As conflict between Hayat Tahrir al Sham and Turkey-backed National Liberation front is claiming dozens between killed and wounded, the HTS amasses troops to establish control over strategic stretch of Damascus-Aleppo highway.
On Monday, two Hayat Tahrir al Sham (HTS) fighters were killed and six others wounded in clashes with Turkey-backed National Liberation Front (NLF) in Kafr Hamra village, Aleppo province.
The victims were identified as Abu Turab al Shami, a sharia judge and HTS military commander responsible for Anadan sector, and Abu Muhamamad Akram, who was responsible for checkpoints in the area of Kafr Hamra.
NLF claimed that HTS attempted to establish positions in Kafr Hamra in the immediate vicinity of NLF positions already existing in the area. The group considered this move “provocative”, as it violated the agreement previously reached by the two factions.
The agreement, reached in late September, stipulated that the village remain under control of NLF. Both sides also agreed to remove all checkpoints in the area.
According to NLF, the issue was seemingly resolved after a meeting with HTS representatives. However, shortly after that a group of HTS militants acting on the order of Abu Ibrahim Salama arrived to Kafr Hamra and opened fire, wounding five of NLF members. Two HTS militants were killed in the clashes that followed.
In turn, HTS accused NLF of assassinating two of its commanders, claiming that they headed to the area to resolve a conflict with Abu Diyab and Abu Abdul Hay from Ahrar al Sham and Harakat Nour al Din al Zenki, two prominent factions inside the NLF.
HTS accused NLF of “pushing for internal conflict” and demanded the Turkey-backed group to stop this “irresponsible behaviour” and to surrender the perpetrators to sharia court.
Moreover, HTS has reportedly ordered to its checkpoints to detain members of NLF.
However, the radical faction who has established itself as a dominant power in Idlib despite being internationally designated as a terror group seeks more than revenge over a rival group. According to well-informed sources, the escalation of violence between the two factions has its roots in the fight over a strategic area that provides access to Damascus-Aleppo highway.
The highway, which must be reopened in accordance with the Idlib demilitarization zone agreement reached by Russia and Turkey, could be a major playing card in hand of HTS that seeks to preserve its influence in Northern Syria.
To acquire this leverage point, HTS has to establish control over the towns of Atareb, Khan al Assal and Kafr Nouran west of Aleppo city as Maarat al Nuuman city in Idlib province.
Sources speculated that HTS will likely use the assassination of two of its commanders by NLF members as a pretext for an all-out offensive against the faction and its allies. During the last 24 hours HTS has been sending reinforcements to its positions in Killi village in Northern Idlib, in Al Ghadfa village near Maarat Al Nuuman and in the outskirts of Atareb and Al Abzamo in Aleppo.
A number of HTS rocket launchers were also spotted near Tarmanin and ِArhab villaged in Idlib. HTS units in Khan Shaykhoun, Idlib and near Kafr Hamra were also put on high alert.
Since Monday, the tensions between HTS and its Turkey-backed rivals have been steadily rising. On Tuesday’s morning, officer of Idlib police affiliated to HTS-linked Syrian Salvation Government Abu Muhammad al Souri was wounded at a NLF checkpoint near Al Rami village in southern Idlib after he refused to come out from the car. His son and another HTS member who were in the car were also wounded. The checkpoint was manned mostly by Ahrar al Sham fighters.
Against the background of escalating internal conflict between the militants, four civilians have been kidnapped in Idlib and Aleppo.
Two men, one of whom works as a nurse in a local hospital, have reportedly been abducted near Darat al Izza town. The men passed a checkpoint manned by Faylaq al Sham militants and were heading in the direction of a nearby HTS checkpoint, when they were forced into a minivan. According to Faylaq al Sham militants, the men in the vehicle claimed that they were members of HTS. However, the group denied responsibility for the attack.
In a separate incident, a local activist Jumaa al Omari and his father have been kidnapped by masked gunmen in Tarmanin village located close to Darat al Izza. Local sources voiced strong suspicions that HTS stands behind their abduction.