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The recent attempt by al-Qaeda-affiliated Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) to expand its influence from the region of Greater Idlib to the northern Aleppo countryside in Syria was met with a fierce response from the Russian military grouping in the country.
The terrorist group advanced in the Turkish-occupied area of Afrin on October 11 under the pretext of supporting its Turkish-backed allies, the al-Hamzah Division and the Suleyman Shah Division, against the Turkish-backed 3rd Corps. On October 15, an agreement with the 3rd Corps solidified the group control over Afrin.
The Russian response to the agreement was fierce. On October 16, warplanes of the Russian Aerospace Forces carried out a series of airstrikes on positions of the al-Shamiya Front, faction of the SNA’s 3rd Corps, as well as a large training camp of the Suqur al-Shamal Brigade, a member of the so-called Liberation and Construction Movement within the SNA’s 1st Corps. The movement facilitated the agreement with HTS.
According to the Russian Military Coordination Center in Syria, the airstrikes killed or wounded some 100 Turkish-backed militants. 15 pickup trucks armed with heavy machine guns and rocket launchers were also destroyed.
The Russian airstrikes marked the end of the agreement between the 3rd Corps and HTS. Thousands of civilians in Turkish-occupied areas in the northern Aleppo countryside took to the streets late on October 16 to protest against the agreement. The civilians feared that the agreement could lead to the collapse of the Russian-Turkish de-escalation agreement that kept the region at peace for years.
HTS attacked and captured the town of Azaz, the main stronghold of the 3rd Corps in the northern Aleppo countryside, on October 17.
On the same day, a new wave of Russian airstrikes hit two strongholds of the terrorist group, the towns of Urum al-Jawz and al-Rami, in Greater Idlib. The airstrikes were clearly meant as a warning to the terrorist group.
On October 18, Russia’s military pressure paid off. HTS began withdrawing its militants from the outskirts of Azaz, as well as from many parts of Afrin back to Greater Idlib. Turkish military deployed large forces in the two areas, likely as a warning to the terrorist group.
Ankara understands that the group’s expansion in the northern Aleppo countryside could lead to a confrontation with Syrian government forces, which are backed by Russia.
It remains unclear if HTS will withdraw from all the northern Aleppo countryside in the end. The terrorist group could attempt to keep some of its security forces or even install its officials to run Afrin and Azaz. Russia and its allies in Syria will not likely tolerate such moves by the group, which may be risking its very existence.