Tensions between Turkey and Ha’yat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) have escalated significantly in recent weeks. The extremist group is accused of inciting instability to create pretexts for entering territory held by the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA), including by releasing ISIS detainees to carry out sabotage missions against the SNA. However, tensions reached new heights on 20th March, after SNA forces shot and killed four local Kurds who were observing Newroz New Year celebrations in SNA-held Jandaris. In the wake of the killings, which spurred protests across the north-west, HTS attempted to capitalize on the incident, briefly entering Jandaris under the guise of “stabilization.” Ankara now increasingly perceives HTS as a threat and has accordingly ordered all SNA forces to halt communications with the group.
Attached Map: Military Situation in North-West Syria – 6th April 2023
(For a high-resolution version of this map, please use the form at the bottom of the page)
HTS commander Abu Mohammad al-Jolani made a public appearance to double down on the rising animosity between his group and the SNA. Al-Jolani’s strong criticism was prompted by the killing of four Kurds in Jandaris by SNA forces during a dispute at a Newroz celebration on 20th March. Jolani appeared at the HTS-controlled hospital in Atima, where the individuals had been transported after the incident, to declare his outrage over their deaths in front of cameras. Shortly after, HTS forces appeared in Jandaris to supposedly promote “stabilization.”
In response, Turkey mobilized 20 armored vehicles and HTS quickly withdrew from Jandaris before Turkish forces were deployed. Since this incident, Ankara has forbidden any SNA groups to communicate with HTS’ leadership and has put its proxy forces on high alert. This past month’s activity reiterates HTS’s determination to expand into northwestern territory taken by Turkey and its proxies during Operation Euphrates Shield (2016) and Operation Olive Branch (2018).
Syrian regime forces and affiliated militias continue to repeatedly and regularly shell opposition-held areas of southern Idlib, western Hama and western Aleppo, with artillery strikes hitting civilian and military targets in more than two dozen towns in the first week of March. Two civilians were injured in artillery shelling on 23rd March by regime forces and Russia, targeting a popular market as well as residential neighborhoods in the city of Atarib, west of Aleppo.
East of Aleppo, regime forces attempted to push through SNA-manned frontlines on the Tadef axis. The regime eventually retreated following clashes on 3rd March, but two days later attempted a second advance along the Ruwaiha axis in southern Idlib, an area controlled by HTS and affiliated extremist groups. Again, this attack ended in a regime retreat with no territorial changes on the ground.
Syrians across the north-west held massive demonstrations to mark the 12th anniversary of the Syrian uprising, in continued defiance of the Assad regime.
In at least 11 sites across the country, including in locations as far afield as Idlib and Deir Ezzor, protesters also raised the Ukrainian flag in solidarity with Ukraine’s struggle against Russia, a long-time Assad ally. The displays generated a burst of international media attention and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky released a statement reminding the international community of its failures to protect the Syrian people in the face of Russian impunity. On 17th March, Kyiv introduced new sanctions against 141 Syrian regime entities and 300 individuals, including Bashar al-Assad himself.
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