By Oliviero Reusser
Following three days of large scale clashes all around the province of greater Idlib, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and Ahrar al-Sham (Ahrar) have agreed on the evening of Friday to cease general fighting. The agreement also includes the release of prisoners and detainees, especially those taken into custody during recent days, aswell as Ahrar leaving the Bab al-Hawa border crossing and giving control over it to a civil administration. Bab al-Hawa is the most important crossing one for greater Idlib, being the lifeline into the opposition-held province and vital crossing point for families and people in N. Syria.
The ceasefire was announced by the official twitter account of the Ahrar al-Sham spokesman and confirmed by the HTS-linked media channel Ebnaa Agency. Details are unclear so far but soon to follow.
The clashes started on the 18th of July and quickly spread throughout all of Idlib. The clashes especially concentrated on the villages and towns located just east of the Turkey-Syria border. During the first confrontations, villages quickly changed hands and several smaller groups and individuals defected. Several smaller brigades and local administration officials pledged allegiance, mostly to HTS. After an initial stalemate, more and more villages were captured by HTS: notably al-Dana, Maarat Misrin and Atmeh. In other towns, such as Saraqib, HTS was not welcomed by the locals: they protested heavily when their fighters entered the town, causing them to leave and leaving the town governed by a local administration.
As noted above, a major development occurred with the most recent agreement reached between Ahrar and HTS. The Bab al-Hawa crossing was a lifeline for Ahrar and it is not unlikely that with this, they will have lost a big part of their significance, influence and manpower. More defections will cripple the group further and make it more and more irrelevant, giving room to HTS, which will rise to be the biggest and most influential group in Idlib. While this has been the case for months now, the group will mark its presence and power more aggressively, moving against dissidents and unfriendly groups aswell as implementing their Islamist agenda in the opposition-held areas, definitely killing any hope of a secular, democratic and free revolution in greater Idlib.
While several developments still have to go through and more reshuffles will happen in terms of control of areas and villages, preliminary maps can be made already. HTS has at minimum asserted control over several previously Ahrar-held areas near the Turkish border, containing many refugee camps and located on strategic roads.
Now the eyes are not on Syria, but on Turkey: the last option for Ahrar (and other Turkish-backed factions) is a direct intervention by the Turkish Armed Forces, supported by Euphrates Shield groups. It remains however to be seen how willing Turkey is to do this, as it would likely cause massive destruction, many casualties and take a lot of time to accomplish little: HTS and many locals in Syria have made it clear how unwelcome the neighbor would be.