Militants strike defiant tone as Assad prepares assault on Idlib
Al-Qaeda-linked group vows to fight on but insurgents in Syria province are increasingly divided
A Syrian soldier stands guard as people ride in a vehicle at the Abu Duhur crossing on the eastern edge of Idlib province on Monday. Photograph: George Ourfalian/AFP/Getty Images
A group affiliated with al-Qaeda in Syria has adopted a defiant tone as the Syrian army has deployed elite armoured and assault divisions along the southern and western edges of northwestern Idlib province, the remaining insurgent bastion in Syria.
Syrian president Bashar al-Assad has vowed to retake Idlib but an all-out assault has been postponed due to the presence of more than 2.5 million civilians in the province and fears of a new humanitarian catastrophe.
As Syrian army artillery strikes hammered insurgent positions and arms depots, Abual-Fath al-Farghali, a senior commander with al-Qaeda’s Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, warned: “The Mujahedeen [holy warriors] are in their strongest physical and moral status and remain determined to liberate Damascus and beyond.”
However, more than 65 per cent of Syria is under government control and the militants, who could number 7,000, are divided into rival camps. Their morale has been undermined by civilian pressure for “reconciliation” – surrender to government forces. Tahrir al-Sham has arrested at least 100 for seeking a deal with Damascus or establishing contacts with its ally, Russia.
The rival coalition, the National Liberation Front founded by Turkey in May, has detained 95 civilians accused of being “loyalists” and called on Turkey to impose its “mandate” in Idlib, placing the province under full Turkish occupation in order to ward off attack.
Judges on Sharia [Muslim canon law] courts installed by these factions are accused of incompetence and corruption while senior commanders and fighters defect from one faction or coalition to another, creating confusion.
Although not a major force in Idlib, Islamic State (also known as Isis) has seized a pocket of territory which it has defended fiercely.
Tahrir al-Sham and Isis are excluded from the ceasefire imposed by Russia, Iran and Turkey, since they are deemed “terrorist” organisations by the UN, and their presence provides the government with justification for an offensive against Idlib. They also continue to carry out operations and bombings outside Idlib to provoke the army into retaliating.
Instead of uniting to defend Idlib, insurgent groups assassinate rival commanders and conduct raids into each others’ territory. Car bombs, improvised explosive devices and shootings have killed 220 commanders and fighters since the end of April. At least 55 civilians have also been killed and dozens have been abducted for ransom. Civilians fear for their lives every time they leave home.
Despite popular pressure for a deal with Damascus, armed factions reject surrender. Most officers and fighters have nowhere else to go. Having become the dumping ground forboth foreign and local fighters driven by the Syrian army from insurgent-held territory, Idlib is the end of the line.
This hard fact has not made them end their rivalries or abuse of civilians who are looking to Damascus, Moscow and Ankara for an end to jihadi rule.