Fear of ‘devastating’ battle
Extremists linked to al-Qaeda have taken control of almost all of Syria’s last rebel-held province, bringing a fragile ceasefire deal to breaking point and threatening to ignite a devastating new battle.
In the past nine days Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) has seized almost all the territory that was held by Turkey-backed rebels in Idlib. The province abuts the Turkish border and is virtually surrounded by President Bashar al-Assad’s forces. Residents fear that the takeover could prompt Russia and the regime to launch a scorched-earth offensive on Idlib of the kind that has broken deadlocks in other areas of Syria but also razed whole towns and killed thousands of civilians.
The regime has repeatedly vowed to attack Idlib to drive out the radicals, which would be a catastrophe for the province’s 2.5 million residents, about half of whom have already been displaced from other areas. Any new offensive could send hundreds of thousands of people fleeing towards the Turkish border. Turkey is already hosting 3.5 million Syrian refugees.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and President Vladimir Putin hammered out an 11th-hour ceasefire deal in September that stayed a regime assault on the condition that HTS and other internationally blacklisted groups would be cleared from a 15-mile buffer zone between rebel and regime forces. Turkey tried to enact that agreement by galvanising its own rebel alliance in Idlib, the National Liberation Forces (NLF), and sending reinforcements to its 12 military points along the demarcation line. HTS launched an attack on the town of Darret Azzeh on January 5, however, and has since raised its flag over almost all of the Idlib area, forcing the NLF into a series of surrenders and absorbing several of its factions. ‘‘Idlib has actually become an al-Qaeda area,’’ a commander with Ahrar al-Sham, one of the rebel groups that has ceded control to HTS, told The Times.
The group has installed its political wing, the Salvation Government, as the administration in most of Idlib, replacing the local councils that had run many of the towns for seven years.
Idlib was the birthplace of the Free Syrian Army, originally composed of defectors from Assad’s army. It snatched a swathe of territory from the regime in 2012 but quickly splintered into an array of competing factions and has since struggled to maintain its hold against increasingly powerful extremist groups. Even so, many towns in Idlib managed to hold elections to select civilian councils that ran local services including schools and a university. HTS, however, rejects democracy and secularism in favour of sharia.
The Salvation Government has demanded that all shops close during Friday prayers. Residents said that it was also imposing levies on properties and businesses in an effort to raise funds. Local journalists and activists say that the extremists govern with as harsh a hand as Assad once did. ‘‘I’ve been waiting for a week to get a permission from HTS to make a report,’’ one reporter said.
Turkey has moved troops and tanks to its border with Idlib, although General Hulusi Akar, the defence minister, insists that Turkey is still co-operating with Russia to preserve the ceasefire.
Maria Zakharova, the Russian foreign ministry’s spokeswoman, said on Friday that although Moscow remained committed to the ceasefire it ‘‘should not serve as a pretext for the Idlib deescalation zone becoming a refuge for thousands of terrorists’’.
– The Times