Idlib likely to be Syria’s next bloody the­ater

Prov­ince packed with tens of thou­sands of rebels

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

BEIRUT: The bat­tle for Aleppo has gripped the world, but it is hardly the only ac­tive front across war-torn Syria. One of the next tar­gets for the forces of Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad will prob­a­bly be the heart­land of rebel ter­ri­tory, the neigh­bor­ing prov­ince of Idlib.

The prov­ince west of Aleppo is a strong­hold of al-Qaeda’s Syria af­fil­i­ate and is now also packed with tens of thou­sands of rebels, many of them evac­u­ated from other parts of the coun­try, mak­ing it likely to be an even more bloody the­ater than Aleppo.

Idlib has di­rect links to the Turk­ish bor­der, and is lo­cated only a few kilo­me­ters north of Hama, a cen­tral prov­ince and key point for de­fend­ing As­sad’s coastal strongholds and nearby Rus­sian mil­i­tary bases.

Asked where he will turn to next, As­sad has sug­gested his first pri­or­ity, af­ter for­ti­fy­ing the area around Aleppo city, would be Idlib. “Iden­ti­fy­ing which city comes next de­pends on which city con­tains the largest num­ber of ter­ror­ists and which city pro­vides other coun­tries with the op­por­tu­nity to sup­port them lo­gis­ti­cally,” he told Rus­sian me­dia out­lets in an in­ter­view in Da­m­as­cus this week.

“Cur­rently, there are di­rect links be­tween Aleppo and Idlib be­cause of the pres­ence of Jab­hat al-Nusra inside and on the out­skirts of Aleppo and in Idlib,” he said, a ref­er­ence to the al-Qaeda af­fil­i­ate, for­merly known as the Nusra Front, now the Fatah al-Sham Front. He added that the de­ci­sion about what comes next will be made through dis­cus­sions with his Rus­sian and Ira­nian al­lies.

The gov­ern­ment’s loss of Jisr alShughour, in the west­ern­most cor­ner of the prov­ince, and with it the whole of Idlib prov­ince, in the sum­mer of 2015, was what prompted Rus­sia to in­ter­vene to shore up As­sad’s forces, even­tu­ally turn­ing the war’s mo­men­tum back in his fa­vor.

Syria’s Kandahar?

For the past two years, as As­sad pur­sued a pol­icy of siege and lo­cal truces to force sur­ren­ders, thou­sands of rebels and op­po­si­tion sup­port­ers have been de­ported to Idlib - a forced ex­ile that many see as a cal­cu­lated at­tempt to gather the fight­ers in one lo­ca­tion where they can later be elim­i­nated.

The prov­ince has wel­comed 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. It has be­come a com­mon sight: Men re­ceiv­ing a hero’s wel­come as they step off the green buses in Idlib with guns slung over their shoul­ders, hav­ing been forced to leave be­sieged and bom­barded towns and cities.

“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 Tal­iban’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.

The prov­ince has the most pow­er­ful con­cen­tra­tion of rebels. Ac­cord­ing to the In­sti­tute for the Study of War, it boasts more than 50,000 fight­ers re­grouped un­der the um­brella or­ga­ni­za­tion Jaish al-Fatah, or Army of Con­quest, which is led by the al-Qaeda af­fil­i­ate. Us­ing Idlib as a launch­ing pad, the group briefly broke the gov­ern­ment’s siege of east­ern Aleppo in Au­gust.

Open lines to Turkey

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.

Ac­cess to the Turk­ish bor­der means vir­tu­ally ev­ery­thing is avail­able in Idlib - in­clud­ing weapons and other sup­plies.

Yezid Sayigh, a se­nior fel­low at the Carnegie Mid­dle East Cen­ter in Beirut, said a ma­jor point in the Idlib bat­tle will be the role that Turkey will play, since the op­po­si­tion sur­vives on con­tin­u­ous re­plen­ish­ment of sup­plies from Turkey.

He added that if Turkey de­cides for var­i­ous rea­sons - per­haps as part of an un­der­stand­ing with Rus­sia - to re­duce that as­sis­tance, then the Turk­ish bor­der with Idlib would be­come like the Jor­da­nian bor­der with Daraa, where the armed op­po­si­tion has very lit­tle abil­ity to take in­de­pen­dent ac­tion or to sur­vive in the long run.

al-Qaeda strong­hold

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-linked ex­trem­ists. The Fatah al-Sham Front’s lead­er­ship is based there, per­haps mak­ing west­ern pow­ers more in­clined to turn a blind eye to a mas­sive mil­i­tary cam­paign tar­get­ing the prov­ince.

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 U.S. of­fi­cials call the Kho­rasan group, which Wash­ing­ton de­scribes as an in­ter­nal branch of al-Qaeda that plans at­tacks against West­ern in­ter­ests.

“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 alQaeda.

Al-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.

Faysal Itani, a res­i­dent fel­low at the At­lantic Coun­cil, agrees. “By lump­ing the dis­placed hos­tile pop­u­la­tions in with the ex­trem­ists, you’ve ba­si­cally con­fined the prob­lem to one place,” he said. “Once that is done, the regime will go af­ter it hard and no one will be able to make

—AP

IDLIB, Syria: In this file photo re­leased on Oc­to­ber 17, 2015, and pro­vided by the Fur­san al-Haq Syr­ian rebel brigade, which has been au­then­ti­cated based on its con­tents and other AP re­port­ing, Free Syr­ian Army fight­ers of Fur­san al-Haq Brigade hold a ban­ner.

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