Extremist alliance Tahrir al-Sham has launched an offensive in Idlib province to eradicate "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS) cells, activists told Diyaruna.
Tahrir al-Sham, an alliance of extremist factions that includes the former al-Nusra Front (ANF) -- now known as Fatah al-Sham Front -- tasked a new "elite forces" unit with carrying out the raids, which began July 9th and focused on the cities of Idlib and Sarmin.
The alliance accuses rival ISIS of seeking to penetrate the cities.
During the offensive, Tahrir al-Sham units fully besieged the cities and conducted raids that netted more than 100 ISIS elements and collaborators.
On the night of July 8th, Tahrir al-Sham fighters blocked all entrances to Idlib and Sarmin, Idlib native and media activist Mahmoud Haj Kamel told Diyaruna.
"ISIS elements were planning to sow chaos in the region by carrying out a series of assassinations and bombings to facilitate the group’s incursion into these areas," he said.
Tahrir al-Sham told residents to stay inside their homes and refrain from congregating at public venues such as markets, bakeries and mosques, he said.
"Tahrir al-Sham units began carrying out raids based on information obtained in advance about the whereabouts of these cells," Haj Kamel said.
They raided dozens of homes, warehouses and shops, and had detained more than 150 ISIS elements and collaborators as of July 9th, he said.
These include ISIS "Idlib emir" Abu Suleiman al-Roussi, an ISIS emir in north rural Idlib known as Abu Ibrahim al-Iraqi, and a "sharia official" known as Abu al-Sawdaa al-Masri, he said.
"Sporadic clashes occurred in conjunction with the raids," Haj Kamel said.
He said he has learned that Tahrir al-Sham thrust newly-formed "elite forces" units into the battle, equipped with sophisticated weapons and advanced training.
"These units carry out most of the raids, with backing from other elements who secure the perimeter of the area being raided," he said.
ISIS aimed to 'instigate chaos'
Tahrir al-Sham launched its operation after one of its units uncovered an ISIS headquarters near Sarmin, said Sumer Agha, a media activist with the local co-ordination committee in Salamiyah who has been following the situation in Idlib.
A clash erupted between the unit and ISIS elements at the site, which ended with the detention of eight ISIS elements, he told Diyaruna.
"The ninth element refused to surrender and blew himself up with an explosive belt that was in his possession," he said.
Agha said he has learned that "the storming of the hideouts used by ISIS elements led to the discovery of large amounts of money and the seizure of a large number of silencer-equipped pistols".
Improvised explosive devices (IEDs) ready for detonation and explosives also were recovered, he said.
According to his sources, the seized items indicate that assassination and bombing operations were in the works "to instigate chaos in the region", he said.
"This is corroborated by events that took place in the past period," Agha said, which include the assassination of Tahrir al-Sham leader Abu Yahya al-Masri, Bashar Sheikh Deeb and his brother.
Eliminating ISIS but not extremism
By aggressively taking on ISIS, Tahrir al-Sham is attempting to present itself as part of the moderate opposition, said terror group specialist and retired Egyptian military officer Maj. Gen. Dr. Wael Abdul Muttalib.
This is part of its attempt to rebrand itself and distance itself from al-Qaeda so it can persuade the international community it is no longer engaged in terrorism and can achieve a more prominent position for itself, he told Diyaruna.
Despite these attempts, however, Tahrir al-Sham maintains strong ties with al-Qaeda, and many of its leaders "are known for their extremism and organic affiliation with al-Qaeda", Syrian journalist Mohammed al-Abdullah has said.
Abdul Muttalib said he expects there will continue to be violent clashes in Idlib in the process of uprooting ISIS, which currently has "scattered cells" in the region, while Tahrir al-Sham factions are spread out across a large area.
Though the alliance has a geographic advantage, he said, it will take at least a month for it to fully clear the main cities and rural Idlib of ISIS.
While many Idlib residents will be glad to see ISIS go, they are not welcoming Tahrir al-Sham, which has previously attempted to impose a harsh form of sharia that meted out punishments for violations.
These include offenses such as failing to adhere to a strict Islamic dress code and smoking, with punishments similar to those meted out by ISIS.