HTS withdraws from Syria’s Afrin but keeps security forces

ALEPPO, Syria (North Press) – Military columns of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) withdrew on Tuesday from areas in Afrin city and its countryside towards Idlib, while maintaining its security forces there.

On Thursday, the HTS took full control of the city of Afrin, north of Aleppo, following the withdrawal of Third Legion, an armed bloc of the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA), from the city toward Azaz city.

A military source close to the SNA’s Hayat Thaeroon for Liberation told North Press, “The HTS’ security forces have prohibited raising the organization’s flag over security and military institutions and official departments. They also replaced the existing ones with the banners of the factions of al-Amshat, Hamza Division [which are allies to the HTS] and the Interim government [of  the Syrian opposition].”

“A military column – including about 60 military vehicles, accompanied by trucks carrying tanks, vehicles, two rocket launchers and field artillery – withdrew and headed towards Idlib through al-Ghazawiya area,” the source said.

He added, “These measures were taken after the comments made by the US embassy in Damascus on the organization’s expansion in northwestern Syria.”

On Tuesday morning, the US Embassy in Damascus called for immediate withdrawal of HTS from Afrin, north of Aleppo. “We are alarmed by the recent incursion of HTS, a designated terrorist organization, into northern Aleppo,” the Embassy said.

“The HTS’ security forces raised the banners of Hamza, al-Amshat and Ahrar al-Sham to hide their presence, to avoid any possible American intervention,” the source stated.

According to what a source from the Interim government’s Directorate of Education in Afrin told North Press, “All educational institutions in Afrin have been suspended until further notice.”

The HTS’ flag was also removed from the Wali’s (governor) building, the Education Directorate, the Health and Security buildings and Afrin Prison, in addition to the court and other governmental and security institutions, eyewitnesses informed North Press.

The HTS also prevented its militants, at checkpoints and security patrols, from placing the organization’s banner, in order to convince public opinion that the SNA’s al-Amshat and Hamza factions are the ones who control Afrin.

On Tuesday, Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said that 58 individuals, mostly militants, were killed in a week-long fighting between SNA factions and HTS in north of Aleppo.

On Monday evening, the clashes between both sides came to a halt after the Turkish intelligence intervened and ordered the HTS to hand over the security and military outposts in Kafr Janneh and Qatmah villages to the SNA’s Hayat Thaeroon for Liberation, which remained neutral during the recent clashes, an exclusive source told North Press.

Reporting by Hani Salem