Over the past few weeks, clashes have ensued between the rebel groups Hayy’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and Ahrar al-Sham. Although the fighting has subsided in recent days, the resulting violence has sent shock waves through Idlib Province, where the battles have taken place, and throughout Syria in general.
Tensions have been rising for months between the two factions. However, these were relegated in the main to words. Earlier in July, the former political chief of Ahrar al-Sham, Labib al-Nahas, launched a scathing attack on the HTS and its head of military operations, Abu Mohammed al-Joulani. Nahas referenced the HTS’ connections to al-Qaeda and said that Joulani can’t just move to and from al-Qaeda like “paying for a subscription service”.
Nahas also mentioned the HTS’ repeated and failed attempts to gain legitimacy among the Syrian people, most notably when Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, the majority group in the HTS coalition, allegedly broke its ties to al-Qaeda and changed its name from Jabhat al-Nusra.
In the midst of this war of words, small skirmishes occurred between the two groups. This evolved into full-scale conflict on 18th July. Alongside the disunity between the groups, the fighting was further linked to Ahrar al-Sham’s recent decision to use the revolution flag in their own branding, a move that HTS vigorously opposed.
In the initial days after clashes broke out, violence was reported throughout Idlib Province, resulting in numbers injuries and deaths to militants, as well as civilians caught in the crossfire. This occurred in key areas such as Idlib city itself, the Bab al-Hawa crossing on the Turkish border, and the town of Saraqib. Most notably, residents from Saraqib came out onto the streets protesting against the HTS and their rule after the group gained control of the town. In some cases, HTS militants shots at protestors as they marched in the streets. This follows a similar pattern of protest against the HTS’ rule across Idlib Province and Syria in general.
One man from Maarat al-Nu’man, located in the south of the province, came out to protest against the HTS. “We, the people of Maarat al-Nu’man, participated today in a demonstration to confirm the continuation of the revolution and reject the aggression of al-Joulani’s organisation HTS,” said the man. These anti-HTS protests continued into the weekend and through until Sunday 30th July. The protesters raised the Revolution Flag commonly associated with the FSA and tore down the HTS flag.
Over the course of the past week, violence has subsided, in part thanks to a ceasefire agreement signed between the two groups on Sunday 23rd July. And on Wednesday, the groups signed a new agreement regarding the Jabal Zawiya region, which acted as the spark of the conflict. The two groups have subsequently agreed to release all prisoners, remove all new checkpoints and no longer engage in media warfare. Moreover, the Bab al-Hawa border crossing, which was closed by Turkey for fears of the conflict spilling over from Syria, has now been reopened.
In the aftermath of the fighting, defections occurred on both sides. One of the founders of the HTS, Nour al-Din al-Zenki defected from the group, citing their initial agreement to merge with Jabhat Fateh al-Sham on the pretence of adhering to total rebel unity and not fighting other rebel groups. Another group, called Central Forces, also followed Zinki’s lead, while there were rumours of another founding group, Liwa al-Haq, dissenting, although this turned out to be false. Last week, Ahrar al-Sham also suffered from defections from the group. Rebel groups such as Nusrat al-Islam, Fajr al-Sham and Liwa al-Hijrah announced they were joining the HTS last Thursday.
Despite the decline in violence, the region still remains on edge. Further protests were reported across Idlib and the Aleppo countryside against the HTS last Friday in the towns of Atarib and Kafr Batna. Once again, HTS militants responded to the protests in Kafr Batna by firing towards the crowd. This time, however, no deaths or injuries were reported.
In further rebel developments, reported have emerged from the Idlib Province that Ahrar al-Sham is undergoing a leadership shuffle, with current leader Abu Ammar al-Omar set to be replaced by Hassan Soufan. Soufan was arrested and deported by Saudi authorities in 2005 on undisclosed charges. Upon arrival to Syria, he was kept in the infamous Saydnaya Prison where he remained until 2016, when he was released as part of a prisoner exchange during the last few days of the Aleppo offensive.