Tahrir al-Sham sends messages through “show of strength” in northern Syria

Fighters of the Red Bands Brigades affiliated with Hayat Tahrir al-Sham during an honoring ceremony by the leader of Tahrir al-Sham, Abu Mohammad al-Jolani - November 2022 (Amjad Media)

Fighters of the Red Bands Brigades affiliated with Hayat Tahrir al-Sham during an honoring ceremony by the leader of Tahrir al-Sham, Abu Mohammad al-Jolani - November 2022 (Amjad Media)

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Enab Baladi – Hassan Ibrahim

Hayat Tahrir al-Sham has carried out military operations in recent weeks against the Syrian regime forces in separate places behind the contact lines in the areas it controls in northern Syria.

Swift “infiltration” operations have increased in frequency in the province of Idlib and part of the western countryside of Aleppo, the countryside of Latakia, the al-Ghab Plain, and northwestern Hama, but they have not changed the map of military control in northwestern Syria.

It also coincided with talk of a rapprochement between Turkey and the Syrian regime, and it came after an attack launched by Tahrir al-Sham on the areas controlled by the Syrian National Army (SNA) supported by Ankara in the northern countryside of Aleppo.

These operations were launched by fighters in various brigades under the banner of HTS led by “elite” forces trained in these operations, such as the Special Forces, the Red Bands, the Khaled bin al-Walid Brigades, and Unit 82.

News of the operations topped the accounts of the HTS and its allied media and won praise from its senior Shariah men and commanders, opening the door to questions about its timing and purpose.

Infiltrators behind the lines

Successive infiltration operations on separate points behind the lines begin by penetrating or circumventing the points of the regime forces, clashing with their members and killing them, and confiscating their weapons as spoils. Some of them included the bombing of the entire military point building after the end of the operation.

The most recent of these operations was the raid of the Khaled bin al-Walid Brigades of the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham on two gatherings of the regime forces in the axes of Maarat Mukhas and al-Bureij, south of Idlib, with two infiltration operations, on 22 December, which resulted in the killing of 15 members of the regime forces. Others were wounded, and a tank was destroyed.

On the 18th of the same month, fighters in the Talha bin Obaid Allah brigade carried out a “light infiltration” operation against the rear points of the regime forces in the Arbeekh front in the eastern countryside of Idlib, and they managed to kill more than 12 members of the regime forces and wound a number of others, and seize their weapons and ammunition.

The fighters were also able to booby-trap and destroy most of the points they had infiltrated into, and they returned to their positions without losses, according to information that Salim al-Raja’i, a member of Tahrir al-Sham told Enab Baladi.

On 17 December, fighters of the Saad bin Abi Waqqas brigade carried out an infiltration operation on the Qubtan al-Jabal axis in the western countryside of Aleppo, killing a number of regime forces (without specifying the number), and took control of their positions, blew them up and returned without injuries, according to al-Raja’i.

On 10 December, fighters from the al-Zubair bin al-Awam brigade carried out an operation on the axis of the village of Dadikh in the eastern countryside of Idlib, and fighters from the Muawiya bin Abi Sufyan brigade carried out another operation on the axis of the village of al-Bayda in the northern countryside of Latakia.

All operations were accompanied by thanks and praise from the Sharia leaders of Tahrir al-Sham, most notably the head of the Sharia council in it, Abd al-Rahim Atoun (Abu Abdullah al-Shami), and the military leader in the Tahrir al-Sham, Maysar bin Ali al-Jubouri (al-Harari), known as Abu Maria al-Qahtani. 

Elite fighters of the HTS-affiliated Talha bin Obaid Allah brigade prior to carrying out an operation on regime forces in the al-Abeekh axis in the eastern countryside of Idlib - December 2022 (Mohammad Othman/Telegram)

Elite fighters of the HTS-affiliated Talha bin Obaid Allah brigade prior to carrying out an operation on regime forces in the al-Abeekh axis in the eastern countryside of Idlib – December 2022 (Mohammad Othman/Telegram)

What about losses?

Some infiltration operations of Tahrir al-Sham pass without casualties on its side, according to what it announces, while some operations recorded the death of all their members, and that happened last November when three members of the Red Bands were killed in an operation on the Tarmla and Joreen axis, west of Hama city.

At the time, the operation was a response to the targeting of the regime forces and the subsequent Russian air strikes on the camps for the displaced near the village of Kafr Jales and Moreen, northwest of Idlib, killing ten civilians and wounding 75.

The losses among the regime forces announced by HTS are not mentioned by the regime’s official media, while loyal news accounts publish them, in addition to simultaneous obituaries for members of its forces in the area of engagement or targeting.

On 8 December, the Ministry of Defense of the regime’s government said that its forces had killed “two terrorists,” wounded two, and captured a soldier after carrying out a “tight ambush” in the countryside of Latakia, and published a video recording showing confessions of a bloodied person who says he belongs to the opposition’s First Coastal Division. 

The fighter confessed that he was with his comrades on a military mission to reconnoiter the locations of the regime forces on that front.

The Coastal Division operating in the Latakia countryside did not comment on the incident, nor did the HTS, which has military influence in the region.

Whereas, military accounts published a different story, in which it said that the speaker in the recording and his companions were collecting firewood near that area for heating or to sell firewood later, but they got too close to the areas where members of the regime forces were stationed, which led to their arrest and that they do not belong to any faction.

Fighters of the HTS-affiliated Talha bin Obaid Allah Brigade stormed the positions of the regime forces in the al-Arbeekh axis in the eastern countryside of Idlib - December 2022 (Amjad Media)

Fighters of the HTS-affiliated Talha bin Obaid Allah Brigade stormed the positions of the regime forces in the al-Arbeekh axis in the eastern countryside of Idlib – December 2022 (Amjad Media)

Messages in and out

The infiltration operations come after an attack launched by Tahrir al-Sham on the headquarters and locations in the countryside of Aleppo of the Third Corps, affiliated with the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army and allied with the Hamza Division (al-Hamzat) and the Sultan Suleiman Shah Division (al-Amshat) as well.

The fighting, which left dozens killed and wounded, was halted after an indirect Turkish intervention through the SNA-affiliated Hayat Thaeron for Liberation and international and regional parties condemned the HTS attack, most notably the US, which demanded an immediate HTS withdrawal.

Numerous criticisms were directed against the HTS assaults against SNA factions, stating that such an offensive should be launched against regime forces amidst accusations against Tahrir al-Sham of looting funds and ammunition of the National Army factions.

Abudl-Rahman al-Haj, an expert on religious movements, considers that the operations of Tahrir al-Sham carry multidimensional messages to the interior represented by the “popular incubator of the revolution,” the West, and Turkey.

Dr. al-Haj explained to Enab Baladi that the propaganda promotion of the infiltration operations comes as a form of countering the propaganda directed against Tahrir al-Sham after its attack on the Third Corps in the countryside of Aleppo and its attempt to control northern Syria under the slogan of “unifying the factions by force,” and gaining popular support.

The researcher pointed out that Tahrir al-Sham has allied itself with factions known for “corruption and drug trafficking” (al-Hamzat and al-Amshat).

The same factions were also linked to the crime of assassinating the media activist Muhammad Abdel-Latif (Abu Ghanoum) in the eastern countryside of Aleppo, and it was forced to withdraw at a Turkish request, and therefore HTS faces a justified question about the large number of deaths caused by an unnecessary operation, according to Dr. al-Haj.

The infiltration operations carry messages to the West, according to the researcher, who stated that Tahrir al-Sham wants to confirm that it has a high combat readiness, which can be relied upon in the face of any agreements that may lead to a settlement with the Syrian regime.

It also wants to stress that its internal battles do not mean that it is no longer able to launch attacks against the regime, just as it wants to say that its main enemy is still the Syrian regime, and it is not just an “extreme terrorist organization” that wants to destroy the “moderate Free Army.”

The operations are also a message to Turkey that Tahrir al-Sham is ready to open fronts with the regime if future settlements were against its interests, as the propaganda operation is taking place in the context of accelerating Turkish steps to rapprochement with the Syrian regime, al-Haj added.

The operations coincide with the escalation of talk about a rapprochement between Turkey and the Syrian regime.

The Turkish president on 5 January said after an upcoming foreign ministers meeting, the leaders of Russia, Türkiye, and Syria may also meet to discuss peace and stability in Syria, depending on developments, according to Anadolu news agency.

Turkish, Russian, and Syrian defense ministers and intelligence chiefs came together in Moscow, he said, adding that “hopefully, the foreign ministers will come together in a trilateral format.”

 

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