AMMAN: Clashes between the two largest rebel blocs in northwest Syria engulfed Idlib province on Wednesday after a dispute over the use of the Syrian revolution’s flag devolved into all-out warfare.
The fighting began on Tuesday after local Islamist faction Harakat Ahrar a-Sham raised a Syrian revolution flag in the southern Idlib city of Iblin, angering the Al-Qaeda-linked Hay'at Tahrir a-Sham (HTS) coalition. The dispute is the latest flare-up of longstanding tensions between the two powerful factions.
Ahrar a-Sham, one of the most powerful opposition factions in Syria, has been increasingly using the revolutionary flag in its official media in recent weeks, a move that separates it from HTS, which uses the black Islamic tawhid flag bearing the Muslim profession of faith.
Ahrar a-Sham claims that HTS attacked Iblin unprovoked after it raised the revolutionary flag over the city. Meanwhile, HTS accuses Ahrar a-Sham of injuring two of its fighters in Iblin just before the infighting began.
Both HTS and Ahrar a-Sham maintain a strong presence in Idlib province, particularly in the northern countryside along the Syrian-Turkish border and in the southern Jabal a-Zawiya region.
Protesters in Kafr Nubl call for an end to infighting on Wednesday. Photo courtesy of Jabal a-Zawiya activist Mohammad.
Fighting over the past two days has centered around Jabal a-Zawiya, as well as a string of towns along the border.
Sarmada and a-Dana, two northern Idlib towns just six kilometers south of the Bab al-Hawa crossing with Turkey, were two flashpoints of clashes between HTS and Ahrar al-Sham on Wednesday.
In addition to ground forces, both sides have employed heavy weaponry in the latest round of infighting, using tanks and artillery against one another.
As rebel fighters battle each other, civilian movement is “nearly at a complete standstill” across Idlib province, Mohammad, an activist in Jabal a-Zawiya told Syria Direct on Wednesday.
Residents in areas near the fighting are remaining in their homes, only moving when “absolutely necessary, afraid that a stray bullet may injure them,” he added.
Multiple sources in Idlib province told Syria Direct on Wednesday that 12 people have been killed so far, as well as dozens injured, since the recent wave of infighting began on Tuesday. A Syrian Civil Defense spokesman told Syria Direct that he could not confirm the exact number of casualties.
Hundreds of residents protested in at least three Idlib towns on Wednesday, calling for an end to the inter-rebel clashes and for the protection of civilians.
Weeks of tension between the two Islamist rebel coalitions over military mobilization in the region preceded this latest round of infighting.
“A recent meeting brought together HTS and Ahrar leadership, and resulted in a comprehensive agreement, focusing on stopping the military buildup and mobilization,” Emad a-Din Mujahid, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham’s director of media relations, told Syria Direct on Wednesday.
The HTS spokesman added that the two rebel coalitions had also “formed a committee to discuss outstanding issues.”
Despite the reported agreement between the two factions, both sides have now captured and lost territory to the other in the last two days of fighting. Entire towns have changed hands in the Idlib countryside, with coalitions erecting extra checkpoints in areas they control.