The conflict between the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and its enemies has slowed in Idlib, halted by a precarious ceasefire. But fighting between groups in the province is subject to no such regulation. Rebel factions and jihadists continue to tussle for control of the province.
One of the groups, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) was considered a direct affiliate of al-Qaeda and, regardless of its formal relationship with al-Qaeda, HTS remains theologically extreme and marked by its use of violence.
Last year, the Syrian Liberation Front (JTS), an alliance of relatively moderate Islamist groups in Idlib, sought to challenge HTS’s supremacy. JTS included Ahrar al-Sham and the Nour al-Din al-Zenki Movement, which was part of HTS at the latter’s founding.
The groups that made up the new alliance had, when they stood separately, lost ground to HTS. Together, and with the tacit backing of Turkey, the forces making up JTS wrested control from HTS of significant areas of Idlib, as well as parts of Aleppo and Hama provinces. These gains have been almost entirely reversed.
After a week of fighting, in which some parts of JTS were nearly wiped out, a ceasefire was reportedly signed between the combatants.
HTS propaganda organs hold that the truce compels JTS forces to stand down and acknowledge the HTS-supported Syrian Salvation Government’s pre-eminence in Idlib and beyond.
Elizabeth Tsurkov, a research fellow at the Forum for Regional Thinking, said: ‘JTS is disintegrating before our eyes with the rapid fall of western Aleppo, Sahl al-Ghab and southern Idlib.’
Analyst Ryan O’Farrell explained how HTS’s tactics allowed it to reach this point. ‘HTS has pursued a persistent strategy of seizing critical areas from other rebel factions, beginning with the border areas with Turkey’, O’Farrell said.
‘While almost all other rebel factions had nominally united into a mutual defence pact, HTS nonetheless managed to compartmentalise [JTS] into individual pockets that could be dealt with sequentially, understanding and exploiting each pocket and constituent units’ broad unwillingness to mount a defence coordinated with the others.’
Tsurkov noted that ‘Hayat Tahrir al-Sham appears determined to gain control over all areas that remain under rebel control, sensing that Turkey, JTS’s backer, is not going to intervene on the side of the rebels it spent years arming and financing.
‘JTS forces are … outgunned and sense that there is no point in continuing to resist HTS as it sweeps across towns and villages they once controlled’, Tsurkov noted.
Zenki appears to have been almost wiped out in the recent fighting. Ahrar al-Sham and its allies face a similar crisis.
O’Farrell said a pocket held by Ahrar al-Sham and Suqour al-Sham, which included Ariha and Maarat al-Numan, stood as ‘the last bastion of the non-HTS opposition that is willing to oppose HTS militarily’ but looked under threat. The subsequent ceasefire, as reported, included the expansion of HTS’s administrative sphere to encompass both settlements and their surrounds.
It seems HTS’s campaign has met with success while its opponents have faltered, possibly permanently.
Idlib’s large civilian population already has much to bear. It is the target of a threatened regime offensive. Fighting in the province between rival factions makes the ordinary life hard. HTS supremacy will make life harder still.
‘Even if HTS takes over all of Idlib, [the province] will remain home to a population that largely rejects HTS’s strict interpretation of Islamic law’, Tsurkov said. ‘The dominance of HTS and its repression of opponents produce silence but it should not be interpreted as support for HTS, merely acquiescence for the sake of survival.’
The absence of involvement from external forces is striking.
Turkey openly supported JTS’s founding and opposed HTS dominance in Idlib. It did so not only for reasons of claimed humanitarianism but also necessity. Violence in Idlib exacerbates Turkey’s problems with its Syrian border and prevents it from combating either the Syrian Kurdish groups it labels terrorists or the Islamic State.
‘The decision of foreign powers to withdraw their support from forces opposing jihadism, both civil society organisations and rebels, weakened their ability to resist the dominance of HTS’, said Tsurkov.
Turkey’s decision not to intervene as JTS collapsed led to the victory of HTS jihadists. This outcome, which raises questions about Ankara’s strategy, will have wide-ranging consequences, many of which will only begin to become known as the state of Syria changes in the coming year.
This piece was originally published in The Arab Weekly.