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Syria’s International Highways: “Tahrir al-Sham’s” Latest Battlefield

“Tahrir al-Sham” militants in a training course, rural Idlib – December 2018 (Tahrir al-Sham)

“Tahrir al-Sham” militants in a training course, rural Idlib – December 2018 (Tahrir al-Sham)

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The clock has started running on the period designated for the implementation of the “Sochi” deal’s second term, addressing the reopening of the two international Highways of Damascus-Aleppo and Aleppo-Latakia, after the borders of the demilitarized zone were set up and the “fundamentalist” groups removed out of Idlib governorate, for according to the deal, the International Highways are supposed to be reopened for trade and civilians in two directions before the end of 2018.  

While the remaining time gets shorter, Idlib governorate is witnessing indirect on ground action on the part of “Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham” (HTS), separate from Turkey and Russia’s, the key sides to the deal, efforts.

“Tahrir al-Sham” is trying to reinforce its control over the areas surrounding the two principle roads and distance the rest of the opposition factions, on top of which is the “National Front for Liberation.”

According to Idlib’s political and military reality, “Tahrir al-Sham” is trying to rapidly control the international highways, agreed to be reopened under the second term of the “Sochi” deal, which will turn it into a key side to any futuristic negotiation process.

Since its formation in January 2017, “Tahrir al-Sham” managed to control all Idlib’s joints; Bab al-Hawa border crossing, al-Eiss Crossing, southern rural Aleppo, Murak crossing, northern rural Hama, and the western flank of Idlib governorate, from Jisr al-Shugur to northern rural Latakia.

 

“Confrontations” Aiming at Control

In the past a few days, Idlib governorate has been a landscape for the military confrontations between “Tahrir al-Sham” and the “National Front for Liberation” in western rural Idlib, which ended with a ceasefire deal after 48 hours of fighting.

The deal’s terms’ essence was not that direct in relation to clarity because they had an indirect pattern, which reserve almost all the advantages to “Tahir al-Sham.”

According the “ceasefire” statement, which Enab Baladi managed to get a copy of on December 5, the deal provides for an immediate end of the confrontations between the two sides and the state of alarm instantly.

The deal also provided for the release of the two sides’ detainees.

The third term stated the following: “Establishing the current state of affairs”. In other words, “Tharir al-Sham” is to stay in the areas it controls, including the villages of Zayzun and Qastun, western rural Hama, without any retreat, in addition to the village of Jadraya, which used to be part of the areas held by the “Tahrir al-Sham.”

This was confirmed by Khalid Wadah, “tahrir al-Sham’s” foreign Affairs’ Official, who told Enab Baladi that the post confrontation control lines will stay as they are, unchanged.

The third term gives a clear image of “Tahrir al-Sham’s” ability at pushing the factions of the “National Front” away from the Aleppo-Latakia Highway, covered by the “Sochi” deal, signed by Russia and Turkey last September.

The confrontations between the “Tahrir al-Sham” and the “Ahrar al-Sham Movement,” dissolved into the “National Front,” have taken place in the surrounding of the Aleppo-Latakia Highway, as shown by the field control map.

On the first day of the confrontations, December 4, a source from the “Free Army,” on the condition of anonymity, told Enab Baladi, that the confrontations indicate that “Tahrir al-Sham” is indirectly negotiating with the Russians and the Turks, for, currently, it is seeking to distance the factions of the “National Front” from the vicinity of the Highway to have full control over it.

Today, “Tahrir al-Sham’s” grip is holding Idlib governorate’s joints, which will give it the ability to be basically present at any of the negotiations addressing the governorate’s fate, the source added.

Ariha Town Hinders “Tahrir al-Sham”

Another angle of the deal must be considered, that is the deal being “temporary” not permanent, which means that new confrontations between the two sides might break out in the upcoming days, expected to take place in the city of Ariha and its surrounding, as it is the most important area controlled by the “National Front” at the Aleppo-Latakia Highway.

Ariha, “Ahrar al-Sham’s” major stronghold, is the key obstacle facing “Tahrir al-Sham’s” quest for having total control over the Aleppo-Latakia Highway, which makes it one of “Tahrir al-Sham’s” principal targets in the future.

The remarkable thing is that the confrontations that took place while “Sochi” deal is yet in action and that they erupted suddenly with the Assad’s forces calling military reinforcements in Idlib governorate’s surrounding.

While “Tahrir al-Sham” held the “National Front” accountable for the “confrontations,” the latter did not officially react and restricted its statements to calls for distancing Idlib from any confrontations that might lie in the interest of the Syrian regime.

Internal Reinforcement

The above mentioned came ten days after the reinforcements brought in by “Tahrir al-Sham” to the surroundings of the city of Maarrat al-Nu’man, rural Idlib, and Darat Izza town, western rural Aleppo, as to complete its control over the Damascus-Aleppo International Highway.

“Tahrir al-Sham” is seeking to complete its control over the International Highway, by directing its focus to the city of Maarrat al-Nu’man, south-western rural Idlib, being the only area out of its control in the surrounding of the Highway, a source from the “Free Army” told Enab Baladi today on November 26.

The source, on the condition of anonymity, added that forces have been mobilized by “Tahrir al-Sham” in the past a few days to the surrounding of Maarrat al-Nu’man and Darat Izza town, western rural Aleppo, which derived a reaction of the same nature on the part of “Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya” and “Nour al-Din al-Zenki Movement”.

According to the control map, the “National Front” is in control of the Maarrat al-Nu’man city, including Hish town, the southern part of it, which is also located on the International Highway.

The “al-Sham Legion,” now dissolved in the “National Front,” is in control of the Tell Mardikh area, northern Saraqib city, and has a checkpoint at the Damascus-Aleppo International Highway, near the area.

While “Tahrir al-Sham” imposes its control over a lengthy part of the International Highway (Murak, Khan Shaykhun, Khan Tuman, al-Zirbah and Khan al-Asal).

What About the Guarantor States?

Despite the threats Turkey has, in the past a few days, directed at any side that might hinder the “Sochi” deal, on top of which are “hind liner” groups, none of these acute statements are materialized on the ground.

Russia, for its part, accused the opposition factions of violating the deal’s terms and did not comment on the artillery and missile shelling, with which Assad’s forces are targeting the towns and villages of southern and eastern rural Idlib every day.

Now that “Tahrir al-Sham” is taking action to have complete control over the international highways, while the guarantor states commit themselves to silence, a conclusion can be made, that it is in Russia’s interest that “Tahrir a-Sham” takes over the international highways, which in one way or another benefits Turkey as well.

This relates to the Sharqi al-Sika area’s deal, east of the railway, the region from where “Tahrir al-Sham” retreated though it was excluded from the “Astana” deal, for it has met all the deal’s terms in detail despite its refusal of the terms to the day.

Among the other undeclared deals that “Tahrir al-Sham” has conducted with Russia is the reopening of the Murak crossing, northern rural Hama, in addition to the reopening of the al-Eiss crossing, southern rural Aleppo.

“Tahrir al-Sham” Seeks to Complete its Control over the Damascus-Aleppo International Highway  

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