Last Sunday, Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a former al-Qaeda affiliate based in Syria’s Idlib, signalled that it might abide by the terms of a September 17 deal between Russia and Turkey to prevent a Syrian government offensive on the rebel-held province. However, only a day later, the group missed a deadline to remove its fighters from a planned buffer zone around the province set in the Russia – Turkey deal.
“We have not abandoned our choice of jihad and fighting towards implementing our blessed revolution,” HTS said in a statement.
Syrian authorities were quick to express their dissatisfaction. In a news conference on Monday, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said the national army was deployed near Idlib, ready to attack if the rebels didn’t withdraw.
“After Idlib, our target is east of the Euphrates,” the minister added, referring to territory held by predominantly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) backed by the US. His statement echoed earlier comments by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that the Russia-Turkey agreement over Idlib was only “a temporary measure”, and that the province will eventually return to the Syrian state.
Assad and Moallem’s comments signalling a military offensive on Idlib came despite assurances by Russia’s President Vladimir Putin that no further major military actions are planned in the region.
Its vocal objection to the presence of al-Qaeda affiliated fighters in Idlib notwithstanding, the Syrian government has a long history of using groups similar to HTS – whose predecessor, al-Nusra Front, was designated a terrorist organisation by the US, the UK, France, Russia, Turkey, Iran and the UN among others – strategically to undermine the opposition and seize territory.
In fact, they used such groups, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, known as ISIS) chief among them, for political and military leverage quite frequently throughout Syria’s eight-year civil war.
Only a week after Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan agreed to create a demilitarised buffer zone in Idlib to avert a looming government offensive, the Assad regime reportedly ferried hundreds of ISIL fighters overnight from the eastern province of Deir az Zor near the Iraqi border to the outskirts of Idlib in northwest Syria.
“Regime forces transported more than 400 ISIL fighters late Sunday from the desert near the town of Albu Kamal,” the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor, said. The controversial measure had two distinct purposes: clearing the area around Al-Bukamal, where Iran-backed militia forces have a strong presence, of ISIL fighters and, perhaps more importantly, build a stronger case for the recapture of Idlib.