Upheaval in Syria's northwestern rebel heartland as fledgling faction moves to dethrone HTS

AMMAN: A major upset to the balance of military power and territorial control in opposition-held northwestern Syria is underway, as a newly formed faction sweeps through the largest remaining rebel stronghold in the country.

Over the past week, Jabhat Tahrir Souria (JTS)—a newly announced merger of Ahrar a-Sham and Harakat Nour e-Din a-Zinki—captured dozens of cities, towns, villages and military positions in Idlib and western Aleppo from the hardline Islamist coalition Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham (HTS).

Battles between the two factions broke out on February 18 after JTS first announced its formation. Both Ahrar a-Sham and Harakat Nour e-Din a-Zinki previously clashed with HTS in a series of inter-rebel conflicts that have plagued Syria’s rebel-held northwest for more than a year.

As of Wednesday, JTS holds roughly one third of Syria’s rebel-held northwest. Days of swift advances saw the fledgling faction capture most of western Aleppo province and large swathes of Idlib’s sprawling countryside, including several large cities, according to official statements, claims by rebel spokesmen and opposition media coverage.

Hay'at Tahrir a-Sham "withdrew from dozens of towns in the western Aleppo countryside to put a stop to the bloodshed and maintain the neutrality of cities,” Emad a-Din Mujahid, head of media relations for HTS told Syria Direct on Wednesday.

Jabhat Tahrir Souria fighters are now positioned within 15 kilometers of two of the most highly prized HTS holdings in northwestern Syria: provincial capital Idlib city and the Bab al-Hawa border point, the only commercial crossing from Turkey into Idlib province.  

Demonstration in southern Idlib against Syrian regime and HTS on February 26. Photo by Morasul Jabhat Tahrir Souria.

JTS fighters have not yet moved to capture the Bab al-Hawa crossing, and at time of publication HTS fighters appeared to be launching a counter-offensive of their own in northern Idlib and western Aleppo.

Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham—a hardline coalition led by Jabhat Fatah a-Sham, formerly the Syrian Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat a-Nusra—seized control of nearly all of Idlib province as well as neighboring rebel territories in Aleppo and Hama provinces from rival factions, including Ahrar a-Sham, in summer 2017.

At the time, HTS not only consolidated its military control over Idlib and western Aleppo, but also tightened its grip on administrative and civilian affairs in Syria’s rebel-held northwest.

Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham seized the Idlib City Council headquarters and implemented a smoking ban in the provincial capital in August after wresting the city from rival Ahrar a-Sham, Syria Direct reported.

The Syrian Salvation Government—formed in November 2017 and widely thought to be backed by HTS—meanwhile moved to usurp local governance in Idlib from the Turkey-based Syrian Interim Government, asserting control over education and civilian affairs.

Today, as JTS drives HTS out of villages and towns, the former says its fighters are not only expanding their own area of control in northwestern Syria, but also supporting what it claims is a “popular uprising.”

“What is happening is not a war between factions,” JTS spokesman Mohammad Adeeb told Syria Direct. “It is a war between the people and Nusra,” he said, referring to the HTS’s previous incarnation.

Civilian demonstrations as well as cases of residents and local fighters launching attacks on HTS checkpoints to drive the hardline coalition’s forces out of several Idlib towns were reported over the past week.

An HTS member meets with residents in western Aleppo on Monday. Photo by Ebaa Media Agency.

Civilians in Jabal a-Zawiya, a highland region in southern Idlib province, “set fire to HTS checkpoints,” Mohammad Abdulhamid, a resident in the nearby town of Maarat a-Numan told Syria Direct on Tuesday.

JTS captured the city of Maarat a-Numan, home to an estimated 80,000 residents, on February 22, Syria Direct reported at the time. Residents of the southern Idlib city organized repeated demonstrations against HTS and its leading faction Jabhat Fatah a-Sham in 2016 and 2017.

The pro-opposition SMART News Agency published a video on Monday purportedly showing dozens of residents of the Jabal a-Zawiya city of Kafr Nubl storming and burning a checkpoint belonging to HTS while waving the Syrian revolutionary flag.

Abdulhamid said that he and his fellow residents are expressing “built up resentment” against Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham.

HTS spokesman Mujahid told Syria Direct on Wednesday that his faction was “in communication with village and city leaders” to “reach solutions to help avoid harm to residents.”

In Darat Izza, one of the largest cities of the western Aleppo countryside, which JTS fighters captured from HTS on Monday, “younger residents took up weapons to drive out HTS,” Jaafar, a resident and former member of a local civil society organization, told Syria Direct.

Jaafar asked that his real name and personal details not be published in this report, fearing what he described as “HTS cells” remaining in the city of Darat Izza.

“JTS is exploiting the fact that people have reached their boiling point with Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham and its policies,” said Maarat a-Numan resident Abdulhamid.

Additional reporting by Alaa Safwan

Waleed Khaled a-Noufal

Waleed a-Noufal was born in Ankhel in northern Daraa province. He attended high school in Ankhel but could not continue his study because of security reasons. Waleed worked as an activist in his local city council and the Umayya Media Center. In 2013, he moved to Jordan and finished his high school degree. Waleed wants to bring about a solution to the current crisis through his reporting. Follow Waleed on Twitter: @walid_ALnofal.

Bahira al-Zarier

Bahira is from Damascus. She studied business and marketing before moving to Jordan in 2013. She did volunteer work in support of many refugee organizations before joining Syria Direct.

Ammar Hamou

Ammar Hammou is from Douma city in outer Damascus. He studied journalism at Damascus University and left Syria in 2011. Follow Ammar on Twitter: @Ammar_Hamou.

Tariq Adely

Tariq Adely graduated from Brown University in 2014 with a bachelor's degree in comparative literature and translation. He continued his studies at the Qasid Institute and the Institute for Critical Thought in Amman, Jordan.