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Could Idlib Takeover Spell the End of Former al-Qaeda Affiliate in Syria?

Syria-Idlib governorate
Syrians search for victims under the rubble following a reported air strike on the village of Jarjanaz, in the Maaret al-Numan district of Syria’s Idlib province, on September 20, 2017. Photo AFP

Following clashes with a rival rebel group that had once been its ally, the Islamist Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS, formerly known as al-Nusra Front) took control of Syria’s Idlib province on 23 July 2017. The takeover appeared to be another nail in the coffin of the Syrian revolution, but it may also have been potentially fatal overreaching on the part of HTS.

The takeover ensured that the province – where thousands of internally displaced Syrians including rebel fighters and their families had taken refuge after fleeing areas seized by the regime – would become the target of attacks by the Syrian government and its ally Russia, without intervention by the United States (US) or its allies.

Sure enough, after HTS rebels attacked government forces in Hama in mid-September 2017, Russia launched an intense air campaign. Opposition groups and monitors said the campaign had targeted civilian infrastructure including hospitals, killing more than 150 civilians.

The Russians denied that they had killed civilians and claimed that the strikes had seriously injured HTS leader Abu Mohammed al-Jolani, putting him in a coma. HTS, in turn, denied this and said al-Jolani was in “good health”.

Idlib’s capture is significant because it was the last province entirely under rebel control. Idlib city was seized from the Syrian regime in 2015 by a coalition of rebel groups that included what was then al-Nusra Front and the more moderate Ahrar al-Sham, which later became al-Nusra Front’s main rival in the area.

In 2016, al-Nusra Front changed its name to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham and announced that it was cutting ties with al-Qaeda. The rebranding was not entirely successful. Many observers were sceptical that the group had truly separated from al-Qaeda, seeing the alleged split as primarily a marketing ploy. Many also continued to refer to the group by its old name.

For a time, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham was able to hold together a coalition of rebel groups under the name Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. But a power struggle soon arose between the group and Ahrar al-Sham, as the two vied for control of key areas in Idlib.

When HTS seized control of Idlib city and much of the province in July 2017, it sparked protests in some areas, where residents sought to oust HTS militants. In the city of Saraqeb, the militants opened fire on protesters, killing several including a media activist. Amid the protests, the fighters withdrew from the city, leaving its governance to the local council.

However, the group has also gained the support of many civilians who do not necessarily subscribe to its Islamist ideology but see it as the only force capable of keeping Idlib from falling to the Syrian regime.

HTS has attempted to consolidate its control over civilian life in the province. It created a Civil Administration of Services, intended to be a civilian arm managing local council and public services. The group demanded that the Idlib city council hand over key administrative departments. When the council refused, HTS fighters stormed the city hall and expelled the employees. The group has also reportedly detained media activists seen as hostile to it.

The takeover has raised concerns about the possible withdrawal of foreign aid organizations and renewed bombardment by Russian and Syrian forces. There had been relative calm in the province for the previous three months, when Iran, Russia and Turkey reached a deal to create four ‘de-escalation zones’ in Syria, including Idlib province. The US immediately made clear that if the Russians attacked Idlib following the HTS takeover, it would not attempt to halt the offensive.

Michael Ratney, the US State Department official in charge of Syria policy, said in a statement posted online: “In the event of the hegemony of [al-Nusra] Front on Idlib, it would be difficult for the United States to convince the international parties not to take the necessary military measures.”

Sure enough, when the Russian air campaign began, the US did not intervene, and the death toll has been high. Syrian state media boasted that the Russian air strikes killed 2,359 militants and injured 2,700 between 19 and 29 September 2017.

However, the London-based monitoring group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 163 civilians, including 41 children and 39 women, had also been killed in the strikes and hundreds more injured. The Civil Defence in Idlib, part of the rescue group known as White Helmets, reported that more than 150 civilians had been killed.

Russia’s Defence Ministry spokesman Major General Igor Konashenkov called the White Helmets “crooks” and denied the report, saying, “Russian air force planes do not target residential areas and villages to avoid civilian casualties. They target terrorist bases, hardware and weapons storage sites, which are identified by surveillance drones and cross-checked through other channels.”

Meanwhile, the Lebanese military organization Hezbollah, which supports the Syrian regime, launched an offensive against HTS cells operating near the Lebanese border town of Arsal. As part of a subsequent ceasefire deal, HTS militants along with their families and other civilians were sent back to Syria on buses, many of them to Idlib. According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 5,288 people were evacuated to parts of Idlib and Aleppo provinces.

After the Russian offensive began, many of the recent returnees and internally displaced people living in Idlib were forced to flee again, ending up in camps near the Turkish border. On 15 September 2017, Russia, Iran and Turkey agreed to the final borders of the de-escalation zones, following months of negotiations. HTS was not party to the deal and denounced other rebel groups that did take part in the talks.

The losses under Russian bombardment have added to HTS’ recent woes, which include a string of assassinations and defections of key figures in Idlib. In addition, it is unlikely that the Syrian government and its allies will allow the densely populated and strategically located province to remain outside its control. The ouster of HTS and implementation of the de-escalation agreement might minimize the number of civilian casualties, but the end result in either case is almost certainly a return of regime control in Idlib.