Clashes in Idlib as opposition groups vie for control

Fighters from the National Liberation Front walk through the rubble of a building in the Al-Rashidin District in Idlib province, on Nov. 26. (AFP)
Updated 06 December 2018
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Clashes in Idlib as opposition groups vie for control

  • Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) militants targeted the Ankara-backed National Liberation Front (NLF) in two towns in Idlib in a series of attacks since Monday
  • Control of the M4 and M5 highways between Aleppo and Latakia offers HTS militants a financial lifeline

ANKARA, Turkey: Attacks by Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) militants in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province were an attempt by the Daesh-backed alliance to strengthen its grip on the region and frighten other factions into submission, analysts said.

HTS fighters targeted the Ankara-backed National Liberation Front (NLF) in two towns in Idlib in a series of attacks since Monday, provoking intense clashes. 

The Syrian Observatory of Human Rights, a UK-based war monitor, reported shelling and rocket exchanges around the areas of Latamna and Al-Sarmani, north of the city of Homs.

Areas around Aleppo were also targeted. An NLF military vehicle was badly damaged by shellfire in Al-Atarib, in western Aleppo.

Schools in the opposition-controlled enclave were closed because of the fighting.

The HTS alliance is the dominant force in Idlib, Syria’s last opposition stronghold, which is covered by a deal backed by Turkey and Russia to prevent a regime assault. NLF is made up of 11 rebel groups and fighters from the Free Syrian Army. 

In the latest clashes, rebels surrounded five villages, all close to the main Aleppo-Latakia highway. 

Control of the M4 and M5 highways between Aleppo and Latakia offers HTS militants a financial lifeline, observers said. 

According to an agreement brokered on Sept. 17 by Moscow and Ankara, the highways will be open to free trade by the end of 2018. 

Experts said that with the standoff over Idlib far from resolved, HTS militants were also seeking to increase their bargaining power with Russia and Turkey as the fragile truce crumbles. 

Two deadlines for implementation of the Idlib demilitarization deal in early October passed without the withdrawal of an estimated 10,000 militants in the region. 

The withdrawal was designed to allow the creation of a demilitarized zone to be jointly patrolled by Russian and Turkish forces. 

“HTS presents a headache for Turkey primarily because the Turkish government took responsibility for clearing the demilitarized zone in Idlib,” Timur Akhmetov, a researcher at the Russian International Affairs Council, told Arab News. 

According to Akhmetov, Russia has acknowledged that Turkey is “doing its best,” but has made it clear the present situation cannot be maintained forever. 

“Clashes between HTS and the Ankara-backed NLF can be viewed by Russia as a part of Turkish efforts to change the balance of power in Idlib. For Russia it is a positive trend since HTS, the most powerful faction in the region, is increasingly challenged by Turkey,” he said. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin recently held talks with his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan on the setting up of a new quadrilateral summit on Syria, with Germany and France brought into the settlement process. 

Navvar Saban, a military analyst at the Omran Center for Strategic Studies in Istanbul, told Arab News that the latest clashes were also related to a power struggle between HTS and NLF over a local council. 

According to Saban, HTS gained popularity by not only being the strongest but also the most brutal faction in Idlib. 

“A significant part of the latest clashes is related to maintaining control over the infrastructure, because most of the factions depend on this for income and lack external channels to ensure survival,” he said. 

Local income sources include people smuggling with fees of up to $500 per person. 

“HTS has several checkpoints on the smuggling zones, which are a major income source for them. They have links with the smuggling networks,” Saban said. 


Netanyahu in Washington with Golan Heights recognition on tap

Updated 24 March 2019
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Netanyahu in Washington with Golan Heights recognition on tap

  • Trump broke longstanding international consensus last week over the status of the Golan Heights, which Israel seized from Syria in 1967
  • Israel’s foreign minister said the US president will recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights

WASHINGTON: Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrived in Washington Sunday, looking for an electoral boost from Donald Trump amid expectations the US president will formally recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights.
Trump broke longstanding international consensus last week over the status of the Golan Heights, which Israel seized from Syria in the 1967 Six Day War, saying the US should recognize Israeli sovereignty over the strategic plateau.
Israel’s foreign minister said the US president will go one step further on Monday when he welcomes a grateful Netanyahu to the White House.
“President Trump will sign tomorrow in the presence of PM Netanyahu an order recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights,” Foreign Minister Israel Katz wrote on Twitter on Sunday.
Netanyahu has long pushed for such recognition, and many analysts saw Trump’s statement, which came in a tweet on Thursday, as a campaign gift ahead of Israel’s April 9 polls.
The prime minister is locked in a tough election fight with a centrist political alliance headed by former military chief Benny Gantz and ex-finance minister Yair Lapid.
New opinion polls last week showed Netanyahu losing ground to his electoral rivals, and the Washington visit was seen as an opportunity to regain momentum.
The prime minister has a “working meeting” at the White House on Monday and a dinner on Tuesday.
Also Tuesday, he is to address the annual conference in Washington of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Gantz speaks at the high-profile event on Monday.
The Golan Heights decision is the latest major move in favor of Israel by Trump, who in 2017 recognized the disputed city of Jerusalem as the country’s capital.
Syria and other states in the region condemned Trump’s pledge, saying it violates international law. France said the same.
Israel annexed the Golan Heights in 1981 in a move never recognized by the international community.
Netanyahu phoned Trump to tell him he had made “history,” and called the gesture a “Purim miracle,” a reference to the Jewish holiday that Israel was celebrating that day.
Although Trump professed no knowledge of the Israeli politics in play, Netanyahu’s relationship with the US president has long been a central feature of his campaign.
Trump appears on giant campaign billboards in Israel shaking hands and smiling with Netanyahu, and the premier has shared video of the US leader calling him “strong” and a “winner.”
On the same day as Trump’s Golan Heights tweet, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was in Jerusalem, where he joined Netanyahu in a visit to the historic Western Wall, offering his host a prime pre-election photo opportunity.
It was the first time such a high-ranking American official had visited one of the holiest sites in Judaism, located in mainly Palestinian east Jerusalem, with an Israeli premier.
Trump relies on pro-Israel evangelical Christians as part of his electoral base and has moved US policy firmly in Israel’s favor.

But Netanyahu has also deployed his considerable powers of persuasion to charm the mercurial president he calls his “friend.”
“Trump is very affected by personal things, and Bibi’s stroked him a lot,” said Jonathan Rynhold, a political science professor at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University, using Netanyahu’s nickname.
“I’m sure he’s also very affected by the last thing that was said to him, so whispering in his ear is (Trump’s son-in-law Jared) Kushner, who’s got a good relationship with Bibi.”
There has been talk in recent weeks about similarities in style between Trump and Netanyahu — although there are key differences.
Michael Oren, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States and now a deputy minister for diplomacy, said “they share a disdain for political correctness.”
Using phrases that echo Trump’s, Netanyahu has castigated the corruption investigations into his affairs as a “witch hunt” and a plot aimed at forcing him from office.
He has sought to demonize his enemies and brokered a deal with an extreme-right political party many view as racist.
Like Trump, he has employed the phrase “fake news” to combat tough coverage of him.
But, as Rynhold points out, underneath the rhetoric the 69-year-old Netanyahu is an “extremely cautious politician,” intensely attuned to the direction of the electoral winds.
He has been prime minister for a total of 13 years and will be on track to surpass founding father David Ben-Gurion as Israel’s longest-serving premier if he wins next month.