Al-Qaeda’s offshoot in Syria consolidates hold over Idlib

Idlib could become a base for the infiltration of jihadis into the region and Europe

A busy street in the northern city of Idlib, Syria’s mostly rebel-held province. Photograph:   Muhammad Haj Kadour / AFP

A busy street in the northern city of Idlib, Syria’s mostly rebel-held province. Photograph: Muhammad Haj Kadour / AFP

 

Al-Qaeda’s offshoot in Syria has consolidated its hold over the northwestern Idlib province, opening the door for a postponed Syrian army offensive against both jihadi and Turkish-backed forces.

According to sources in Damascus, Russia is expected to provide air cover for a carefully calibrated campaign using “salami tactics” to slice off pieces of territory dominated by Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham until the province is returned to government rule. This strategy has been adopted rather than an all-out assault which could harm the 3.5 million civilians living in Idlib and force them to flee into Turkey.

Branded a terrorist movement by the UN, Tahrir al-Sham has been excluded from the ceasefire agreement reached in September between Russia and Turkey and is considered a legitimate target.

Western powers are unlikely to object to the Syrian army campaign since Idlib is not only the last bastion of opposition forces, but also the final piece of real estate in Syria and Iraq held by al-Qaeda’s terrorist twins, Tahrir al-Sham (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra) and Islamic State. If left in al-Qaeda’s hands, Idlib could become a base for the infiltration of jihadis into the region and Europe.

Ankara advised its surrogate National Liberation Front to accept a truce and recognise Tahrir al-Sham’s administration in Idlib after nine days of bitter battles which left the jihadis in control of 75 per cent of the province. Some Front fighters fled to pockets of northern Syrian territory occupied by Turkey.

The Front’s defeat shows that the mainly fundamentalist factions loosely tied to the Front are no match for dedicated, highly motivated Tahrir al-Sham fighters who have no place to go if they are defeated in Idlib. The Syrian army and its Russian and Iranian allies are likely to find the task of dislodging them daunting and difficult.

Tahrir al-Sham spokesman Hames Mojahed said the group would “maintain the same ceasefire as formerly agreed”, although the group has neither accepted the deal by withdrawing from a buffer zone surrounding Idlib nor abided by its terms. The jihadis have mounted strikes against government forces deployed near Idlib and in neighbouring Aleppo and Hama provinces.

Mohajed said: “If the regime ever tries to attack, it will find us standing in the way. If the regime and Russia start bombing people once again, we won’t stand watching. We will do anything to force the regime and Russia to stop their attacks.”

Stronghold

Idlib is a strategic province bordering Turkey and Syria’s coastal Latakia province, which is a government stronghold. Idlib also lies close to the main highway linking Damascus and Aleppo.

Tahrir al-Sham’s conquest of Idlib puts Turkey in a doubly difficult situation. Ankara cannot defend Tahrir al-Sham or accommodate in Turkish-occupied areas its surrogate fighters who were transferred to Idlib after surrendering to Syrian government forces.

Ankara has also been frustrated by confusion over the withdrawal of 2,200 US special forces from northern Syria. Since mid-December, when president Donald Trump announced his intention to pull out the troops in short order, Ankara has repeatedly warned it would launch a military operation to clear the border zone of US-allied Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), a creation of Turkey’s insurgent Kurds.

This has prompted the US administration to delay withdrawal and promise protection to the Kurds. Their fears over Washington’s intentions deepened after the US military began withdrawing armoured vehicles and equipment from northeastern Syria last week in preparation for Trump’s troop pull-out.

The Kurds have prepared for abandonment in recent weeks by presenting Damascus with a road-map providing for the return to the government of the territory they hold, 25 per cent of Syria, in return for limited autonomy. This would leave Damascus in control of 90 per cent of Syria’s territory.

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