Last Updated: 2019-01-11
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DAMASCUS, Jan 11 (NNN-AGENCIES) -- A militant group dominated by Syria's former Al-Qaeda affiliate on Thursday sealed its grip on northern Idlib, the last major rebel bastion, in a deal ending days of fighting with rival factions.

Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) signed a ceasefire with what was left of a rival alliance that sees it confirm its supremacy and unites the region under a militant-led administration.

Under an accord reached by rebel backer Turkey and government ally Russia in September, Ankara was expected to rein in Idlib factions to stave off a threatened government offensive with potentially disastrous humanitarian repercussions.

The militants' deal, a copy of which was circulated on local media outlets, brings an immediate end to the fighting between HTS and the rival National Liberation Front (NLF), which was directly backed by Turkey.

"This morning, HTS and NLF signed an agreement to put an end to ongoing fighting ... and establish the control of the Salvation Government in all areas," the group's propaganda channel Ebaa said.

The self-proclaimed Salvation Government is an HTS-dominated body which had been administering large parts of the Idlib area, including its eponymous capital.

Its reach now extends to most of Idlib province and parts of the neighbouring provinces of Aleppo and Hama.

The deal sees Islamist factions Ahrar al-Sham and Suqur al-Sham stand down, as areas they once held come under HTS administrative control.

These include the two major towns of Maaret al-Numan and Ariha, where NLF spokesman Mohammed Rashid said rebel fighters would however remain.

The clashes between HTS and its NLF rivals in Idlib had killed 137 people since the start of the year, most of them fighters, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitor.

The deal announced Thursday provides for an immediate cessation of hostilities, an exchange of detainees, the lifting of all checkpoints inside the region, and its unification under the authority of the Salvation Government.

After an HTS victory last week and a deal Wednesday, some rebels have also withdrawn and headed north out of the bastion.

Other militants maintain a presence in the Idlib region but are allied with HTS.

It was however unclear how the HTS administrative takeover would affect the implementation of the Turkish-Russian deal for a buffer zone around Idlib.

Under the memorandum signed on Sep 17, militants were supposed to withdraw from the planned demilitarised area by mid-October but never did.

Simultaneously, Ankara has been threatening to launch a cross-border offensive against the Kurdish militia controlling large parts of northeastern Syria.

The announcement last month by US President Donald Trump that he was ordering a full troop pullout from Syria has left Washington's Kurdish allies more exposed than ever.

They have had to cosy up to Damascus, at the expense of their plans for increased autonomy, to guarantee their survival in the face of Turkish threats.

Turkey, which considers the Kurdish YPG militia a terrorist organisation, could move into northern Syria to create a buffer along its border.

On Thursday, Ankara warned it would launch an offensive against Syrian Kurdish forces if the United States delayed its withdrawal.

Syria's war has killed more than 360,000 people since it started in 2011 with the brutal repression of anti-government protests.

With backing from Russia and Iran, the government gained ground against rebels and militants last year, and is now in control of around two-thirds of the country. -- NNN-AGENCIES