Last year, Syria’s Idlib province was in direct peril. The regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad and its Russian allies, having consolidated their control of southern Syria, seemed poised to move on the northern province, where most of the territory was dominated by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.
However, the blow did not fall on Idlib because the Syrians and their backers were unwilling to attack such a well-defended enclave. A ceasefire and buffer zone were negotiated and the province remained under threat and, sporadically since, under attack.
With a monopoly on offensive airpower, the Syrian Army and its allies have bombed targets in Idlib at will, keeping a conflict perpetually at arm’s length but rendering further violence inevitable. A new spate of bombings has worsened the province’s straitened circumstances and raised fears of an all-out offensive.
In the state of semi-siege under which Idlib has found itself, the factions in the province have fought among themselves. Alliances have shifted but, despite the creation of a coalition ranged against the hardest-line fighters, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) jihadists have risen to predominate.
In January, HTS swept through towns and villages in Idlib province, as well as adjoining parts of Aleppo and Hama, in a dramatic takeover.
The group – known as al-Nusra Front before it broke off formal ties with al-Qaeda three years ago – expelled some rebel factions and forced others to surrender and recognise a “civil administration” it backs.
With almost 20,000 fighters in its ranks, HTS wants to impose strict Islamic rule in areas it controls. Civilians say the group’s practices are like those of the Islamic State.
‘Hayat Tahrir al-Sham is Idlib’s dominant actor and presents the greatest unified jihadist force among opposition actors in the province’, said John Arterbury, an analyst with the Navanti Group in Washington. ‘More hard-line elements, such as Hurras al-Din, the Turkestan Islamic Party and lingering remnants of the long-defunct Jund al-Aqsa simply do not wield the power, politically or militarily, that HTS is able to exercise.
‘Similarly, HTS’s capabilities on both the battlefield and in dominating governance structures exceed that of non-jihadist actors. However, HTS has achieved this relative dominance through sheer force and, often times, brutality,’ Arterbury said.
The dominance of extremist groups has provided grist for the mill of the regime’s narrative, which has, since the beginning of Syria’s civil conflict, sought to define itself as a solitary force holding back the jihadists. Now it serves as a continual justification for a holding pattern of air strikes and threats and as a prelude to more violence.
That violence and its antecedents have followed a familiar pattern.
Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, co-director of the NGO Doctors Under Fire and an adviser to Syrian medical charities, said that ‘300,000 people are now homeless from air strikes and on the move in Idlib, living in the open and off scraps’.
The deteriorating humanitarian situation has been rendered worse by the actions of outside governments. Fearful of HTS, and of being seen to aid the jihadists, many have withdrawn or discontinued aid previously destined to go to Idlib.
‘The UN and Western governments have stopped aid to Idlib and are thought to be about to push it all to Damascus – in effect giving it to Assad’, de Bretton-Gordon said.
Some observers said they fear the full unleashing of the war machine of the regime and its allies, including bombardments and siege tactics, which have characterised the Syrian war.
A few months’ apparent lull in fighting persuaded some that the conflict was winding down and that peace could be achieved diplomatically. With the Assad regime achieving increasing normalisation among its neighbours, including inroads into recognition by the Arab League, it was argued that a push against Idlib would be unnecessary and would make little sense.
However, the regime is still in a precarious position. The existence of several bastions of opposition in Syria joins continued economic woes and the inability to secure funds for ‘reconstruction’.
In the absence of diplomatic recognition and international finance, the regime is likely to threaten its internal enemies with encirclement and destruction.
‘Initially, Assad appears to want to clear the M4/5 corridor all the way south to Damascus but he has also vowed to retake Idlib and kill all the terrorists there’, de Bretton-Gordon said.
‘The “gods of war” have created the most complex and seemingly intractable situation in Idlib.’
In the past, radical groups who said no to the Russians were evacuated to Idlib but now, with the province poised to return to government control, the question of where they would go sounds deceptively easy.
There are very few opposition-held pockets left in Syria but those pockets would probably refuse to welcome a contingent from HTS and other radical groups.
This piece was originally published in The Arab Weekly.