Black flags over Idlib: The jihadi power grab in northwestern Syria


BY ARON LUND – Freelance journalist and analyst specialising on Syria, and regular IRIN contributor (IRIN NEWS)  – STOCKHOLM, 9 August 2017  – Life in northwestern Syria’s war-torn and impoverished Idlib Province is already bad. And with the jihadi group Tahrir al-Sham now firmly holding dominion, it’s about to get a whole lot worse for the two million people in the country’s largest rebel-held region.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces have so far proved incapable of reclaiming Idlib and the surrounding opposition-dominated areas, and in the meantime Tahrir al-Sham has purged its main Islamist rival. In response, the opposition’s traditional foreign patrons are taking a step back, cutting military support and reevaluating even the civilian aid they’ve been sending into the province for the past six years.International politics aside, the world now needs to find an answer to the question of how northwestern Syria’s civilians can be kept afloat if Western and Arab donors write Idlib off as an extremist haven, as they are likely to do—especially if Tahrir al-Sham tries to control aid flows. No less important is the question of what will become of these civilians, many of whom have been displaced from other parts of Syria or fled al-Assad’s notorious secret police, if the Syrian army one day manages to retake the area.

How Tahrir al-Sham took charge

Ever since the Syrian army was run out of Idlib’s eponymous provincial capital in March 2015, two groups have dominated the fractious Sunni insurgency there: the Nusra Front, which recently rebranded itself as Tahrir al-Sham, and its Islamist partner-cum-rival, Ahrar al-Sham.The two groups started out as close allies, but they had subtle ideological differences and contradictory international alignments, and a tortuous power struggle followed.An ideologically complicated creature, Ahrar al-Sham has received most of its support from Turkey, Qatar, and private Islamist funders, while keeping a wary distance from the United States and other Western nations. However, the group isn’t terrorist-listed and it has repeatedly been invited to participate in UN-backed Syrian peace talks.

By contrast, the Nusra Front/Tahrir al-Sham is on various international terrorist lists and its leaders under sanction for its ties to the al-Qaeda movement; it has also been a target of US airstrikes. Successive name changes and a 2016 disavowal of al-Qaeda’s tutelage have been roundly dismissed by the international community, including the United States. “The core of [Tahrir al-Sham] is al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria,” a State Department spokesperson told IRIN, adding that Washington’s 2012 terrorism designation of that group will apply “regardless of what name it uses or what groups merge with it.”

Over time, the growing involvement of foreign nations in Syria and recurring disputes over local influence led to new forms of intra-Islamist tension and polarisation, as smaller Idlib factions fell in behind either Ahrar or Tahrir al-Sham.

Though Ahrar al-Sham maintained a major presence in Idlib, the Nusra-Tahrir camp long seemed to have the upper hand, not least because Ahrar al-Sham was too internally divided to muster a real challenge. Last year, hawkish commanders within the group began to drift towards the Nusra/Tahrir camp. And despite both cash infusions and foreign encouragement, Ahrar al-Sham’s Turkish-backed leaders failed to rally their own fighters and allies into a common front, dithering disjointedly in the face of their more cohesive and hard-nosed rival.

A rare bout of open violence in January 2017 saw Tahrir al-Sham grab strategically-located villages and coopt a group of jihadi-leaning commanders that had been the spine of Ahrar al-Sham’s military apparatus. Wounded and weakened, Ahrar al-Sham remained as a bloated network of poorly coordinated local factions without much of a military edge. The influence of its Turkish-backed rump leadership began to diminish as minor, foreign-funded allies—collectively known as the Free Syrian Army—started to nervously sidle away, sensing that Ahrar al-Sham could no longer protect either them or itself.But this was no quick defeat. Tension between the two rivals persisted, and rumours flew about preparations for a Turkish military intervention in northwestern Syria—the one thing that could potentially tip the scales back in Ahrar al-Sham’s favour. In mid-July, checkpoint scuffles along the Turkish border slid into renewed infighting. In a series of violent clashes, Tahrir al-Sham overran Ahrar-held villages and seized the group’s most valuable remaining asset, the border crossing at Bab al-Hawa, which controls access to Turkey. Though some Ahrar al-Sham units fought hard, the group as a whole failed to put up a serious defence. It now appears to have been reduced to a local faction among others, far from the powerhouse it once was.

What’s left of the rest

With Tahrir al-Sham consolidating power, the jihadi takeover of northwestern Syria appears irreversible. But its opponents insist the non-jihadi anti-Assad rebellion still has some fight left in it. “We haven’t heard the last of northern Syria,” said a Syrian activist who has traveled in and out of the region for years, and whose family continues to work with a non-jihadi faction inside Idlib.“Even though Ahrar al-Sham is as good as gone from Idlib, there are many other groups that aren’t part of al-Qaeda and that resist al-Qaeda’s influence over the area. There are Free Syrian Army groups in southern Idlib, there’s [the Muslim Brotherhood-aligned] Failaq al-Sham, and many other minor groups. Discontent is also growing among local people,” the activist told IRIN.Tahrir al-Sham’s takeover has raised fears that foreign donors and aid agencies will cut off or slow aid to Idlib in order to avoid overtly funding extremism. To the activist, this was another point in the anti-jihadi groups’ favour. “Discontent will grow even more when aid from abroad stops because of Tahrir al-Sham,” he said.

But although Tahrir al-Sham does not exercise complete control in Idlib and its surroundings, it seems to hold power where it counts. It controls a well-oiled political and administrative apparatus, has a deep bench of clerical support, and oversees most of northwestern Syria’s strategic roads, checkpoints, and border crossings.

The short of it is that with a number of close allies, Tahrir al-Sham runs by far the strongest armed force in the province, now swelled by Ahrar al-Sham defectors who brought with them that group’s arsenal of heavy weapons. Having knee-capped Ahrar al-Sham, it has no meaningful competition.

Hammering down this point and further enshrining their dominance, on 27 July the group unilaterally decreed a ban on the creation of new rebel groups in Idlib.American administration, support for US-vetted rebels was meant to balance out extremist influence while keeping up the pressure on al-Assad. But in reality, it also created a space for better jihadi organised factions to organise.

It’s not that Western policymakers were ignorant of this fact: they have been concerned by jihadi influence in Idlib for years, though most kept up appearances by embellishing the exploits of more palatable Free Syrian Army groups and secular civilian activists.

In March and April, however, US President Donald Trump made clear that the United States is no longer in the regime change business in Syria. Soon after, he reportedly shut down a four-year old CIA operation to fund, train, and arm anti-Assad rebels. While a parallel, Pentagon-led programme to support Kurdish and Arab fighters battling the so-called Islamic State continues to run – they are now about to take Raqqa – its beneficiaries have been banned from staging offensive operations against al-Assad’s government.

The CIA programme had been at the heart of a secretive multinational operation in Turkey known as the MOM, for Müşterek Operasyon Merkezi (Military Operations Centre), which also gathered Turkey, the United Kingdom, Qatar, France, and other pro-rebel governments in a joint operations room. The MOM is now apparently being dismantled, with so-called moderate rebels in northern Syria reportedly given six months to find their own sources of support.

A US State Department official contacted by IRIN refused to comment directly on the CIA programme, but said Washington’s “top priorities in Syria are to defeat ISIS and other terrorists, de-escalate violence, ensure unhindered humanitarian access, and create the conditions for a credible political resolution.” The official added that the US “will continue to work with our international coalition partners and Vetted Syrian Opposition forces to achieve these goals.”

Even in the absence of MOM funding, some of the non-jihadi rebels might survive by drawing on local assets, private funds, and Qatari money channeled through Turkey. But most of the remaining Free Syrian Army factions in Idlib are likely to disintegrate once their salary scheme lapses. Individual fighters who remain committed to fighting al-Assad will likely be absorbed into Tahrir al-Sham or funnelled into an unthreatening, Tahrir al-Sham-approved front group.

That is, if the jihadi group can muster the resources to expand its operations and sustain the insurgency at current levels. For all of Tahrir al-Sham’s organisational sophistication and military might, its leaders have struggled to come up with a workable economic model. Landing a few millions here and a few millions there in kidnapping ransoms cannot make up for the sort of funding streams that have been feeding Ahrar al-Sham and, through the MOM, the Free Syrian Army groups.

If the smaller rebel factions are deprived of salaries and arms from abroad, Tahrir al-Sham won’t be able to mobilise them as auxiliaries or skim ammunition. And if the jihadi group begins to prey too aggressively on civilian trade through the Bab al-Hawa crossing or tries to divert foreign aid for its own purposes, it risks sawing off the branch it sits on by collapsing the local economy.

A bleak outlook

Idlib’s future is now one of containment and ostracism, a cage for civilians trapped between al-Assad’s ruthless regime and the jihadi extremists that lead the insurgency against him.

The American Syria expert Sam Heller has described Idlib’s future prospects as “a jihadist-run mountain Gaza,” with civilians exposed to bombing and sporadic ground attacks, dwindling aid, failing public services, and predatory jihadi rule.

In the long run, however, Idlib seems less tenable as an Islamist enclave than Palestine’s Gaza Strip, which is run by the much more pragmatic Muslim Brotherhood offshoot Hamas – terrorist-listed in the West, to be sure, but also tacitly tolerated as part of a regional conflict.

But whenever the Salafi-jihadi school to which Tahrir al-Sham belongs has planted its flag in a country – be it in Libya, Mali, Yemen, or Somalia – it has triggered an international military response of some sort. The international community is unlikely to feel differently about Syria and simply accept Idlib’s consolidation as an outlaw haven for extremist foreign fighters and jihadi training camps.

That’s why no major power is likely step in the way of an attempt by al-Assad to cut a path back to the opposition strongholds of northwestern Syria, if or when he musters the resources to start attacking Idlib again. There will certainly be a lot of tut-tutting over human rights, but nothing that would stop a bullet – and although the regime is too weak to storm the whole region at once, it has every reason to try to nibble its way in from the edges.

Western diplomats cringe at the thought. A regime takeover of this region, where thousands of extremists have embedded themselves for an apocalyptic last stand among civilians who fear and hate al-Assad’s government, is likely to be a drawn-out and brutal affair that could easily spiral into atrocity.

If at that point aid has dried up or cannot be distributed due to the militant stranglehold on local communities, and if borders remain shut, the resulting fighting and displacement – which for many will not be the first flight – will have a punishing effect on civilian well-being.

For now, jihadi-ruled Idlib remains uncomfortably contained and, thanks to foreign aid, barely functional. Since May, all sides have purported to respect the convenient fiction of Idlib as a “de-escalation zone” subject to a ceasefire, even though Tahrir al-Sham was explicitly excluded from that deal. Depending on developments elsewhere in Syria, this charade could go on for some time, and, in theory, Idlib’s front lines may remain frozen for years.

Yet the jihadi factor undermines any hope for containment as a stable end state, or even as an interim solution, and with two million civilians trapped in the line of fire, the situation reeks of future menace and disaster.