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Syrian Islamist factions join forces against Hayat Tahrir al-Sham

The establishment of the new Syrian Liberation Front unifying the Ahrar al-Sham and Nour al-Din al-Zenki movements was swiftly followed by fierce battles between the new group and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.

ALEPPO, Syria — Islamist opposition movements Ahrar al-Sham and Nureddin Zengi Brigade joined forces Feb. 18, forming a unified body called the Syrian Liberation Front. The announcement by two of the largest opposition factions operating in northern Syria follows weeks of consultations between the factions’ senior leaders.

The movements' decision to unite grew out of concern involving elevated tensions between Free Syrian Army factions and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) in the north of Syria. HTS has been fighting Ahrar al-Sham and Nureddin Zengi Brigade after the two group's supporters accused HTS of failing to counter the regime’s assault on the Idlib countryside in early 2018. Prior to the unification, clashes had erupted between HTS and the Nureddin Zengi Brigade in November 2017 and between HTS and Ahrar al-Sham in August 2017. Mediation efforts in November by independent figures and clerics failed to reconcile the warring parties.

The Syrian Liberation Front said it seeks to serve as a shield for the Syrian people and revolution, and to take part in building the “institutions and future army of a free Syria.” The statement indicated that the Syrian Liberation Front does not seek to “monopolize the revolution’s decision-making or to be its only political representative” and called on all of the Syrian military opposition factions to "join the new front and turn it into an active institution unifying the Syrian revolution and rendering it victorious.”

Hassan Sofian, who served as general commander of Ahrar al-Sham, becomes the front’s general commander and Tawfiq Shihabuddin, who previously served as general commander of Nureddin Zengi Brigade, was appointed as his deputy. Hussam Atrash became political bureau head and Khaled Abu Al-Yaman its military commander in chief.

Mohammed Adib, who works in the Syrian Liberation Front's media office, told Al-Monitor that the talks took nearly a month and a half to work out the organizational aspects of the merger.

On Feb. 20, two days following the announcement, ferocious battles broke out between the Syrian Liberation Front and HTS in the Idlib countryside near the 111th regiment base and on the outskirts of Urum al-Kubrah village in western Aleppo's countryside as HTS tried to seize the village.

The clashes intensified and spread to the Hama area. HTS managed to take control over Batabo and Kfar Naseh villages in western Aleppo following battles with the Syrian Liberation Front that later expanded to Kfar Naseh. Battles continue to rage around the Syrian Liberation Front-held town of Darat Izza and village of Taqaad as HTS attempts to enter them.

The Syrian Liberation Front tweeted Feb. 23 that it had taken control of Kafr Naya in western Aleppo and captured 70 members of HTS as well as a number of pickup trucks, weapons and ammunition.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported Feb. 23 that HTS took over the villages of Hass and Ruweiha and the town of Kafr Nabl in Idlib's countryside during battles against Ahrar al-Sham (now part of the Syrian Liberation Front). Backed by the Suqour al-Sham Brigades, Ahrar al-Sham fighters seized the cities of Ariha and Maarat al-Numaan as well as smaller villages such as Urum al-Jawz, Faqie, al-Mastumah, Nqeir, Wadi Deif camp, Abdeen, Tramla and Qassabiyeh in the Idlib countryside.

Adib added, “Nearly a month ago, we noticed that HTS was engaged in a media war targeting the Nureddin Zengi Brigade … in an attempt to psychologically prepare its members to eradicate Nureddin Zengi Brigade. This continued until the Liberation Front was announced. Two days later, we were surprised by HTS setting up checkpoints in the northern Idlib and western Aleppo countryside and embarking on large-scale arrests of the Syrian Liberation Front’s members. HTS then started to infiltrate positions held by the Syrian Liberation Front, which prompted us to combat them.”

He continued, “The battles are still ongoing and involve hit-and-run tactics and with heavy shelling by HTS on [areas we hold] in the western Aleppo countryside, wounding civilians. HTS is also using tanks, [armored] vehicles and dropping bombs via drones, but we are effectively countering them.”

Both parties accused each other over social media of initiating the fight. On Feb. 16, HTS blamed the Nureddin Zengi Brigade for killing Abu Ayman al-Masri, an education official at the displaced affairs administration that is supported by HTS, and wounding his wife while they attempted to pass through a Nureddin Zengi Brigade checkpoint in Aleppo's western countryside.

In a Feb. 20 tweet from an account that is currently suspended, the Syrian Liberation Front accused Ahrar al-Sham of capturing its members at checkpoints and pointed to HTS’s offensive on a number of Syrian Liberation Front-held villages and towns in western Aleppo that wounded civilians and members of the group.

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