Al-Qaeda affiliate controls Syrian land once held by NLF

Shelling persists between insurgents and army as Tahrir al-Sham holds most of Idlib

Syrian civilians cross from rebel-held areas in Idlib province into regime-held territories on December 27th, 2018. Photograph:  George Ourfalian/ AFP/Getty

Syrian civilians cross from rebel-held areas in Idlib province into regime-held territories on December 27th, 2018. Photograph: George Ourfalian/ AFP/Getty

 

Battles between rival insurgent factions in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province have killed dozens of fighters over the past week and left al-Qaeda affiliate Tahrir al-Sham in control of territory formerly held by the Turkish-sponsored National Liberation Front.

Clashes began on Tuesday after Tahrir al-Sham accused an NLF faction, Nureddine al-Zinki, of killing five fighters and mounted attacks on its positions. These Sunni fundamentalist factions have have frequently fought over villages and strategic positions and assassinated each other’s leaders.

Tahrir al-Sham controls 60 per cent of Idlib while members of the NLF, a coalition originally forged by Turkey in May 1918, dominate the rest.

While Turkey and Russia imposed a ceasefire between insurgents and the Syrian army last September, the power struggle between jihadis has intensified with NLF factions emboldened to attack Tahrir al-Sham with backing from neighbouring Turkey, which has deployed hundreds of troops around Idlib.

The NLF seeks to expand territorial holdings, while Tahrir al-Sham is fighting for survival. Its fighters have no refuge outside Idlib, the last anti-government bastion in Syria.

Pockets of territory

Skirmishes and shelling also continue between insurgents and the Syrian army, deployed on the edges of Idlib and adjoining pockets of territory in Hama and Aleppo provinces. The army aims to squeeze the militants and prevent Turkey from taking over Idlib.

The Syrian government says Kurdish fighters have withdrawn from the flashpoint north-central town of Manbij, which has been held by US-supported Kurdish Protection Units (YPG) and US troops since 2016. The presence of YPG forces has prompted Ankara – which regards the YPG as an offshoot of Turkey’s irredentist Kurdish movement – to threaten to attack Manbij unless the Kurdish fighters withdrew.

Meanwhile, in a phone call on December 23rd, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan assured his US counterpart Donald Trump that once the US withdraws its 2,200 troops from Syria, a Turkish offensive against the YPG would not cause a mass outflow of refugees and a humanitarian crisis.

Turkey’s invasion of the northern Syrian Kurdish district of Afrin last year displaced half its population. The two leaders also agreed to co-operate in the campaign against the Islamic State terror group and to co-ordinate moves in northern Syria.

Trump’s timeline

Subsequently, under strong pressure from Congress and the Pentagon, Mr Trump appears to have dropped a three-to-four month timeline for a pullout, reducing the likelihood of a Turkish offensive. He said withdrawal should not endanger Washington’s Kurdish partners.

As political opponents of the Syrian government protested over their abandonment by former western and regional allies, British foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt said that “regretfully” Syrian president Bashar al-Assad would remain in power “for a while” thanks to Russian support. He argued Moscow was responsible for securing peace in the country.

Having withdrawn ambassadors in 2011, the Emirates and Bahrain have reopened embassies in Syria, while Sudan and Tunisia are set to normalise relations. The Czech ambassador, Eva Filipi, remains the sole representative of Europe and the US in Damascus.

The EU position has shifted from refusal to provide reconstruction funds while Assad is in office to saying aid could be granted if Europe was assured democratic elections would be held.