Syrian militants establish enclave to fuel ‘global jihad’
Tunis- As the world’s rival armies compete for occupancy of Syria’s blood-stained soil, one of the country’s major jihadist groups has turned on its erstwhile partners in Idlib, vanquishing rivals and inviting possible regime retribution on the inhabitants of the north-western province.
Idlib fell to a coalition of rebel militias in 2015. Since then, Turkish-sponsored Ahrar al-Sham has shared territory with an array of other groups, such as the China-originated Turkistan Islamic Party, the recently defunded Free Syrian Army and the dominant militia within the region, the shifting iterations of Jabhat al-Nusra.
From publicly severing relations with patrons, al-Qaeda, and renaming itself Jabhat Fateh al-Sham in 2016, to assuming a lead role in the jihadist coalition Hay’at Tahrir al- Sham (HTS) in January, the group has proven a defining presence within Idlib. Though the group has tried to distance itself from its former sponsors, fealty to past masters is widely thought to remain.
Following a week of heavy fighting between HTS and Ahrar al-Sham, which, UK-based Syrian Observatory of Human Rights said, claimed more than 90 lives, including 15 civilians, Idlib and the province surrounding it fell to HTS on July 21, essentially giving the group a stronghold upon Turkey’s southern border.
In Idlib, directly on the retreating heels of Ahrar al-Sham, the Syrian Network for Human Rights reported a car bomb killing 11 HTS members and two civilians.
The non-combatant casualties are reminders of the risks to 1.5 million civilians, plus the tens of thousands of displaced individuals and families from Aleppo and elsewhere in war-torn Syria living at Idlib’s Taiba refugee camp and other informal camps along the Turkish Syria border.
HTS’s victory in Idlib not only swelled its ranks, it also secured control of the province’s two lucrative border crossings. A senior Ahrar al-Sham official, speaking on condition of anonymity to the Washington Post, said one of the crossings previously brought the jihadist group more than $1 million in revenues a month. The group will have to share the revenues with HTS after forfeiting its monopoly to a “civilian administration.”
With HTS dominance of Idlib assured, the province will present a tempting target for the Assad regime. However, its ability to strike to the heart of HTS is limited.
“It’s really a question of manpower,” Nicholas Heras, a fellow at the Centre for a New American Security, said in a telephone interview. “They can bomb it, they can reduce it to the desert but they can’t occupy it and hold it.”
Moreover, with control of the border crossings wrested from its former allies and current rivals, the Turkish government must deal with the jihadist confederation as an established fact within the province, Heras said.
While Turkish recognition may be a goal for the HTS leadership, it was overt Turkish influence within Ahrar al-Sham that likely prompted recent hostilities.
“You’ve got to remember, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham [militants] are fighting for what they see as the goals of the revolution,” Heras said. “They want to make Syria a better state and, for them, that’s a sharia state. Ahrar al-Sham aren’t fighting to that end. They’re fighting for whatever Turkey’s ends are.”
With the US-led coalition focused on routing the Islamic State (ISIS) from its enclaves and the regime and its allies unable to control the province for the foreseeable future, HTS’s new stronghold appears to be a fact.
“Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham’s ultimate goal is to co-opt as many of the extreme elements of Syria’s armed groups as possible and subordinate them to their control,” Heras said. “This is about creating a social political dynamic within Idlib that’s self-sustaining and is going to fuel the global jihad.”