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Greater Idlib: Is Syrian Army Advance Inevitable?

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Greater Idlib: Is Syrian Army Advance Inevitable?

After over 8 years of war, the province of Idlib and its surrounding areas remain the key stronghold of radical militant groups in Syria. Over the past years, anti-government armed groups suffered a series of defeats across the country and withdrew towards northwestern Syria. The decision of the Syrian Army to allow encircled militants to withdraw towards Idlib enabled the rescue of thousands of civilians, who were being used by them as human shields in such areas as Aleppo city and Eastern Ghouta. At the same time, this increased significantly the already high concentration of militants in Greater Idlib turning it into a hotbed of radicalism and terrorism.

The ensuing attempts to separate the radicals from the so-called moderate opposition and then to neutralize them, which took place within the framework of the Astana format involving Turkey, Syria, Iran and Russia, made no progress. A network of Turkish and Russian observation posts along the contact line and the demilitarized zone agreement did not allow a proper ceasefire to be established at the contact line between the government-controlled area and the militant-controlled territories. The August 2019 advance of the Syrian Army in northern Hama and southern Idlib led to the liberation of a large chunk of territory from the militants. However, strategically, the situation remained the same.

Idlib serves as home to a number of militant groups, who are engaged in constant competition for influence and resources. The most notable of these are:

  • Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda) – the most influential group in Greater Idlib.
  • The National Front for Liberation – a Turkish-backed militant alliance created around Ahrar al-Sham to be an alternative power to Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and promote Turkish interests in this part of Syria.
  • The Turkistan Islamic Party – an al-Qaeda-linked militant group founded by foreign jihadists, mainly Uighurs. The key ally of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.
  • Hurras al-Din – the pro-al-Qaeda militant group allied with Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. Hurras al-Din’s main difference from its Big Brother is that it makes no attempt to hide its existing links to al-Qaeda.

Different sources provide different numbers regarding the manpower of militant groups operating in Idlib. The armed groups themselves provide contradictory and exaggerated numbers of their members to boost their popularity, intimidate rival factions and get additional funding from foreign sponsors.

In 2018, U.S. Joint Chiefs Chairman General Joseph Dunford estimated that there were 20,000 or 30,000 militants inside Idlib. In 2019, the UN estimated that there were 20,000 fighters associated with Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) in Idlib. Sources linked with militants say that HTS has about 31,000 members. The same sources say that the total number of militants in Idlib is about 60,000. Most of the weapons and ammunition depots, tunnel networks, repair facilities, HQs and other infrastructure objects used by the militants are located in the countryside of the city of Idlib, and the towns of Saraqib and Maarrat al-Numan. Militants locate them near civilian areas intentionally, using the people living there as human shields.

Despite the observed diversity, no group seems able to challenge HTS dominance. In the period from 2016 to 2019, the group undertook active efforts to consolidate its military, political and economic control of the region. Competing factions were absorbed or just forced to accept the rules established by Hayat Tahir al-Sham. The Turkish-backed National Front for Liberation, created in May 2018, was unable to challenge the HTS expansion and had to be satisfied with the role of junior partner.

In 2017, Hayat Tahir al-Sham created the Syrian Salvation Government to administrate the territory of Greater Idlib. The Salvation Government includes eight ministries: interior, justice, religious endowments, health, education, local administration and services, economy, development, and social affairs. It also has its own police force which, however, has limited responsibilities such as managing traffic, catching criminals, and solving disputes. Nonetheless, any notable security efforts in the area, like cracking down on ISIS cells which have pretty complicated relations with mainstream Idlib militants, always involve HTS forces.

All this has allowed HTS to take a grip of the region’s economy, controlling all key roads (primarily the M5 highway) and trade crossings – both with Turkey and across the frontline into government-controlled areas. When the Al-Ais crossing in Aleppo province was open, HTS was collecting taxes on those driving in and out of Idlib. The group also collects taxes from people that want to leave the Idlib zone via humanitarian corridors opened by the Damascus government with help from the Russian Military Police.

The major source of income is the Bab al-Hawa crossing with Turkey. HTS has imposed fees on all goods entering Idlib. These include clothes, food, fuel and its derivatives. HTS established strong ties with a wide network of traders, and reportedly has links even with the Watad Petroleum Company, which holds the monopoly on importing hydrocarbons from Turkey. Additionally, militants raise money through direct and indirect taxes imposed on business, shadow schemes of money transfer and currency exchangers. Businesses are obliged to comply with these conditions to ensure they can continue operating. The control over the flow of funds, fuel and repair parts allows HTS to be the most well-equipped and well-armed formation in Idlib, with the biggest fleet of heavy military equipment.

According to existing data, a part of HTS financing comes from external sources. Most the funding came from the charitable Salafi foundations in Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and from high-ranking clerics and wealthy businesspeople in Jordan and Turkey who sympathize with the ideas of Salafi Islam. Experts estimate that the flow from foreign sources decreased after the conflict in Syria entered a relatively low intensity phase in 2018. The flow of finances collected by armed groups through crowdfunding on social networks also decreased for the same reason. Therefore, HTS and other groups have been forced to rely more and more on local financial sources.

Before the conflict, the province of Idlib had a population of 1.5 million people. The UN says that some 3 million people currently live in Idlib. Most of them are Sunni Arabs, some are Syrian Turkomans protected by Turkey. Most of the members of other ethnic and religious communities (like Shias or Christians) were forced to flee from the area or were murdered by radicals controlling the area. Reports speculate that about 40% of the people now living in Greater Idlib come from other previously militant-held areas. These are current and former members of militant groups, their families and relatives. These predetermined the position of Idlib as the main hotbed of terrorism in the modern Syria.

From the political point of view,  the vast majority of the leadership of the Idlib militant groups and the entities affiliated with them align their policies with the attitude of Turkey. Publicly, they declare that the main goal of their efforts is the victory of the so-called Syrian Revolution and the reformation of the Syrian governance system under Sharia law. Nonetheless, these claims are just a formal part of the militants’ official propaganda. The actions of HTS and its allied groups during the past years demonstrate that they are in fact seeking to create a de-facto independent quasi-state under their own control and as a partial protectorate of Turkey. If the current situation in northwestern Syria would remain the same over the next 3-5 years, there is a high chance that Turkey would be trapped in conditions in which it would have to try to annex this territory. Thus, the Idlib radicals would achieve their main goal.

The irony is that HTS and its allies are by their own policies preventing this scenario. In the current conditions, the Idlib zone is a constant source of terrorist threats and instability. In all previous cases when Syrian and pro-Syrian forces ceased their offensive operations and started unilaterally fulfilling ceasefire agreements, Idlib armed groups immediately started making attempts to seize new areas, attack pro-government forces and prepare terrorist operations within the government-controlled area. Furthermore, the Idlib zone is the area where the most murderous part of the so-called opposition is concentrated. The core of the ‘Idlib opposition’ is made up of mercenaries, criminal gangs and radicals. It is not expected that the unilateral ceasefire declared by the Syrian Army in southern Idlib on August 31 will last for long. In the first half of September, militants already conducted several armed unmanned aerial vehicle attacks targeting positions of the Syrian Army and even Russia’s Hmeimim airbase.

Turkey is keen to prevent any possible advances of the government forces in Idlib. Therefore it supports further diplomatic cooperation with Russia and Iran to promote a ‘non-military’ solution of the issue. However it does not seem to have enough influence with the Idlib militant groups, in particular HTS, to impose a ceasefire on them at the present time. Ankara could take control of the situation, but it would need a year or two that it does not have. Therefore, a new round of military escalation in the Idlib zone should not be very long in coming.

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  • alejoeisabel

    It is time for Syria to support the Shia populations of Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar as they do promoting Salafis in Syria. Time to take the war to its sources just as Yemen has done.

    • Trekker

      That is a thought. Shias are definitely consolidating their control in the Levant Lebanon through to Iran/Iraq).

  • Rhodium 10

    Idlib are not only under protection of Turkey..also USA and Gulf states!…SAA and Allies ( Russia&Iran) cannot allow this pseudocalifate full of terrorist which means an Al Qaeda state inside Syria!…

  • gustavo

    Russia must stop pleasing Erdogan at Idlib and all north of Syria, point.

    • Ray Douglas

      One bite at a time. Idlib will be liberated in due course. The fewer loses of the SAA the better. Mothers and fathers want to see their sons and daughters come home safely.

      If there are 60,000 terrorist in Idlib what the hell were they doing when the SAA walked through them in August.

      • Icarus Tanović

        Yes, one bite per time, very wise. You put this pretty fine. Qnd good question, where arr those 15 or so days ago?
        Hiding in theirs rat holes.

  • RichardD

    Idlib is the most complicated and probably the most well equipped and well defended terrorist enclave that the SAA and allies have had to deal with. There’s no question that they can clear it. As the recent blitzkrieg demonstrates. They just want to do it with the minimal loss of life and destruction that can reasonably be achieved. It’s also clear that the Turks aren’t going to intervene directly to save the Yinon plan regime change terrorists.

    • dutchnational

      I would agree with you with one caveat. SAA can clear the region as long as Russia supports them with CAS, bombings, special forces and training and arms. Without those, SAA cannot, at least not easily, win against the jihadis.

      • RichardD

        “SAA and allies”

        Russia is an SAA ally.

        • dutchnational

          For as long as it suits Russia. My point is, SAA without allies cannot even win against the rebels and HTS. Without the RuAF, it would be SAA being bombed instead of rebels. A fully sovereign country does not survive solely thanks to foreign umbrella.

          • RichardD

            Ignoring the magnitude of ICC statute violations against Syria as you are. Makes your analysis very shoddy. Plus you’re a bald face liar who’s well aware of the 10s of billions being spent to overthrow the Syrian government. I really have very little respect for two faced miscreants like you.

            Syria’s annual defense budget is $1.8 billion. Your blood sucking baby raping pedophile buddies and their partners in crime have spent somewhere in the neighborhood of $100 billion on their Yinon plan failure.

      • Mike

        Go away eurotrash.

  • Marshalldoc

    Very nice summary, thanks!

  • verner

    patience, idlib will be liberated, the jihadists on the run most likely towards the north east or the kurdish safe zone area so that they can join up with their benefactor, the unhinged states of A. but as always, the cookie will crumble and the SAA will follow in their footsteps and Turkey will have to join in the fight since the kurds are the paramount enemy so the unhinged states of A will be forced to run or fight together with the kurds and the jihadists, which will be fun to watch. particularly when the russian jets are bombing them to smithereens and the dysfunctional states of A will be on the run.

    • PJ London

      “She measures time not by days and months and years, but by the empires she has seen rise and prosper and crumble into ruin. She is a type of immortality.”
      Mark Twain in 1867 wrote about Damascus:

    • dutchnational

      Is that why there are now reports that SAA will hand over the 6 villages and towns they have east ofvthe river and north of DeZ city? All under Russian supervision?

      • Mike

        Getting desperate for NATO propaganda there dutchie boy.

        • dutchnational

          Quasi namecalling is no argument. Itvseems though it is all you have. Loser.

  • Willing Conscience (The Truths

    Erdogan is about to throw HTS, 10 to 15,000 fighters, and Al Nusra alliance about 20,000 fighters, and probably about 10,000 others from groups like The Turkistan Islamic Party under the bus.
    Just a while ago HTS with 15,000 fighters managed to kick all the so called moderate factions like the SFL, NFL, and FSA, 50 to maybe even 60,000 fighters, out of most of Idlib, but I suspect the SFL, NFL, and FSA, are about to turn on Al Nusra and HTS in a free for all that enables them to quickly take back 90% of Idlib in the process, just before the SAA has a chance to do it.
    Am I just being cynical again, probably not, I’ll find out either way soon enough I think.

    • dutchnational

      You might be right that that is the plan. I hardly think HTS will enter the valley of the night without resistance. While a scenario like that is played out, HTS lines with SAA will collapse, making it possible for SAA to maybe take all to the M4 and M5. And maybe more.

      • Mike

        Yup, you, your Kurdish and jihadi allies have lost, now all you have to do is bow out and leave this site.

        • dutchnational

          I have too much fun pointing out your fake arguments and trolling.

      • Willing Conscience (The Truths

        Yes I agree, the SAA must and will take advantage of any situation provided by an outbreak of infighting and will most likely just ignore the ceasefire when they have to, because if they don’t all of HTS’s territory [65% of Idlib] will still remain under Erdogan’s control via his proxies the NFL, SLF and FSA, that’s if they get there first and boot out HTS and Al Nusra before the SAA does.
        Noticed the Turkish proxies are for the first time in their lives actually doing their very best to adhere to this new ceasefire, Erdogan must have them on a very tight leash right now, but when it snaps I think we’ll be in for a really good dog fight, and hopefully the SAA come straight in and take full advantage of it when it starts.
        When you said “And maybe more”, I’m hoping it’s more like, And maybe a hell of a lot more, :].

    • Trekker

      Hmm. Interesting take on it.

  • Most interesting. Assad is doing a lot with his new gains. The Amnesty that Assad is offering as well as the Humanitarian Corridors for civilians to flee Idlib, while criticized and considered a fraud, can disarm the terror groups. There are Triple Agents in this conflict. Some joined and defected the Syrian Army in order to join the Free Syrian Army then defected back to the government under the National Defense Forces. A government unit designed to extract civilians from Idlib with the promise of the same kind of Amnesty Assad provided the defectors who returned to a pro-government stance, such as the commander of the Golan Regiment, is asymmetric warfare fought with Soft Power. Russia’s use of Soft Power is very effective and powerful, Assad would be wise to learn the ways of Soft Power in order to rally support for his government…

    • Icarus Tanović

      Those corridors, so civilians can flee are very wise move.

    • Trekker

      Good points, Jose. The biggest mistake the Americans made in Iraq was not integrating defeated Sunnis into the Iraq army, leading to the disenfranchised soldiers all forming ISIS.
      Russia/Syria/ Turkey have been much wiser. In fact, with many Kurds now joining SAA, it will be a big help for Turkey as well, giving those guys jobs and income to feed their families.

  • xTheWarrior22

    Great documentation SF, like always!

  • Rodney Loder

    Hong Kong has pushed Idlib into a backwater news event, I think China is paying the protesters to put on a show making out how easy going China is, and keeping the attention of the MSM bleeding hearts out of Syria, the lovers of anarchy, over there not over here are saturated with so much empathy for Hong Kong it’s hard for them soak up anything other than more self-gratification.

    • Karen Bartlett

      Hong Kong’s protests are another attempt at a “color revolution” and is financed by American interests. Leaders of the protest movement have been to the States to visit neo-conservative Think Tanks and etc.:https://youtu.be/0ITVOlIGzOw?t=11

      • Rodney Loder

        Stockman is an apologist for US exceptionalism his figures are not correct regarding Chinese trade and China controls manufactured goods supply chain at bottle neck China can’t be shut down financial capital influence would go first and the Colour Revolutions have all failed since Yugoslavia, it worked in Croatia and a few places then, but failed ever since.

        The Hong Kong situation is creating jeering amusement and unity on the Main Land, no worries there, if Trump wants to survive he’ll need to abandon the trade war.

        Idlib should be put on hold till I can get to Damascus and parley with my Salafist Brothers, I’m making inroads with the White Supremacist Fascists they harbour a pent-up vengeance needing direction all that old stuff is redundant it’s time for we Stalinists to mend our ties with the Whites.