Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) [the former branch of al-Qaeda in Syria] is preparing to launch an attack on the city of Maarrat al-Nu’man, the last stronghold of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in the southern Idlib countryside. According to the Syrian news outlet Enab Baladi, the radical group wants to seal its control of the key highway linking the governorates of Aleppo and Hama.
“HTS wants to complete its control of the international highway by focusing on the city of Maarrat al-Nu’man, which is the only area on the highway that’s out of its control,” an unnamed source in the FSA told Enab Baladi on December 2.
According to the source, HTS is massing its forces around Maarrat al-Nu’man. In response to this move, the Turkish-backed National Front for Liberation (NFL) deployed more troops inside the strategic city.
“According to the NFL’s own experience, HTS’ movements indicate that it is preparing to launch an attack,” Enab Baladi quoted Mohamad Adib, a member of the NFL media office, as saying.
HTS’ plans to impose control of Aleppo-Hama highway is likely another attempt to sabotage the Russian-Turkish demilitarized zone agreement. Under the agreement, which was reached on September 17, the highway should be reopened with protection from Turkey, Russia and Iran.