NLF fighters stand on a hill overlooking government-held areas of the northwestern Aleppo countryside in October 2018. Photo by Aaref Watad/AFP.
AMMAN: Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham and rival opposition factions reached a ceasefire agreement covering areas of Syria’s northwest early Thursday, halting a breakneck offensive by the hardline Islamist coalition and laying the ground for its complete administrative takeover of the rebel-held region.
Thursday’s agreement marks an “immediate ceasefire” between Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham (HTS) and the National Liberation Front (NLF)—a conglomeration of loosely affiliated, Turkish-backed rebel groups in the northwest—throughout “liberated territories,” according to a statement from HTS media outlet Ebaa.
The agreement also calls for the release of detainees and removal of checkpoints and barriers in the region, with an HTS-affiliated governance body also set to take over all civil administration duties, the Ebaa statement added.
“With this agreement, the liberated north turns the page from this infighting, with no turning back,” read the statement, without specifying in which areas the ceasefire would come into force.
Formed in mid-2018 to offset HTS influence in the northwest, the NLF has long competed with the hardline coalition for power across what remains of rebel-held Syria. However, the Turkish-backed rebel conglomeration has been on the back foot after more than a week of losses, with HTS seizing swathes of its territory since the beginning of the year.
In just a matter of days, HTS—which already controlled the majority of Idlib province before the latest offensive—expanded its control with surprisingly little resistance, as a number of towns and rebel groups surrendered or declared neutrality rather than attempt to stand and fight.
Residents were left waiting anxiously as NLF rebels in areas still outside HTS control—including Maarat a-Numan and Ariha, two strategically located cities in the southern Idlib countryside—dug in for an HTS attack by mobilizing troops and constructing dirt berms on the city-limits.
But on Thursday, the situation in Maarat a-Numan was “noticeably better,” resident Khaled Mohammad told Syria Direct.
He said that roads had been reopened, in line with conditions of the NLF-HTS agreement, as reported by Ebaa.
NLF factions will remain in areas like Maarat a-Numan that HTS did not seize in recent advances, an NLF media representative told Syria Direct on Thursday. But he confirmed that the HTS-affiliated Syrian Salvation Government (SSG) will assume civil control in these areas.
The SSG, formed by HTS in late 2017 as an alternative to the opposition-run, western-backed Syrian Interim Government (SIG), has expanded through the northwest in step with HTS military advances by dissolving local councils and asserting its strict interpretation of Islamic law on local communities.
“The factions in these areas have their weapons and will stay [there],” the NLF representative said, “but the Salvation Government will enter.”
He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not yet authorized to comment on the specifics of the deal.
Existential threat to Russian- and Turkish-brokered ceasefire?
While rebel groups and communities prepare for a transition to some semblance of HTS rule, Thursday’s agreement also puts a separate, international deal concerning Syria’s final rebel stronghold—brokered by Russia and Turkey last fall—in further jeopardy after months of doubts and missed deadlines.
When Turkish President Recep Tayyib Erdogan and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, emerged from negotiations in the Black Sea resort of Sochi in September to announce the sweeping ceasefire agreement, many rebel factions and residents alike reacted with cautious optimism.
The agreement, which has been widely credited with stalling an all-out government offensive on the northwest, called for the establishment of a 15 to 20-kilometer demilitarized zone surrounding Idlib province, while laying out a timeline for the withdrawal of heavy weaponry and hardline rebel formations from that zone on October 10 and 15, respectively.
Much of the onus for meeting those deadlines fell to Turkey.
Prior to Thursday’s agreement, rebels in Maarat a-Numan had closed roads in preparation for an anticipated HTS attack. Photo courtesy of Maara Media Center.
Sochi also stipulated that transit would be restored along two major roadways that pass from government territory through rebel-held areas of Idlib, the M4 and M5, by the end of the year.
The M5 stretches from Aleppo in the north to the Syrian-Jordanian border in the south, while the M4 cuts across the northwest, providing a link between traditional government strongholds on the the Syrian coast and points further east.
Yet, from the get-go, the Sochi agreement has faced potentially existential challenges to its staying power—among them, doubts that Turkey would be able to fulfill its commitments under the deal.
The presence of hardline Islamist rebels that dominated much of the province—including HTS as well as the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) and a string of other Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups—has been a regular sticking-point. And while NLF-affiliated groups reportedly removed heavy weaponry, including armored vehicles and rocket launchers, the deadline for hardliners to leave went by unmet.
In the months that followed, the agreement has repeatedly been threatened by intermittent intra-rebel skirmishes in and around the buffer zone, as well as tit-for-tat violence between pro-government forces on one side and various rebel and hardline factions on the other.
The deadline to clear the M4 and M5 roadways also passed by without change at the end of last year.
‘Battles over trade’
Reopening of the M4 and M5 highways was especially important to the Syrian government and its Russian allies, according to Nicholas Heras, a fellow with the Center for a New American Security in Washington DC.
The roads could “stimulate trade,” he says, “and in the long run, from Russia’s perspective, renormalize Assad enough that reconstruction aid could flow into Syria, therefore taking that burden off Russia’s shoulders.”
Those same roads, however, are key to HTS. They allow the group—which also holds almost all of the province’s major trade crossings—to control the flow of goods and people through the region. The routes are also indispensable for Turkish forces to resupply a dozen Turkish observation points that circle the rebel-held northwest.
And according to NLF rebel commanders and analysts, HTS has shown no sign it’s willing to surrender control of the roads—not least after seizing major towns like Darat Izza and Atareb in the western Aleppo countryside as well as smaller villages in the Sahel al-Ghab region in recent days.
“What we’re seeing right now are battles over trade,” an NLF commander in Sahel al-Ghab told Syria Direct on Wednesday, prior to the agreement with HTS. “[HTS] is fighting for the sake of crossings and international roadways.”
The commander spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak with press.
Abu Muhammad Suqour, a commander in NLF-affiliated rebel faction Suqour a-Sham, meanwhile suggests that by focusing on strategic positions including highways and trade crossings, HTS is aiming to “prove itself as the strongest force, and that it controls the region.”
“It wants to tell everyone that it must be a part of any agreement for the region,” he added.
HTS ‘imposing itself’ on Sochi agreement
According to analyst Heras, HTS wants to “send a strong signal to the Turks that HTS cannot be sold out in any bargain between Turkey and Russia.”
“The [latest] ceasefire means that HTS calls the shots in Idlib,” Heras added, “whether Turkey and Russia like it or not.”
While aiming to establish itself as the dominant player—and the one with which international players must grapple in the future—HTS has simultaneously worked to undermine the standing agreement, rebels say.
“[HTS’] current actions—taking control of western Aleppo, the two highways and the crossings—are meant to prevent the implementation of Sochi,” said an FSA commander in the southern Idlib countryside who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
A Suqour a-Sham commander in Maarat a-Numan also claimed HTS is “imposing itself by force on the agreement.”
Meanwhile, several rebel commanders told Syria Direct they fear the Sochi agreement—tested and maligned for months—may no longer be able to stave off an onslaught by pro-government forces after HTS’ lightning advances across Idlib province.
“Unfortunately, [HTS’] presence gives the Russians, the coalition and the regime an excuse to bombard [the northwest] under the pretense of fighting terrorism,” says Suqour a-Sham commander Abu Muhammad Suqour.