Clashes resume between jihadists and Turkish backed rebels in Northern Syria
Clashes have resumed in and around Afrin town of northwest Syria on Monday, just a day after a Turkish brokered ceasefire between a powerful Islamist group and Turkish-backed militias, local agencies reported.
The fighting continued between the jihadist Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and the Third Legion, also known as the al-Shamiya Front.
The HTS also shelled with mortar shells the vicinity of the Turkish base at Kafr Janneh, amid frequent flight of Turkish helicopters and reconnaissance drones in the area,” Syrian Northern Press reported.
The HTS is a major Islamist group that controls most of the province of Idlib in northwest Syria. Formerly known as al-Nusra Front, the group was the main affiliate of al-Qaida in Syria until 2018 when it formally severed ties with the global terror organization.
Local sources said the clashes intensified after leaders of the Third Legion refused an agreement that had been signed earlier with the HTS on Friday as they see the deal allows the HTS to expand to other areas a civilian administration that now runs Idlib region's public services.
HTS eyes Azez
Residents fear that the HTS may take over the strategically important Azez, the administrative center of the Turkish-backed opposition.
A "commander", who did not want to be named, said that the jihadist group had approached the Bab al Salam border gate, which opened into Turkey in the northwest of Azez, according to Rudaw.
Turkey limited its role to mediation
Turkey fears HTS's hold over much of the insurgent enclave would give Moscow a free hand to renew relentless bombing of a region inhabited by more than 3 million displaced Syrians who fled Assad's rule under the pretext of fighting hardline jihadists.
However, unlike its intervention in June, Turkey this time limited its role to mediation, suggesting a tacit approval of the HTS move.
Yet experts believe Turkey’s attitude might change if the deal falls through and the clashes spread.
“Ankara’s silence on the clashes and its mediation bid have given rise to two conflicting explanations of its calculus. The first holds that Turkey is planning to leave the region to HTS control as it revises its Syria policy. And in the case of reconciliation with Damascus, it will be HTS that Ankara throws under the bus. The other argument says that Ankara is using HTS to tidy the field up and have a united rebel force as it seeks some sort of agreement with Damascus. That would strengthen Turkey’s hand and pit Damascus against a strong opposition front with a joint command and management,” said Turkish Middle East expert Fehim Tastekin in an article he wrote for Al Monitor.