Al-Qaeda in Syria close to snuff­ing out com­pe­ti­tion

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

Syr­ian rebels and ac­tivists are warn­ing that an Al-Qaeda-linked ji­hadi group is on the verge of snuff­ing out what re­mains of the coun­try’s up­ris­ing in north­west­ern Syria, af­ter the ex­trem­ists seized con­trol of the op­po­si­tion-held re­gional cap­i­tal, Idlib, last week­end. With the ji­hadis ce­ment­ing their au­thor­ity over the city and its prov­ince, also called Idlib, Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad has been sup­plied with a use­ful pre­text for a long-ex­pected as­sault against the re­bel­lious prov­ince: that the up­ris­ing against him is largely driven by Is­lamists and ter­ror­ists.

“There is the real pos­si­bil­ity that be­cause of the Nusra Front’s dom­i­na­tion, the regime will en­ter the area with in­ter­na­tional ap­proval,” said Lt Col Fares Bay­oush, a long­time op­po­nent of As­sad, who has been lead­ing a rebel fac­tion in north Syria. The Nusra Front is one of the many names for the alQaida-af­fil­i­ate that now heads the mighty Hay’at Tahrir al Sham mil­i­tant group - Ara­bic for Le­vant Lib­er­a­tion Com­mit­tee - that seized the city of Idlib, as well as two bor­der cross­ings with Turkey to feed its cof­fers. It is also known as HTS.

In July last year, the Nusra Front changed its name to Fatah al-Sham Front and said it was cut­ting all its links with al-Qaida, a move seen by many as an at­tempt to im­prove its im­age and mar­ket it­self as a fac­tion de­fend­ing the Syr­ian peo­ple. It abides by a deeply con­ser­va­tive code for ethics and jurispru­dence and tol­er­ates no dis­sent - lead­ing many who live un­der its rule to com­plain they are no bet­ter than the gov­ern­ment they sought to over­throw in 2011.

The fresh gains by HTS in north­ern Syria come at a time when the Is­lamic State group is suf­fer­ing de­feats at the hands of Iraqi and Syr­ian forces as well as US-backed Kur­dish-led fight­ers in north­ern Syria. In Idlib demon­stra­tions last week, the group’s mem­bers shot at pro­test­ers wav­ing the tri-color flag of the Syr­ian up­ris­ing. HTS will only ac­cept their own, ji­hadi-in­spired black flags to be flown in their pres­ence. “Any party that tries to con­front HTS will be crushed,” said an ac­tivist based in north­west Syria. “This is a big blow for the Syr­ian rev­o­lu­tion. Bashar will look like he is fight­ing ter­ror­ism,” the ac­tivist said, speak­ing on con­di­tion of anonymity for fear of reprisals by the HTS. With its pre­vi­ous in­car­na­tions, Hay’at Tahrir al Sham has long been the top dog in Idlib prov­ince but the putsch has had the ef­fect of mak­ing it feel of­fi­cial. In re­cent weeks, the group de­ployed masked gun­men and car­ried out raids in search op­er­a­tions for al­leged IS mem­bers.

HTS de­ployed across Idlib city last week­end af­ter a ri­val fac­tion, the ul­tra­con­ser­va­tive Ahrar alSham group, with­drew. Five days of clashes around the prov­ince left 77 fight­ers and 15 civil­ians dead, ac­cord­ing to the Bri­tain-based Syr­ian Ob­ser­va­tory for Hu­man Rights mon­i­tor­ing group.

Other fac­tions, in­clud­ing many once fi­nanced and armed in part by the CIA, kept to the side­lines. They are hop­ing to win a share of the rev­enues from the lu­cra­tive Bab Al-Hawa bor­der cross­ing, said a Turkey-based op­po­si­tion ac­tivist who li­aises with Syr­ian rebels and their state spon­sors. He asked for anonymity so as not to jeop­ar­dize his po­si­tion. That cross­ing used to bring Ahrar al-Sham over $1 mil­lion in rev­enues a month, ac­cord­ing to a se­nior Ahrar al-Sham of­fi­cial, who also asked for anonymity for the same rea­son. The group will now have to share those rev­enues with HTS af­ter for­feit­ing its mo­nop­oly over it to a “civil­ian ad­min­is­tra­tion” forced in by the ex­trem­ists. HTS also seized Sar­mada - the first town af­ter the Bab Al-Hawa cross­ing and an im­por­tant trade hub in north Idlib - and Khir­bet Al-Jouz, home to a sec­ond, less im­por­tant cross­ing with Turkey. “Ahrar Al-Sham no longer has a real on-the-ground pres­ence in Idlib prov­ince. It’s over,” said the Ob­ser­va­tory’s chief, Rami Ab­dur­rah­man. HTS and Ahrar have long been at odds over Idlib, but the rout last week nev­er­the­less car­ried a hint of be­trayal, as the two sides fought side by side in 2015 to throw the gov­ern­ment out of the prov­ince once and for all.


ARBIN: A Syr­ian man sits in his dam­aged house yes­ter­day fol­low­ing an air strike late the pre­vi­ous night on the rebel-held town.

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