Turkish troops deployed on Tuesday in an area in northwestern Syria to try to halt fighting between rival opposition factions opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, witnesses and opposition forces said.
Turkish tanks and armored vehicles took up positions around Kafr Jana, a rugged area which the main extremist opposition group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) seized on Monday from two rival factions belonging to a coalition of rebel forces backed by Ankara.
Turkish army and security officers worked to bring the warring factions back to the negotiating table to implement a peace deal reached last Saturday that led to a one-day respite from five days of clashes that left scores dead on both sides.
“Turkey has now intervened to stop the conflict and prevent Hayat Tahrir al-Sham from progressing and to get both sides to the negotiating table to implement the accord,” Waiel Olwan, a former opposition official in touch with both sides, told Reuters.
Tensions have been building in the opposition-held northwest under opposition control, mainly over ideological differences between extremist militant and more nationalist-leaning armed factions.
Monday’s renewed fighting was triggered by mutual charges that both sides had reneged on the Turkey-brokered deal that saw extremist fighters withdraw from the city of Afrin, which they seized from mainstream opposition factions. Those factions also agreed to go back to their barracks away from the populated cities.
Turkey fears HTS’s hold over much of the opposition enclave would give Moscow a free hand to renew bombing of a region that is home to more than 3 million displaced Syrians who fled Assad’s rule under the pretext of fighting hardline extremists.
Russian fighters have in the last few days escalated strikes in the area in a message by Moscow that it will strike with impunity areas that now fall under the wider influence of the extremist group, three opposition commanders said.
Washington, which has been leading a coalition campaign that has killed in recent years hardline extremists affiliated with al-Qaeda in northern Syria, demanded a return to the status quo.
“We are alarmed by the recent incursion of HTS, a designated terrorist organization, into northern Aleppo. HTS forces should be withdrawn from the area immediately,” the US Embassy in Damascus said.
Turkey’s large military presence, with thousands of troops stationed in a string of bases in northwest Syria, had held back Russian-backed Syrian forces from seizing the opposition-held area.
The opposition factions said the extremist group, which has expanded its influence since fighting broke out in Afrin region, was now positioned several kilometers away from the border city of Azaz, the administrative center of the mainstream Turkish-backed opposition government.
A senior official in the coalition fighting HTS said they had reinforced positions around the city to repel any attempt by the extremists to take it over.
Azaz has seen street protests in the last two days opposed to the extremists’ entry.
Many inhabitants fear a takeover by the extremists who run an efficient civilian administration in the Idlib region, their main stronghold, but rule with an iron fist.
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