Clashes between Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda) and the Turkish-backed National Front for Liberation (NFL) have erupted in the northwestern countryside of Aleppo.
According to reports, units of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham attacked NFL positions in the village of Kafr Hamra on October 29 and had gained full control of the area by the evening of October 30. Several NFL militants were killed or injured in the incident.
Over the past few months, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham has continued expanding its influence in the parts of Aleppo, Idlib and Lattakia provinces, which are included in de-escalation agreements. While Ankara claims that it keeps the situation under control there, developments on the ground clearly shows that Turkey has in—fact reached a kind of deal with Hayat Tahrir al-Sham that allows the terrorist group to operate freely within the de-escalation zone or Turkey has not enough influence to limit the group’s activity.
These incidents once again demonstrate a peaceful solution of the conflict is not possible while Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and its allies present within the so-called opposition-held area.
On October 30, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that Turkey had finished preparations for a large-scale counter-terrorism operation in the area east of the Euphrates Rive. Erdogan vowed that Turkey will “achieve a victory over terrorists” referring to Kurdish armed groups (mostly the YPG and the PKK), which control the northeastern part of Syria.
Later on the same day, Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar confirmed Ankara’s next area of activity will be east of the Euphrates. He also stated that the Idlib demilitarized zone was in fact fully established claiming that “radicals and weapons in a 15-20 kilometer corridor were removed”. Probably, the defense minister did not hear about the recent developments in Kafr Hamra or intentionally ignored them as well as constant militant shelling of government positions in Lattakia, Hama ad Aleppo.
It should be noted that on October 28, the Turkey Armed Forces (TAF) carried out a series of strikes on YPG/PKK positions near the village of Ayn al-Arab (also known as Kobani), which is located east of the Euphrates. After the strikes, the YPG released a statement on the strikes vowing to respond to Turkish attacks.
According to pro-Kurdish sources, the TAF is now concentrating troops and equipment on the Syrian border, near Ayn al-Arab.
It seems that after the Trump administration the Manbij deal with its Turkish counterparts, Erdogan decided that it’s time to show once again that the TAF has a military option to solve the so-called Kurdish issue if negotiations do not work. While a full-scale Turkish military invasion in northwestern Syria is not likely now because of the US military presence there, the TAF is capable of pressuring US-backed Kurdish factions with artillery strikes.