BEIRUT (AP) – It only took a few days for al-Qaeda-linked militants to seize more than two dozen towns and villages in northern Syria from rival insurgents earlier this month, expanding and cementing their control over an area the size of neighbouring Lebanon.
The advance by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), or the Levant Liberation Committee, was the most serious blow yet to a September ceasefire brokered by Russia and Turkey that averted a major government offensive in Idlib province, the last main stronghold of the Syrian opposition. It highlighted the growing threat posed by al-Qaeda at a time when its rival, the Islamic State (IS) group, is on the verge of defeat and the US is preparing to withdraw its 2,000 troops from Syria.
Although HTS has formally severed ties with al-Qaeda, experts say it is still closely linked to the global network founded by Osama bin Laden and could use its base in Syria to launch attacks in the West.
Fawaz Gerges, Professor of Middle Eastern politics at the London School of Economics, said there is a “real danger” that the group’s advance “will not only worsen the humanitarian crisis for the three million inhabitants there, but also give (President Bashar) Assad and his allies the justification to assault the province.”
“Such a scenario would be as devastatingly bloody as the battle for Aleppo,” he said, referring to the months of heavy fighting over Syria’s largest city in 2016, which killed thousands of people and ended with government forces and their allies capturing the rebel-held east.
HTS includes large numbers of battle-hardened al-Qaeda fighters, and its capture of most of rebel-held Syria could force aid agencies to withdraw, leaving tens of thousands of civilians to fend for themselves. The opposition’s Free Aleppo Medical Directorate said that some 250,000 people will lose medical support after 43 facilities it runs cease operations due to a drop in aid from Western agencies after the latest HTS offensive.
The government has meanwhile stepped up its bombardment of Idlib and neighbouring rebel-held areas. Pro-government media say Defence Minister Gen. Ali Ayoub and Brig Gen Suheil al-Hassan, who commands the elite Tiger Force, have recently visited the front lines with Idlib, raising fears of a new government offensive.
HTS now controls an area of about 9,000 square kilometres or about five per cent of Syria’s territory. The area is home to some three million people, many of whom have been displaced from other parts of the country.
Turkey has nearly a dozen observation posts in Idlib, but has shifted its focus further east, where it is preparing to launch an offensive against Syrian Kurdish forces.
Ankara, which supports the opposition, fears the Syrian government is trying to undermine the September agreement. Russia, a key ally of the Syrian government, has urged Turkey to act more resolutely in reining in militants in Idlib, who have launched attacks on Syrian government forces and the Russian military.