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Syria rebels and jihadists clash, killing 19

Fighting broke out between the al-Qaeda-linked HTS and Turkish-backed rebels [Getty]

Date of publication: 2 January, 2019

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Clashes between jihadists and rebels in northern Syria have killed at least 19 people, a war monitor said on Tuesday.
At least 19 people were killed in clashes between jihadists and rebels in northern Syria, a war monitor said on Tuesday.

The fighting, pitting al-Qaeda-linked coalition Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) against an alliance of rebel groups, flared in western Aleppo province, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

On Monday, HTS had accused rebel group Nureddine al-Zinki of killing five of its fighters, and launched an offensive against rebel positions close to the country's last opposition bastion in the northwestern province of Idlib.

Rami Abdel Rahman, who heads the Britain-based Observatory, said 12 HTS fighters and five from the Zinki group had been killed, along with two civilians. A further 35 people were wounded, he said.

Nureddine al-Zinki is a major player in the National Liberation Front (NLF), a Turkish-backed rebel alliance.

HTS and other jihadist groups dominate more than half of Idlib province, while the NLF holds most of the rest.

The two have regularly clashed over control of territory.

Syria's conflict flared with anti-government protests in 2011 that were brutally repressed, sparking a complex multi-front civil war involving a myriad of jihadist groups and foreign powers.

It has left more than 360,000 people dead and displaced millions.

On Monday, the war monitor said Syria’s nearly eight-year-old conflict saw its lowest annual death toll in 2018 as the regime reasserted its authority over swathes of territory.

A total of 19,666 people were killed this year as a result of the conflict, which erupted in 2011, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group reported.

The Britain-based monitor relies on a vast network of sources across Syria to document the war that broke out after the brutal repression of nationwide anti-regime protests in 2011.

The death toll for 2017 stood at more than 33,000 and the highest annual figure was reached in 2014 - the year the Islamic State jihadist group proclaimed a "caliphate" over large parts of Syria and neighbouring Iraq - when 76,000 people were killed.

Among those killed in 2018 were 6,349 civilians, 1,437 of them children, Abdel Rahman said.

Jihadist fighters defending the last rump of their once sprawling proto-state, near the Iraqi border along the Euphrates River, have put up fierce resistance but seem close to collapsing.

While fighting has ended or is winding down in several parts of the country, 2019 could see its share of military flare-ups.

Threatened Turkish offensive

Besides the continued threat posed by IS sleeper cells even after it loses its last pocket in eastern Syria, two other areas remain of concern.

Turkey has threatened a major offensive against the Kurdish militia that controls regions along its border in northeastern Syria.

The announcement made by US President Donald Trump two weeks ago that he had ordered a full troop pullout from Syria left the US-led coalition's Kurdish allies more exposed.

Thousands of rebel fighters and jihadi fighters also remain in Idlib, a northern province where many of them were transferred as a result of deals to end government assaults on other areas across the country.

Under an agreement reached in Russia, Turkey was tasked with disarming some of the groups active in Idlib but little progress has been achieved.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has consistently said that his forces would seek to reconquer the entire country.

According to the Observatory, the government and its allies now control 60.2 percent of Syrian territory, while the SDF hold 28.8 percent.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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