(AP/www.ahvalnews.com) – An al-Qaeda-linked group’s takeover of a massive swathe of territory in northern Syria imperils the Russia-Turkey deal to avert a Syrian offensive in the country’s last rebel holdout, the Associated Press reported on Wednesday.
Within Idlib province, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) seized control of an area the size of neighboring Lebanon earlier this month. HTS has officially severed ties with al-Qaeda, but experts say it is still closely linked to the radical extremist group founded by Osama bin Laden, said AP.
Last September, Russia and Turkey brokered a ceasefire to avoid a government offensive into Idlib, with Ankara agreeing to clear the area of radical Islamist militias.
There is a real danger that HTS’ advance “will not only worsen the humanitarian crisis for the three million inhabitants there, but also give Assad and his allies the justification to assault the province,” Fawaz Gerges, professor of Middle Eastern politics at the London School of Economics, told AP.
“Such a scenario would be as devastatingly bloody as the battle for Aleppo,” he said, referring to the heavy fighting over Syria’s largest city in 2016, which killed thousands of people and ended with government forces and their allies capturing the rebel-held east.
After the advance by HTS, which now controls about 9,000 square kilometres (5% of Syrian territory), including a border crossing with Turkey and major highways, some international aid agencies suspended their work for fear of reprisals. The latest HTS offensive has already led to 250,000 people losing medical support after the Free Aleppo Medical Directorate ceased operations at 43 facilities due to a drop in aid from Western agencies, said AP.
Syrian pro-government media say Defense Minister Gen. Ali Ayoub and Brig. Gen. Suheil al-Hassan have recently visited the front lines in Idlib, raising fears of a new government offensive.
Turkey has nearly a dozen observation posts in Idlib, but has shifted its focus further east, where it is preparing to launch an offensive against Syrian Kurdish forces.
Ankara, which supports the opposition, fears the Syrian government is trying to undermine the September agreement. Russia, a key ally of the Syrian government, has urged Turkey to act more resolutely in reining in militants in Idlib, who have launched attacks on Syrian government forces and the Russian military.
The HTS takeover “alters the trajectory of the next phase in the civil war, tipping the balance of power in favor of the Assad regime,” the Soufan Center, a New York-based think tank, told AP.