A battle of nerves for the control of Idlib ­­city

YPG rebels head a convoy of US vehicles in the town of Darbasiya. (Reuters)_
Updated 11 January 2019
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A battle of nerves for the control of Idlib ­­city

  • A deal was struck between opposition-backer Turkey and Damascus ally Russia in September to stave off a threatened government offensive on Idlib

BEIRUT: The Idlib area in northern Syria is now fully ruled by Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS), a militant organization dominated by members of Al-Qaeda’s former affiliate.

Some of the other factions in the region are already allies, the others will either have to leave to other areas or be absorbed into the so-called Salvation Government run by the HTS.

How was this de-facto “emirate” allowed to consolidate and what consequences could it have for the nearly eight-year-old Syrian conflict and its main protagonists?

A deal was struck between opposition-backer Turkey and Damascus ally Russia in September to stave off a threatened government offensive on Idlib.

It has successfully prevented a massive Russian-backed regime assault on an area that is home to around 3 million people but its terms have remained unfulfilled.

Moscow had tasked Turkey, whose proxies fell under an umbrella known as the National Liberation Front (NLF), with disarming hard-line factions in Idlib.

It failed to do so and it was HTS that went on the offensive instead.

They made rapid gains and intense clashes that left more than 130 dead this year, which led to a deal on Thursday that saw the two Turkish-backed remaining factions stand down, capping the militants’ clean sweep.

Turkey, which has troops deployed in parts of Idlib and elsewhere in northern Syria, appeared to do little to stop HTS’ expansion.

“Turkey didn’t prevent HTS’ takeover, but it’s not obvious that it was in a position to do so,” said Sam Heller, an analyst with the International Crisis Group.

HTS has an estimated 25,000 seasoned and well-armed fighters in its bastion, and has long been the dominant force in Idlib.

The militants’ lightning advance across Idlib earlier this year mark an unequivocal defeat for several outfits that were directly supported by Turkey.

“For Turkey, it’s the defeat of its allies,” said Fabrice Balanche, a Syria expert and geographer.

Two factions in the Turkey-backed NLF that had been battling HTS stood down and signed the deal on Thursday which essentially sees them absorbed.

Ahrar Al-Sham and Suqur Al-Sham said they were keeping some of their forces in the Idlib area for now, but they will fall under the newly expanded administration of the Salvation Government.

Just like the forces from the Nureddine Al-Zinki group that HTS defeated last week, the rebels who reject militant rule will most likely relocate to other Turkish-controlled areas such as Afrin.

Turkey has been training and equipping Syrian proxies to use against the Kurdish militia that controls the northeast of the country.

They have threatened a cross-border assault against the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), but the main deterrent has been the presence of a US-led coalition.

The troop pullout announced by US President Donald Trump last month, and which the coalition confirmed on Friday was under way, could clear the way for a Turkish offensive.

HTS’ takeover of Idlib means the terms of a deal reached in the Russian resort of Sochi on Sept. 17 have not been respected.

After the agreement with Damascus sponsor Russia, Turkey was tasked with using its proxies in Idlib to rein in militants.

The Sochi deal froze a threatened Russian-backed government offensive which had seemed imminent four months ago.

An onslaught on the area would have caused an unprecedented humanitarian catastrophe.

Turkey, which already provides shelter to 3.6 million Syria refugees, is keen to avoid a fresh round of violence that could spark another wave of displacement.

The HTS takeover revives the threat of a Syrian offensive but Balanche predicted it might not be the regime’s priority.

“The Russians are ready to attack at any moment but they won’t do it,” he said.

“They are using (Turkish President Recep Tayyip) Erdogan to put pressure on the Americans to leave northeastern Syria,” he said.

Turkey on Thursday reacted angrily to the mixed messages the US administration has been sending about the pace of the troop withdrawal, and warned that any further delay would prompt it to trigger its invasion.


Netanyahu to cut US trip short after rocket attack near Tel Aviv

Updated 10 min 30 sec ago
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Netanyahu to cut US trip short after rocket attack near Tel Aviv

  • Netanyahu said the incident will evoke a strong Israeli reaction
  • Palestinian rockets rarely reach an area at that distance from Gaza

MISHMERET/JERUSALEM: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Monday that he is to cut short his trip to the United States after a rocket attack near Tel Aviv.

“In light of the security events I decided to cut short my visit to the US,” Netanyahu said, calling the attack a heinous crime that would draw a strong Israeli response.

He said he would meet with President Donald Trump in the coming hours and then fly back immediately.

A rocket fired from the Gaza Strip hit a house in a community north of Tel Aviv and caused it to catch fire, wounding seven Israelis, authorities and medics said.

Israel’s army said the rocket was fired from the Palestinian enclave run by Islamist movement Hamas, raising the risk of another escalation between the two sides just ahead of April 9 Israeli elections.

The house hit was located in the community of Mishmeret, police said. Medics said they were treating one Israeli with moderate wounds and four others injured lightly.

Mishmeret is more than 80 kilometers from the Gaza Strip and rocket fire from the Palestinian enclave at that distance is rare.

Monday’s incident comes after two rockets were fired from Gaza toward Tel Aviv — also rare — on March 14.

No damage or injuries were caused, but Israel responded to that and further rocket fire by hitting what it said were around 100 Hamas targets across the Gaza Strip.

Four Palestinians were reported wounded in those strikes.

Both Hamas and its ally Islamic Jihad denied they were behind the March 14 rocket fire toward Tel Aviv, raising the possibility they were launched by fringe groups.

Israel’s military said they were launched by Hamas, but later there were Israeli media reports that the army’s preliminary assessment was that they had been fired by mistake during maintenance work.

The reports were a sign that Israel was seeking to calm tensions. The military had refused to comment on the reports at the time.

Monday’s rocket comes just days ahead of the March 30 one-year anniversary of Palestinian protests and clashes along the Gaza Strip’s border with Israel.

An informal truce between Hamas and Israel had led to relative calm along the border of the blockaded strip, but recent weeks have seen another uptick in violence.