Syria mil­i­tants mass in dis­tant prov­ince

Kuwait Times - - ANALYSIS -

The men re­ceive a hero’s wel­come as they step off the green buses in Syria’s Idlib prov­ince with guns slung over their shoul­ders, hav­ing been forced to leave be­sieged and bom­barded towns and cities as part of lo­cal truce deals with the gov­ern­ment in Da­m­as­cus. For more than two years now as Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad pur­sued a pol­icy of lo­cal truces, thou­sands of rebels and op­po­si­tion sup­port­ers have been de­ported to the north­west­ern prov­ince bor­der­ing Turkey - a forced ex­ile that many see as a cal­cu­lated at­tempt to gather the fight­ers far from the cap­i­tal, at a lo­ca­tion where they can later be elim­i­nated.

Al­ready a strong­hold of Syria’s Al-Qaeda af­fil­i­ate, the prov­ince is now home to thou­sands of Is­lamic mil­i­tants - with vary­ing de­grees of ex­trem­ist ide­ol­ogy - who have con­verged along with their fam­i­lies from the cen­tral city of Homs and the sub­urbs of Da­m­as­cus, af­ter ca­pit­u­lat­ing to gov­ern­ment forces. “The gov­ern­ment wants to pre­pare peo­ple, psy­cho­log­i­cally, for the idea that Idlib is the Kan­da­har of Syria,” said Ibrahim Hamidi, a jour­nal­ist who cov­ers Syr­ian af­fairs for the Saudi-owned news­pa­per Al Hayat.

He was re­fer­ring to Kan­da­har prov­ince in Afghanistan, the base of the mil­i­tant Tale­ban’s 1996-2001 gov­ern­ment. He said the pres­ence of so many Is­lamic mil­i­tants would make it eas­ier for the gov­ern­ment and its al­lies to later jus­tify a mas­sive as­sault on the prov­ince. Idlib is one of the few re­gions in Syria where the Is­lamic State group and the gov­ern­ment have no pres­ence, save for two small gov­ern­ment-con­trolled Shi­ite-ma­jor­ity vil­lages. The prov­ince bor­ders Turkey, a key spon­sor of Syr­ian rebels, and the coastal prov­ince of Latakia, a gov­ern­ment strong­hold. As­sad’s loss of Idlib city in the sum­mer of 2015 was what prompted Rus­sia to in­ter­vene to shore up his forces.

Mem­bers of the op­po­si­tion fear that gov­ern­ment and Russian war­planes will even­tu­ally car­pet bomb Idlib un­der the pre­text that it is a strong­hold of Al-Qaeda’s Fatah al-Sham Front, whose lead­er­ship is based there, and other ex­trem­ist groups. Since July 2015, US air­craft have killed some of Al-Qaeda’s most se­nior fig­ures in strikes on Idlib, in­clud­ing Kuwait-born Mohsen Al-Fadli, Sanafi Al-Nasr of Saudi Ara­bia and Ahmed Salama Mabrouk of Egypt, who was killed in early Oc­to­ber. They be­longed to what US of­fi­cials call the Kho­rasan group, which Wash­ing­ton de­scribes as a branch of Al-Qaeda that plans at­tacks against West­ern in­ter­ests.

The prov­ince is also an im­por­tant strong­hold for Syr­ian rebels bat­tling to un­seat As­sad. Malek Al-Ri­fai, an op­po­si­tion ac­tivist who re­cently moved to Idlib from Daraya, said he now has a “five star” life com­pared to his con­di­tions in the be­sieged Da­m­as­cus sub­urb, where peo­ple could barely feed them­selves. Ac­cess to the Turk­ish bor­der means vir­tu­ally ev­ery­thing is avail­able in Idlib - not only food, but also weapons and other sup­plies. Ri­fai said he shares an apart­ment with friends and has been sur­viv­ing on some sav­ings. Other peo­ple live in tents, some of which have evolved into con­crete dwellings com­plete with sec­ond­hand fur­ni­ture. He said peo­ple mostly make a liv­ing by work­ing for aid or­ga­ni­za­tions, as taxi or minibus driv­ers, join­ing rebel groups that pay salaries or run­ning small busi­nesses.

Although their pri­mary tar­get has re­cently been the di­vided north­ern city of Aleppo, hardly a day goes by with­out gov­ern­ment or Russian war­planes bomb­ing parts of Idlib. “The regime wants Idlib to be­come an­other Raqqa,” said Has­san Al-Dughaim, a Turkey-based Syr­ian preacher and re­searcher from Idlib, who lived there for most of his life un­til last year. The Syr­ian city of Raqqa is the de facto cap­i­tal of the IS group’s self-styled caliphate. Idlib city serves a sim­i­lar func­tion for Al-Qaeda.

Dughaim said the Syr­ian gov­ern­ment hopes that the pres­ence of so many mil­i­tants from dif­fer­ent groups will lead to in­fight­ing. But de­spite the steady flow of fight­ers such con­fronta­tions have been rare. Idlib is also home to thou­sands of dis­placed civil­ians from across the coun­try, who were brought there on the green buses along with armed fight­ers as part of the truce deals. “The regime wants the peo­ple to be as far as pos­si­ble from the ar­eas they were dis­placed from,” said Osama Abu Zeid, a lawyer who ad­vises mod­er­ate rebel groups known as the Free Syr­ian Army, who also have a pres­ence in Idlib. He said that be­cause of Al-Qaeda’s pres­ence, the gov­ern­ment will present any fu­ture at­tack as part of a war on ter­ror­ism.

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