HTS kills 11 Syrian regime soldiers in Idlib province, says war monitor
Eleven Syrian regime soldiers were killed in the country's northwest on Wednesday in separate attacks carried out by fighters from the hardline Islamist Hayat Tahrir al-Sham group, a war monitor reported.
"HTS fired shells and rockets at a Syrian military post, killing eight soldiers near Kafr Ruma in Idlib province," the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
It later reported that "three Syrian soldiers were killed by sniper fire" near Kafr Nabl in the same province, adding that HTS fighters were also responsible.
HTS is headed by ex-members of Syria's former Al-Qaeda franchise.
Syrian regime media did not immediately report either attack.
About half of the northwestern province of Idlib and areas bordering the neighbouring provinces of Aleppo, Hama and Latakia are dominated by HTS and more moderate rebel factions.
The Idlib region is home to about three million people, around half of them displaced.
Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP that since the end of 2022, HTS "has intensified operations against regime forces in Idlib... in the context of a rapprochement between Ankara and Damascus".
He said exchanges of fire and clashes between regime forces and rebel factions had killed more than 60 people since the start of the year, most of them from the regime and its allied militias.
Ankara became a sworn enemy of Damascus when it condemned the regime of President Bashar al-Assad for brutally suppressing peaceful pro-democracy protests in 2011 and began backing rebel efforts to topple the regime.
But in late December the defence ministers of Turkey and Syria held negotiations in Moscow - the first such meeting for over ten years.
The mooted reconciliation has alarmed Syrian opposition leaders and supporters who reside mostly in parts of the war-torn country under the control of pro-Turkish opposition fighters.
Assad said in January that a Moscow-brokered rapprochement with Turkey should aim for "the end of occupation" by Ankara of parts of Syria.
Turkey has military bases in northern Syria and backs some local groups fighting the regime and against Syrian Kurdish forces which it considers "terrorist" groups.
Ankara has never publicly backed HTS but according to some reports coordinate with its forces.
HTS, which is sanctioned by the UN as a terrorist organisation, formally broke ties with Al-Qaeda in 2016 and incorporated a number of smaller Syrian rebel factions in a major re-branding effort.
Widely seen as the strongest and best organised group in Idlib province, it has tried to present itself as amainstay of Syria's opposition.
With Russian and Iranian support, Damascus has clawed back much of the ground lost in the early stages of Syria's conflict to rebel groups.
The Syrian conflict has killed nearly half a million people since it broke out over a decade ago and displaced almost half of Syria's pre-war population. Most of the casualties have been due to regime bombardment of civilian areas.
Despite periodic clashes, a ceasefire reached in 2020 by Moscow and Turkey has largely held in the northwest.