at Maaret al-Nouman, a strategic town in Idlib province’s south held by National Liberation Front (NLF) rebel factions.
After declaring a 15-day truce on Tuesday, HTS and NLF representatives have been conducting negotiations, with the militants seeking to bring all rebel-held areas under the umbrella of its so-called National Salvation Government.
How can this happen after all their betrayal and deceiving of other rebel factions? When will we learn?
- Akram Adham, activist
Outgunned and exhausted, the NLF rebels agreed.
“After few hours of discussion with Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, we’ve reached an agreement to end the hostility between us and return to peace,” rebel commander Feras Qetaz told Middle East Eye.
Opposition group infighting will only favour the government of President Bashar al-Assad, he said.
Under the terms of the agreement, all hostilities will be halted, sand berm checkpoints will be dismantled, hostages captured during the recent clashes will be exchanged and all areas will come under Salvation Government control.
“Everyone should work as a team in order to defeat our joint enemy: Assad and his militants,” Qetaz said.
“Infighting and wasting the lives of our precious fighters, who are our hope of future freedom from Assad and his tyranny, is sweet for him.”
“Our agreement with HTS has organised military cooperation and will only be good for our people and a free Syria,” he added.
Civilians and members of civil society, however, reacted to the news with horror.
“We woke up shocked to hear of the agreement signed between HTS and the NLF,” Akram Adham, a 29-year-old activist in Maaret al-Nouman, told MEE.
“How can this happen after all their betrayal and deceiving of other rebel factions? When will we learn?”
Many in rebel-held north Syria worry that Assad’s forces will use the excuse of HTS control to launch a fresh offensive on the country’s last rebel stronghold.
In September, an assault on the opposition stronghold was averted at the 11th hour following an agreement between Assad ally Russia and rebel-backer Turkey that saw a demilitarised zone set up between the warring parties.
However, HTS is led by the former Syrian branch of al-Qaeda, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (previously known as Al-Nusra Front), which some believe Assad and his allies will use as an excuse to renew their push for a fresh offensive.
“Our city is now a legitimate target for Russia and Assad, who will seek to pound it with hellfire to eliminate the non-existent al-Qaeda here. They [HTS] are not welcome here and they know it,” Adham said.
HTS spokesman Hames Mojahed disagreed, however, and said the militants expected the Russian-Turkish deal to remain in place.
“We will maintain the same ceasefire as was agreed before,” he told MEE.
Were a fresh pro-government offensive to be launched, however, Mojahed said HTS would resume its battle against Assad’s forces.
“If the regime ever tries to attack it will find us standing in the way. If the regime and Russia start bombing people once again, we won’t stand watching,” he said.
“We will do anything to force the regime and Russia to stop their attacks, if they occur.”