On January 7th, the news outlet Enab Baladi published an analysis into Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham’s recent successful campaign in northern Syria. In only three days, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) managed to eliminate the Nour al-Din al-Zenki Movement in western rural Aleppo.
Previously known as the al-Nusra Front, HTS also defeated “Hazzm” (Determination Movement), “Jaish al-Mujahideen” (al-Mujahideen Army), “Fastaqim” (straighten up Union), the “Syrian Revolutionaries Front” and “Division30,” according to the outlet.
According to the analysis, the HTS campaign was carefully planned in advance, proven by the reinforcements it brought into the area. Reportedly, HTS “since day one, intended to fully eliminate “al-Zenki,” unlike the pervious confrontations, which ended with agreements of “concord and compromise.”
Furthermore, this concerted effort was mostly reinforced by actions or rather inactions by the Turkish government, which is presumably the “puppet master” behind the scenario.
“What backed “Tahrir al-Sham’s” strategy in its deepening progress within western rural Aleppo was the Turkish government giving a blind eye to the on-ground operations, though the Turkey-backed factions of the “National Front” entered the confrontations against “Tahrir al-Sham,” including the “al-Sham Legion” which appeared as a key side to the confrontation, while expressing no seriousness in its fight against the “Tahrir al-Sham.””
Enab Baladi cited unnamed military sources who said that al-Sham Legion’s posts and strongholds were not attacked by HTS, because the former has chosen a strategy of neutrality, “a step that resembles what it has done in the previous years and which opposes to the intention the “legion” advanced through media.”
Thus, the analysis poses a question: will there be a confrontation between al-Sham Legion and HTS or will no such event take place, after the objectives have been clarified?
The situation, following the HTS operation shows that the group had put the entire western countryside under its control and that is of significance, due to the importance of the area.
“The major point to contemplate is the strategic importance of the area, for the Sheikh Barakat mountain, currently under the control of the “Tahrir al-Sham” overlooks all the rural parts of Aleppo, western and north-astern, revealing the city of Afrin and the two towns of Nubl and al-Zahraa, which the Syrian regime controls, in addition to the area from which “al-Zenki” retreated, which is the link between the area of the “Olive Branch” operation, Afrin, and Idlib, not to mention the area’s importance to the Syrian regime.”
Thus, HTS appears to have put itself in a strong position in the area to the benefit of the “Sochi” deal terms, “providing for the establishment of a demilitarized zone between the areas held by the Syrian regime and those of the opposition, which cover the western rural parts, in addition to the reopening of the two international highways, Damascus-Aleppo and Aleppo-Latakia.”
According to the report, al-Zenki is the biggest loser following the situation, mostly due to its refusal to provide any concessions in relation to the Astana talks. An unnamed Free Army commander was cited by Enab Baladi:
“The al-Nusra’s attack of the al-Zenki has a single strategic goal; weakening it and terminating the equivalent to half of its force, so it would not be present at the futuristic negotiation table.”
Al-Nusra’s attack has two goals, he believes: The first is the elimination of the “al-Zenki” and weakening “Tahrir al-Sham”, and the second is keeping two major bodies in power in Northern Syria, “Tahrir al-Sham” and the “National Front.”
The National Front is led by the al-Sham legion, which is close to Turkey and its operations in northern Syria are veiled in secrecy, according to the analysis.
“The source explained that the “Legion” is the biggest winner of the confrontations witnessed by the area previously, for they costed it no loss of troops or weaponry while it kept a balanced relationship with the rest of the military factions.”
As a conclusion of the analysis several points can be made:
- HTS’s ultimate aim is presumably to take control of major highways and put itself in a decision-making position;
- HTS and the al-Sham Legion are allegedly coordinating their actions with Turkey. HTS is punishing groups that do not follow Turkey’s instructions, while the al-Sham Legion appears to be the “good guy” in the situation and remains neutral. And as part of the plan, if HTS decides to rebel against “the secret puppet master” Turkey, following the confrontations it would be weakened enough to be dealt with;
- Al-Zenki refused to conform to the de-escalation zone agreement. After its elimination, the al-Sham Legion became the key decision maker with the National Front for Liberation. The Al-Sham Legion reportedly prefers being discreet and according to Enab Baladi’s information is “by officers who have defected from the Syrian regime, the majority of whom are from Homs governorate. The Al-Sham Legion has conducted many alliances in the opposition-held areas, including those with the “Fatah Halab” (Aleppo Conquest Operations Room), “Jayish al-Fatah” (Army of Conquest), “Northern Rural Homs” operation room and “Hawar Kilis” operations room.”
- Finally, the al-Sham Legion has actually done nothing to assist its presumed ally al-Zenki while it was being destroyed by HTS. The only actually undertaken “action” was a harsher rhetoric which went opposite of what movements were being made.