New rebel faction seizes cities and towns from hardline Islamist coalition in Syria’s northwest

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Fighters with Jabhat Tahrir Souria stand with Darat Izza residents on Monday. Photo courtesy of Idlib Plus.

AMMAN: The newly formed rebel faction Jabhat Tahrir Souria seized a major city in opposition-controlled western Aleppo province and at least half a dozen other towns and villages across Syria’s rebel-held northwest from rival Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham on Monday.

Jabhat Tahrir Souria (JTS) “liberated” Darat Izza, one of the largest opposition-held cities in western Aleppo province, on Monday, Mohammad Adeeb, a spokesman for the group told Syria Direct. Darat Izza has an estimated 40,000 residents.

JTS forces captured six other towns in western Aleppo and northern Idlib provinces from the hardline Islamist coalition Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham (HTS) the same day, the spokesman added.

Monday’s advances in western Aleppo and northern Idlib place JTS fighters within 10 kilometers of Bab al-Hawa, a key border crossing with Turkey held by HTS since July 2017. The recent JTS gains appear to be one of the most significant challenges to HTS dominance in Syria’s rebel-held northwest since the latter seized near-total control of Idlib province and nearby areas of Hama and Aleppo from rival factions in July 2017.

Rebel infighting erupted early last week after JTS announced its formation in a merger between the Islamist factions Ahrar a-Sham and Harakat Nour e-Din a-Zinki. Both groups previously clashed with HTS in a series of inter-rebel conflicts that have plagued Syria’s northwest for more than a year.

HTS, a hardline Islamist coalition formed in January 2017, is led by Jabhat Fatah a-Sham, formerly Al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate Jabhat a-Nusra. The rebel coalition largely controls Idlib province and adjacent rebel-held areas of Hama and Aleppo provinces.

Emad a-Din Mujahid, the head of media relations for HTS, confirmed that the hardline coalition lost control of Darat Izza and nearby villages on Monday and was “trying to regain the city and respond to the Zinki aggressors.”

HTS has not acknowledged the merger of Ahrar a-Sham and Nour e-Din a-Zinki or used the name “Jabhat Tahrir Souria” in official media or statements.

HTS fighters first seized control of Darat Izza from Ahrar a-Sham in July 2017 during widespread clashes that reportedly broke out over the use of the Syrian revolutionary flag. Zinki, which was a founding member of HTS, defected from the Islamist coalition as a result.

Monday’s fighting between JTS and HTS near Darat Izza took place just south of a recently established Turkish Armed Forces ceasefire observation post in the west Aleppo countryside. Turkish state media does not appear to have commented on ongoing inter-rebel clashes in Syria’s northwest.

‘A state of paralysis’

As clashes between JTS and HTS spread across rebel-held Aleppo and Idlib provinces, two residents in the area told Syria Direct on Monday that civilians are trapped in their homes.

“We haven’t left our home in two days,” Ismail Mohiaddin, a resident of the northern Idlib town of Hizano, told Syria Direct on Monday. “Everything is paralyzed.”

“What’s going on right now is maddening and unbearable,” added the 28-year-old father of two.

JTS seized control of Hazano from HTS on Saturday. The town sits on the road that connects the Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey and the provincial capital Idlib city, both held by Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham. HTS shelled and stormed Hazano in an attempt to retake it on Monday, JTS media claimed via Telegram.

Syria Direct contacted two spokesmen for the Syrian Civil Defense—one in Idlib province and one in western Aleppo—as well as a member of the opposition-run Idlib Health Directorate for information about civilian casualties on Monday. All three sources refused to comment on the topic of infighting, fearing reprisals from both sides.

One paramedic in west Aleppo estimated that rebel infighting has killed at least 20 residents in the rebel-held countryside alone, saying he could not provide “exact statistics.” The paramedic asked that his name and exact location not be reported, as he too fears reprisals from the warring factions.

During recent fighting, both JTS and HTS set up checkpoints and earthen berms across the west Aleppo countryside, said the paramedic, “cutting off roads” and making it difficult for ambulances to transport patients to medical facilities quickly.

“It is incredibly difficult,” said the paramedic, “as medical professionals, to work in such conditions.”

With additional reporting by Tarek Zaid al-Hariri, Adam al-Ahmed and Alaa Safwan