Russia has recently stepped up attacks in areas of Idlib province in northwestern Syria, coinciding with clashes between Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and Syrian government forces in the area.
HTS military sources told Al-Monitor: “HTS carried out an incursion against regime forces in the western countryside of Aleppo.”
The October 4 operation resulted in the death of five members of the regime forces, the seizure of their weapons and the destruction of their positions in the area, according to the sources.
Violent clashes broke out following the HTS incursion, as the two sides exchanged heavy machine gun fire around regime forces’ 46th Regiment stations in western Aleppo, the sources said.
On the same day, Russian warplanes launched several air raids on the Latakia campaign, targeting the Tilal al-Kabineh area in the northern Latakia countryside with no casualties. At the same time, a number of Russian and government reconnaissance planes were flying over Idlib.
Asked to comment on the incident, Hammam Issa, an Idlib-based journalist, told Al-Monitor: “Syrian regime forces have launched a new escalation in areas under HTS control. With Russian air support, regime forces continue to target civilians, as Russian warplanes have launched more than 11 raids in the past two days. In response, the Syrian National Army [affiliated with the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA)] and HTS increased their military presence in the Idlib countryside after Syrian regime forces deployed in the area.
He said: “Lines of contact with Syrian regime forces around Idlib province have recently seen military reinforcements from regime forces, the [regime-affiliated] national defense forces and the 25th Special Mission Forces Division [an elite formation of the Syrian army]most of which were concentrated in the eastern and southern countryside of Idlib.
Izzeddine Abu Ahmad, an HTS military commander, told Al-Monitor: “The Russian escalation against the liberated areas is aimed at pressuring Turkey to accept the Russian initiative to normalize relations with the regime. ‘Assad and keep the regime afloat.
He added: “The factions are militarily ready to confront the regime. The recent period has seen the graduation of several new brigades and military groups into HTS. Factions constantly monitor regime activity, and there is currently no major regime mobilization on the outskirts of the liberated areas. We have been monitoring some movements by regime forces, but they do not seem to indicate a military attack, as they are mostly normal movements.
Abu Ahmad added: “The Russian message is either that we comply with Russia‘s conditions, which include surrendering to the Assad regime, or that we face a military escalation. Reports of a current displacement movement in Idlib are not true. It was only in the villages of Jabal al-Zawiya that people were moved after receiving information about the Russians’ intention to launch an air campaign in this region, but many of them returned later.
Omar al-Hamoud, captain of the FSA operating in Idlib, told Al-Monitor: “We are fully prepared for any attack that regime forces may launch. There are military movements by regime forces on axes in Idlib, but they are not major movements. We act as if such mobs – however few and ordinary they are – are going to attack us. We are constantly building sites and digging tunnels and trenches.
He noted: “We may see more heavy Russian bombardments in the coming days to put pressure on us and Turkey to accelerate Turkish rapprochement with the Assad regime. But we will not succumb to extortion, even if Turkey reconciles with the regime. We won’t accept it and we won’t accept it.