Clashes erupt in Idlib province threatening Syrian rebel truce

Clashes erupt in Idlib province threatening Syrian rebel truce
A fragile truce between two of Syria's biggest rebel groups is on the verge of breaking, as fresh clashes erupted between the two sides in Idlib province.
3 min read
20 July, 2017
Nour al-Din al-Zinki were crucial to rebels holding off IS in Aleppo [AFP]
Two of Syria's largest rival rebel groups are preparing for a major battle for control of opposition-held Idlib province, activists have reported, as the two sides clashed for a second day.

Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and Ahrar al-Sham have sent reinforcements to different parts of Idlib as the two sides cement control of the province's towns and villages.

HTS have gained Hazazin, Abdeen and al-Dana villages during the two-day assault against their rival rebel faction.

The al-Qaeda linked alliance has been building up its forces in al-Dana town, Syrian activists have reported, while Ahrar al-Sham has sent reinforcements to northern Idlib province town close to the Turkish border.

Ahrar al-Sham have accused HTS of using heavy weaponry during the assault, adding to the tensions that already exist between the two groups.

Both sides have set up check points and road blocks in areas under their control, with civilian life grinding to a half in many parts of Idlib.

One visual sign of the tensions that exist between HTS and Ahrar al-Sham has been the display of flags associated with the factions - and lowering rival ones - in Idlib.

HTS uses black flags associated with the jihadi movement while Ahrar al-Sham have adopted the green-white-black tricolour linked to the Free Syrian Army.

The "Free Syrian" flag was raised in Saraqib town on Wednesday before being lowered by HTS fighters.

Clashes erupted over the weekend when HTS raided an Ahrar al-Sham checkpoint, after they accused their rivals of arresting a commander and fighters.

Ahrar al-Sham accused HTS of "tyranny".

"Our first choice is to resort to Islamic law and solve the problems away from arms and bloodletting," an Ahrar al-Sham statement said. 

"If the (HTS) command insists on its tyrannical acts .... the movement (Ahrar al-Sham) is ready to repel injustice."

A truce was agreed but fighting broke out again on Wednesday with 14 rebel fighters killed

Bombings have also targeted rebel leaders and ideologues in Idlib over the past few months.

Meanwhile, the battle between rebels and Bashar al-Assad's regime has quietened following the introduction of Russian-Turkish sponsored "de-escalation zones".

Tahrir al-Sham formed earlier this year when jihadi group Fatah al-Sham - which officially broke ties with al-Qaeda in July 2016 - allied with more radical militias in Idlib.

Ahrar al-Sham and its jihadi counterparts were former allies, but violence broke out between the two parties in Idlib before a truce was reached in February.

HTS has launched a campaign to root out militants accused of ties to the Islamic State group in recent weeks.

The recent fighting between HTS and Ahrar al-Sham follows weeks of tensions between the two groups with violence appearing imminent.

Both groups have been vying for power in Idlib province and attempted to woo the newly entered militias over to their side. 

Hundreds of fighters have entered Idlib over the past seven months, following truce agreements with the regime.

It gave some rebel factions safe passage to the opposition-controlled province after the regime took over rebel areas of Aleppo and the Damascus suburbs.