Local rebels evacuate Atareb town on Sunday afternoon. Photo courtesy of This is Syria.

AMMAN: Hardline Islamist coalition Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham seized a key town in Aleppo province from rebel fighters Sunday morning, the latest victory in its week-long campaign against rival opposition factions across northwestern Syria.

Atareb, a town in western Aleppo province located close to a strategic crossroad and major international highway, was previously controlled by rebels from Harakat Nour a-Din a-Zinki, a prominent opposition faction in northwestern Syria that has repeatedly clashed with Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham (HTS) over the past year.

HTS is an alliance of Islamist rebel groups spearheaded by a former Al-Qaeda affiliate and arguably the most powerful rebel bloc in northwestern Syria.

Local officials and community leaders agreed to surrender Atareb to HTS late Saturday night, according to an a-Zinki commander who spoke with Syria Direct on Sunday morning, after the hardline group clashed with a-Zinki fighters and repeatedly shelled their positions inside the city.

The commander spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to press.

According to Saturday night’s agreement, HTS will be tasked with managing security in Atareb, while the Syrian Salvation Government—an HTS-affiliated body governing civil affairs in areas directly or indirectly controlled by the hardline group—will manage civilian, judicial and municipal duties.

The agreement also stipulated the withdrawal of all non-HTS-aligned rebel forces from Atareb.

Following the previous night’s agreement, local fighters evacuated en masse on Sunday afternoon. Videos published online appear to show a convoy of a-Zinki-allied local fighters leaving the city in a fleet of SUVs, cars and trucks on Sunday afternoon, part of an organized northward evacuation from Atareb towards areas of Aleppo province’s Afrin region, held by Turkish-backed rebels.

A-Zinki rebels abandoned their posts in Atareb and retreated towards the Afrin region on Saturday, two local sources in Atareb also told Syria Direct.

Two local factions that held Atareb alongside a-Zinki fighters, Thawar a-Sham and Bayraq al-Islam, meanwhile agreed to disband and evacuate per Saturday night’s agreement with HTS.

With a-Zinki gone, the fight for the town was over within hours. Videos shared online by activists the following day appeared to show HTS fighters entering the central Idlib town early on Sunday and parading down a busy street with dozens of pickup trucks.

“The situation is terrible,” one local government official in Atareb told Syria Direct on Sunday morning. “The people’s morale [here] has bottomed out.”

The official asked that his name be withheld for security reasons.

HTS gains ground against ‘fragmented’ NLF

The loss of Atareb, combined with a series of HTS victories earlier this week, means a-Zinki’s territory has now shrunk to a fraction of its former size and its standing in northwest Syria vastly diminished.

A-Zinki, once an HTS member, broke away from the hardline Islamist coalition in July 2017, with numerous violent clashes straining relations between the two rebel groups since then. And early last year, a-Zinki allied itself with the National Liberation Front (NLF), a conglomeration of loosely affiliated rebel groups backed by Turkey that has competed with HTS for majority rule of Idlib province for months.

“A-Zinki was not just one of the constituent groups that formed NLF, but the local force that was the most successful in countering HTS encroachment of their territories,” Elizabeth Tsurkov, a Washington DC-based research fellow with the Forum for Regional Thinking, told Syria Direct.

The collapse of a-Zinki represents a “devastating blow to any local effort to displace HTS from the northwest,” Tsurkov added.

The NLF was created in mid-2018 with significant coordination and support from Turkey. Although nominally intended to form a cohesive coalition to rival HTS influence in the northwest, the front has become a disjointed array of roughly a dozen factions with often wildly divergent ideologies and priorities.

“HTS' defeat of Nour a-Din a-Zinki seems to put the lie to the idea that the NLF was prepared to tackle HTS collectively,” International Crisis Group senior analyst Sam Heller told Syria Direct on Sunday.

“HTS continues to face an opposition that is fragmented and dispersed, and thus isn’t capable of confronting the group,” he added.

Meanwhile, NLF-affiliated sources told Syria Direct that the Turkish-backed coalition is preparing to hit back at HTS.

NLF operations to reclaim territory lost to HTS were “ongoing” on Sunday afternoon, with the group preparing itself for further fighting, Jaish al-Watani spokesperson Yousef al-Hamoud told Syria Direct. Jaish al-Watani is a Syrian rebel group in the northwest allied with the NLF in the fighting against HTS. 

“We’ve sent convoys well-supplied with arms, ammunition and fighters to our front lines with HTS, and we’re preparing ourselves to try and regain some or all of the territory that has fallen under HTS control.”

Embed from Getty Images

Hay'at Tahrir a-Sham (HTS) fighters during a combat exercise in northern Idlib province on August 14. Photo by Omar Haj Kadour/Getty Images.

HTS ‘reasserting itself over the whole northwest’

In October, a Russian- and Turkish-brokered agreement over the fate of Idlib province went into effect across northwestern Syria, with rebel factions removing heavy weapons from a 15- to 20-kilometer-wide buffer zone surrounding rebel-held Idlib province.

Though the agreement seemingly staved off an all-out offensive on Syria’s last rebel-held stronghold, inter-factional divisions and long-standing bad blood between rebel groups on the ground there has complicated its implementation, and relations between the two rebel blocs inflamed.

Now, HTS’ recent campaign against NLF-allied factions appears to go beyond infighting, signaling a major attempt by the group to establish itself as the main rebel power in the northwest.

“HTS now seems to be reasserting itself over the whole northwest, and targeting strategic infrastructure in particular,” Heller told Syria Direct. He added that HTS controls almost all of the major trade crossings and major stretches of critical highways in the northwest.

The latest round of clashes between HTS and NLF groups first broke out on January 1, when HTS attacked NLF positions in western Aleppo province.

More than 80 fighters were killed on both sides by January 3, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights conflict monitor, while HTS seized the town of Darat Izza from the NLF.

Correction: Yousef al-Hamoud is a spokesperson of the Jaish al-Watani rebel faction. A previous version of this article stated al-Hamoud was a spokesperson for the National Liberation Front.