Killer blast strikes north Syria town as regime troops target Idlib fighters

BEIRUT: A blast killed at least one person in a region of north Syria controlled by Turkey-backed Syrian opposition groups, a witness and a war monitor said on Saturday.

The explosion in Azaz was caused by a car bomb, said the war monitor, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, and hit a sit-in to demand new elections to the local council, the witness said.

The Observatory said one person was killed and others injured. The witness said two were killed and 25 injured.

Turkey has staged two incursions into northern Syria since 2016 in support of rebels fighting President Bashar Assad, leading to its control over a zone along the border.

It took that territory after offensives against the two mutually hostile groups that previously controlled it: Daesh and the Kurdish YPG militia.

Ankara has brought together some of the opposition groups it backs there into a unified armed force, which it trains and pays. It also pays for some services inside the area it controls.

Northern Syria has become a haven for large numbers of displaced people who have sought refuge from fighting elsewhere in the country, or who do not want to live under Bashar Assad.

Damascus has mobilized forces for an expected offensive on the adjacent opposition-held area in and around Idlib province, which humanitarian agencies have warned could spark a new flood of displacement toward the border region.

Assad’s forces have been massing for days around Idlib near the Turkish border and look poised to launch what could be a last major battle in the civil war.

Turkey on Friday officially designated the Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) group as a “terrorist” organization.

HTS is currently the most powerful armed faction in Idlib.

Turkey, which has already listed Al-Nusra and Al-Qaeda as terror groups, updated its list of terror groups under a document published in the official gazette and includwed HTS on the new list.

It bracketed HTS as a variant name for Al-Nusra Front.

The HTS is dominated by the Fateh Al-Sham faction, which was previously known as Al-Nusra Front before renouncing its ties to Al-Qaeda.

It was not immediately clear whether Turkey’s decision to update its list of terror groups to include HTS could indicate a green light from Ankara for a possible Russian-backed regime operation into Idlib.

Intense negotiations have been under way for weeks between Russia and Turkey.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu has warned Russia that seeking a military solution in Idlib would cause “catastrophe” and trigger an new influx of refugees across its borders.

Turkey has 12 military observation posts inside Idlib aimed at monitoring a de-escalation zone and media reports have said it has sent concrete blocks over the border to reinforce them in case of an assault.

But analysts say Ankara could be prepared to accept a limited Russian-backed regime offensive against extremist groups, even if it leaves the question of the long-term control of the province open for now.

Accepting control by Assad over Idlib could be a step too far for Turkey but analysts say it is also determined to preserve its increasingly tight alliance with Russia.

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