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Syrian jihadist group HTS, armed groups agree to uneasy truce

Hayat Tahrir al-Sham has seized several cities and towns in areas under the control of the Turkish-backed factions after days of clashes between rival factions.
Turkish troops are pictured in the area of Kafr Jannah on the outskirts of the Syrian town of Afrin on Oct. 18, 2022.

Areas controlled by the Syrian National Army (SNA) — which is affiliated with the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) — in the eastern and northern countrysides of Aleppo witnessed violent confrontations in recent days between factions belonging to the SNA.

Clashes erupted on Oct. 10 between the Third Legion on one hand and al-Hamza Division and the Suleiman Shah Brigade on the other — all of which are affiliated with the SNA — in several parts of both al-Bab and Kafr Jannah, which separates the city of Afrin from Azaz — which is under control of the Third Legion.

Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which controls Idlib province, intervened in support of al-Hamza Division and the Suleiman Shah Brigade. 

During the dayslong clashes, HTS and its allies seized the cities of Afrin, Jindires and Maabatli, as well as the towns of Ain Dara, Basoota, Qorzayhel and Kfarshhil Hill. In light of these advances, the Third Legion was to retreat to the Kafr Jannah axis — Azaz — the first line of defense for the city of Azaz, the stronghold of the Third Legion. 

Meanwhile, confrontations extended from the Kafr Jannah axis to Maryamin and Khalidiya in the Aleppo countryside amid reports that the Third Legion captured a number of HTS members and destroyed a military vehicle on the Kafr Jannah axis and that Turkish soldiers were injured in bombings that targeted a military point on the axis.

Col. Abd al-Salam Hamidi, director of the Third Legion’s operations room, told Al-Monitor that Third Legion forces withdrew from the city of Afrin to spare civilians more rounds of fighting.

He added that the Third Legion established defense lines far from residential communities and civilians, saying that HTS terrorized civilians by bombing camps such as the Kuwait al-Rahma camp — which is full of civilians — despite it being devoid of any military aspects.

On Oct. 15, HTS and the Third Legion reached a Turkish-brokered agreement to end the bloody fighting following negotiations. The agreement stipulated that all military aspects would be removed from northern Aleppo while the factions would return to their initial positions. 

Under the agreement, the Euphrates Shield and the Olive Branch areas would also be put under a unified military administration under the supervision of HTS, which would earn money from trade through the crossings separating these areas from the Syrian Democratic Forces-held (SDF) areas on the one hand and the crossings with the Turkish side on the other, without allowing military groups to interfere in the affairs of civil institutions.

However, just one day before the agreement was announced, the Third Legion leadership rejected HTS’ demands, which included obtaining full security and economic authority in Afrin, where the presence of factions would be maintained. The demands also included moving the Jaish al-Islam faction (the archenemy of HTS) to Ras al-Ain in the Hasakah countryside and Tell Abyad in the Raqqa countryside, provided that members of this faction would be handed over.

Yet days after the fragile truce was announced, clashes resumed between the rival factions as they exchanged accusations of violating the terms of the agreement. 

Taher al-Omar, a journalist close to HTS, said on his Telegram channel on Oct. 15 that work is underway to form a unified military council and a unified military operations room for all the military factions in the liberated areas in northern Syria, as well as a unified civilian authority that manages all the liberated areas, including civil institutions, crossings, the judiciary, civil police and security control.

According to Omar, the factions are also working to demilitarize the cities. Only administrative centers affiliated with military factions would be maintained inside the cities provided such centers do not interfere with civil affairs, he continued. 

However, there seems to be a popular rejection of HTS’ entry into the area. Residents took to the streets in the city of Azaz in the Aleppo countryside on Oct. 15-16 to denounce HTS’ attack on the SNA-held areas amid reports about a military convoy of HTS military forces making an appearance in Azaz after the recent agreement.

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