Russia Warns Against Any U.S. Talks With Militant Group It's Bombing in Syria

Russia's top diplomat has warned against any U.S. effort to hold talks with the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham militant group, a jihadi coalition on the frontlines of a violent struggle for Syria's northwestern Idlib province.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said during a press conference alongside his Tajik counterpart Monday that he was "concerned about the attitude of some Western states" toward Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and its various associated groups, which include the latest incarnation of Syria's former Al-Qaeda branch, Jabhat al-Nusra. He pointed out that these groups "are officially on terrorist organizations' lists compiled by the U.N. Security Council, they are also on the U.S.' national list of terrorist organizations."

The remarks come after James Jeffrey, the U.S. special representative on Syria and special envoy to the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State militant group (ISIS), told a press briefing earlier this month he had not seen Hayat Tahrir al-Sham "planning or carrying out international terrorism attacks." He made similar comments days earlier.

Lavrov said Monday that Jeffrey and other Washington officials have "repeatedly made statements that mean that they consider Hayat Tahrir al-Sham to not be a terrorist organization as such and that it would be possible under certain circumstances to enter into a dialogue with it." He added, "this is not the first time we hear such transparent hints, and we consider them completely unacceptable."

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Jihadis of former Al-Qaeda affiliate Hayat Tahrir al-Sham block demonstrators from approaching the Bab al-Hawa crossing between Turkey and Syria's northwestern Idlib province during a protest against the Syrian government and its ally Russia on September 20, 2019. The jihadi group has refused to disarm and withdraw, complicating a fragile ceasefire brokered by Russia and Turkey. OMAR HAJ KADOUR/AFP/Getty Images

Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a U.S.-designated terrorist organization since March 2017, is among the most powerful forces still battling against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's rule. In a campaign backed by Iran and Russia, the Syrian leader and his allies have managed to retake most of the country from a rebel and jihadi uprising that erupted in 2011 and received support from the U.S. and a number of its European and Middle Eastern allies, including Turkey.

Washington shifted its strategy mid-conflict to focus on defeating ISIS and abandoned the increasingly Islamist opposition against Assad. In doing so, the Pentagon teamed up with the mostly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces that now administer up to a third of the country, in some parts, alongside Syrian troops.

In Idlib, U.S. officials have joined NATO ally Turkey in accusing Syria and Russia of killing civilians and have expressed concerns of a possible humanitarian disaster resulting from their latest offensive. "Hundreds of thousands of tents on our border and possible migration to Europe are consequences of the brutal Assad regime and its supporters," the Turkish Defense Ministry tweeted Monday.

"In Idlib, hundreds of thousands of innocent people are subject to suffering/persecution under the regime oppression and attacks," it added.

Pentagon officials have also acknowledged the presence of militant forces in Idlib, where ISIS chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was killed during a U.S. raid in October.

"Idlib province seems to be a magnet for terrorist groups, especially because it is an ungoverned space in many ways," U.S.-led coalition spokesperson Army Colonel Myles B. Caggins III told Sky News on Thursday.

"There are a variety of groups there, all of them are a nuisance, a menace and a threat to the civilians, the hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians who are just trying to make it through the winter and are searching for hope and a will to survive," he added.

Ankara also has soldiers deployed to Syria, where they back other rebel factions fighting both pro-Syrian government forces and U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters. These Turkish troops have increasingly become part of the conflict themselves, however, as Damascus' lightning gains in Idlib and Aleppo resulted in a series of direct, deadly exchanges between the two neighboring countries earlier this month.

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A picture taken on February 24 shows smoke billowing over the village of Qaminas, about three and a half miles southeast of Idlib city, following reported Syrian air strikes. The Syrian and Russian air forces have continuously assaulted the rebel and jihadi-dominated northwestern province home to millions of people, most of them civilians. MOHAMMED AL-RIFAI/AFP/Getty Images

Russia has accused Turkey of not fulfilling its obligation to a ceasefire brokered by the two countries' presidents in September 2018, namely by failing to facilitate the withdrawal of jihadi groups like Hayat Tahrir al-Sham from Idlib and its outskirts. The group's leader, former Baghdadi aide Abu Mohammed al-Jolani, continues to elude his foes and offered an unprecedented interview published last week by the Belgium-based International Crisis Group think tank.

In it, he called for the downfall of the Syrian government, the departure of Russian and Iranian forces and identified his group's eventual plan to "stabilize the area under our control and administer it through an alliance of local Syrian revolutionary forces that are committed to protecting Idlib."

Syrian troops and partnered forces have continued to seize towns and villages in southern and eastern Idlib, recently winning back areas near the strategic M4 highway. Assad has vowed to retake the entirety of his country though several obstacles remain outside of Idlib.

Syrian and Russian forces have had occasionally violent run-ins with their U.S. counterparts tasked with controlling oil and gas fields in the country's northeast. Elsewhere, Syrian government positions have been semi-regularly hit by Israeli raids against positions said to be associated with Iran, such as a strike Sunday targeting Palestinian Islamic Jihad figures near Damascus.

Correction Feb.25, 2020: This story has been updated to clarify the area in eastern Idlib retaken by Syrian troops. It is near the M4 highway.