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. 


Palestine, Egypt offer air support as Israel battles wildfires

A firefighting aircraft flies over a forest near Kibbutz Harel, which was damaged by wildfires during a record heatwave, in Israel May 24, 2019. (REUTERS)
Updated 25 May 2019
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Palestine, Egypt offer air support as Israel battles wildfires

  • Thousands of people were evacuated from their homes on Thursday as fires raged
  • The fires were fueled by high temperatures and dry condition

JERUSALEM: Egypt and four European countries sent aircraft to help Israel battle wildfires that have forced the evacuation of some small towns, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Friday, as a record heatwave looked set to worsen conditions.
At an emergency briefing, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel had appealed for international help to combat the fires, and that firefighting planes were coming in from Greece, Croatia, Italy and Cyprus.
Egypt, on the orders of President Abdel-Fatah El-Sisi, had also sent two helicopters to assist Israel, Netanyahu told reporters.
The Palestinian Authority and Russia had also offered help, Netanyahu said.
Israel braced for wildfires on Friday amid a major heat wave that shows no signs of abating.
Israel “really appreciates” the help, Netanyahu said, singling out El-Sisi for sending aid.
“I am deeply thankful for the readiness of neighbors to help us in a time of crisis, just as we help them,” Netanyahu said.
Israel’s Fire and Rescue Service said blazes in a key corridor between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv were mostly under control but difficult weather remained a conflagration risk.
“As of this moment, this (containment) is being done in the best possible way, but the challenge is yet ahead of us given the weather conditions, the winds and the extreme heat,” Netanyahu said.
Some 3,500 residents of small towns in the path of the fires were evacuated on Thursday, officials said. Dozens of homes have burned down.

Evacuations
Thousands of people were evacuated from towns and dozens of homes were burned on Thursday as fires raged, fueled by high temperatures and dry conditions. Over 500 acres of woodland have burned, said Nitai Zecharya, an Israeli official from the Jewish National Fund, known for planting forests in the country.
Zecharya said that while firefighters had brought most of the blaze under control, officials remained “very stressed” about strong winds fanning flames and “spreading fires to other fronts.”
The cause of the fires remains unclear, but they erupted following the Jewish festival of Lag Ba’Omer, which observers mark with bonfires.
A sweltering heat wave is pushing temperatures in parts of the country up to 110 degrees Fahrenheit, or 43 Celsius.