Turkish-backed Syrian rebels join forces with HTS jihadists in Idlib

Turkish-backed rebels in Syria joined forces with jihadist group Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) to stage a dramatic assault on forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime on Tuesday, Qatari news network Al Jazeera reported.

Russia counts HTS as one of the “extremist” groups that Turkey undertook to clear from Idlib, the last rebel-controlled province in the country, in an agreement signed by Moscow and Ankara last September.

However, the estimated 50,000 HTS fighters have become the dominant force in Idlib and captured territory in neighbouring provinces. Russia and Assad’s forces began intensive bombardment of Idlib province this month, an operation that Turkish defence expert Metin Gürcan said indicated that Russia had lost patience with Turkey.

On Tuesday HTS, with assistance from Turkish-backed rebels from the National Liberation Front (NLF), seized the town of Kfar Nabuda in Idlib province from Assad’s troops.

The NLF, a conglomeration of rebel groups supported by Ankara, have been rivals of HTS in Idlib. But the moderate groups are willing to collaborate with former enemies in the face of the regime onslaught in what one commander quoted by Al Jazeera called “a battle for survival”.

Fighters from the two groups launched a lightning strike on the regime positions with heavy weapons support after a furious rocket artillery barrage, driving away Assad’s troops and capturing the town, said MENA Conflict, a popular social media account tracking developments in the Syrian war.

However, the victory will not tip the scales in a conflict in which Assad’s forces enjoy an overwhelming advantage, the account said.

Nicholas Heras, a fellow at the Centre for a New American Security, told Al Jazeera that the assault was a signal from Turkey to Russia that there was “an escalation ladder that the Turks can climb to intervene in Idlib and that Turkey is still on one of the lower rungs of that ladder”.

 Aaron Stein, director of the Middle East Programme at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, told the Qatari network that the escalation appeared to have been managed by Russia and Turkey, meaning that Assad’s regime had been able to “slice and dice territory” without forcing migration to Turkey to reach crisis levels.

However, there have been signs of large-scale migration this week, with tens of thousands of Syrians driven from their homes by the offensive and seeking passage to Turkey, Reuters reported on Thursday.

New checkpoints have been set up on the line between the de-escalation zone in Idlib and territory controlled by the Assad regime, Russian state news agency TASS reported on Wednesday. The new crossings will allow civilians to exit Idlib amid the new wave of fighting, TASS said.