Does As­sad have rea­son for a new as­sault on Idlib?

The National - News - - FRONT PAGE - KA­REEM SHA­HEEN

There was one key, sur­pris­ing de­tail in the now-fa­mil­iar saga of the killing of ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al Bagh­dadi in an Amer­i­can spe­cial op­er­a­tions raid last week­end.

Al Bagh­dadi, prob­a­bly the sin­gle most wanted crim­i­nal in the world, was not hid­ing in a re­doubt in a for­got­ten cor­ner of Iraq, where both he and his ter­ror net­work were born. Nor was he bid­ing his time in the eastern Syr­ian desert so re­cently lib­er­ated from the clutches of his death cult, which ruled from its self-pro­claimed cap­i­tal of Raqqa for years.

The elu­sive ISIS chief was hid­ing in Bar­isha, a stone’s throw away from the Turk­ish bor­der – in the north­ern Syr­ian prov­ince of Idlib – which is un­der the con­trol of Al Qaeda-linked fight­ers who de­spise Al Bagh­dadi’s group and its pre­ten­tions of a caliphate.

Idlib also hap­pens to be home to three mil­lion civil­ians who are refugees in their own coun­try, dis­pos­sessed and sub­jected over the years to re­lent­less vi­o­lence. Bashar Al As­sad and his back­ers must not be al­lowed to use Al Bagh­dadi’s pres­ence in the area as a jus­ti­fi­ca­tion to launch a fi­nal and bloody as­sault on a re­gion riven by mis­ery.

Let’s take a quick look at what is hap­pen­ing in Idlib. Abut­ting the Turk­ish bor­der in north-western Syria, the prov­ince is one of two main ar­eas that re­main out­side the con­trol of the As­sad regime, nearly nine years into the war. In ad­di­tion to Idlib, parts of the north and north-east are un­der the con­trol of Tur­key’s Syr­ian prox­ies.

Idlib was ini­tially un­der the con­trol of a rebel coali­tion that had de­feated the Syr­ian mil­i­tary. Slowly, how­ever, these rebels were ei­ther ousted or co-opted by a group that came to be known as Hayat Tahrir Al Sham, or HTS, the lat­est it­er­a­tion of a group that was af­fil­i­ated with Al Qaeda.

HTS and ISIS had com­mon ori­gins but turned into bit­ter ri­vals over their com­pet­ing vi­sions for Syria’s fate. Al Bagh­dadi’s de­ci­sion to strike out alone and an­nounce the for­ma­tion of a so-called caliphate split the ex­trem­ist world be­tween be­liev­ers in his mis­sion and those who backed Al Qaeda’s project. These fis­sures were vi­o­lent and ide­o­log­i­cal.

HTS re­mains in con­trol mil­i­tar­ily of most of Idlib prov­ince, although it is fre­quently chal­lenged by the vi­brant civil so­ci­ety there that has re­peat­edly protested its hard­line rule. Many ac­tivists and lo­cal journalist­s have suf­fered in turn, some even los­ing their lives in as­sas­si­na­tions or­ches­trated by the mil­i­tants as they sought to sub­due the civil so­ci­ety that emerged as part of the rev­o­lu­tion.

Idlib is also home to three mil­lion civil­ians, some of whom have been dis­placed up to 10 times over the course of the con­flict. Most of them are women and children. Through­out the coun­try, Mr Al As­sad’s forces and their al­lies ne­go­ti­ated sur­ren­der deals that al­lowed them to forcibly dis­place civil­ians to Idlib, re-en­gi­neer­ing the de­mo­graph­ics of en­tire re­gions and cre­at­ing a kill box of mis­ery near the bor­der.

Any ma­jor campaign to re­claim the prov­ince could lead to a hu­man­i­tar­ian catas­tro­phe un­matched dur­ing the war. Hundreds of peo­ple were killed and dozens of hospi­tals bombed in four months of fight­ing ear­lier this year, un­til a cease­fire ne­go­ti­ated by Ankara and Moscow was im­posed in Au­gust. It holds by a thread.

The fact that Al Bagh­dadi was found in the con­fines of the prov­ince could fuel the As­sad regime’s nar­ra­tive that it is bat­tling ter­ror­ism, pro­vid­ing it with an ex­cuse to launch a campaign that could lead to a blood­bath and mir­ror the vi­o­lence in­flicted in other parts of the coun­try, such as Aleppo and Eastern Ghouta, with all the ensuing atroc­i­ties and war crimes.

Even on the US side, Brett McGurk, an Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion ap­pointee who was the en­voy to the anti-ISIS coali­tion and whose gov­ern­ment’s poli­cies led to the aban­don­ment of civil­ians in Syria to a dic­ta­tor who un­flinch­ingly used chem­i­cal weapons, called Idlib the world’s “largest ter­ror­ist haven” in a Wash­ing­ton Post ar­ti­cle. It is typ­i­cal de­hu­man­is­ing lan­guage by US of­fi­cials who only see the re­gion from the prism of “with us or against us”, ter­ror­ist or col­lat­eral dam­age.

It is not en­tirely clear what Al Bagh­dadi, whose se­cu­rity mea­sures were no­to­ri­ous and in­volved mov­ing around fre­quently, with no dig­i­tal com­mu­ni­ca­tions, was do­ing in Bar­isha. Me­dia re­ports have sug­gested that he was en route to an­other lo­ca­tion, or that he wanted to try and re­build his shat­tered caliphate from a cor­ner of Idlib, and that HTS was ac­tively search­ing for him. He was close to the Turk­ish bor­der and might have hoped to smug­gle his fam­ily across. We might never know.

The real­ity is that Idlib rep­re­sents an in­tractable prob­lem. And it must be solved peace­fully and diplo­mat­i­cally for the good of the civil­ians there and for the long-term sta­bil­ity of the re­gion, as part of a broader peace set­tle­ment in Syria.

That re­mains a dis­tant dream. But the al­ter­na­tive is more tragedy heaped upon mis­ery, in a coun­try that, de­spite Mr Al As­sad’s mil­i­tary vic­tory, re­mains un­sta­ble.

Vic­tory over the ter­ror­ist group must not give way to state-spon­sored ter­ror, abet­ted or over­looked once again by the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity. Mr Al As­sad and his spon­sors must not be al­lowed to use Al Bagh­dadi’s killing as a pre­text for an­other campaign of vi­o­lence and de­struc­tion.

The cease­fire in Idlib must hold, be­cause the cost in blood of it fail­ing is too high.

The dis­cov­ery of the ISIS leader’s lair in the re­bel­held re­gion may fuel the nar­ra­tive the regime is bat­tling ter­ror­ism

The real­ity is that Idlib rep­re­sents an in­tractable prob­lem AFP

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