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Al-Qaeda-affiliated Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and its allies in the northwestern Syrian region of Greater Idlib are escalating against the Syrian Arab Army (SAA), threatening a ceasefire that was brokered by Russia and Turkey more than three years ago.
The escalation began on August 26 when a tunnel bombing targeted a position of the SAA near the town of Milaja in the southern Idlib countryside. Some 11 soldiers were killed in the attack and a subsequent raid. The attack was orchestrated by HTS and one of its key allies, al-Qaeda-affiliated Ansar al-Tawhid.
Quickly after the attack, the Russian Aerospace Forces began a series of airstrikes against HTS and its allies in Greater Idlib. The SAA also resumed artillery strikes on the region. Most of the Russian and Syrian strikes targeted the outskirts of the town of al-Fatterah, which is located just a few kilometers to the northwest of Milaja.
Despite the heavy strikes, at least 16 soldiers were killed on September 1, when HTS militants raided a position near al-Sarraf town in the northern Lattakia countryside.
The VKS and the SAA escalated their strikes on Greater Idlib following the deadly attack, inflicting more losses on HTS and its allies.
The joint strikes came to an end on September 9. The Syrian Ministry of defense said that several headquarters, fortifications, heavy weapons and ammunition depots of HTS and its allies in the southern Idlib countryside and the northwestern countryside of Hama were destroyed.
According to the ministry, at least 111 militants of HTS, Ansar al-Tawhid and the Turkistan Islamic Party were killed in joint strikes.
On September 10, the Turkish military stepped in and sent reinforcements to Greater Idlib, where it maintains dozens of positions to monitor the ceasefire. The reinforcements were deployed near the frontline in the southern Idlib countryside.
The reinforcements were likely sent to prevent the SAA and its allies from resuming ground operations in the region.
Despite sustaining heavy losses in recent Syrian and Russian strikes, HTS and its allies attempted to launch two raids in the southern Idlib countryside and the western countryside of Aleppo on September 12. However, both attempts were thwarted by the SAA and several militants were killed.
The ceasefire in Greater Idlib is still holding up. However, it could collapse if HTS and its allies continue to escalate. Turkey’s unwillingness to withdraw its military from the region means that any new ground operation by the SAA and its allies will lead to a dangerous confrontation. This appears to be the ultimate goal of HTS and its allies who understand that they won’t survive for long if Ankara and Damascus reach a normalization agreement.