BEIRUT—A strong extremist group seized management of most of Syria’s final opposition stronghold on Thursday, threatening a fragile stop fireplace supposed to avert a Syrian navy offensive and sure humanitarian disaster.

Russia and Turkey reached a deal in September to create a demilitarized buffer zone in northwest Idlib province to forestall a Syrian authorities offensive towards insurgent teams, lots of whom are backed by Ankara. The truce has largely held since mid-October regardless of the actions of 1 terrorist group there—Hayat Tahrir al-Sham—which refuses to abide by it.

However over the previous two weeks, the group has stepped up assaults on the Turkish-backed insurgent teams and brought management over many cities. Then on Thursday, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham struck a truce with these rival teams, giving it administrative management over almost all of Idlib and small surrounding areas, in line with a replica of the handwritten settlement posted on-line.

Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which developed from the al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Entrance, is designated a terrorist group by the U.S. and different international locations. It has mentioned the cease-fire deal in Idlib was a plot to weaken opposition to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The group’s takeover may immediate the Syrian navy to assault Idlib because it violates the demilitarization settlement signed in Sochi, Russia. Mr. Assad’s regime has frequently used the presence of extremist teams, even in small numbers, as a pretense for breaking earlier ceasefire agreements.

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With the backing of Russia, the Assad regime has reasserted its management over a lot of Syria prior to now two years, however not all. Along with rebel-held Idlib, U.S.-backed Kurdish forces management a swath of the nation’s northeast.

“What Hayat Tahrir al-Sham has completed has added problems to a big diploma,” mentioned Col. Fateh Hassoun, a former Syrian navy officer who’s now a commander within the Nationwide Liberation Entrance, the Turkish-backed coalition of insurgent factions which got here below assault by the extremist group. “The complete north is now in a bottleneck.”

Turkey was already placing nice effort to take care of the demilitarization settlement and resolve problems with Russia, he mentioned. Turkey stands on reverse sides with Russia on the Syrian battle, supporting some mainstream armed insurgent teams towards the Moscow-backed Assad authorities.

Turkey’s success or failure in retaining Idlib peaceable may have large repercussions at a time when Ankara is negotiating to exchange U.S. troops stationed in northeastern Syria that President Trump has ordered again dwelling.

The plan, hashed out by Mr. Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan over the phone final month, was thrown into query this week when American officers mentioned a deal was contingent on Turkey pledging to guard the U.S.-allied Syrian Kurdish fighters. Mr. Erdogan mentioned the U.S. demand was unacceptable as a result of Turkey regards them as terrorists.

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An additional unfold of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham forces on the bottom in Idlib may power Turkey to have interaction in fights on a number of fronts and complicate its relations with Russia.

Mr. Erdogan repeated this week that an assault on the YPG, a Syrian Kurdish militia affiliated with a Turkish separatist group, was imminent. As Ankara and its allied forces in Syria put together to assault areas below management of the U.S.-backed Kurdish forces, a battle in Idlib may distract it.

“The survival or collapse of the Sochi settlement has extra to do with the understanding between Turkey and Russia than the adjustments in Idlib,” mentioned Ahmad Abazeid, an impartial Syrian analyst. “However there’s little doubt that Hayat Tahrir al-Sham’s management…places Turkey in a troublesome place and exposes it to extra Russian blackmail.”

Turkey, which hosts an estimated 3.5 million folks from Syria, additionally fears {that a} protracted battle for Idlib will ship much more refugees making an attempt to cross its border. Idlib is dwelling to an estimated three million folks—the overwhelming majority of them civilians and about half displaced from elsewhere in Syria.

Turkey’s Overseas Minister Mevlut Çavuşoğlu mentioned Thursday that the combating between the 2 sides in Idlib didn’t violate the demilitarization settlement, which continued to carry. Russia’s presidential press workplace didn’t reply to a request for remark.

From the outset of the cease-fire pact, one of many greatest challenges it confronted was from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and its unwillingness to abide by the deal’s circumstances. The group has had an advanced relationship with the extra reasonable rebels for years–sometimes allying with them towards Syrian authorities forces, however at different instances thwarting opposition positive factors and pursuits.

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Heavy rains have flooded the makeshift shelters where displaced people are living near the village of Atme, Syria.

Heavy rains have flooded the makeshift shelters the place displaced persons are residing close to the village of Atme, Syria.


aaref watad/Agence France-Presse/Getty Photographs

The clashes in Idlib additionally come as northwest Syria, the place greater than 1,000,000 of displaced Syrians stay in ramshackle tent encampments, was hit by a brutal winter storm inflicting flooding and freezing temperatures. The United Nations has known as Idlib the most important refugee camp on earth.

Many residents are frightened of what Hayat Tahrir al-Sham management may imply for civilian life. The group has beforehand tried to implement legal guidelines primarily based on its excessive interpretation of Islam together with requiring girls to put on face veils, banning smoking and requiring a separation of genders in universities.

Whereas clashes have stopped for now, the battle for management of the stronghold shouldn’t be over, Col. Hassoun mentioned.

Write to Raja Abdulrahim at [email protected]


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