Calls for Turkey to intervene, as HTS capture more opposition areas in northern Syria
Activists and media reported that HTS captured the strategically-significant Sahl al-Ghab desert area on Wednesday, after fighters seized a number of towns in the Hama province over the past days, leaving dozens of rebel fighters dead.
Rebel group Ahrar al-Sham announced on Wednesday that its units in Sahl al-Ghab would be dissolved into HTS, after they failed to hold off an assault by their opponents. A HTS offensive saw the extremist group capture close to a dozen towns in the area on Tuesday, Syria Direct reported.
Ahrar al-Sham commander Jaber Ali Basha thanked his fighters for "doing their duties" in Sahl al-Ghab but said that "war is gain and loss" and had to concede to HTS, after surrounding areas were captured by the former al-Qaeda affiliate.
The HTS-affiliated Syrian National Government will now govern the area, although rebel fighters and civilians have been given permission to leave for Afrin in northern Syria, which is controlled by the Turkish-backed Euphrates Shield coalition.
The eyes of residents in Idlib, Hama and Aleppo are now on this huge military force to protect their towns and cities – fearing an all-out takeover by the hardline extremist forces, which have gunned down and arrested activists and rebel fighters.
"Most people hate HTS, but they can do nothing to root them out," one resident of Kafrnabel told The New Arab, where the group has tightened its grip on the town's once flourishing activism scene.
Residents also fear the HTS annexation could lead to new bombardments by Russian and Syrian regime forces unless Turkey intervenes, although Ankara appears more focused on the planned US withdrawal from areas of northern Syria controlled by Kurdish and Arab militias.
|We fear [HTS] will control all liberated areas and Russian war planes will bomb us... We hope Turkey will give the green light to other factions to fight HTS, if [they] care about civilians in Idlib, Hama and Aleppo|
"We fear [HTS] will control all liberated areas and Russian war planes will bomb us," he said. "We hope Turkey will give the green light to other factions to fight HTS, if [they] care about civilians in Idlib, Hama and Aleppo."
He claimed that rebel forces have not been instructed by Turkey to resist the HTS advance, and that Turkey's assistance is critical to preventing the fall of Idlib to the hardline force. So far, Turkish-backed forces only appear concerned with regaining rebel territories lost to HTS around Afrin, which is controlled by pro-Ankara opposition.
Previous hopes of a more large-scale intervention by the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army [TFSA] are fast dwindling, Elizabeth Tsurkov, a Research Fellow at the Forum for Regional Thinking told The New Arab.
"There were earlier signs that the TFSA will intervene, but they appear to only be focused on regaining areas they lost of HTS near Afrin, not a major operation. [President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan may change his mind at any moment, of course," she said.
This follows a major offensive launched by HTS at the beginning of the year, which saw the group capture key border crossings, roads and towns from opposition forces in Aleppo and Idlib provinces after going back on agreement with Turkey that saw them withdraw to outlying areas in Idlib.
The offensive had a devastating effect on some of the rebel groups, which collapsed in the face of a powerful HTS assault.
"The takeover of Sahl al-Ghab follows significant advances for Hayat Tahrir al-Sham in western Aleppo against Nour al-Din al-Zinki and the effective dissolution of this fighting force in areas outside of direct Turkish control and protection," Tsurkov said.
"HTS are looking to take control of all opposition territories in Idlib and Aleppo from the Turkish-backed National Liberation Front," she added.
"This has been in part motivated by Turkey's failure to back the rebels in Aleppo province against the jihadi force. Once Nour al-Din al-Zenki's defences collapsed in western Aleppo and Turkey did not come to their rescue, the weakness of the NLF became apparent and HTS is rushing to capitalise on it. Even before the takeover of Sahl al-Ghab and expulsion of Ahrar al-Sham militants who refuse to surrender to HTS, the NLF was no match to HTS," Tsurkov commented.
She said that unless they are given Turkish support, the NLF contingents in Idlib will likely be forced to surrender as well.
"Dislodging HTS from the region will now require either regime takeover, direct Turkish intervention or a Turkish-backed offensive of the 'National Army', a rebel force Turkey trained to fight against [the Islamic State group] and the Kurds in northern Aleppo."
HTS was formed shortly after al-Nusra Front officially broke ties with al-Qaeda and joined a coalition of other extremist forces in Syria.
HTS have had a tense relationship with moderate opposition groups in Idlib province, with a number of battles breaking out between the two sides.
The extremist group had been blamed for the killing of a number of activists, including Radio Fresh's Raed Faris last year.
Paul McLoughlin is an editor at The New Arab. Follow him on Twitter: @PaullMcLoughlin