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Overt Attitudes Hide Idlib’s Fighting Major Objectives

Members of “Suqour al-Sham Brigades” in the southern countryside of Idlib – March 2018 (Ibaa Agency)

Members of “Suqour al-Sham Brigades” in the southern countryside of Idlib – March 2018 (Ibaa Agency)

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The confrontations between “Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham” (HTS) and “Syrian Liberation Front” have entered their second month without having an explicit winner; the fighting is considered the longest of its kind in Idlib, for the city and its countryside, in addition to Aleppo’s western countryside are witnessing constant confrontations, which led to militants and civilian deaths, and also affected the public life. In the past a few days, the accusations which the two sides to the conflict have been directing to each other were similar; the word “corruption” is all over the official statements. “Syrian Liberation Front,” in addition to this, is facing an accusation of dealing with what is locally described as “Kurdish Militias.”

The two faction’s stated attitudes left aside, the people of Idlib are aware of the major fighting’s reasons, the signs of which started to appear on the surface.

The Fighting Roots are Deep

Enab Baladi communicated with an exclusive source who occupied leadership positions in both the “Front” and “Tahrir al-Sham” and is informed of the fighting and the negotiations’ details; he labeled the current fighting as “the most violent and dangerous to the revolution, for the fighting aims to illuminate names in al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham, the two major pols in the field, which are competing to impose authority and power, so one of them would become the ruling being in Idlib.”

The source explained that “Tahrir al-Sham” managed to achieve “glory” through its first fight against “Ahrar al-Sham,” in 2017, which led to its control over Bab al-Hawa Crossing, the city of Idlib and most of the governorates’ strategic points, to present itself as “the only force to control the liberated areas, and the only party to have the final word.”

According to the source, the war between the two sides is not new. Its first seeds were laden in dissolving “Jaish al-Fatah” (The Army of Conquest) and during the battles of Aleppo’s Southern countryside. Even though the two sides were viewed as a single side and managed to fight “ferocious” battles against Assad’s forces, the dispute among them was deep back then, at the level of leaderships in particular.

While the two sides’ fighters achieved ultimate harmony, facing talks about confrontations among themselves with cynicism and denial, the source said: “What we feared yesterday is reality today.”

“Ahrar al-Sham” and the Dream of Glory

“Ahrar al-Sham’s” loss of the majority of its positions in Idlib and its transformation from being the largest faction to being just another “Free Army” faction generated a desire for revenge and action to recover authority; the desire was inflamed by “Tahrir al-Sham’s” movement and its formation of the “Salvation Government,” added to its control over the citizens’ resources and imposing pressure on them.

The latest proceedings by “Tahrir al-Sham” towards the end of 2017 formed “Ahrar al-Sham’s” chance to regain its military glory, for it managed to convince its members that fighting HTS, if it actually happens, is a duty to git red of its hegemony over the people’s lives and to stop its rule over Idlib’s destiny and to save the city from blackness, which is “Tahrir al-Sham’s main feature.”

The source (wishes to stay anonymous) explained that “Ahrar al-Sham” managed to exempt the massive numbers of the members it included and kept a few thousands only, whom it trained, prepared and organized. External observers thought that the affairs went to natural once more between the two factions, but what happened inside of each of the factions was a different reality. While “Ahrar al-Sham” was in a state of preparation, “Tahrir al-Sham” was receiving one attack after the other, on top of which were accusations relating to handing over the areas to the East of al-Sekah (the railway) and the dissent of many of its members which after all weakened its body.

“Al-Zenki”..My Enemy’s Enemy is My Friend

Among the novel dimensions that were always added to the renewing fight was the integration between “Nour al-Din al-Zenki Movement” and “Ahrar al-Sham” and their unity against “Tahrir al-Sham,” despite the fact that “al-Zenki” was a major component in “Tahrir al-Sham” in the past months.

Alaa al-Ali, a leader of a brigade who quit the fighting two years ago and based in Urum al-Kubra, told Enab Baladi that “al-Zenki and Ahrar al-Sham never agreed before, similar to al-Zenki and the front, for the projects are different and the ideas are distant,” surprised, “How could al-Zenki be with the two factions and against the two factions in the very same year?”

Ali added that the only justification to this situation lies in interest and hegemony. When the “al-Nusra Front” was at the peak of its power, “al-Zenki” joined it to preserve its areas in the western countryside of Aleppo, and upon feeling that “Tahrir al-Sham” was working to finish it internally and include it completely to its lines, “al-Zenki” realized the situation and announced its dissent and unification with “Ahrar al-Sham” to form a force to keep its areas in hold and to release the pressure placed on it, incase a confrontation with “Tahrir al-Sham” was to take place. This is actually what is happening today.

Fearing the Key to the “Euphrates Shield”

“Tahrir al-Sham” has hegemony over most of the joints in the north and controls all the crossings, which spurred a set of inquiries  about the goals it seeks to achieve from its battles against “al-Zenki” in the western countryside of Aleppo.

A military source explained to Enab Baladi that “al-Zenki’s” departure from “Tahrir al-Sham’s” lines and focusing its control over the western countryside of Aleppo, the key to the “Euphrates Shield” areas, inspired fear in “Tahrir al-Sham.”

The “Euphrates Shield” Coalition includes the factions that “Tahrir al-Sham” has eliminated in Idlib, which it fought and expelled, when HTS reached the western countryside and penetrated deep into the areas adjacent to Idlib, it was necessary to move in advance and seek to control the area.

The source said that this forced “Tahrir al-Sham” to indulge all its force to control the area prior to the end of the Operation “Olive Branch,” but “Ahrar al-Sham’s” participation in the confrontation and its attack on “Tahrir al-Sham” in southern Idlib confused the latter’s plan and entered the area into the current constant state of fighting.

In the past two months period, Enab Baladi monitored the development of the negotiations between the two sides, which arrived at a temporary truce, for a number of days, that ended rapidly pushing the situation back to fighting.

The people involved in the reconciliation between the two sides tell the details of the negotiations process, which they described as no more than procrastination, after dispute over the location of the meetings, missing the deadlines and other indications that clearly show one of the sides or both of them lack of intention to conduct an agreement.

At a military level, none of the factions succeeded in achieving their goals; however, the “Syrian Liberation Front,” managed to control most of “Tahrir al-Sham’s” area’s in Idlib’s southern countryside, unlike the fronts in the western countryside of Aleppo, where “Tahrir al-Sham” was most in control.

“Tahrir al-Sham,” according to the source, demands restoring the situation to its former state before the current “fighting.” The “Syrian Liberation,” for its turn, demands restoring it to its state before the very first fight, in which “Ahrar al-Sham” has lost the Bab al-Hawa Border Crossing.

The source said that the truces, reached in the past days, aim to realign the military lines and to ease the popular pressure objecting to the fight.

The Confrontations, Where to?

To the day, the horizon does not seem to carry any solutions for the dispute among the two factions; their fighting has escalated, the control points have been divided and the area is inflamed in a spectacle that promises of extending the confrontation’s life period and their turning into a fixed reality.

Despite the bleak image, each faction has its own shortcomings, for, according to the military information that Enab Baladi managed to get, “Tahrir al-Sham,” for example, suffers from its diminishing humane strength, after its members have left it, upon understanding that the fighting is to reach the leaders’ objectives and to impose their hegemony.

Nonetheless, this point of weakness is countered with the financial resources it accumulated through the crossings and via controlling the area’s economy, which makes it better at a logistic level, especially that it offers 50 dollars to each of its fighters on a weekly basis, according to one of its fighters, who quit the fighting.

The “Syrian Liberation Front,” contrastingly, is comfortable with the number of its fighters, for its members totally believe in the “Tahrir al-Sham” project, which started to appear in the form of hegemony imposition and controlling people.

However, it is living under the duress of a suffocating financial crisis, which makes the lingering fight a threat to its interests, for it has not paid its fighters’ salaries since a month, due to external funds cuts on the one hand and its lack of any economic resource in the governorate of Idlib on the other hand, according to Khaled al-Housary, a military leader in “Ahrar al-Sham”.

Observers expect that the fighting would not last long, for the two sides are unable to bear with the confrontation’s consequences. The expected scenarios, as well, centralize on one of the sides’ surrender to the other due to its own conditions or the persistence of the fighting, which is weakening the two factions military power, thus, opening a door for a third faction to be in control of Idlib, which was the subject  of the past  days talks about the plan aiming to give the military and economic leadership to the Turkey backed “Sham Legion.”

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