The jihadist bloc Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham has reportedly signed an agreement to take control of the opposition town of Atarib in northwest Syria.
The arrangement with a local council for the handover of Atarib, in western Aleppo Province, follows a week of HTS advances against other Islamist and rebel factions. The jihadists have extended their territory in Aleppo and in neighboring Idlib Province, expelling at least one armed group, Nour ed-Din al-Zinki.
In June 2012, rebels took over Atarib, with a pre-conflict population of more than 10,000. The local council was established to provide governance and services. Despite pro-Assad bombing and takeover of other parts of Aleppo Province, including eastern Aleppo city, the town has held out. In November 2017, its resistance led to the loss of at least 84 lives and wounding of 150 people when the Russian air force struck a market.
Atareb has taken in Syrians displaced from other parts of the country, with about 50,000 people now estimated to live there.
Atarib has also repelled attacks by the Islamic State in 2014 and Jabhat al-Nusra — then linked with Al Qa’eda and now part of HTS — in 2015. Periodic demonstrations have been held to protest any jihadist rule.
But local sources said HTS attacked Atareb with artillery and machine guns on Saturday, trying to force out the faction Thuwar al-Sham. A resident said, “The civilians are terrified, remain indoors. Electricity has been cut off. Young children are crying. We ask God for a relief from suffering.”
The assault was paused later in the day for negotiations. Under the reported agreement with civilians, the local council will be replaced with HTS’s “Salvation Government”. Rebels, including those backed by Turkey, will not be allowed to return to their homes and Thuwar al-Sham fighters who resisted HTS will be referred to trial.
The commander of Thuwar al-Sham in Atarib has refused the conditions. HTS is said to be urging civilians to attack rebels to force them to accept the deal.
A rally in Atareb on September 28, 2018 for the Syrian Revolution — “The Baathists [the party of Bashar al-Assad] went crazy when we demanded freedom”:
Will Turkey Intervene?
Turkey has been allied with rebels since its military intervention of August 2016, pushing out the Islamic State from northwest Syria. Ankara has continued to support local factions in an effort to curb HTS, which took parts of Aleppo and Idlib Provinces in 2017 with the defeat of Ahrar al-Sham, then the largest rebel force.
But Turkish forces had not mobilized against the jihadists last week as they pushed out Nour ed-Din al-Zinki and as they threatened other rebel-held areas.
On Saturday night, video circulated which claimed to be of the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army, with its Free Syrian Army groups.
The Second Legion of the Turkish-backed FSA ("National Army") is also mobilizing from northern Aleppo. They claim they intend to launch offensive from the Bab al-Hawa crossing (fell under HTS control in 2017). pic.twitter.com/4qkb2MhXF7
— Elizabeth Tsurkov (@Elizrael) January 6, 2019