There has been an unprecedented wave of assassinations, and assassination attempts, in Idlib, beginning on 26 April and lasting about two days, targeting mainstream, Free Syrian Army-branded rebels, opposition activists, and journalists, as well as Islamist and jihadist insurgents.
The most prominent target was Abdallah al-Muhaysini, the famous Saudi jihadi cleric, who had an improvised explosive device (IED) placed under his car. Al-Muhaysini was wounded; it is not clear how seriously. Al-Muhaysini had reportedly been attending a meeting related to the 24 April ceasefire he helped mediate between Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the former al-Qaeda group, and Jabhat Tahrir al-Suriya (JTS), the merger of Ahrar al-Sham and Harakat Nooradeen al-Zengi. JTS was created on 18 February and began clashing with HTS two days later; the fighting continued for sixty-three continuous days thereafter. This meeting was about the prisoner releases.
Idlib 24 reported that fifteen fighters and one civilian had been killed in these assassinations:
- On the road at Tel Aad, west of Aleppo, a Faylaq al-Sham checkpoint was attacked; one Faylaq fighter was killed and two were injured.
- Three rebels who had been deported to Idlib from Zabadani were killed by gunfire on the highway near Marat Misrin, north-west of Idlib city.
- Further to the north-west, three members of Hizb al-Islami al-Turkistani (the Turkistan Islamic Party or TIP) were shot down on the road linking Armanaz and Millis.
- South-west of Armanaz and Millis—twenty miles directly west of Idlib city—near Jisr al-Shughur, on the Mishmishan-Ayn al-Sawda highway east of Jisr, an Ahrar al-Sham fighter was killed and another injured by gunmen.
- In Abeen, a village in northern Rif Idlib, an HTS jihadist, Muhammad Nooradeen, was killed, and another HTS operative, Muhammad al-Shaykh, was wounded.
- North of Binnish, a town about five miles north-east of Idlib city, an Ahrar al-Sham commander, Abu Salim al-Binnish, was gunned down.
Moving south of Idlib city there were a series of assassinations that were noticeably concentrated on Damascus-Aleppo International Highway, in Saraqib (ten miles south-east of Idlib city), Marat al-Numan (25 miles south of Idlib city), and Khan Shaykhun (40 miles south of Idlib city).
- A pharmacist, Tirad al-Diri, was shot down in the village of Jubas (or Jawbas), south of Saraqib.
- In Marat al-Numan, an HTS commander, Abu al-Ward Kafr Batikh, was killed, along with a companion, when his car came under fire.
- And in Khan Shaykhun, two fighters, one each from Ansar al-Shari’a and HTS, were assassinated.
In the early hours of 27 April, Idlib 24 reported, the assassination attempts continued: two Ahrar al-Sham fighters were wounded in Saraqib; an activist, Mustafa al-Haj, was injured by gunfire nea the village of Nayrab; and the home of an Ahrar commander was stormed in Zardna, in the northern countryside of Idlib.
Another version of events circulated on social media consisted of twenty incidents—some overlapping with and some slightly contradicting Idlib 24’s report—that resulted in eighteen people being killed, five people being injured, five attempt that harmed no person, and one explosive attack against a building:
- HTS commander Abu al-Ward Kafr Batikh and a companion were shot dead in their car near the Kafr Battikh junction, south of Saraqib on the Damascus-Aleppo International Highway.
- Abu Salim al-Binnish, a member of Jaysh al-Ahrar, was killed on the outskirts of Binnish in the morning.
- Three Shabab (youths) displaced from Zabadani were killed on the road from Idlib.
- Muhammad Nooradeen was killed and Muhammad al-Shaykh was injured. Interestingly, the two men are identified only as being from Zardana, north of Binnish and Taftanaz; there is no mention of them being members of HTS.
- Assassination of three muhajirun (“immigrants”; foreign jihadists) on the road between Armanaz and Millis.
- Mustafa Haj Ali was wounded by gunfire near al-Nerab, east of Idlib city.
- The assassination of two people and the injuring of a third in Khan Shaykhun.
- Assassination of an individual on the road near Ayn al-Sawda (or Ayn al-Suda), east of Jisr al-Shughur.
- Pharmacist shot dead in the village of Jubas, east of Saraqib.
- An individual was assassinated on Sharie al-Thalatheen (Thirtieth Street) in Idlib city.
- One person assassinated and one injured at a checkpoint, west of Aleppo.
- In Sarmin, just south of Binnish and to the east of Idlib city, an individual was wounded with gunfire in an assassination attempt.
- The assassination of a saraf (cashier, money-changer) in Sarmada, twenty miles north of Idlib city, close to the Turkish border.
- Shooting at a checkpoint near Afes, north of Saraqib. No reported casualties.
- Shooting at a checkpoint at the entrance to the town of al-Dana, about four miles east of Sarmada. No reported casualties.
- Shooting at a checkpoint near the village of Jarada, north of Marat al-Numan. No reported casualties.
- A “Turkistani” (Chinese Uyghur, very likely a member of TIP) was shot dead in al-Qunaya, near Jisr al-Shughur.
- There was an attempt to assassinate a member of JTS by firing on his house in the village of Alteh, 35 miles south of Idlib city.
- There was an attempt to break into the home of Captain Ameen, the General Commander of Jaysh al-Halab (The Army of Aleppo), in the Shahba district, in the western suburbs of Aleppo.
- The headquarters of Ahrar al-Sham in Binnish was targeted with an IED. No casualties were reported.
A senior commander of the FSA-branded Jaysh al-Izza, Khaled Marati, was shot dead in his car in Khan Shaykhun on 27 April. Also on that day, the chief of the Free Police in al-Dana, Ahmad al-Jaru, was killed.
In terms of suspects for this killing spree, the victims suggest that it is unlikely only one actor was at work. It is known that the Islamic State (IS) has been re-infiltrating Idlib since its eviction by the rebellion in 2014, and IS has stepped up its shadow war against the insurgency in the north-west recently. The pro-Asad coalition has every reason to strike down the moderate rebels and civil oppositionists to further bolster the extremists in the “Greater Idlib” pocket and thereby legitimise a future attack on the area. Turkey has also been waging a steady campaign to weaken the grip of HTS and like-minded jihadists that has included the use of assassination. There is then HTS itself; various intra-insurgent rivalries, personal and political; and simple criminality. To find any or all of these factors at work would be no surprise.
A Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham security official said on 11 May that the group’s security apparatus had uncovered three female-headed pro-regime assassination cells operating in Idlib city and west Idlib that answered to the Russian base at Hmaymeem and Political Security in Latakia. These operatives were compartmentalized between the cells, and even within the cells.
Abu Jassem al-Kansafra was killed on 17 May with an IED near Marat Misrin, in the Jibal al-Zawiya area, north-east of Idlib city on the road to Sarmada. By his kunya, it seems Abu Jassem was a local citizen. Abu Jassem was a member of Jund al-Malahim, a component of Tandheem Hurras al-Deen, al-Qaeda’s unofficial branch in Syria that has started using the name Hilf Nusrat al-Islam. Kansafra is about 30 miles south of Marat Misrin, an hour away by car. Interestingly, Kansafra is just to the west of a cluster of towns around Kafranabel and Marat al-Numan known for their anti-jihadist sentiment. While much remains mysterious about the assassinations that began on 26 April, this incident with Abu Jassem looks a lot more like the earlier round of assassinations against the most intransigent jihadists in Idlib, a campaign that was linked to Turkey.
In a brazen display of its growing power in Idlib, the Islamic State claimed on 12 July that it had assassinated a member of HTS on the Hazanu-Marat Misreen road and killed two fighters from the FSA-branded Jaysh al-Izza, releasing photographs of the latter.
POSTSCRIPT: On 14 May, Haid Haid wrote for Chatham House about the spate of assassinations in Idlib:
On 26 April, an unprecedented wave of assassinations began in Idlib, in the western countryside of Aleppo and in the northwest of Hama. Over the span of two days, at least 20 militants … were killed, along with at least nine civilians. …
Intriguingly, the assassinations followed the announcement of a ceasefire between HTS and JTS in the northwest. Consequently, this sparked speculation that the assassinations were an attempt by a third party to instigate new clashes between the two. … But here’s the problem: the vast majority of the over-25 attacks did not target the two groups—just two each against HTS and JTS. This means that the assassinations could not conceivably have been designed with them in mind.
No other theories, so far, have surfaced to answer the “why” question. But maybe the “who” might provide an answer for “why”?
Haid notes that many sources point to IS sleeper cells, especially after the fighting pitting the rebels and HTS against IS in February that ended with 300 IS fighters in custody. IS has been threatening rebels to try to get these people released and this wave of assassinations comes close on the heels of HTS apparently complying. The pro-Asad coalition is also a suspect. As Haid puts it, both IS and Asad have form and these suspicions could well be partially true, but the “automatic resort to ascribing blame to the enemy [by the opposition] is too convenient, lazy and lacks analytical rigor.”
Haid goes on to point out that “the assumption that the attacks were all carried out by the same party” is rather shaky. There is the simple matter of opportunity: when major fighting dies down, the space for planning and executing assassinations increases. The “profiles of the targets”—“business owners, displaced people, locals, activists and fighters from different factions”—strongly suggests that “the targets were chosen for a variety of reasons. Theft, personal disputes and internal group divisions, among other reasons, could be the motives behind the attacks.”
Haid concludes that, intriguing as the mystery is, it might well be less important than the effects. This mayhem could allow HTS to regain its dominance in the area with the passive and perhaps even active support of populations desperate for security, which only it is in a position to provide at present. “Indeed,” says Haid, “[HTS] has already started to take advantage of the situation to launch a large-scale security campaign under the pretext of capturing the perpetrators of the assassinations.