What is going on in Idlib?

Amid new year celebrations in Idlib, moderate factions are busy preparing for the battles in Manbij and eastern Euphrates, while Hayat Tahrir al-Sham HTS -former al-Nusra front – has launched an assault on Nureddine Al-Zenki faction, one of the National Liberation Front’s (NLF)- that involves moderate armed factions. Here, HTS has used the same wording ISIL has used before; about slaughtering the enemies in order to prevail its righteous Manhaj. The success of HTS to expand its presence and influence, would create imbalance among moderate and extremist factions in Idlib; in favor of the later and that, in turn, would be used by pro-Assad forces to conduct a full -scale invasion on Idlib, and break the Sochi Accord’s provisions.

What happened?
There have been tensions between HTS and Zenki, prior to the assault, after the assassination of 5 members of HTS in Tila’da area, near Barakat mountain; which is under control of Zenki faction. A jury including a judge and influential leaders has been held on 31st December 2018, and stated that Zenki faction was to hand 7 of its members- as suspects of the assassination. Accordingly, they have handed 4 of them, and promised to find the other 3. However, in the early morning of the first of January 2019, HTS had mobilized its fighters to launch an assault on Darat-Izzah town and Barakat mountain, in western Aleppo, using Tela’ad incident, as an excuse. Moreover, HTS members has expanded the assault to involve several cities in northern and southeast Idlib.  That, in turn, provoked other factions of the NLF; and the leadership of the NLF has officially declared war against HTS, till it stops the fight and withdraws the troops from captured cities. Until writing this article, reportedly, HTS declared its control on seven strategic areas: Daret-Izzah, Barkat mountain, Khan Al-Assal, Sama’an castle road, Tokad, Bastroon and Ajeil villages. In the same vein, some reports confirmed that some factions affiliated to the National Army located in Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch areas, sent enforcements to stand with the NLF against the HTS, like the 9th Brigade and Ahrar Adnan Gathering. The fight between the two parties have reached its fourth day; resulting in the death of around 50 people, and the injury of tens; including civilians.

Why is HTS controlling the strategic sites now?
HTS that has been designated by the main regional and international actors as a terrorist group, has sought to find a way to represent a significant symbol in the equation; that cannot be ignored in any political settlement for Syria. However, two important events have occurred against its will. The first one has been, liberating Afrin and the surrounding areas, with the potential of opening a border-gate between Afrin and Turkey. In this case, the main road, most likely would be used to transport goods and reconstructions materials from Turkey to the areas under control of moderate Syrian factions, the NLF, Turkey backed National Army, etc. The second event has been, signing the Sochi accord on Idlib, that included abolishing terrorists’ groups from Idlib, and opening the international roads, mainly, the M-4 Damascus-Aleppo highway. In order to get an exit from the current situation, HTS sought to strength its position before Turkey, the guarantor of Sochi and Astana; by controlling strategic sites of western Aleppo.

Controlling the strategic Barakat Mountain, which overlooks Afrin, would allow HTS to threaten the presence of the National Army – the ally of Turkey. Also, controlling Darat-Izzah city, and Darat-Izzah- Mansoura- Aleppo road, would grant HTS several gains: economic benefits, monitoring, cutting the supply-route and even preventing- enforcement from opposition- areas, in eastern Aleppo to Afrin and also to Manbij and Eastern Euphrates.

Thus, by controlling these areas, most Turkish Observation points will be under HTS’s surveillance, that, in turn, would hold Turkey  from taking an action against HTS, and at the same time, would provide an exit for HTS from elimination. But, leaving HTS controlling strategic areas will threaten Turkey sooner or later, as it has been classified by HTS's influential religious figures as infidel regime and according to them, it is forbidden to cooperate with it.

On the other hand, defeating moderate NLF factions and HTS controlling strategic sites in northern Idlib and western Aleppo-would yield two main repercussions. First, it will provide a pretext to pro-Assad’s regime to launch full-scale-assault on entire Idlib, as it has become under the control of terrorist groups. That, in, turn, will lead to the second repercussion, which will be an immediate humanitarian catastrophe; where Idlib’s and its surroundings’ residents are about 4 million people.

The coming days, or perhaps, hours, are very critical to the NLF and its regional allies, especially after some Qaeda-affiliated groups have joined HTS against NLF. It can be the right moment for setting Idlib free from all terrorists’ groups, implications of Sochi accord, thus, paving the road for political stability to Idlib and adjacent areas.