After heavy fighting last week between rebel groups Ahrar al Sham and Hayat Tahrir al Sham for control of Idlib, the latter pulled out of the city after a ceasefire deal was reached.

Syrian rebel fighters demonstrate fighting capabilities during a graduation ceremony in Idlib.
Syrian rebel fighters demonstrate fighting capabilities during a graduation ceremony in Idlib.

Militants linked to a former Al Qaeda-affiliated group on Sunday consolidated their grip over large parts of the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib.

Ahrar al Sham's pullout from Idlib was stipulated under terms of a ceasefire deal reached on Friday.

The deal was reached following three days of heavy fighting that had pitted Ahrar al Sham, a powerful rebel group with a foothold across Syria, against Hayat Tahrir al Sham, an alliance led by Al Qaeda's Syria branch.

Witnesses said the departing rebels from Ahrar al Sham had moved a large convoy of heavy equipment and tanks and hundreds of its fighters away from the Bab al Hawa crossing with Turkey and headed to areas it controls further south in Idlib province and in the neighbouring province of Hama.

Hayat Tahrir al Sham surrounded their adversaries near the Syria-Turkey border crossing after rapid advances in a strategic stretch of territory along the border with Turkey, and after ousting their rivals from the province's main towns and villages.

The Al Qaeda-affiliated group said their control of the border area is aimed at preventing Turkish forces or rival rebel groups from entering Idlib.

The fighting between the two largest rebel groups, which left many dead and injured, was by far the heaviest inter-rebel fighting since the start of the conflict.

Emboldened by their success at Bab al Hawa, the militants of Tahrir al Sham also dislodged Ahrar al Sham fighters on Sunday from another border crossing, Kherbet al Jouz, that is used as a conduit for humanitarian relief supplies.

The militant's sweep across Idlib province has raised concerns that the closure of key crossing points on the border with Turkey could choke off the flow of aid and essential goods.

More than two million people live in Idlib, which has become a refuge for many of the displaced, including rebel fighters and their families who left areas seized by the regime forces.

Locals fear being targeted by the regime and Russian forces

In several towns in Idlib province in recent days, including Saraqeb and Atareb, hundreds of residents have taken to the streets to protest against the Hayat Tahrir al Sham.

Many locals fear the group's hold on Idlib will make the area a target of renewed attacks by both Russian forces and the Syrian army.

Relentless bombing of the province last year caused widespread damage and hundreds of civilian casualties.

Seeking to defuse local resentment and suspicion, Tahrir al Sham issued a statement on Sunday denying that it planned to monopolise power and urged rival rebels and local leaders to unite with it in defence of the revolution against the Syrian regime.

Armed opponents of the regime have long been bitterly divided by regional rivalries, over their ties to foreign states and ideological battles over whether to pursue national or religious goals in Syria.

Big Blow to Ahrar al Sham

Tensions have been building between Idlib province's two biggest rebel factions as they fought for dominance in the only Syrian province that is entirely under rebel control.

The pullout of Ahrar from the border crossing of Bab al Hawa, which it had controlled for over three years and which was a major source of revenue, is a big blow for the group.

Ahrar has also been hit by the defection of hundreds of its fighters to Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.

Several other units have handed over ammunition and weapons depots to Tahrir and decided to disband from Ahrar.

Source: Reuters