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Syria: Surfacing of ‘Hai’at Tahrir al-Sham’ Threatens Truce | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Syrian maintenance workers are seen at the entrance of Ayn al-Fijah, in the countryside of Damascus, on January 28, 2017, as they prepare to enter the village for the first time in four years, to repair the pipes at the key water pumping station. (Photo by AFP)

Beirut, Ankara-The creation of “Hai’at Tahrir al-Sham” alliance that includes hardliners and other factions in north Syria threatens the Russian-Turkish truce agreement in the country, amid information about efforts to hold meetings in the north to take a decision on the ceasefire, which excludes both extremist groups ISIS and Al-Nusra Front.

The announcement of the new alliance would therefore change the balance of power in the area, as Hai’at Tahrir al-Sham can provide a cover for Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, previously known as al-Nusra Front, and which has been isolated after the Astana meeting.

A military source told Asharq Al-Awsat on Sunday that 18,000 members of al-Nusra have already joined the ranks of Hai’at Tahrir al-Sham.

In an article published last week by Asharq Al-Awsat, informed Syrian sources told the newspaper about an unannounced clause in the Astana talks agreement to “bolster the ceasefire reached in Syria and reinforce the positions of parties involved in the conflict, including the Syrian regime and their allies from one part and the opposition forces from another part.”

However, the clause made an exception by allowing advancement at the expense of al-Nusra and ISIS, which are two factions not included in the ceasefire settlement.

Military sources told Asharq Al-Awsat on Sunday that the newly formed entity might strike the Astana ceasefire agreement. However, opposition military official Mohammed al-Shami, who joined the ranks of Hai’at Tahrir al-Sham, said that head of the alliance Abu Jaber al-Sheikh does not possess the authorities to annul the truce without receiving the acceptance of the Shura Council body.

Al-Shami said a meeting was scheduled on Sunday night in Idlib to agree on several issues related to the Hai’at.

He told Asharq Al-Awsat: “Administrative and organizational issues at the Hai’at prevent the general commander from taking crucial decisions such as the one linked to the truce agreement, without the authorization of the Shura council.”

The surfacing of “Hai’at Tahrir al-Sham” alliance currently led by Fatah al-Sham leader Abu Mohammed al-Julani, revives the tough efforts exerted since last December to unite hardliners in one military faction.

The creation of the new alliance shocked the Syrian political opposition.

Instead of undermining al-Nusra’s war against moderate opposition factions in north Syria, which kicked off last week and have allowed the extremist group to seize opposition-controlled areas in the western Aleppo suburbs and Idlib, al-Nusra threatened to renew its attack against Ahrar al-Sham faction if it does not hand over the heavy weapons that belonged to Soukour al-Sham, now allied with Ahrar al-Sham.

Also, the ability of Hai’at al-Sham to seize northern areas in Syria relies mainly on the capabilities of Ahrar al-Sham to survive. A military opposition source in north Syria told Asharq Al-Awsat that Ahrar al-Sham’s mission is very difficult, adding that the movement that was considered one of the biggest military factions in north Syria “faced many internal problems when several of its members decided to split from the group in favor of the new alliance (Hai’at Tahrir al-Sham).”

The source also said that Ahrar al-Sham lost a large part of its force due to those splits, leaving the movement with only 3,000 fighters. In return, the new alliance now includes around 31,000 fighters.

Separately, the Syrian regime’s forces announced on Sunday their control of the Wadi Barada Valley in the Damascus suburbs, while the first convoy carrying opposition fighters and their families had exited the area in the direction of Idlib, as part of a settlement reached last Saturday and which stipulates that opposition forces would be allowed to safely leave Ain al-Fijah area to opposition-controlled areas in north Syria.

Meanwhile, Turkey pushes towards speeding up its advancement in al-Bab operation, alerting that fighting would emerge with Syrian regime forces, currently located only five kilometers from the eastern part of the city.