Hayat Tahrir al Sham (HTS) terror group insisted that it will preserve its status as an independent force, denying reports about the group’s intention to dissolve its ranks and join the Turkey-backed National Army.
The reports, published by Turkish newspaper Yeni Safak, claimed that HTS agreed on a deal involving over 15,000 group members joining the National Army, a loose umbrella organization made up from Free Syrian Army factions active in Aleppo and Idlib provinces that is supported by Turkey. In addition to that the deal allegedly stipulated that all foreign fighters from HTS ranks must leave Idlib province without specifying their destination.
These speculations were categorically denied by HTS spokesman Imad ad-Din Mujahid, who blamed the Turkish paper for spreading “false accusations”.
“Turkish people took a noble position towards the Syrian revolution from the beginning. However, suspicious hands have recently started to exploit distinguished Turkish media to throw false accusations and spread fake news,” Mujahid stated in a communique published by HTS media channels.
Yeni Safaq report also claimed that Turkish officials met with the leadership of Harakat Nour al Din al Zenky, a faction that used to be one of the main rivals of HTS in Idlib and Aleppo until the recent HTS assault that resulted in the terror group taking control over almost all of Idlib and western Aleppo at the expense of FSA factions, including Nour al Din al Zenky. Turkey is reportedly seeking to restore the influence of the group that has joined the National Army along with Ahrar al Sham, another major rival of HTS.
Turkey’s efforts to curb HTS overwhelming influence in Idlib are in line with the Sochi agreement, reached by Recep Erdogan and Vladimir Putin last fall. The agreement introduced a demilitarized zone along the border of the province, enabling a relatively steady ceasefire between government forces and numerous armed opposition factions. Both parties were obliged to withdraw heavy weapons from the zone. This agreement has been largely observed by both parties despite sporadic clashes.
HTS did not clearly announced its position towards the deal. However, the group suspended its operations against the Syrian troops, turning to subversive actions and surprise attacks. At the same time, HTS continued to expand its territorial control, forcing Turkey-backed FSA factions to withdraw towards Afrin area in northern Aleppo.
As HTS strengthens its grip on northern Syria, the list of options for settlements in Idlib continues to shrink. The Syrian government has already announced that Idlib will become the next target of Damascus campaign to restore its control over the country. Meanwhile Russia, the main ally of Syria, has shown signs of concern over violations of the Sochi agreement committed by the militants. In turn, Turkey is keen to keep the deal alive, at least until the announced operation east of Euphrates is finished.

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