Jihadists affiliated with al-Qaeda have seized control of most of Syria's north- western province of Idlib, emerging as the most powerful insurgent faction in the country.
Fighters, belonging to an al-Qaeda offshoot, Tahrir al-Sham, also took over two key border crossings between Syria and Turkey with the aim of preventing rivals or Turkish troops from entering Idlib and supervising humanitarian aid deliveries.
Tahrir’s ranks swelled when combatants from a defeated faction defected with their arms and four other groups joined the victorious coalition.
Tahrir al-Sham, originally known as Jabhat al-Nusra, is the latest rebranding of al-Qaeda's Iraqi franchise. It was deployed across the frontier in Syria during late 2011/early 2012 when it mounted deadly bombings in Damascus and Aleppo, adding organised jihadi fighters to the civil conflict.
The group adheres to al-Qaeda's puritan fundamentalist ideology and imposes religious observation and conservative behaviour on civilians under its rule. In spite of being designated a terrorist organisation by the UN, the West and some Arab countries, the group has secured funding and arms from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey and, indirectly, from the US when fighters trained and armed by the CIA shifted to Tahrir.
In mid-2016, the group declared it had “no affiliation to any external entity”, suggesting it had cut connections with al-Qaeda central based on the Afghan-Pakistan border.
However, this move was clearly orchestrated by al-Qaeda which had dispatched senior strategists and veteran fighters to Idlib before the announcement. Tahrir has never renounced its fealty to al-Qaeda's chief, Ayman al-Zawahiri. Consequently, Tahrir's triumph could lead to the re-establishment of al-Qaeda in Syria and, eventually, in Iraq and extend the movement's reach to the region and beyond.
Al-Qaeda's objectives are the overthrow of the Saudi regime, destruction of Israel, and extirpation of western political, social and cultural influence in the Muslim world.
In spite of threats posed by the revival of al-Qaeda via Tahrir, there has been little reaction in the West or the Arab world to the conquest of much of Idlib. There are two main reasons for this. The US and Europe are preoccupied by the antics of the Trump administration instead of focusing on foreign affairs. Washington and its allies give priority to the campaign in Iraq and Syria against Islamic State and have, at times, enlisted factions loyal to al-Qaeda in this battle regardless of the dangers of such a policy.
Price of negligence
Dismissal of Tahrir's ascendancy in Idlib amounts to a repeat of the lack of interest in the West and the Arab world in the early 2014 campaign waged by Islamic State from its base in Syria to conquer Iraqi Sunni cities and towns in Anbar and Salahuddin provinces. External powers woke up only in June 2014 after the group captured Iraq's second city, Mosul, which is currently paying a catastrophic price for negligence.
Tahrir wrested control of Idlib province, its capital city, and the Turkish border from an occasional ally, Ahrar al-Sham, which was permitted to withdraw troops, tanks and equipment to bases in southern Idlib and neighbouring Hama province.
Although independent of al-Qaeda, Ahrar has adopted a similar ideology based on the beliefs of Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi sect. The group’s goal is the overthrow of the Syrian government and its replacement by an Islamic state. Until its defeat by Tahrir, the group was the second most powerful insurgent faction in Syria.
The military campaign in Iraq and Syria against Islamic State has shrunk its cross-border “caliphate” and finished off its reign as Syria’s and the region’s most powerful insurgent group.