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Idlib Awaits “Tahrir al-Sham’s” Next Step

The graduation of a group of troops under “Tahrir al-Sham” – August 2018 (AFP)

The graduation of a group of troops under “Tahrir al-Sham” – August 2018 (AFP)

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Idlib is waiting for “Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham” (HTS) next steps, as to alienate the governorate from the battles promoted by Assad’s forces and allied militias.

Despite the lack of declared changes in “HTS” policies, “secret” movements in the past a few days, were classified under talks addressing the near end of the governorate’s most controversial matter, the “terrorism” pretext.

“Tahrir al-Sham” is the fundamental pretext that the Syrian regime and Russia refer to as to start the military operation towards Idlib, for the group is on the lists of “terrorism” and is excluded from the “de-escalation” agreement, signed by the guarantor states (Turkey, Iran, Russia).

Throughout the past months, “Tahrir al-Sham” refused to dissolve itself as the rest of the military factions in Idlib did, an attitude presented by migrant leaders, known for being part of “HTS” most religiously strict wing, such as “Abu Yqthan al-Masri” and “Abu al-Fath al-Ferghali.” This corresponded to talks about a rift within the group between a part that demands putting an end to the international seclusion and a party which wants to fight Turkey and the factions it is supporting, for instance, “Ahrar al-Sham” and the “Free Army.”

 

“Tahrir al-Sham” is one of the key factions in Northern Syria, dividing its military operations to sectors, with a number of formations functioning under it, the most prominent of which are “Jaysh al-Malahem,” “Jaysh al-Sahel,” “Jaysh al-Badia,” “Saraya al-Sahel” and “Jund al-Sharia.”

 

 

 

Deadline: The “National Front” Gets into Action

In the past a few days, Idlib witnessed several developments, on top of which is the merger of the factions under the “National Front for Liberation,” which receives military support from Turkey, which played the major role in the formation of the latter, following a meeting it conducted in Ankara, bringing together a number of factions’ commanders, forcing them to merge in a proactive step prior to any military operations on the part of the regime.

The new body excluded “Tahrir al-Sham” and “Jaysh al-Izza” (Army of Glory), while questions where raised about the possibility of including “Tahrir al-Sham” in the upcoming days as to eliminate the pretext that Russians are counting on.

According to what military sources from the “Free Army” has told Enab Baladi, on the condition of anonymity, Turkey has given “HTS” a deadline to merge and dissolve itself, in correspondence to movements on the part of the “National Front” which sought to attract fighter groups of “Tahrir al-Sham” within its lines.

The sources added that the next days are supposed to witness dissent on the part of “HTS” affiliated groups, announcing integration with the “National Front,” which will weaken “Tahrir al-Sham,” forcing it to dissolve itself at the end.

What cannot be ignored is some of “HTS” currents’ relationship with Turkey, which started to summon the party demanding an end to the international seclusion, stressing, thus, the movements that Turkey undertook in the first days of spreading the “observation” points in Northern Syria, especially in the western countryside of Aleppo, for “Tahrir al-Sham,” back then,” has accompanied the Turkish army’s convoys, playing an important role in protecting it, one that it is yet playing.

It can be said that Turkey is currently running the affairs of a sufficient party of “Tahrir al-Sham,” which relates to what lately happened during the battles in the eastern countryside, following “Tahrir al-sham’s” retreat from large areas, in sync with “Astana6” deal, which positioned the eastern countryside of Idlib under the direct control of the Syrian regime and the Russians, which, at the time, showed “Tahrir al-Sham” as implementing the terms agreed upon internationally, alongside the “Free Army” factions which used to function in the area.

The above-mentioned thread of analysis leads to an interview with the political affairs official in “Tahrir al-Sham,” Yousef al-Hajr, with “Al Jazeera,” last May, that has been deleted by the channel a few days later and “Tahrir al-Sham” has circulated and published on its platforms prior to the deletion.

In the interview, al-Hjr spoke of the “strong” relationship that joins Turkey and “Tahrir al-Sham,” saying that “we played a role in their entrance and installation, and failed the counter-revolutionaries, who wanted the break out of a combat between the revolution and its ally, when they placed the Turkish side in front of an international deal, providing for the position of observation points.”

Since “HTS” is the principal faction in Northern Syria, al-Hajr explained that “it has to be the party in control of the matter, for we have made this decision following Sharia and Shoura consultations and discussions with the wise and opinion people, and managed to preserve our revolutionary choice, in addition to empowering the Turkish ally.”

 

Dismantling the Shoura Councils

The “secret” steps undertaken by “Tahrir al-Sham” in Idlib included dismantling its affiliate Shoura councils in the northern countryside of Hama and allocating its management to the local councils in the concerned areas.

In an inside statement, published on social media platforms, on August 17, “HTS” has dissolved all the Shoura councils functioning in rural Hama, considering that the local councils are the only authority and the legal representative of the people. The statement also provided for cancelling all the seals used by the Shoura councils and handing them over to the local council, based on their category, as to run the area.

“Tahrir al-sham,” in its internal statement, said that the administrative order came as a result to contradiction between the local councils’ and the Shoura councils work in the villages of the area, assigning the commander “Abu Radwan al-Khtabi” the task of follow up until implementation.

This step is considered an important initiative taking into consideration “Tahrir al-Sham’s” policies, which have been repeatedly criticized in the areas under its control, expanding between rural Hama and Idlib governorate. Civilians have been demanding that authority be given to civil entities and that military rule be eliminated.

In correspondence with the dismantling of the Shoura councils, the “Salvation Government” suffered from a problem at the end of 2017, as  it witnessed a division between personalities which adopt “Tahrir al-Sham’s” doctrine and others who refuse it, the reason why the President of the Government Mohammad al-Shaikh has resigned in a statement given to journalists during a press conference, without stressing his resignation in an official statement, thus, forcing the government’s foundation committee to allocate the task of forming the new government to the head of the Chamber of Commerce Fwaz Hlal.

The rift within the “Salvation Government” is not new, but it appeared at the surface recently, and Enab Baladi managed to contact informed sources, which reported that the “Foundation Committee” has proposed that the “National Front” and “Tahrir al-Sham” form a new government instead of the current one. However, “HTS” refused, viewing the act as a step backwards, which can be also translated into accepting to dissolve itself.

 

Enhancements Confirm that the Turks Are Staying

On the other, most important, side in Idlib’s affairs, Turkey continues to enhance the observation points, it spread in the governorate, a thing that attests for its steadfastness and refutes the analyses that expect its intention to retreat, in case a military operation was to be undertaken by the Russians and the Syrian regime.

Last week has been a witness to unusual enhancements, for the Turkish army has sent armored vehicles and “upgraded” tanks to the Turkish borders with Idlib governorate. Turkish media outlets have reported that the enhancement include military trucks, which arrived at the province of Hatay, southern Turkey, coming from different military units across the state.

They explained that the trucks are transferring “M60T” tanks, which have been upgraded after the operation “Euphrates Shield,” in the northern countryside of Aleppo. This step was preceded by enhancing the Murak observation point with well-equipped guard-posts.

The enhancements did not stop at this limit, for several observation points started meeting with the well-known figures of villages in rural Idlib, giving them reassurances that Assad’s forces will not progress towards Idlib, and that Assad’s forces mobilization are a “psychological” war only.

On the condition of anonymity, a military source from the “Free Army” said that the enhancements that arrived in Hatay will enter Syria to empower the observation points, especially the al-Eiss point, southern rural Aleppo, and Murak, northern rural Hama.

The source added that enhancements are defence-based and are not fighters, and Turkey in the upcoming days will replace 90% of its troops at the observation points with the military forces that reached Hatay.

Since the beginning of 2018, the Turkish army has installed 12 monitoring points in Idlib, under the “de-scalation” agreement.

The Turkish army, in terms of spreading in Idlib, has focused on “strategic” points, based on their proximity to Assad’s forces and Russian positions or their geography, in terms of height and military view.

According to the source, “intelligence” information has reached the Turkish army about the arrival of 1500 “Syrian Democratic Forces” (SDF) fighters to southern rural Aleppo fronts, from the Syrian regime’s side.

The source added that the fighters’ arrival aims to distract the opposition factions from the eastern rural Idlib and northern rural Hama fronts by focusing on southern rural Aleppo.

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