A Game-Changer in Syrian War? al-Qaeda-led Factions take Idlib

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) –

The provincial capital Idlib, a city of 165,000 in the old days and administrative center of the northwestern Idlib province, appears to have fallen completely to a Muslim fundamentalist coalition spearheaded by Ahrar al-Sham (Free Men of Syria) and the al-Qaeda affiliate, the Support Front (Jabhat al-Nusra). Most of the Idlib countryside has long been in rebel hands, and some of it was held by pro-Western, relatively secular-minded forces until last fall, when they were preyed upon and defeated by the Support Front, which is loyal to Ayman al-Zawahiri’s core al-Qaeda (responsible for the 9/11 attacks).

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Although the forces taking Idlib were a coalition of rebel groups, Free Men of Syria, which is known to have been penetrated by al-Qaeda operatives, and the Support Front, which is openly an al-Qaeda affiliate, took the lead. The US Air Force has bombed both groups as a sidebar to its bombing raids against Daesh (ISIS or ISIL) in northern Syria. An attempt by Free Men of Syria and the Support Front to form a broad coalition with Daesh last year failed, in part because Daesh is so predatory and brutal that it targets its allies opportunistically. Also participating were Suqur al-Sham (Syrian Eagles), a fundamentalist group forming part of the Saudi-backed Islamic Front.

The fundamentalist coalition that took Idlib showed tactical discipline according to Al-Hayat. They gradually took Syrian army outposts on the outskirts of the city, gradually moving into its center over five days amid heavy fighting and in the face of regime bombing raids. YouTube video also shows al-Qaeda using American BGM-71 TOW anti-tank missiles that they likely captured from the American-backed moderate Syrian Revolutionary Front last fall. Saudi monetary support for the Islamic Front factions that took part may also have allowed them to get better equipped.

The Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad repressed peaceful demonstrations in March of 2011 and after in Idlib and has turned the largely Sunni town into a concentration camp. It allegedly committed a massacre of 15 prisoners there just a few days ago. (The regime has tortured at least 10,000 prisoners to death around the country.) Many residents saw themselves as liberated, according to YouTube videos, though non-fundamentalists and Christians were no doubt less sanguine about the future. Some remaining residents are said to be fleeing to the countryside from fear of the fundamentalists or because they know that the genocidal al-Assad regime typically responds to the loss of urban centers and neighborhoods by targeting them for “barrel-bombing.” This is the regime practice of indiscriminately dropping barrels of petroleum on them from military aircraft as a form of cheap munitions that nevertheless do a lot of damage. Indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas is a serious war crime in international law.

Aron Lund seems to argue that the fall of Idlib city is not terribly consequential. It was already nestled in the midst of rebel-held territory. The chief strategic danger to al-Assad’s forces is that the Sunni fundamentalists could use it as a launching pad to move against the Alawite Shiite populations around Latakia and to attack Latakia port to the west. The latter is important to resupply for the regime, which still controls the roads from the capital of Damascus up to Homs and over to Latakia. So far, however, the regime has managed to hold about two-thirds of the country population-wise, and these advances of rebels have sometimes been reversed, albeit with the help of Lebanon’s Shiite militia, Hizbullah. Al-Hayat also mentions the danger that the fall of Idlib could further isolate regime-held areas in the major northern city of Aleppo.

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Some Syrian and Western supporters of the rebel forces are annoyed to have it pointed out that Free Men of Syria and the Support Front are extremist fundamentalists or that the latter, which is al-Qaeda, played a leading role in the past week’s Idlib campaign. But for those of us in the US who lived through 2001, it is unforgivable that the Support Front pledged fealty to the mass murderer of Americans Ayman al-Zawahiri. That is not to say that al-Assad’s forces are preferable. In my own view, it is a shame both cannot lose to some sane group. But the revolution and war have erased sanity from all sides, and the secular or even just non-Salafi rebel forces have been targeted and wiped out by al-Qaeda, Daesh and so forth. Those who support the rebel side should reach out to the Support Front and let them know that until they repudiate al-Qaeda and declare for democracy, they have no cheering sections in the West and they are de facto helping al-Assad by their stance.


Related video:

Euronews: “Islamist alliance takes Syrian city of Idlib”

12 Responses

  1. Professor, I know that Assad was and is a dictator and it is too much to ask for a dictator to be an advocate of democracy and if there is a retreat it is temporary (look at the Bonapartist coup in Egypt) I don’t think it is right to call Syrian catasrophe a revoultion unless we want to throw around this word emotionally. A revolution should be supported by an overwhelming majority. This was not true in Syria. Right from start, Alawite, minorities and even many Sunnis sat out and sometimes actively supported Assad. You think that loosening up by Assad a little bit could have prevented the civil war? I am not so sure. Opposition was there from the beginning, MB and other groups were dormant and had not forgotten Homs and other history.
    Perhaps regime thought they would be taking a great risk by loosening up. Opposition was not unified and right behind urban intellengtsia the extremists were lurking. They were ready for armed hostilities. Right from the start Syrian army had great number of casualties. How did the opposition get the arms so fast? They and their Gulf patrons were ready. Assad would have taken great risk otherwise.
    You know the history of Syria better than anyone. So, I stand to be corrected. You must have anlayzed the situation elsewhere, but I don’t recall it. In brief, I don’t think the use of word Revolution is accurate.

    • Appreciate your post. The Arab Spring were reform movements, not overthrow of state structures. In August 2011, the Local Coordinating Committees, who kept peaceful demonstrators informed city-to=city, opposed foreign intervention and arming civilian demonstrators for fear of changing ‘nature of war’. Obama didn’t want to get involved but he let Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and others arm the demonstrators even though he knew some of the opposition were extremists. Clinton refused to compromise with Russia for cease-fire, political solution by insisting “Assad must go” – probably under pressure fro unsophisticated, fractured Syrian ex-patriot groups. Someone needs to do deep investigation of time period May through September, 2011.

  2. I still believe that all factions should be allowed to gut it out until someone emerges as the winner. For a long time we have been told that Assad was evil, and had to go. When will we learn that, *exceptional* as we Americans conceive of ourselves, we can’t always get what we want in our world empire?
    Worst case scenario: ISIS or somebody else grabs Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. I say let it go. ISIS will not last an eternity.
    Oh, I forgot. We worry about our oil, and we want to cover Israel’s back. So that means we are condemned to dance with ISIS and such…

  3. Here’s my response to Joshua Landis @Twitter

    Bet they got A LOT of recruits from the “Free Syrian Army” stronghold (idlib) and AQ/ISIS haz all ur US supplied weapons too @joshua_landis

    link to twitter.com

    • I’m with you – all of those fabulous cities, esp. Aleppo, so damaged and ruined, and gods know about Crac de Chevalier, Saladin’s fortress, Palmyra, and on and on and on. I traveled through Syria as a grad student in Classics exactly 20 years ago. It is a history that belongs not to modern Syria, not to any one state entity or people by virtue of its diversity, but to the world – due to its importance and its dynamism. Worst of all are all of the different people I encountered who were so curious about the west and the US, who wanted to engage and discuss. Where are they now? Huddled in rumble digging in for a fire fight? In a refugee camp in Turkey? Dead? Ain’t the legacy of western colonialism and imperial adventurism grand? Of course we should not dismiss local and regional pathologies, but honestly, would we be looking at this map now in grief had not the Supreme Court ruled against the US electorate in 2000? I doubt it.

      • You’ve eloquently made the point I try and make whenever anyone says there’s no difference between the two US parties.

        Would Gore have invaded Iraq after 9/11, without the neo-cons and Cheney? It’s hard to imagine that to be the case.

        At the end of the day, you can basically hang the whole thing around the necks of a few people in the Supreme Court… a lesson for the people that think a few voice make no difference.

  4. One thing missing from this article is any mention of that squiggly black line on the map.

    That’s the border, boys and girls, and what’s north of it is Turkey.

    Iblid is nestled right up against the border with Turkey, and so if the rebel forces are being resupplied and supported by Turkey (and they are) then it is very, very hard to see how the Syrian government can hope to win a battle of attrition over that city.

    I suspect very much that government forces pulled out the moment the rebels started their push, for the simple reason that it isn’t worth dying trying to defend a city you can’t hope to hold.

  5. The situation in Syria appears to be a stalemate. The Syrian regime can not crush the rebels and the rebels can not overthrow the regime. A couple of years ago it seemed likely the US would commit a Libyan-style intervention but now it is bombing Assad’s enemies who are dominated by those who hate Western values.
    As support comes in on both sides, this conflict could last indefinitely. Why then is a loss of a remote provincial city a game changer?

  6. A few years ago everyone was trying to guess when Assad would be joining Saddam and Qaddafi in the hearafter. Now he’s almost America’s buddy, interviewed on CBS the other night with the usual softball questions. They’ll be calling him the comeback kid soon.

  7. This is definitely a major defeat for Bashar. After over three years of unchecked barbarity of the Syrian regime, aided by the intervention of Iran and its Shi’i surrogates like Hizbullah and the Iraqi gangs, and after all that we were hearing in late 2013 that Bashar will win the war in a matter of months, now, in 2015, another provincial capital falls to the rebels. And this is not an insignificant capital in the Eastern desert, but Idlib which is two hours away from Latakia and Aleppo, undermining the longstanding efforts of Bashar to retake Aleppo. The fact that Bashar is still losing, despite the handouts of Obama in the form of his inaction in 2013 and airstrikes in 2014, clearly shows that he is incapable of winning despite his barrel bombs.

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