With everybody’s eyes on the peace conference in Kazakhstan, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham has made a big move to consolidate its control of the rebellion in Idlib:
Heavy fighting erupted in northwestern Syria on Tuesday between a powerful jihadist organization and more moderate rebel groups, threatening to further weaken the opposition to President Bashar al-Assad in its biggest territorial stronghold.
Rebel groups fighting under the Free Syrian Army (FSA) banner, some of which attended peace talks in Kazakhstan, accused the jihadist group Jabhat Fateh al-Sham of launching a surprise attack on their positions.
Fateh al-Sham, previously known as the Nusra Front, issued a statement which said it had been forced to act preemptively to “thwart conspiracies” being hatched against it. The group accused rebels attending the Kazakhstan talks of conspiring against it, but did not refer to Tuesday’s fighting directly.
JFS’s statement also accused the rebels who were participating in Astana of trying to “divert the course of the revolution towards reconciliation” with Bashar al-Assad.
On Sunday, Hassan Hassan wrote a piece in which he talked about the possibility that Ahrar al-Sham “will soon rip itself into pieces.” The reason is that Ahrar al-Sham has been trying to serve as the bridge between JFS and the Free Syrian Army–refusing, for example, to go along with any effort to isolate JFS–at a time when it’s becoming impossible to maintain that bridge. JFS has begun targeting rebel militias for elimination, and there are signs that it’s even starting to pick Ahrar al-Sham apart by encouraging its more extremist fighters to defect. Now there are some elements of Ahrar al-Sham that are reportedly trying to intercede to stop JFS but other elements that are reportedly helping JFS, which suggests that the group really is starting to rip itself into pieces.
Speaking of the Astana talks, they seem to have ended about as I thought they would, with Russia, Turkey, and Iran declaring a very esoteric victory, pledging their commitment to upholding the ceasefire, and closing up shop. The rebels attending the talks refused to sign on to the Russia-Turkey-Iran pledge and instead complained about Iran’s admittedly conflicting roles as Assad’s biggest supporter and as one of the supposedly neutral brokers in the talks (Damascus made similar and also well-founded complaints about Turkey). There were no direct talks between the Syrian government and the rebels, which seems like kind of a bad sign.