Idlib in the eye of the storm

Jabhat al-Nusra is steadily moving toward establishing its own entity, and there are indications that Syria’s Idlib might be the headquarters for its operations.

al-monitor Vehicles drive along a highway in Idlib city, after rebels took control of the area, March 29, 2015.  Photo by REUTERS/Mohamad Bayoush.

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syria crisis, jabhat al-nusra, islamic state, idlib, isis

Mar 30, 2015

When Jabhat al-Nusra and its allies took control of the city center in Idlib, it renewed fears that the Syrian north is about to witness the same scenario as that of Raqqa in March 2013, when armed factions took control of the city under the banner of the revolution but then handed over Raqqa to the Islamic State (IS), which used the city to establish its first stronghold then announced the birth of the “caliphate” a few months later.

The fall of the city of Idlib into the hands of mostly pro-al-Qaeda factions reinforces the view that Jabhat al-Nusra, the most powerful of these factions, is steadily moving toward establishing its own entity, similar to that of IS’ in the eastern region. Certain conditions and pressures may force Jabhat al-Nusra to do it differently, though, by not making a formal declaration or by partnering up with other factions.

It could be argued that the control of the city of Idlib, which is the second province to be taken out of the Syrian government’s hands, was the culmination of several steps by Jabhat al-Nusra since it was defeated by IS in Deir ez-Zor. Jabhat al-Nusra leaders and fighters fled from Deir ez-Zor and used the villages in the Idlib countryside as starting points to implement the “emirate” scheme, which Jabhat al-Nusra’s leader Abu Mohammad al-Golani talked about last Ramadan in a leaked recording that was not intended for dissemination.

From the Idlib countryside, Jabhat al-Nusra worked to eliminate some strong factions to strengthen its influence in the region. It started with the Syria Revolutionaries Front, which was led by Jamal Maaruf, and that was followed by the Hazm Movement. After eliminating them, Jabhat al-Nusra took control of most of the Idlib countryside, especially after the storming of the Wadi al-Daif and Hamidiyya military camps. The Syrian army withdrew from those camps last December as a result of military pressure.

In parallel with the military progress on the ground, Jabhat al-Nusra also sought to establish its own judicial, media and social institutions. It established a so-called “court house,” which was a prominent indicator of Jabhat al-Nusra’s intention to monopolize power in those areas because Jabhat al-Nusra established branches in towns and villages without recognizing the “Islamic committee,” which the other factions had been using as their judicial arm to extend their influence.

In a partial confirmation to what As-Safir had published about the intention of some pro-al-Qaeda factions to regroup and unite in a single entity, Jaish al-Fath announced yesterday, just hours after the fall of Idlib city, that “Jaish al-Fath is not just an operations room to lead the battle but an integrated army having its own leadership and members [...] [Jaish al-Fath] will continue its conquests soon.” It should be noted that Jaish al-Fath was formed about 10 days ago in preparation for the Idlib battle. Jaish al-Fath included Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham, Jund al-Aqsa, Jaish al-Sunna and Failaq al-Sham. It was said that Jaish al-Fath was a joint operations room to lead the battle. Afterward came an announcement that it was an “army, not just an operations room,” confirming that Idlib fell into the hands of al-Qaeda and its factions, and that the Free Syrian Army (FSA) factions have no presence there. To impose its presence, Jabhat al-Nusra is operating under the leadership of pro-al-Qaeda factions, suggesting that the Raqqa scenario is now most likely.

Abu Ubaidah al-Madani, Jaish al-Muhajirin wal Ansar commander, announced last February the formation of a close alliance between all the Salafist-oriented jihadist factions. The formation of Jaish al-Fath may have been a preliminary step that will be followed by others.

The killing of Abu Hafs al-Masri confirmed what As-Safir said a few days ago, that the Ahrar al-Sham is under the auspices of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri. Information indicates that Abu Hafs, who was one of the most prominent Sharia emirs in Ahrar al-Sham, is an old friend of Zawahri and fought in Afghanistan for more than 10 years. Some Ahrar al-Sham leaders consider him among the 15 persons who founded al-Qaeda in 1988. This indicates a close link between al-Qaeda and Ahrar al-Sham, especially since available information confirms the existence of dozens of persons like Abu Hafs among Ahrar al-Sham’s leadership.

It is noteworthy that most Sharia emirs are Egyptian. A number of them were killed in the last battle of Idlib, most notably Abu Bara al-Masri and Abu Ubaidah al-Masri, in addition to Abu Hafs. Remarkably, Abu Hafs al-Masri — whose real name is Mukhtar al-Makkawi — joined the Freedom and Justice Party, the political wing of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and worked with that group for several years before coming to Syria and joining the ranks of the movement supported by Zawahri himself. This increases the suspicion about the real relationship between the Brotherhood and al-Qaeda.

The formation of Jaish al-Fath meant that these factions were able to overcome the differences that have arisen between Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham when the attack on Abu Duhur military airport in the Idlib countryside was being planned. Back then, Jabhat al-Nusra refused the participation of any other faction in the operation, which has still not been implemented. This was seen as an attempt by Jabhat al-Nusra to monopolize the spoils and power, leading to the emergence of sensitivities between the two parties. However, this does not, in any way, mean that these differences have ended. The previous experiences indicate that these factions, which have mastered the skill of forming military alliances among themselves, quickly start bickering over how to administer the areas that fall under their control. This has often led to armed conflicts among them.

Despite that, the battle of Idlib is not over yet, and the province could still see military escalations, especially in light of the serious danger on the towns of al-Fawaa and Kefraya, which are completely surrounded by al-Qaeda factions. Those two towns may meet the same fate as Nibil and Zahra in the Aleppo countryside. Nibil and Zahra have been under siege for three years.

If the factions decide to break into al-Fawaa and Kefraya, Idlib will see very fierce battles because the people of those two towns will be forced to fight to the last drop of blood for lack of another choice. The Syrian army still controls the towns of Ariha and Jisr al-Shoughour and some military encampments and roadblocks, which would allow the regime to move around and harass the factions, especially in light of confirmed information about the arrival of new reinforcements to some of these sites. Meanwhile, the Furqan Brigades announced the launch of a new battle in the southern countryside of Jisr al-Shoughour. So Idlib remains in the line of fire.

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