Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the former branch of al-Qaeda in Syria, is massing its forces around the towns of Maarrat al-Nu’man and Ariha in the southern Idlib countryside, the Syrian Observatory for Human rights revealed on January 9.
Syrian pro-opposition activists said that the radical group is planning to attack the two towns, which are controlled by the National Front for Liberation (NFL). The Turkish-backed coalition was formed by several armed groups, like the Ahrar al-Sham Movement, Faylaq al-Sham, Jaysh al-Nasir and the Free Idlib Army.
A day earlier, HTS launched an attack on the positions of the NFL in northwestern Hama. The radical group defeated NFL forces, represented by the Ahrar al-Sham Movement, and forced them to sign a surrender agreement.
Rami Abd al-Rahman, a director of the SOHR, said that Turkey is responsible for HTS’ attacks on its own proxies in northwestern Syria. Ankara didn’t move to support the NFL during any of HTS attacks and didn’t even condemn the radical group’s crimes. These are key arguments in the support of Abd al-Rahman claims.
“HTS and the Jihadists groups now control over 80% of Idlib, the western Aleppo countryside, the northwestern Hama countryside and Lattakia’s mountains … HTS wouldn’t have dared to invade these regions, where Turkish-backed factions are present, without the approval of the Turkish intelligence,” Abd al-Rahman said in an interview on the UAE-based al-Arabiya TV.
In conjunction with HTS attack, Russian forces began establishing new positions around Idlib. The Syrian Arab Army (SAA) also began to deploy additional forces around the northern governorate.
All of these developments allowed opposition activists to speculate that Turkey is conspiring to hand over Idlib to HTS and than to withdraw its troops from the governorate. This would save Turkey’s face in the front of its militants and allow Russia and its allies to attack HTS and put an end to its presence in Syria.