Fear of ‘dev­as­tat­ing’ bat­tle

The Timaru Herald - - WORLD -

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

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