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Two of the largest factions in Syria’s northwest merge, challenge HTS dominance

AMMAN: Two of the largest factions in Syria’s rebel-northwest are […]

22 February 2018

AMMAN: Two of the largest factions in Syria’s rebel-northwest are challenging Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham’s military dominance in Idlib and western Aleppo provinces after merging into one rebel group earlier this week.

Jabhat Tahrir Souria (JTS)—the union of Islamist factions Ahrar a-Sham and Harakat Nour e-Din a-Zinki—reportedly seized towns and military positions from Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham (HTS) in opposition-held western Aleppo and Idlib provinces on Wednesday, including the city of Maarat a-Numan.

Maarat a-Numan, one of Idlib’s largest cities with an estimated 80,000 residents, “was liberated” from HTS control on Wednesday, Mohammad Adeeb, a JTS spokesman, told Syria Direct on Thursday. He added that HTS had also been ousted from Areha, Wadi Deif and other parts of central Idlib as clashes continued Thursday across “most of” Idlib’s southern countryside.

Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham took control of Maarat a-Numan in June 2017, when it battled and seized headquarters belonging to a local, Free Syrian Army (FSA)-affiliated faction in the city.

The HTS-run Ebaa News Agency confirmed that Nour e-Din a-Zinki forces “seized control” of Maarat a-Numan and the town of Tarmala in the southern Idlib countryside on Wednesday after attacking HTS headquarters there. Two HTS fighters died in the clashes, an unnamed military commander told the agency, while five others were injured.

An HTS commander briefs fighters about battles with Nour e-Din a-Zinki at an undisclosed location in northwest Syria on Thursday. Image by Ebaa News Agency.

HTS is a hardline Islamist coalition formed in January 2017 and led by Jabhat Fatah a-Sham, formerly Al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate Jabhat a-Nusra. The rebel coalition largely controls Idlib province and adjacent rebel-held areas of Hama and Aleppo provinces.

Jabhat Tahrir Souria, or the “Front for the Liberation of Syria,” announced its formation on February 18 in a statement released on social media. Ahrar a-Sham and Nour e-Din a-Zinki were reportedly in talks for weeks prior to the public announcement.

The goal of the merger between the two factions was not “to beat or attack anyone,” read the February 18 statement, “but we will not falter to face those who no longer know where to aim their rifles.”

The day after the merger was announced, “violent clashes” erupted when HTS began to attack JTS positions in western Aleppo province on Monday, a spokesman for the newly-formed faction told Syria Direct.

HTS used “heavy machine gun fire and tanks” in its attacks on JTS positions, said Ahmad Hamahir, former Zinki spokesman and current head of the JTS media office. He claimed HTS also set up checkpoints and abducted a member of JTS.

Syria Direct contacted the head of Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham’s media office on Wednesday and Thursday for comment on JTS accusations that HTS had sparked the conflict. The media director declined to comment and said that official statements posted via Telegram expressed the group’s positions.

The logo of the newly formed Jabhat Tahrir Souria. Photo by Jabhat Tahrir Souria.

A statement by the Ebaa News Agency published on Wednesday accused Zinki of protecting “corrupt” fighters who were purportedly kidnapping, robbing and extorting money from residents at its checkpoints in the western Aleppo countryside.

JTS spokesman Mohammed Adeeb told Syria Direct on Thursday that the newly formed rebel group is “only repelling HTS attacks,” as clashes continue in the southern Idlib countryside on Thursday. He claims that JTS forces merely helped local residents opposed to HTS oust fighters from towns such as Maarat a-Numan, where residents organized several demonstrations against HTS in 2016 and 2017.

‘Fake news’

Both components of Jabhat Tahrir Souria—Harakat Nour e-Din a-Zinki and Ahrar a-Sham—have previously clashed with Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham in a series of inter-rebel clashes that have plagued Syria’s northwest for the past year.

In July 2017, HTS seized large swathes of territory in Idlib from Ahrar a-Sham, including a crossing on the province’s northern border with Turkey, after fighting erupted between the two factions—allegedly over the use of the Syrian revolutionary flag.

In response to the July fighting, Harakat Nour e-Din a-Zinki, which was a founding member of HTS, defected from the coalition, Syria Direct reported.

Direct clashes between Zinki and HTS then erupted in November 2017 in the western Aleppo countryside following accusations that HTS raided and seized weapons from Zinki-held areas.

Since that time, Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham has consolidated not only its military domination in Idlib and western Aleppo province, but also control of administrative and civilian affairs in Syria’s rebel northwest.

As of Thursday, Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham does not appear to have acknowledged the merger of its rivals Zinki and Ahrar a-Sham and has not mentioned the name “Jabhat Tahrir Souria” in any official statements or media.

“Our recent issues are with Harakat [Nour e-Din a-Zinki],” read a Ebaa News Agency statement released via Telegram on Wednesday. “There are no problems between us and Ahrar a-Sham.”

The same statement said that Ahrar a-Sham fighters who joined the frontlines to fight alongside a-Zinki were “nothing more than individuals whose motivations are clear.”

Jabhat Tahrir Souria responded in a statement published Thursday via Telegram accusing HTS of “promoting erroneous and fake news.”

“Harakat Nour e-Din a-Zinki no longer exists after the merger under the name Jabhat Tahrir a-Souria,” read the statement. “Any assault on a headquarter or mujahid of JTS, from whatever entity, will be considered an attack on the entire front.”

Since clashes between HTS and JTS began on Monday, each side has accused the other of inflicting civilian casualties.

A member of the Syrian Civil Defense in western Aleppo province, who asked that his name not be mentioned, confirmed that the inter-rebel clashes had injured civilians. He said he did not have accurate statistics on civilian injuries and refused to comment further, fearing reprisal from both parties to the conflict.

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