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BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian rebels and activists are warning that an al-Qaida-linked jihadi group is on the verge of snuffing out what remains of the country's uprising in northwestern Syria, after the extremists seized control of the opposition-held regional capital, Idlib, last weekend.
With the jihadis cementing their authority over the city and its province, also called Idlib, Syrian President Bashar Assad has been supplied with a useful pretext for a long-expected assault against the rebellious province: that the uprising against him is largely driven by Islamists and terrorists.
"There is the real possibility that because of the Nusra Front's domination, the regime will enter the area with international approval," said Lt. Col. Fares Bayoush, a longtime opponent of Assad, who has been leading a rebel faction in north Syria.
The Nusra Front is one of the many names for the al-Qaida-affiliate that now heads the mighty Hay'at Tahrir al Sham militant alliance — Arabic for Levant Liberation Committee — that seized the city of Idlib, as well as two border crossings with Turkey to feed its coffers. It is also known as HTS.
In July last year, the Nusra Front changed its name to Fatah al-Sham Front and said it was cutting all its links with al-Qaida, an aesthetic move seen by many as an attempt to improve its image and market itself as a faction defending the Syrian people.
It abides by a deeply conservative code for ethics and jurisprudence and tolerates no dissent — leading many who live under its rule to complain they are no better than the government they sought to overthrow in 2011.
The fresh gains by HTS in northern Syria come at a time when its rival, the Islamic State group, is suffering defeats at the hands of U.S.-backed Iraqi and Syrian forces in both countries.
In Idlib demonstrations last week, the group's members shot at protesters waving the tri-color flag of the Syrian uprising. HTS will only accept their own, jihadi-inspired black flags to be flown in their presence.
"Any party that tries to confront HTS will be crushed," said an activist based in northwest Syria.
"This is a big blow for the Syrian revolution. Bashar will look like he is fighting terrorism," the activist said, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals by the HTS.
With its previous incarnations, Hay'at Tahrir al Sham has long been the top dog in Idlib province but the putsch has had the effect of making it feel official. In recent weeks, the group deployed masked gunmen and carried out raids in search operations for alleged IS members.
HTS deployed across Idlib city last weekend after a rival faction, the ultraconservative Ahrar al-Sham group, withdrew. Five days of clashes around the province left 77 fighters and 15 civilians dead, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group.
Other factions, including many once financed and armed in part by the CIA, kept to the sidelines. They are hoping to win a share of the revenues from the lucrative Bab al-Hawa border crossing, said a Turkey-based opposition activist who liaises with Syrian rebels and their state sponsors. He asked for anonymity so as not to jeopardize his position.
That crossing used to bring Ahrar al-Sham over $1 million in revenues a month, according to a senior Ahrar al-Sham official, who also asked for anonymity for the same reason. The group will now have to share those revenues with HTS after forfeiting its monopoly over it to a "civilian administration" forced in by the extremists.
HTS also seized Sarmada — the first town after the Bab al-Hawa crossing and an important trade hub in north Idlib — and Khirbet al-Jouz, home to a second, less important crossing with Turkey.
"Ahrar al-Sham no longer has a real on-the-ground presence in Idlib province. It's over," said the Observatory's chief, Rami Abdurrahman.
HTS and Ahrar have long been at odds over Idlib, but the rout last week nevertheless carried a hint of betrayal, as the two sides fought side by side in 2015 to throw the government out of the province once and for all. Armed with anti-tank missiles supplied to supporting moderate opposition forces, some of which ended up in the hands of the Nusra Front, the coalition's advantage was so great that Assad conceded, for the first time in the war, that he might not be able to retain control over all of Syria.
But Russia intervened with a bruising aerial campaign that drove the rebels and insurgents back on all fronts. Further infighting between the factions has all but doomed any hopes of rebels reaching the Syrian capital, Damascus.
Assad, who has long eyed Idlib province since he lost it, will be further emboldened by a White House decision to halt the CIA supply-and-equip program for Syrian rebels. It was first reported by the Washington Post last week.
Opposition activists saw it as an acknowledgement that HTS was exploiting its position in northwestern Syria to pilfer weapons from vetted opposition groups.
"It means HTS will have less access to arms," said the Turkey-based opposition activist.
But it is also a sign of growing closeness between the White House and the Kremlin over Syria.
Russia, a strong backer of Assad, had long pushed the United States to end the program. And U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was reported to have told U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres earlier this month that the U.S. was leaving "Syria's fate in Russia's hands now," according to Foreign Policy magazine.
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