Where will Idlib's civilians go when it too, is swallowed by Assad?

Where will Idlib's civilians go when it too, is swallowed by Assad?
Comment: In Idlib, the Assad regime will play on the presence of al-Qaeda-affiliated groups, to justify their use of massive force to target civilians, writes Sam Hamad.
7 min read
01 May, 2018
Displaced Syrian refugees board buses bound for the northwestern Syrian town of Idlib [Getty]
When the newly formed rebel coalition Jaish al-Fatah (JaF) liberated Idlib from the Assad regime in March of 2015, the rest of Syria was there for the taking for rebel forces across the country.  

In the then Free Aleppo, Iran and Assad had failed miserably to take the city from the rebels and had prompted a successful counteroffensive, cutting further into Assad regime territory in West Aleppo.  

With the rebels able to pool their resources, and with a brief change in Saudi policy allowing for more widespread, less sectarian arms supplies (particularly precious anti-tank weapons), the rebels could cut through Hama and Homs - Latakia and Tartus, the pillars of Assad's rump, were on the horizon - so, then, was victory.  

Only three years ago, Assad, despite huge Iranian intervention on the ground, was potentially within a year of losing the war.

Iran knew it. It was the Iranian regime, following the fall of Idlib, that went to Moscow and pleaded with Putin for direct Russian intervention. If you do not intervene now, Assad will fall, came the stark message.  

The Russian intervention has of course been devastating for Syria. Since the moment Russia began its brutal bombing campaign of liberated areas, expanding and intensifying Assad's genocidal tactics, we've watched as the rebellion has crumbled.

Russia's physical presence as an imperialist occupier served to effectively scare most of the Syrian opposition's supporters away, leaving the rebels isolated both in terms of material resources and diplomatically. Meanwhile raw Russian power - paving the way for a veritable Iranian occupation of the country on the ground, as the perfect sectarian flipside to Assad's sometimes ally IS - overwhelmed liberated areas of Syria.

One after the other, from Homs to Aleppo to East Ghouta, the foreign invaders conquered areas of Free Syria on behalf of Assad's rump state.  

But not yet Idlib.  

The Assad axis and its mouthpieces do not deal in nuance - they deal in obscurantism

With ethnic cleansing a crucial part of Assad's war tactics, hundreds of thousands of those deliberately cleansed from liberated areas have fled to the province.

Following the fall of Free Aleppo and more recently Eastern Ghouta, the UN buses, now synonymous with ethnic cleansing in Syria, were used to transfer a huge chunk of the civilian population of both areas - the destination was Idlib.
It has become a haven of sorts, home now to around two million Syrians, many of whom have fled there from the terror of Assad and his allies elsewhere in Syria, but it is far from safe.  

Its bombardment by both Russia and Assad since 2015 has been almost constant, and the scale already astonishingly brutal. Just last year, Khan Sheikhoun was the site of the second most deadly chemical weapons attack of the conflict.  

So precarious is the situation in the province that when the Assad axis launched an offensive there earlier this year, with Iran's forces leading on the ground and Assad and Russia raining terror from the skies, over 100,000 people fled within the span of merely a few days.  

 Syrian refugee children endure the harsh conditions at Atmeh refugee camp in Idlib, Syria [Anadolu]

The nightmare scenario is that Assad-Iran-Russia launch a full-scale attack to conquer the Idlib province and attempt to snuff out by force the last bastion of the rebellion.  

The human cost, as witnessed by the limited offensive mentioned above, would be huge, perhaps bigger than any single humanitarian catastrophe we've witnessed so far.

When Assad-Iran-Russia attack any liberated area of Syria, they and their mouthpieces almost always accuse the area of being held by 'al-Qaeda'.  

Read more: Trump must realise the problem is Assad, not his weapons

This was true of Aleppo, where Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS), as al-Qaeda's former affiliate in Syria Jabhat al-Nusra (JaN) renamed itself, had as little as under 100 fighters out of a total rebel force of 8,000.  

In East Ghouta, the same claims of fighting 'al-Qaeda' were made, but, again, the former al-Qaeda affiliate had about 300 members.

Most recently, in the mostly Palestinian refugee area of Yarmouk, where IS holds a small amount of territory, we've seen Assad and his allies use this to justify what one resident called a war of 'annihilation', aimed not against IS but Syrians in the area in general.

[Click to enlarge]

Yarmouk was once under the control of Syrian rebels but facing years of one of Assad and Iran's most brutal starvation sieges, as well as constant bombardment from the air, it fell to IS in 2015. 

Over the course of the years of the war, the area has been cleansed, with 200,000 souls, many of whom joined the protests against Assad and defended the camp against his attempts to capture it, now reduced to 3,000 people, with the recent brutal offensive forcing at least 5,000 people to flee.

Most terrifyingly, under a storm of missiles, artillery shells and barrel bombs, 60 percent of the camp has been destroyed by Assad and his allies in the recent offensive alone. With zero concern for civilian life, the purpose is to reduce the population to as low as possible, all the better to rule it once conquered.  

They will use the presence of HTS and the spectre of 'al-Qaeda' to sell their brutality to the world

In one day, the small area was bombarded with 140 airstrikes by Assad and Russia. While the Assad axis is this brutal regardless of the presence of IS, the group's presence makes the already unconcerned world even more unconcerned, essentially justifying what is happening.  

In Idlib, a similar situation could play out.

The precise composition of the rebel forces in the province, as well as all the different periods of factional infighting and evolutions of different forces, is a complex issue, but much of the province is controlled by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which is itself controlled by al-Qaeda's former affiliates.

Some of these affiliates have, at times, focussed more on building their own counter-revolutionary 'Emirate' within the province, leading to fighting with solely anti-Assad rebels backed by Turkey, such as Ahrar al-Sham and Harakat Nur al-Din al-Zenki (joined together as Jabhat Tahrir Suriya - JTS) and their allies in the Free Syrian Army.  

The province is effectively split between JTS and HTS, who continue to fight with each other.

The purpose is to reduce the population to as low as possible, all the better to rule it once conquered

The Assad axis and its mouthpieces do not deal in nuance – they deal in obscurantism, seeking to erase nuance, the better to eradicate the people and places of Idlib.  

They will play on HTS' role in Idlib and its former affiliation with al-Qaeda to justify their use of massive force to target the civilian population.

They have already been doing this, of course, but when they think the moment for a "final assault" comes on the province, they will use the presence of HTS and the spectre of 'al-Qaeda' to sell their brutality to the world.

The actual al-Qaeda presence in Idlib is minimal - they are not part of HTS, but rather organise as the 'Guardians of Religion Organisation', the founder and leader of which is Abu Humam al-Shami, a former pro-al-Qaeda member of HTS.

He split with HTS due to its disaffiliation with al-Qaeda and clampdown on al-Qaeda supporters within the group.

It was Turkey that attempted to essentially subvert Assad, Iran and Russia's "counter-terrorism" pretext for hitting Idlib, by intervening in the province and backing anti-HTS factions and subverting the more extreme forces within the organisation and successfully drawing al-Qaeda out of it.

But the outlook does not look good.

The reality is that while Turkey remains the only country that officially sponsors rebel forces, it also has its own state interests and won't alone meaningfully intervene on behalf of rebels when the Assad axis launches its assault on the province.  

The people of Idlib continue to protest both Assad and, when it has stepped out of line in the areas it controls, HTS. They have supported the rebels when they liberated towns from HTS and hoisted the Syrian revolutionary flag in place of the black banner.

Idlib might have a complex balance of forces and it might contain groups that do not work for the best interest of Syrians, but most people in the province have either fled from Assad and his allies elsewhere, or have been opposed to him from the beginning.  

If Idlib is the haven within Syria, where do its two million people run when the counter-revolution inevitably swallows it?

Sam Hamad is an independent Scottish-Egyptian activist and writer

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.