WASHINGTON - As Turkey and Russia are discussing ways to stabilize war-torn Syria, a U.S.-designated terror group in northern Idlib province has been consolidating power, with some experts warning the group, if left unchecked, might grow stronger and complicate an already difficult situation.
Last week, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), an al-Qaida-affiliated group, was able to take over large swaths of land in Idlib by pushing a rival rebel group, the Nour al-Din al-Zenki Movement, out of the area.
Fighting between the two groups lasted several days before a deal was reached, forcing the Zenki Movement, operating under the umbrella of the Turkish-backed National Front for Liberation (NFL), to dismantle itself and transfer hundreds of its fighters to the Afrin region where the NFL is based.
Some experts see the development as an effort by HTS to consolidate power in northern Syria.
"HTS minimized competitions from other rival groups in the area, absorbs fighters who are more ideologically inclined with HTS, and HTS will use this to demonstrate to the Syrian population that it is the most legitimate group operating in Idlib, making it even more difficult to dislodge," Colin Clarke, a senior research fellow at the Soufan Center, a New York-based think tank, told VOA.
Clarke added that HTS might be aiming for the "Hezbollah model" in Syria, trying to morph into a well-equipped militia with a political wing.
Starting as the al-Qaida-affiliated al-Nusra Front in Syria, HTS has tried to legitimize its presence in the country by saying it had severed ties with al-Qaida and rebranded itself as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham in 2016.
The group then created an alliance of several other militant groups in 2017 and renamed itself Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.
The U.S. and European Union still consider HTS an al-Qaida-affiliated terror group.
"Whatever name Nusra chooses, we will continue to deny it the resources it seeks to further its violent cause," Nathan Sales, the U.S. State Department coordinator for counterterrorism affairs, wrote last year.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was in Moscow for talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin this week. Among other issues, they discussed the fate of Idlib province, where a deal struck between Russia and Turkey in September of last year prevented a planned military offensive by the Syrian regime. The agreement remains fragile, with Turkey-backed rebel groups allegedly attacking the Russian-backed Syrian regime in recent months.
Turkey has been pushing for the deal to stay in effect, blaming the Syrian government forces for trying to undermine the agreement.
Russia, on the other hand, has urged Turkey to rein in militants in Idlib who have launched attacks on Syrian government forces and the Russian military.
"Jabhat al-Nusra dominates and violates the demilitarized zone," Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said this week.
"About 70 percent of this territory is already occupied by terrorists. They are trying to attack the Syrian army's positions, settlements, and they are trying to threaten our military air base in Hmeimim," he added.
Russia's Putin praised Turkey for helping stabilize Idlib and emphasized Wednesday that more joint efforts were needed to combat militants in the province.
"The cessation of hostilities mustn't hurt the fight against terrorism that should continue," Putin said.
"Our fight against terror organizations in Idlib will continue jointly in the same way," Erdogan said.
Some experts like Manhal Parish, an Istanbul-based Syrian journalist and researcher with knowledge of developments in the region, charge that the Sochi agreement covers more than HTS and militants.
"The Russians are more interested in regaining the two international roads and operating them — the M5 highway between Aleppo and Jordan and M4 between Aleppo and Lattakia," Parish told VOA.
The M5 is the longest highway in Syria, stretching from Turkish borders to Aleppo in the north, running through Idlib to Jordan; the M4 highway connects Aleppo to coastal province Latakia, a Syrian regime stronghold.
The highways are a lifeline for Damascus.
Many civilians are fearful of attacks by Russian jets and the Syrian government as militant groups such as HTS are growing in strength and influence in Idlib.
"Civilians are concerned that they would become a target after HTS controlled the area. A sense of foreboding is spreading among people," Mohammed, an activist based in western Aleppo countryside, told VOA.
Mohammed added that civil society and aid groups fear that regional and international funding and aid could stop with HTS consolidating power in large swaths of land in Idlib and the Aleppo countryside.
Idlib, the main rebel-held province in Syria, is also home to thousands of militants, including foreign fighters competing for influence and control in the province.
U.S. and U.N. officials say there are tens of thousands of militants active in Idlib.
U.S. Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford said last year that a large-scale military operation to recapture the province could kill many civilians as well as soldiers.
"I'm suggesting that counterterrorism operations should take place in a manner that mitigates the risk of the loss of innocent life," Dunford said.
In August, Staffan de Mistura, the U.N. special envoy for Syria, said there were many foreign fighters among the militants in Idlib who could use chlorine gas as a weapon and make a military operation horrific.
Some material for this report came from the Associated Press.