Idlib city in November 2018. Muhammad Haj Kadour/AFP.

AMMAN: A suicide bomb ripped through the administrative headquarters of the Syrian Salvation Government in Idlib city Tuesday morning, the latest in a wave of insurgent-style attacks targeting Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham and its affiliated governing body in recent weeks.

According to reports from Ebaa News Agency, a Telegram channel linked to hardline Islamist coalition Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham (HTS), a fully veiled woman approached the main entrance of the city’s main HTS-affiliated Syrian Salvation Government (SSG) building around 10 am before engaging in a shootout with guards.

Following a two-minute exchange of gunfire, the woman entered the headquarters and detonated a suicide vest.

“A veiled woman tried to pass the guards to enter the building,” Muhammad Qassim, a media activist who arrived at the SSG building five minutes after the explosion, told Syria Direct. “She fired on them with a weapon until she had emptied her magazine, then ran inside the building and blew herself up.”

Images of the headquarters’ entrance, shared to social media on Tuesday, appeared to show the hallway of the SSG building littered with shattered glass and other debris.

Qassim claimed that two employees at the building had been injured.

A member of the Idlib Media Center, a local Facebook page, initially told Syria Direct that two people had been injured, but later updated that figure to five.

Syria Direct could not independently verify the number of casualties.

No group had claimed responsibility for the attack by late Tuesday afternoon, although a statement posted by the HTS-affiliated Ebaa News Agency appeared to blame the Islamic State (IS). 

The entrance of the SSG building after Tuesday's attack, in a photo circulated on social media.

One analyst who spoke with Syria Direct Tuesday also said that the operation bore the hallmarks of an IS sleeper cell.

“The attack appears consistent with IS operations that have been targeting HTS over the past year, or year and a half,” says Chris Kozak, senior analyst from the Institute for the Study of War in Washington DC.

Tuesday’s suicide attack comes amidst the backdrop of an intensifying struggle for power and influence amongst rebel and hardline Islamist factions in the northwest.

Beginning on January 1, HTS launched a campaign against Harakat Nour e-Din al-Zinki in western Aleppo province that quickly led to the HTS arch-rival’s almost total collapse.

HTS militants then escalated the campaign to southern Idlib province and the Sahel al-Ghab region of northern Hama province, seizing strategic territory from other groups that form part of the Turkish-backed National Liberation Front (NLF)—a loose coalition of rebel factions originally formed in 2017 to contain and combat the rise of HTS.

A ceasefire agreement signed on January 10 between the feuding coalitions expanded the territory controlled by HTS by a third, and left the hardline group in a dominant position across much of the northwest.

At the same time, there has been a simultaneous uptick in unclaimed bombing attacks targeting HTS.

On January 18, a large car bomb shook another HTS headquarters on the outskirts of Idlib city, killing at least 11 people and causing substantial damage.

In the following days, four unclaimed bombing attacks hit different areas around Idlib province followed by an HTS raid on what officials from the group have called an IS “sleeper cell” in the east of Idlib city, which they blamed for the January 18 blast.

According to analyst Kozak, rebel-held Idlib province has seen the emergence of IS sleeper cells since at least 2015, as undercover fighters could number anywhere from hundreds to the low thousands.

The relative spike in recent IS-style attacks coincides with a larger strategy by the group to to reestablish itself in the western provinces of Syria, he added, in an attempt to counter the strengthening position of HTS in Idlib following weeks of battlefield victories there.

“These attacks show that IS sees HTS as their biggest competitor in Syria,” says Kozak.

“Moving forward, IS is looking for opportunities to destabilize, reassert themselves and challenge the legitimacy of the HTS government wherever possible.”