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The US Special Envoy for Syria, Michael Ratney, released a statement warning armed opposition groups (AOGs) in northern Syria against associating with the group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). HTS is a coalition led by the core elements of Jabhat al-Nusra, which has rebranded several times in the last year in an attempt to distance itself from al-Qaeda. The US statement – which was released only in Arabic – said that HTS is just a front for al-Nusra and the group will continue to be treated as al-Qaeda in Syria regardless of what name it chooses. In the statement Ratney acknowledges that some AOGs joined HTS for “tactical reasons and not ideological or intellectual ones,” but says that any faction in HTS will also be considered al-Qaeda, and therefore a designated terrorist organization. The statement warns that if HTS takes control of Idlib “it will be difficult for the US to convince international parties not to take necessary military actions.” This US statement comes as HTS consolidates control of new parts of Idlib governorate after it reached a deal to end weeks of feuding with Ahrar al-Sham. For background on the rebel infighting see TSI Syria Updates from 19 July, 20 July, 21 July, and 24 July. (@USEmbassySyria)
(Analyst Note: The threat of possible military action against Idlib is vaguely worded. When it refers to “international parties,” it is unclear whether this means the US-led anti-ISIS Coalition, Turkey, or even Russia – whose policy the US is increasingly falling in line with in Syria. This statement is different from other US Syria Embassy/Envoy statements in several ways that suggest that it is targeted specifically at Syrian opposition groups. In addition to being published only in Arabic, the statement is phrased in colloquial terminology used by revolutionary Syrian opposition groups and civilians: calling HTS the “Jolani Gang,” and referring to Idlib as “the liberated north.” In this context, “Liberated” is a reference to the area’s liberation from Assad, not ISIS.)