CATF Reports Jan. 25, 2017, 4:47pm

On Tuesday, January 24, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS) launched an unprecedented offensive against rebel groups coalesced under the umbrella of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in the rebel-held province of Idlib and in areas west of Aleppo. Among the several concurrent developments that may have induced JFS to escalate the fight against some rebel groups may be the new Russia-Turkey axis in Syria. Officially initiated through the joint airstrikes under the framework of Turkey’s anti-ISIS Operation Euphrates Shield and consolidated at the Astana negotiating table – which granted Turkey unrivaled monitoring powers over the ceasefire in Syria, with the assistance of Russia and the blessings of most rebel groups attending the peace talks – the Russia-Turkey partnership may have devastating implications for JFS. In fact, on Tuesday JFS issued a statement asserting that the preemptive nature of its attack was aimed at countering measures discussed at the Astana talks. As leaked by the Saudi news platform Asharq al-Awsat today, a secret clause included in the Astana final agreements allegedly called for reinforcing both the Syrian government’s and the rebels’ positions during the ceasefire, while allowing offensives against ISIS and the al-Nusra Front (JFS).

Openly supported – politically, materially, and financially – by Qatar yet heavily targeted by the U.S.-led coalition air strikes and sanctions over the past year, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham remains a powerful actor in the Syrian arena. The former al-Nusra Front is at once ferociously opposed to the Assad regime and widely regarded as a potential rival of ISIS, especially in light of its enduring ties to al-Qaeda’s top echelons. Unlike other groups which have not overtly ruled out the possibility, such as Turkey-funded and armed Ahrar al-Sham, JFS has categorically refused to support Turkey’s political and military efforts in Syria. The group has gone as far as to accuse the rebels convened in Astana of betraying the revolution. Significantly, however, JFS’s most recent attack may be a new attempt to break, weaken, and then co-opt groups that refuse to submit or merge under its banner in an effort to further fracture opposition forces that may collude with Assad’s regime or its sponsors. It remains to be seen whether fragmented Ahrar al-Sham will continue to resist or be forced into a merger with JFS.

From Asharq al-Awsat:

The sources added that this unannounced clause reached in the Astana agreement had triggered a race between opposition factions and regime forces on annexing Jabhat Fatah al-Sham controlled areas.

“This clause transformed the positions held by al-Nusra into a cake that that regime forces and opposition factions are trying to annex with an attempt to boost their geographic powers,” the sources told Asharq Al-Awsat.

Therefore, the talks between opposition factions and the Syrian regime in the Kazakh capital, Astana, approved the emergence of a Syrian military movement with the mission of crashing Jabhat Fatah al-Sham in Syria.

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