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HTS losing two pawns in Syria’s Idlib

A popular demonstration in the town of Maaret Elnaasan and the surrounding towns, denouncing the practices of the “Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham” and refusing to open a commercial crossing with the regime forces - 1 May  2020 (Enab Baladi)

A popular demonstration in the town of Maaret Elnaasan and the surrounding towns, denouncing the practices of the “Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham” and refusing to open a commercial crossing with the regime forces - 1 May  2020 (Enab Baladi)

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Enab Baladi – Ali Darwish

Hay’ at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which is controlling Syria’s north-western Idlib province, has failed to re-open commercial crossings with the Syrian regime due to the pressure posed by the popular movement. 

The Russian and Turkish forces have been reportedly able to conduct joint military patrols on the Aleppo-Latakia international highway (M4), between the villages of Tronba and Nayrab, east of Idlib, reaching east Ariha Bridge, despite the widespread public rejection, represented by “the sit-in of “al-Karama/ dignity, with which the HTS was charged.  

The patrols are part of a ceasefire agreement signed last March by Turkey, which backs some opposition factions, and Syrian regime ally Russia, to end the violence in the Idlib region that drove nearly a million people and triggered a direct confrontation between the two countries. 

The events seem to have accelerated, unlike what the HTS craves, since the clash that took place between its fighters and the Turkish forces on the M4 highway, which showed the seriousness of Ankara of what it is doing on the ground. 

HTS’s failure to re-open the crossings 

The security and military forces of the HTS faction failed to re-open the commercial crossing with the Syrian regime-held areas on 18 April, despite the pressure exerted on the population, and threats issued against the activists and journalists with arrests, while they were on the road between Saraqib and Sarmin.

The HTS’s decision to re-open the crossings was met with indignation and resentment as well as several opposing statements issued by the civil bodies, representing the areas in the province of Idlib and Hama. Many activists called on citizens to take the streets and conduct peaceful sit-ins to protest against the crossings’ re-opening.

The civil bodies, in their statements, expressed deep concerns over the greater likelihood of transmission of the deadly coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19) from the regime-controlled areas to the opposition-held ones, which prompted the “the liberated Northern Doctors Syndicate” to also warn against the re-opening of the crossings, considering it a threat to “health security” in the region. 

The HTS justified that decision by saying the trade movement saw a staggering decline in the province of Idlib, after the recent military campaign on the north-western regions of Syria, where “tens of thousands of people lost their businesses, livelihoods, and lands.” The HTS added that many traders asked to re-open the commercial crossings in the Sarmin-Saraqib area because the large population in Idlib “does not live on an isolated island cut off from the ways of life and its needs.”

Said al-Ahmad, the official of Idlib’s general directorate of crossings, as reported by Ebaa news agency, said that “the liberated areas import five percent of goods from the regime-controlled areas against 95 percent from Turkey. Meanwhile, northern Syria regions export half of their surplus products in a proportion of 90 percent to the regions held by the regime, while only 10 percent is exported to Turkey. Al-Ahmad pointed out that “export opens the ability to import, without the export of goods, residents of the liberated areas would have lived only on relief assistance.”

He added that the closure of crossings and the lack of searching for a window to facilitate the exporting of the region’s products would lead to the accumulation of goods, forcing people to stop their agricultural production.

Despite the HTS’s justification, its decision was met with the same refusal from citizens to open the new crossing between the towns of Maaret Elnaasan and Armanaz in the north-eastern countryside of Idlib. The HTS, however, announced the opening of the border for creating new trading opportunities with the Syrian regime on 30 April, authorizing the entry of many commercial trucks

Afterward, numerous civilians and activists held demonstrations on the road connecting the two towns to prevent the entry or exit of trucks. Then, simmering tensions escalated between the demonstrators and the HTS. An HTS member opened fire against the crowds, killing a civilian and wounding others, which exacerbated the popular anger rejecting its policy to re-open crossings and led to many demonstrations in the city of Idlib and its countryside, after which the HTS suspended the re-opening of the crossing.  

Russia and Turkey conducting their joint patrols for a longer distance

Turkey sent a letter to the military factions opposing the conduct of the joint Turkish-Russian patrols on 26 April, as it responded to targeting its forces by hitting the firing positions that were directed at a tank, a bulldozer, and an armored troop transport vehicles on the M4 highway. 

This armed clash was preceded by the killing of protestors, who were shot dead by the Turkish troops on the M4 highway while demonstrating against the conduct of the patrols. 

After the strike, the Russian and Turkish forces managed to conduct their patrol for the first time on 5 May of this year, for a longer distance, reaching the outskirts of the town of Mseibin. On 7 of the same month, the patrols were able to reach 300 meters east of Ariha, south of Idlib, amid a heavy Turkish security spread.

HTS’s attempt to return did not succeed

In a previous interview with Enab Baladi, the Syrian researcher in the jihadist Islamic groups, Abbas Sharifa, pointed out that the HTS, for now, entirely controls the Idlib region. However, after the Turkish intervention and the entry of the Turisk-backed Syrian National Army (SNA) into Idlib, the HTS gets wary of the removal of the control center from its hand in favor of the Turkish-backed SNA. Therefore, the HTS found its opportunity after the ceasefire and talks of conducting joint Russian-Turkish patrols and began moving its hidden hands.

The HTS, along with the so-called Salvation Government (SG) conducted a tour to the villages and cities and met with their dignitaries in order to organize civil demonstrations against Russia, demanding the return of the citizens to their homes and refusing the conduct of the Russian patrols on the M4 highway. “All their demands are rightful,” Sharifa highlighted. 

The HTS, in a statement, considered that the Russian-Turkish agreement will not be different from the previous ones, and Russia will breach it for sure. 

Recently, a change in the position of the HTS with regard to the Russian-Turkish patrols on the M4 international road has been detected; the HTS moved from supporting the protesters and mobilizing them to refuse to conduct patrols, and then an HTS-linked checkpoint prevent some people from reaching the protests held on the highway. 

However, the HTS justified this incident in a statement issued on 8 May, saying that it supported and blessed the sit-in of the civilians, activists, and media professionals on the international road.

The HTS  added that it “did not prevent anyone from going to express his opinion and his position against the enemy.” The HTS justified what happened that “an HTS-affiliated checkpoint prevented some people from passing from one of the roads leading to the M4 highway, where they were then transferred to other roads for reasons considered by the HTS-linked checkpoints, noting that the roads are still open.”

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Russian President Vladimir Putin signed the Moscow agreement on 5 March,  stipulating the establishment of a ceasefire—after military campaigns carried out by the Russian-backed Syrian regime, during which the regime managed to re-control the Damascus-Aleppo (M5) international road—and the conduct of joint patrols on the Lattakia-Aleppo (M4) highway. Besides, the task of Ankara is to deal with groups Russia classify as “terrorists” in Idlib, including the HTS.

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