Reuters-By Suleiman Al-Khalidi
AMMAN, Oct 16 (Reuters) – Calm prevailed on Sunday in rebel-controlled northwest Syria a day after a Turkish-brokered truce ended bloody clashes between rival factions which risked wider internecine warfare among opponents of President Bashar al Assad’s rule, residents and rebels said.
The main jihadist rebel group Hayat Tahrir al Sham (HTS), listed as terrorists by the United States, Turkey and others, forced factions from the Turkey-backed opposition National Army to accept a peace deal on Saturday that expanded its grip in the last major rebel enclave, they said.
Under the initial deal, the HTS pulled back its forces from the city of Afrin in northern Aleppo province, which it entered last Thursday, in return for a pledge from its adversaries to work toward a unified civilian administration that would bring stability and end lawlessness.
The two main rebel factions, Shamia Front and Jaish al Islam, that operate under the umbrella of the Third Corps of the National Army also agreed to return to their frontlines and dismantle a military presence in urban centres, negotiators said.
The deal signalled new gains by the jihadist group that has long sought a wider economic and security role in areas in northern Syria beyond its stronghold in the heavily populated city of Idlib, rebel sources and jihadist experts said.
“In the latest battles after its control of Afrin, HTS now has a large security role compared to what it had. It also aspires to expand further,” said Wael Olwan, a former official of the Syrian opposition and researcher at Istanbul-based Jusoor Centre for Studies.
Rebels sources have said the deal brings Mohammad al Golani, the leader of Hayat Tahrir al Sham, closer to his goal to expand to other areas a civilian administration that now efficiently runs Idlib region’s public services in a bid to shed the former Syrian al Qaeda offshoot’s militant image.
Turkey is the leading backer of mainstream rebel factions. Its strong military presence in northwest Syria has held back Russia and Damascus from seizing the remaining opposition area. Turkey had stepped up its intervention to end the fighting that left scores killed, a senior rebel commander who requested anonymity said.
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.
Russian fighter jets on Sunday hit Kafr Jana, a village that was the scene of some of the heaviest fighting among rebels, in a message by Moscow that it will strike with impunity areas that now fall under the wider influence of the jihadist group, two rebel commanders said.
Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; Editing by Will Dunham
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