Turkey-aligned militant group flexes its muscles after fighting in northern Syria

Fighting between pro-Turkish armed factions in northern Syria died down on Sunday after an agreement was brokered by Ankara, residents said.

Eight people have been killed in the conflict raging in recent days in the Al Bab region of Aleppo, they said.

The bloodshed points to the fragility of an alliance of Turkish proxies that Ankara has used against US-backed Kurdish militias, its main adversary in Syria.

The conflict between pro-Turkish factions has led Hayat Tahrir Al Sham (HTS) to use fighters in Aleppo Governorate, closer to the border with Turkey, to support one of the warring groups.

The powerful Turkish-aligned HTS is based in the neighboring governorate of Idlib. The group was born from the merger of several radical groups, including the Al-Qaeda-linked Al Nusra Front, which has changed its name several times since its creation ten years ago.

But opposition sources to President Bashar Al Assad in Istanbul and Amman said HTS fighters had started to withdraw as part of the Turkish-supervised truce agreed on Sunday.

“HTS needs Turkey and understands that they can’t go any further to confront them,” an opposition source in Istanbul said.

Northern and eastern Syria is the main battleground of an international effort by Russia, Iran, the United States and Turkey to protect or expand the spheres of influence they hold. have been cut since the start of the Syrian uprising in 2011.

The four countries support or are aligned with an amalgam of militias, ranging from Kurdish Marxist-Leninist groups to Sunni extremists and Iran-backed Shia militants.

The fighting since last week has mainly pitted Ahrar Al Sham, which is backed by HTS, against two other groups from the self-proclaimed Syrian National Army, a coalition of rebel groups overseen by Turkey.

The militia organization was formed from remnants of the rebel Free Syrian Army, but has since built up its ranks and rearmed with Turkish funding and training.

It is mainly active in areas near the city of Al Bab, located northeast of the city of Aleppo under government control, and a strip of territory on the border with Turkey, encroaching on the governorate of Hasakah where there is a large Kurdish population.

Al Bab forms a frontline between pro-Turkish groups and Kurdish militias, known as the People’s Protection Units (YPG), in the town of Tel Rifaat. The YPG captured Tel Rifaat with Russian air support from anti-Assad rebels six years ago.

Many rebels of the Syrian National Army had moved to northern Syria, mainly from the center and south of the country, under surrender agreements reached with the government, overseen by Russia, after its intervention in Syria to support Assad at the end of 2015.

One of the main causes of the fighting between Turkish proxies has been competition over an illicit trade in narcotics, oil and human trafficking between YPG-held regions and areas of Turkish influence, opposition sources said.

Militant convoy

Two northerners said an armored HTS column moved from HTS strongholds in Idlib to the outskirts of Afrin in Aleppo governorate on Saturday, in support of one of the fighting groups, an Islamist militia called Ahrar Al Sham.

“As soon as HTS stepped in, all the other brigades went their way,” said one of the residents, who lives in Jindaris, a town near Afrin.

He said HTS fighters who had taken positions next to the Ahrar Al Sham fortifications had started returning to Idlib on Sunday.

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Turkey has deployed the Syrian National Army at least twice in the past four years to capture territories held by Kurdish militias in northern Syria, after Russia’s tacit approval.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said this month that Turkey would launch a new military operation in Syria to expand what he describes as safe zones along the border.

Mr. Erdogan, who did not give a date for the proposed incursion, does not seem to have Russian and American support this time around.

Updated: June 19, 2022, 4:27 p.m.

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Sharon P. Juarez