DAMASCUS, SYRIA (1:00 PM) – The Russian Aerospace Forces have dealt a crippling blow to the command structure of Hayyat Tahrir al-Sham, the regional  branch of Al-Qaeda in Syria, during a precision airstrike on Wednesday. This was reported on Thursday by Major-General Igor Konashenkov, spokesperson of the Russian Ministry of Defence.

“As a result of a precision strike by a Su-34 bomber, 49 militants were eliminated, including seven leaders of militant groups of al-Nusra’s ‘eastern sector’,” Konashenkov said. “The destruction by the Russian Aerospace Forces of Jabhat al-Nusra’s command and the coma (…) of leader Abu Muhammad al-Julani caused confusion among terrorists throughout the province of Idlib.”

Jabhat al-Nusra is the former name of the Hayyat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) organisation, a terrorist movement closely affiliated with Al-Qaeda. Despite the change of name the terrorist organisation underwent in January 2017, the Russian Federation still refers to the group by its old cognomen in official communication.

Since August, HTS has reorganised and united most of the terrorist groups active in the Idlib Governorate under their own banner, and is currently still occupying much of the province’s territory.

According to the Russian Defence Ministry, HTS commander-in-chief Abu Muhammad al-Julani, the self-appointed “Emir” who is originally from Daraa in the Quneitra province of Syria, sustained grave fragmentation injuries during the strike, and is currently in critical condition. Hayyat Tahrir al-Sham itself has denied these reports.

Aside from the damage done to the leadership structure of the former Al-Nusra Front due to the death of seven of its senior commanders, the terrorists suffered major material damage as well. The Russian airstrikes targeted the largest buried arsenal of HTS weaponry in the Idlib Governorate, destroying over 1,000 metric tons of ammunition.

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Wednesday’s Russian precision strikes mark one of the most major setbacks for Hayyat Tahrir al-Sham since the establisment of the de-escalation zones and the initiation of a gradual pacification process in much of western Syria in September. Although many more moderate rebel groups have agreed to the ceasefire and de-escalation that is being monitored by Russia, Iran and Turkey, HTS has refused to lay down its weapons and as such has not been included in the peace deal.

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Historian specialized in Arab history, Islamic studies and geopolitical analysis. Based in Belgium.

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