'Idlib is green': Syrian rebel group vow to halt al-Qaeda advance

'Idlib is green': Syrian rebel group vow to halt al-Qaeda advance
Heavy fighting continued in northern Syria on Friday, with rebel group Ahrar al-Sham telling The New Arab the fate of Idlib province lies in the balance if HTS win control.
3 min read
21 July, 2017
Syria's revolutionary flag has been adopted by Ahrar al-Sham [AFP]

Syrian rebel group Ahrar al-Sham have told The New Arab it is essential for its fighters to retain control of a vital border crossing with Turkey to prevent a humanitarian crisis unfolding in Idlib province.

Fighters from the group have been fending off a Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) advance towards the Bab al-Hawa border crossing in northern Syria, with three days of fighting leaving at least 65 people dead - including 15 civilians - in Idlib province.

The fall of the crossing to the al-Qaeda-linked HTS coalition would likely force Turkey to close the border with Idlib, leaving Syria's only opposition-controlled province starved of food and medical supplies.

'Dirty project'

"We fight them [HTS] because we want to defend the people's revolution. We don't want wounded people do die because they can't cross the border and for the whole liberated area to be in situation of hunger," said Omran Mohammed, Ahrar al-Sham's spokesperson told The New Arab

"The domination of al-Qaeda in the northern liberated area is the final bullet to the head of the Syrian revolution and the past seven years of struggle. This is why we are fighting this dirty project."

Tahrir al-Sham was formed in January 2017 when some of Idlib's most radical jihadi groups formed a coalition that included Fatah al-Sham and Jaish al-Fatah.

It is believed to be dominated by Fatah al-Sham, a jihadi rebel outfit previously known as al-Nusra Front before it officially broke ties with al-Qaeda.

Ahrar al-Sham is more closely allied to Turkey and fighters joined Ankara-led operations against Kurdish separatists and the Islamic State group in northern Syria, known as Euphrates Shield.

Syrian fighters from this alliance have reportedly entered Idlib province from Turkey through the Bab al-Hawa crossing to defend Ahrar al-Sham positions after recent losses to HTS.

Rebel group Nour al-Deen al-Zinki also announced on Thursday it would leave the HTS coalition.

The al-Qaeda-linked fighters' race to the border comes on the back of talk that Turkey could send troops into Idlib to back Ahrar al-Sham.

[click to enlarge]

'Idlib is green'

Demonstrations broke out in towns and cities across Idlib province to call for a united front among the opposition camp against the Syrian regime.

Ahrar al-Sham appear to have moved closer to other moderate rebel groups such as the Free Syrian Army, adopting the colours and emblems of the Syrian revolution.

Demonstrations led by Syrian activists have seen the Free Syria flag raised over public buildings in Idlib with shouts of "shabeeha" - a term used to describe pro-regime gangs - directed at HTS. 

Al-Qaeda-linked gunmen have fired on protesters in Saraqeb town twice this week - which recently celebrated its first council elections - leading to further anger in Idlib.

HTS fighters were chased out of town by protesters on Thursday but the al-Qaeda outfit appear to re-taken control of Saraqeb on Friday and fired on a demonstrators again.

All out war appears imminent across the province and Idlib has become a military zone, with locals saying they fear leaving the house because of cordons, checkpoints and gunfire.

Activists have tweeted under the hashtag "Idlib is green" to show their opposition to HTS, which is associated with the colour black.

The situation in Idlib looks appears very black at present, many have mused. 

Follow Paul McLoughlin on Twitter: @PaullMcloughlin

[click to enlarge]