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US warns Syrian rebels of Idlib's fate under militants

The US envoy for Syria has warned "grave consequences" could befall Idlib [Getty]

Date of publication: 3 August, 2017

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The US has warned the future of northern Syria is "in big danger" if Nusra militants take over rebel-held Idlib province, in turn persuading Russia to renew bombing.
The United States has warned a takeover of rebel-held northwestern Idlib province by Syrian militants linked to a former al-Qaeda affiliate would make it difficult to dissuade Russia from renewing bombing that recently stopped.

In an online letter posted on Wednesday, the top State Department official in charge of Syria policy, Michael Ratney, said the recent offensive by Hayat Tahrir al Sham, formerly known as Nusra Front, had cemented its grip on the province and put "the future of northern Syria in big danger".

Ratney also warned moderate Western-backed opposition rebels against associating with the militant group, saying "it would be difficult for the United States to convince the international parties not to take the necessary military measures".

Idlib province, the only Syrian province that is entirely under rebel control, has been a major target of Russian and Syrian airstrikes that caused hundreds of civilians casualties.

The agricultural region had a respite since a Russian-Turkish brokered accord reached last May approved four de-escalation zones across Syria.

Many locals fear the militants' hold on Idlib will again make the province a target of relentless attacks by regime forces.

"Everyone should know that Jolani and his gang are the ones who bear responsibility for the grave consequences that will befall Idlib," said Ratney, referring to former Nusra head Abu Mohammad al-Jolani who effectively leads Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.

Ratney told rebel groups, who have been forced to work with the militants out of expediency or for self preservation, to steer away from the group before it was "too late"

In less than three days Jolani's fighters overran their powerful rival, the more mainstream Ahrar al-Sham group, seizing control of a strategic border strip with Turkey in some of the heaviest inter-rebel fighting since the start of the conflict.

An emboldened Hayat Tahrir al-Sham has sought to allay fears it did not seek to dominate the whole province but suspicions run high among many in the region about their ultimate goals to monopolise power.

The militants have linked up with Western-backed Free Syria Army (FSA) groups who continue to maintain a foothold in several towns in the province. The south of the region is still in the hands of rival groups, including Ahrar al-Sham but the militants have been trying to extend their control.

Ratney told rebel groups, who have been forced to work with the militants out of expediency or for self preservation, to steer away from the group before it was "too late."

He said any organisation in Idlib province that was a front for the militants will continue to be treated by Washington as al-Qaeda in Syria regardless of what name it chooses.

The expanding influence of the former al-Qaeda affiliate has triggered civilian protests across towns in the province with some calling for the group to leave towns and not interfere in how they are run.

The Syria Institute, a US-based research body, said Ratney's statement, appeared to be targeted specifically at Syrian opposition groups, written in Arabic and phrased in colloquially terminology used by revolutionary groups - calling the militants the "Jolani gang" and referring to Idlib as "the liberated north".

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