Uncertainty surrounds future of Idlib after HTS gains control of the city

On Saturday, the city of Idlib in the northwest of Syria was taken over by the Hayy’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS).

Over the course of the past week heavy clashes ensued between the two main actors in Idlib, Hayy’at Tahrir al-Sham and Ahrar al-Sham, which is backed by Turkey and some Gulf countries. The former has now gained a foothold on the city as it has pushed out elements of the latter. Last week, Ahrar al-Sham and HTS had signed an agreement that saw Ahrar al-Sham retreat from the Bab al-Hawa Border Crossing with Turkey, leaving it in charge of a civilian administration. The rebel groups also agreed on a ceasefire and cessation of arrests of militants belonging to either group. This truce ended a week of fierce fighting between the two groups.

A number of smaller factions within Ahrar al-Sham have seen these developments as a sign that the group is losing its superiority in Idlib and have defected to the HTS. Even the town of Saraqib, an anti-HTS hotbed, was lost to the group when the three local groups, Osoud al-Islam, Liwa Khalid Ibn al-Walid and Osoud Bin Ummaya, left Ahrar al-Sham and joined the HTS.

The group has been designated as a terrorist organisation by the international community. It is an amalgamation of a variety of groups, including the Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, which itself used to be al-Nusra Front, which had been a branch of al-Qaeda, but had supposedly broken formal ties with the terrorist group. HTS is led by Hashim al-Sheikh, also known as Abu Jaber. He is reported to have fought alongside al-Qaeda under Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq.

Idlib has been marred by fighting between the Syrian regime and various rebel groups over the course of the Syrian conflict. Much of the city has been decimated and efforts to rehabilitate areas destroyed by shelling have been put into force on different occasions thanks to the establishment of de-escalation zones.

Image: Aljazeera