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Al-Qaeda-affiliated Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the de-facto ruler of the northwestern Syrian region of Greater Idlib, is taking advantage of a new battle between Turkey’s proxies to expand its influence in the northern Aleppo countryside.
The conflict began on October 7, when militants from the Turkish-backed Hamzah Division assassinated Syrian opposition activist Mohammed Abdullatif, “Abu Ghanoum,” and his pregnant wife in the town of al-Bab, the main stronghold of Turkish forces in the northern Aleppo countryside.
In response to the assassination, the Turkish-backed 3rd Corps, led by the al-Shamiya Front, kicked off an operation against the Hamzah Division on October 10. Within a few hours, the 3rd Corps was able to expel Hamzah militants from al-Bab.
However, the battle heated up on October 11, when the Suleyman Shah Division, another Turkish-backed faction, intervened on behalf of the Hamzah Division. In response to the move, the 3rd Corps expanded its operations in to the area in Afrin.
HTS began its intervention on the same day. The terrorist group dispatched a large, heavily-armed force to Afrin via the crossings of Ghazzawiyya and Dayr Balut to support the Hamzah Division and the Suleyman Shah Division.
HTS’s forces were able to expel the 3rd Corps from most of southern and western Afrin by October 12. The force even reached the outskirts of Afrin city. An attempt to storm the city was also made.
The 3rd Corps failed to resist despite receiving support from a large coalition of Turkish-backed factions known as the Liberation and Construction Movement.
HTS’s victory in Afrin encouraged the Hamzah Division, the Suleyman Shah and other Turkish-backed factions, including the Ahrar al-Sham Movement, to launch a counter-offensive to recapture the town of al-Bab. However, the town remains under the control of the 3rd Corps and its allies as of October 13.
The Turkish military, which maintains dozens of positions in the northern Aleppo countryside as well as in Greater Idlib, has so far refrained from intervening.
According to the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the battle in the northern Aleppo countryside has recently claimed the lives of 14 people. The fatalities include five militants from the 3rd Corps, one from the Liberation and Construction Movement, four from HTS and four civilians. Many other militants and civilians were reportedly wounded.
The ongoing battles exposed HTS’s desires to expand its influence into the northern Aleppo countryside. The battle could end with a simple withdrawal by the terrorist group, as we saw during a similar battle back in June. However, Turkey and its proxies appear to be more than willing to accept and tolerate an expansion of hostilities by the group at this time.