After an insurgent offensive began on March 24, Idlib City fell on March 29, making it only the second—of Syria’s fourteen—provincial capitals to slip from the control of Bashar al-Assad’s regime, the last one being Raqqa City on March 4, 2013. The regime has been on borrowed time in Idlib City since Wadi al-Deif to the south, near Maarat an-Numan, fell in mid-December.
In a scene reminiscent of Raqqa—and indeed the fall of Baghdad—a statue of Hafez al-Assad was destroyed. The insurgents broke open some secret prisons, while finding that in a final act of needless cruelty the regime had murdered other prisoners in the cells before retreating.
An operations room, Jaysh al-Fatah (Army of Conquest), organised this offensive, and is composed of: Faylaq a-Sham (Sham Legion), Liwa al-Haq, Ajnad a-Sham, Jaysh al-Sunna, Ahrar a-Sham, Jund al-Aqsa (JAA), and al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch, Jabhat an-Nusra.
JAA is small, foreign, Qaeda-linked unit. JAA’s former emir was Abu Abdul Aziz al-Qatari, whose body was found last November after Nusra drove Jamal Marouf’s Syrian Revolutionaries Front (SRF) out of Idlib. JAA supplied suicide bombers for the insurgency in Idlib. In lieu of Western support, such “tactical deals” between the rebellion and the Salafi-jihadists—where the rebels provide the Salafi-jihadists a share of the ghanima (war booty) in exchange for these expendable fanatics to advance the anti-Assad cause—have been common, and say nothing at all about the rebels’ ideological character. Ahrar is a hardline Salafist group with Qaeda links, occupying the unique ideological position as the step within the insurgency between Syrian Salafism and globalist Salafi-jihadism. But Ahrar’s leadership is—unlike Nusra and JAA—Syrian. The other groups are varying shades of distinctly Syrian Islamism, with no intentions beyond Syria’s borders.
Footage from Idlib City showed the presence of the leading spokesman/fixer and co-creator of the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC), which comprises seventy-two rebel units, including Islamists and “defected lawyers and judges,” Abdelmoneim Zeineddine, and Syrian Islamist rebels praying as they entered Hanano square in the south. If there was a dominant faction it seemed to be Ahrar.
It had to be expected that Assad—and Iran and Russia—would portray Idlib’s fall as further evidence that al-Qaeda was the only opponent of the regime, since they have done this from the outset, but it was troubling to see the Western press playing along. The Guardian had to be corrected for saying that Idlib was a town in Syria’s “Alawite heartland,” but still maintained that the insurgent offensive was “led by al-Qaida’s Nusra Front“. Other outlets said, “Syrian al-Qaeda branch seizes Idlib,” and “Al-Qaeda affiliate claims capture of … Idlib“. Then yesterday came the usual accusation that Turkey supported al-Qaeda during this offensive, sourced to Assad’s military, reported as if this was a reasonable charge.
To give an example of the regime’s credibility, I give you Ziad Fadel. In an effort worthy of Saddam’s Information Minister, Muhammad Saeed al-Sahhaf (“Baghdad Bob”), Fadel said that Idlib City remained under regime control. (Hours after Idlib fell, a statement from the pro-regime militia al-Muqawama as-Suriya, “The Syrian Resistance,” claimed to still be fighting in the city.) Fadel claims the reports of Idlib’s fall were in fact a “propaganda ploy … by MI6” to “demoralize the SAA” and prepare for a rebel offensive being “planned by incompetent English degenerates in Turkey.” Fadel says that some “Jihadist cannibals” had attacked the northern part of Idlib City and a couple of “military outposts … were abandoned by the SAA to the terrorist hyenas and plague-carrying rats,” but the SAA had held its ground. Fadel claims that not many civilians left, though some did “lest they be subjected to the usual British-encouraged savagery such as decapitations and rape”. But this attack in the north was in any case only a diversion “to cover up a large massing force of cannibals and savages to the south of the city,” says Fadel, a stratagem “no doubt concocted by the queer English”. Given what Syrian State television chose to show rather than report on the loss of a provincial capital, these stones cast against British “manhood” might be considered as issuing from the denizens of a glass house. All kidding aside, any reports coming from even near sources like this have to be considered disinformation until proven otherwise.
Not helping matters was Khalid al-Hamad (a.k.a. Abu Sakkar), who gave interviews in the central square in Idlib, and had been pictured in the run-up to the offensive with beheaded captives. Bad enough, but Abu Sakkar, who now seems to be a Nusra member, is best-known from a May 2013 episode when he bit the lung of a dead Hizballah fighter on video. This was near-invariably—especially by RT and Press TV—reported as a Syrian rebel “eating the heart” of his enemy. There was a terrible imbalance in the coverage devoted to Sakkar, given how little coverage there was of the regime massacring hundreds of Sunni civilians at Bayda and Baniyas just a few days before. The regime’s conduct represented policy in a way Sakkar’s gruesome act never could—Sakkar’s entire unit could have been dedicated cannibals and would have represented much less than one percent of an insurgency with no central command—but this fact seemed to go missing. By now it is probably too late to correct the impression, and the regime will find a receptive audience for its propaganda about “jihadist cannibals” leading the rebellion, but propaganda it is.
Nusra was certainly involved in Idlib City, and in important ways, and Nusra might yet come to predominate, but it was not, so far as the evidence suggests, the main force in this offensive. It does have to be borne in mind that Nusra, unlike the Islamic State (ISIS), has allowed other groups to take credit previously in order to avoid foreign donors cutting-off insurgent units. Al-Qaeda has been much more strategic in this way. As Daveed Gartenstein-Ross once summarised: “ISIS wants you to think it’s everywhere. Al-Qaeda wants you to think it’s nowhere.” Nusra has understood the damage the presence of the foreign Sunni jihadists has done to the cause of toppling Assad—unlike the Iranian-organised foreign Shi’ite jihadists who have saved the regime—so Nusra is prepared to allow its role to be downplayed on occasion.
Nusra’s role, post-liberation, in Idlib City is a more important question than the role it played in the offensive. I wrote a couple of days ago about the deepening fissures between the rebellion and Nusra. There is much concern among the rebels that Nusra will move to impose itself in Idlib. Ahrar, publicly closely aligned with Nusra but privately concerned about Nusra’s direction, has disavowed the idea of establishing an Islamic Emirate; this is clearly directed against Nusra, which mused on the idea last summer. Nusra had gained some popular support for its lack of corruption and fighting capability, though this has been dented in Idlib by Nusra’s recent harshness, but if Nusra manages to claim the credit for Idlib’s fall and impose a sustainable rule on the city that provides some benefits to key parts of the population, it will lead to the further erasure of the moderates on the battlefield, despite the moderates’ platform still dominating public sentiment.
If Nusra puts the rebels to flight and imposes a harsh version of the shari’a, with lurid public punishments, it will also further damage the rebellion by having especially the West become even more wary in helping the opposition for fear of weapons going astray, despite the fact that there is little evidence of weapons given to the Syrian rebellion going astray—ISIS has far more American weapons from the Iraqi army than the Syrian rebellion—and that the rise of the extremists makes arming the moderates more necessary, not less, since a viable moderate alternative will pull away the fighters who only joined extremist brigades for resource reasons. From the start, the regime and the Salafi militants were the only ones with proper outside support; continuing to deny the moderate majority the ability to weaponise its support is not going to help weaken the extremists. But the Obama administration seems to have decided that the rebellion is a nuisance to its attempted détente with Clerical Iran, so the decision was taken early not to arm the rebels, to let them wither, and to adopt the “four-stage strategy” in defending that decision ever since.
Even if an intra-insurgent fight does not take place, if Nusra does not expel the rebels from Idlib, and if the rebels are able to at least hold parity with Nusra in the local military and shari’a councils, there would still be risks that the fall of Idlib does the rebellion more harm than good. The rebellion has little experience of running urban areas, and previous experiences, such as Aleppo in the summer of 2012, have actually damaged the rebels’ cause—indeed it is one reason so few major urban centres have fallen to the regime:
Even when the rebels are able to win terrain, they frequently lose the population, either through literal displacement or because people blame their plight on the rebels as well as the regime. … A related outgrowth of this dynamic has been the regime’s ability to hold urban areas hostage, which largely explains why the rebels have been unable to win a major city. Rebel commanders in Idlib and Aleppo frequently describe their unwillingness to confront regime forces more aggressively in these northern provincial capitals, concerned that the regime will destroy the city if they escalate operations.
The regime notably did not apply this tactic to ISIS-held Raqqa City, allowing ISIS to grow and expand. (After ISIS invaded Iraq the regime launched some token airstrikes against ISIS, presenting Assad as a partner for the international anti-ISIS Coalition in need of help to put down a terrorist insurgency—the strategy all along.) But there is every reason to suspect that the regime will, in the coming days, hit Idlib City with devastating airstrikes. Since the regime will do this in an area where the U.S.-led Coalition’s planes operate, it will again allow the regime to insinuate that it acts as the leading edge of the international anti-terrorism coalition, and it will give ISIS further ammunition to say that an American-Iranian conspiracy against “the Sunnis” is underway—a charge made all the worse by the fact that it is not without foundation. This is not helpful to the West’s efforts to defeat ISIS and al-Qaeda.
From a narrowly Syrian perspective, the next thing to watch is Abu Dhuhor airbase to the east of Idlib City: If the insurgents overrun the base, it helps damage Assad’s air campaign—still one of the regime’s most important advantages—and it opens the road to Assad’s supply-lines south of Aleppo. South of Idlib City is Jibal az-Zawiya, the rebel bastion taken over by al-Qaeda late last year, the northern parts of which have fallen to the regime. Further south there is then Jisr a-Shughur, a town on the Orontes that was the site of a terrible massacre during the 1979-82 uprising and another one during the early months of this uprising, which is a gateway to northern Latakia, where the insurgents still have a foothold, and to Ghab, the Hama plain that leads to towns like Morek, Khan Shaykhun, and Kafr Zayta where the moderate rebels had some success last spring, and potentially Hama City, still under firm regime control, further south still. These areas are the buffer zones for the regime to Jibal Ansariya, the Alawite heartland that provides the regime most of its usable troops, and it is likely there will be a fierce resistance to rebel gains here.
Beyond Syria, it is noticeable that Iran had launched three offensives in recent months: one against Aleppo, led by the Quds Force-constructed and -commanded National Defence Force (NDF), the sectarian militia that is all that remains of Assad’s State, and the foreign Shi’ite jihadists including Hizballah and the Iraqi Shi’ite militias; another against the moderate rebels in southern Syria, Deraa and Quneitra, with the same coalition (leading to the Israeli strike against the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) on the Golan on Jan. 18); and then the offensive against ISIS in Tikrit, Iraq, that began on March 1 using Iran’s proxy Shi’ite militias and the Quds Force itself, including Qassem Suleimani personally. And noticeable, too, that all these offensives have failed.
With the fall of Busra a-Sham on March 25, the Southern Front offensive in Syria was decisively defeated. American airstrikes began the same day to bail out the Iran-led offensive in Tikrit that had stalled on March 13. And with the fall of Idlib, this effort by the regime to take Aleppo City and put an end to the rebellion, which it has been trying to do since last summer, has failed. Regime resources will now have to be diverted either to try to retake Idlib City or to shore-up a new defensive line if what is, after all, a fairly peripheral provincial capital, is to be ceded.
What this underlines is that Iran cannot bear the burden those who want to make Iran an American partner in the region wish it to bear. Even if Iran’s long record of supporting al-Qaeda and ISIS when it suited its purposes, and terrorism against the West and Jews globally, did not cast doubt on Iran’s willingness to crush ISIS, and alleviate the pressure on the political elites in Damascus and Baghdad that is making them so pliable to Tehran at the moment, Iran simply couldn’t do it. Iran’s power-projection structures are impressive when set against what the Arab States have, but they have severe limits. The structural sectarianism of Iran’s bid for hegemony, operating through viciously sectarian and supremacist Shi’ite militias in Iraq and Alawi-based sectarian squads in Syria, produces enemies faster than it can quell them—pushing Sunnis into the arms of ISIS, if only for protection, all across the Fertile Crescent. Whatever the attempt to ally with Iran against ISIS brings, it won’t bring stability.
Saudi Arabia led a coalition of Arab States into an air campaign in Yemen against the Iran-backed Houthis that took over Sanaa in September. The Arabs in Yemen find themselves in a predicament not dissimilar to Israel in Syria: in countering Iran, they are also countering America. The Obama administration has near-openly aligned with Iran in Syria and is now quite openly providing Iran with air support in Iraq, but this process has already begun in Yemen, with the U.S. providing intelligence and some suspiciously fortuitous airstrikes in the Houthis campaign against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The Obama administration was only informed of the Yemen operation an hour before it began, and now vows “more intelligence, bombs and aerial refueling” for the Saudi-led operation, but there is a distinct sense that they doth protest too much. In Switzerland, Obama is “bullying” his own allies like France into accepting Iran’s conditions for a nuclear deal, and a defector from the Iranian camp revealed that this is par for the course: “The U.S. negotiating team are mainly there to speak on Iran’s behalf … and convince [the other States] of a deal.”
The Saudis hope that the training of the 5,000-man rebel army, presently only intended against ISIS (and perhaps only as a force to re-establish the Syria-Iraq border), will have a logic of its own—that Assad has to go in order to defeat ISIS. But one takes leave to doubt it. With less than half of the requisite men even recruited, the training has been delayed, and Jordan is showing signs of hedging its bets as Iran tries, without U.S. push-back, to colonise its border. A serious effort to help the moderate rebels build themselves up to a point where they were able to press the much-vaunted negotiated solution on Assad would begin by helping the rebels establish an attractive government in liberated areas. That would require U.S. protection, however; the long-needed no-fly zone. Since President Obama hasn’t even decided if he is going to defend his own rebel army from Assad’s deprivations, this is unlikely to come, which foredooms ETILAF’s announcement that it is moving its headquarters to Idlib City, which would be an excellent symbolic move in aligning the political opposition with the military opposition in Syria. Instead, however, all the focus remains on the Sunni jihadists, leaving Syria in Iran’s sphere of influence and Assad with a de facto American security guarantee.