Uncertain future for thousands of Idlib jihadists

The forces of the jihadist alliance Hayat Tahrir al-Sham are dominant in Idlib.
Sunday 01/03/2020
Members of the Syrian National Army, an alliance of Turkey-backed rebels, ride in a pickup truck before heading out of Sarmin, south-east of Idlib, February 24. (AFP)
The tide is turning. Members of the Syrian National Army, an alliance of Turkey-backed rebels, ride in a pickup truck before heading out of Sarmin, south-east of Idlib, February 24. (AFP)

TUNIS - The humanitarian crisis that began with the Syrian government’s and Russia’s military escalation in north-western Syria continues. The United Nations said the situation has reached “a horrifying new level” with more than 900,000 civilians displaced and refugees burning plastic to keep warm in makeshift encampments.

Idlib, the last rebel stronghold in Syria, has seen its population double during the country’s civil war. UN estimates put the number of civilians in the governorate at around 3 million, many displaced numerous times from other parts of Syria.

Along with the civilians, there are various rebel factions who have either retreated from battlegrounds elsewhere or who established fiefdoms in the disputed governorate they rule with hard-line religious administrations.

As the forces of Damascus, Moscow and Tehran advance, Turkey, which backs several rebel groups in Idlib, shows no sign of compromise.

Addressing the Turkish parliament on February 26, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed to clear the area around observation posts Turkey established in Idlib as part of a 2017 agreement with Russia and Iran. However, Turkey’s casualties are beginning to mount.

“One hopes that a political resolution to end the fighting in Idlib will come soon,” said Kaleigh Thomas, a research associate at the Centre for a New American Security, “but we cannot expect a resolution to bring an end to the violence in perpetuity without a greater political agreement that sets a long-term vision for Syria.”

Much of the problem, Thomas pointed out, cuts to the heart of fighting by proxy — the lack of control the parties exert over their allied fighters.

“An end to the violence, whether temporary or more permanent, will require a great deal of political will from Turkey, Russia and (Syrian President Bashar) Assad, who even then do not have total control over every fighter on the ground,” Thomas said.

“Meanwhile, the fighting will continue to displace thousands upon thousands causing horrific suffering that has yet to inspire the dedication of sufficient action and resources to end it.”

The militias and their Turkish allies continue to resist the Syrian government while maintaining loose governance over territory they have held for years.

Dominant in Idlib are the forces of the jihadist alliance, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, (HTS). Analyst Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi said HTS commands 15,000-20,000 fighters in Idlib who provide the bulk of the resistance to the government advance of the regime and its allies. In addition to its fighters, Tamimi told the BBC there were “thousands” of civilians who make up HTS’s Syrian Salvation Government.

“HTS remains one of the strongest factions on the ground in Idlib but it clearly pales in comparison to the combined Syrian-Iranian-Russian alliance,” said Ryan Bohl, Middle East and North Africa analyst at geopolitical intelligence platform Stratfor.

“There are numerous other factions in Idlib, including the Turkey-backed National Army, who mostly operate under Turkey’s influence or protection. HTS is friendly with Turkey for the moment but does not operate directly under it the way these other factions often do.”

Elsewhere are foreign fighters, principally the Turkistan Islamic Party, Uighur fighters who support HTS. Also present are the Uzbek-dominated Tawhid and Jihad Brigade and the Imam al-Bukhari Brigade, both of which support HTS.

While HTS and the Turkey-backed resistance claim isolated victories in Idlib, it is becoming clear that, despite the enormous humanitarian cost, the tide of the conflict is against them. Faced with the advance of the Syrian government and its allies, options available to the rebel militias are diminishing.

“Some will have the option to surrender to the regime and potentially even be enrolled into the Syrian military forces. That has happened in the past, even with [Islamic State] ISIS fighters,” Bohl said. “Others will choose to fight it out or go underground, the latter, especially as formal front lines collapse.”

Others may attempt to flee to Turkey or to Turkey-controlled zones in north-eastern Syria. “Foreign fighters may attempt to go home or to relocate to other jihadist theatres like Yemen, Libya, Iraq or Afghanistan,” Bohl said.

With the Turkish border uncertain, millions of displaced civilians must take their chances with either the advancing regime forces, the freezing weather or overcrowded villages, such as Aqrabat, previously home to a few hundred but now 10,000 are there, many of whom are forced to try to survive in the open.