Bloc with former links to Al Qa’eda attacks rebel rival in northwest Syria
The Hayat Tahrir al-Sham bloc — including Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, formerly linked to /Al Qa’eda — has advanced in Idlib Province in northwest Syria, amid clashes with the rebel faction Ahrar al-Sham.
Fighting spiked between the two sides on Wednesday on a front covering parts of Idlib Province and western Aleppo Province. Initial reports said HTS had pulled back from areas, such as the town of Kafranbel, controlled by the Free Syrian Army; however, later in the day activists said HTS had made significant gains elsewhere, including the town of Salqin in Idlib Province.
Local sources expressed concern that HTS might attack the Bab al-Hawa crossing, the major entry/exit point with Turkey. An offensive could further isolate hundreds of thousands of displaced Syrians on either side of the border.
Turkey announced that it was closing the crossing on Thursday and Friday because of the threat of violence.
Although the two sides have pursued military operations alongside each other, the Islamist faction Ahrar al-Sham has always distinguished itself from HTS and Jabhat Fatah al-Sham because of ideological differences and disputes over leadership. Tensions have persisted despite talk of a merger of rebel groups and HTS in the northwest.
HTS is treated with suspicion by many in opposition territory, and there have been periodic clashes when the bloc tried to suppress protests. However, Ahrar’s reputation has suffered because of the loss of Aleppo city last December and because of the group’s hesitancy in joining the offensive in northern Hama Province early this year.
Jaish al-Islam Claims Heavy Pro-Assad Casualties Near Damascus
The rebel faction Jaish al-Islam claimed on Wednesday evening that it inflicted heavy casualties on pro-Assad forces in their latest attack near Damascus.
Jaish al-Islam said that it killed 35 troops near Rihan, including two lieutenants, and destroyed two T-72 tanks and a BMP armored vehicle.
The pro-Assad units have been trying for months to break through rebel defenses in East Ghouta, much of which has been taken by regime forces and their foreign allies since spring 2016. Rihan is west of the town of Douma, the main position of Jaish al-Islam.