The conflict in Idlib is threatening to extend the Syrian War and refugee crisis

A helmet belonging to the Syria Civil Defence or White Helmets lies in the rubble. Image via   @SyriaCivilDef

A helmet belonging to the Syria Civil Defence or White Helmets lies in the rubble. Image via @SyriaCivilDef

As the Syrian Civil War slides into another year of fighting, the crisis across the county - where half a million are estimated to have perished - is entering a new phase as major operations against Islamic State wind down. Three fronts of the conflict remain dangerous to regional stability including the occupied Golan Heights on the border with Israel and the long border with Turkey in northern Syria where Turkish Armed Forces and the Syrian Kurds have been a state of conflict. Bloodshed in the Idlib province in the north-west has also been escalating in 2019, and the Sochi Agreement hammered out by Russia and Turkey to deter an assault by Russian and Syrian forces seems to have collapsed as casualties in the province under the control of Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) have been mounting.

In February alone, 40,000 civilians were displaced by armed conflict in Idlib, the final province held by rebel groups who rose up against President Al-Asad’s government in 2011. A further 200,000 have been displaced from the city since the Sochi Agreement was brought into effect in September, 2018 six months ago as dwindling resources, the departure of aid agencies and disastrous shortages in food, clean drinking water and medicine takes its toll on a population of three million people. 190,000 of these people live in camps where poverty, exposure to the elements (including a bitterly cold winter) and destitution is rife. Parallel to the humanitarian crisis, the seizure of Idlib province by HTS has tightened the noose on the city, and partly explains an escalation in Russian airstrikes during this period. The jihadist group, previously known as Jabhat Al-Nusra Front and once linked with Al-Qa’ida before they separated from Zawahiri’s organisation in 2016 seized control of the Idlib province in February, 2019 establishing themselves as the dominant rebel group in Idlib and outside major cities like Hama and Aleppo (previously strongholds for rebel fighters in the Syrian War and the Hama Uprising of 1981-1982).

Ideologically there is little difference between HTS and Islamic State who have been defeated in Syria and Iraq. Local humanitarian aid workers and civil society group have described being persecuted by the ideology perpetuated by the group; militant Salafi-jihadism. "This black colour is imposed on us," said Issam Khatib, who works for a civil rights group based in Turkey, in a conversation with BBC, "We really don't know who supports them; they have a power where no-one is able to face them."

As HTS have carved out a mini-state in Idlib province, civilians have feared that the jihadist group’s influence will have dual repercussions, namely that HTS will continue to suppress grass-roots activism activated by the Syrian Revolution and that their growing military power will invite retaliation from Russia, Iran and the Al-Asad government.

Their fears of repression are supported by clear evidence of systematic abuses and human rights violations carried out by the group. In January, Human Rights Watch published a report detailing kidnap, torture and arbitrary detention by HTS. Their practices were not so different from the repression carried out by Al-Asad’s intelligence and security branches in Idlib during the initial stages of the revolt against the government. “Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham’s crackdown on perceived opposition to their rule mirrors some of the same oppressive tactics used by the Syrian government,” said Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “There is no legitimate excuse for rounding up opponents and arbitrarily detaining and torturing them.”

The report noted that HTS utilised physical and psychological torture to obtain information and they used surveillance to track and intimidate their victims. Others were beaten with water pipes, electrocuted, hung upside down from his feet, then beaten and sprayed with water, tied to a freezing metal bed with cold water thrown on them or had their bodies squeezed into tires and then beaten. These activities took place at several detention centres across north-west Syria including Okab, Harem, Idlib Central, Sinjar, Aleppo and several black sites run by HTS’s network inside Syria.

According to Jawdat Malas, an activist detained in Okab on charges of conspiring with the Free Syrian Army, the interrogation techniques were not so different from those utilised by intelligence services of the Syrian government. “I had nothing to tell them and nothing to confess. But they didn’t care,” Jawdat said to Syria Deeply. “If you are not serving their agenda and if you are not with them, you are their enemy…They beat me up and terrorized me, asking me to give them the names of who I work with and whom I work for…I reached a point where I was constipated. My whole body was dark blue.” 

Secular protesters and moderate revolutionaries were forced out, kidnapped, intimidated and killed by Ahrar Al-Sham and HTS in Idlib as an intra-jihadist conflict undermined everything the initial revolution had built. The revolutionaries and grass-root movements were pushed out by HTS and their rivals, who had strong support from donors in Qatar and Kuwait. HTS banned cigarettes, wanted to ban alcohol and began segregating men and women, and forcing women to wear the niqab and by 2017, held control of most of Idlib. The fact that foreign fighters and extremists from abroad often imposed these rules, including sharia law, bred resentment amongst the local population and activists who opposed Al-Asad’s government and the extremist ideology of militant Salafi-jihadists such as Julani.

Extra-judicial killings, executions and massacre perpetrated against POWs, civilians and rival rebel fighters have regular occurrences throughout HTS’s involvement in the Syrian Civil War. Only recently in November, 2018, a Raed Fares, a Syrian radio journalist was shot dead by gunmen in the rebel-held Syrian province of Idlib. Though he had made enemies with both Al-Asad’s government and HTS, it was specifically the jihadist group who had instructed Radio Fresh to stop broadcasting music as they were opposed to women being allowed to speak on the radio. Fares refused and paid for it with his life along with his college, Hammoud Juneid who was killed the same day.

On 2nd March, 2019, HTS fighters also carried out a public execution of ten suspected Islamic State fighters/informants, and the subsequent video recorded by activists spread across the Internet and social media channels. On 19th September 2015, HTS was involved in the massacre of prisoners of war of the Syrian Arab Army after their capture at Abu al-Duhur airbase. 56-70 soldiers were lined along the tarmac and shot by fighters of HTS, Jaish al-Fatah and the Turkistan Islamic Party at the airbase which was located thirty miles from Idlib. Eleven days after this massacre the Russian Air Force had begun, at-least officially, pounding rebel positions in Syria as part of a wider intervention in the Syrian Civil War, a watershed moment in the conflict.

On 4th August, 2013, HTS fighters also raided the Sahel, the Latakian countryside - the heartland of Syrian Alawite minorities and the only place in the country where they were not a minority group. As Ranaia Abouzied writes in No Turning Back, ‘the prospect of killing Alawites drew foreign fighters in droves’ knowing that if Al-Asad ‘lost the Sahel, he lost the war.’ Spreading terror in Al-Asad’s homeland seemed to be a way to strike back at the government. Eleven Alawite villages were seized by Syrian fighters and HTS jihadists and they seized 106 women and children. They were massacred and Talal who was interviewed by Abouzied description of what he saw was chilling.

‘Talal drove to his home of Blouta. He saw burned and ransacked homes, including his own, and a mass grave with human remains scooped into a yellow bulldozer. Syrian soldiers in fluorescent orange vests placed bodies in bags, including two of Talal’s brothers and his father. Talal had no information about his wife and children or what had happened to them. The rebel perpetrators left behind graffiti on schools and homes. ‘God is Great, Suqoor El Ezz’ was sprayed on one wall. Jabhat Al-Nusra Will Bring Victory To The People of Syria’ was written elsewhere.

According to Human Rights Watch, 190 were killed including at least fifty-seven women, eighteen children, and fourteen elderly men. Mohammad, a jihadist interviewed by Abouzeid, thought the war crime was justified by a desire for vengeance. “I saw others being detained, and I saw others killed… (it is) one crime against hundreds of thousands committed by the regime. The Alawites are happy that Bashar is killing us, so they needed to feel something, to feel that their stance, if not with Bashar, but not against him, was part of the crime. They had to be made to feel that. We killed everything in them, took everything from them, burned everything in them. We gave them a taste of what we experience.”

The massacre in the Sahel was not the first or last incident where Salafi and Sunni hard-liners targeted Alawite and Shia communities. HTS have deployed suicide bombers to kill and maim civilians living in government controlled areas. In 2017 in January and March, HTS launched a series of suicide bombing in the Bab al-Saghir area of the Old City in Damascus and the Kafr Sousa District. Dozens of those killed by blast were Shia pilgrims from Iraq, and the attacks explicitly targeted Shia shrines and those on pilgrimage. Over one hundred people were killed and hundreds more were wounded in the attacks. Before then HTS or Jabhat Al-Nusra claimed responsibility for 57 out of 70 suicide attacks in Syria between 2011 and 2013. The foreign fighters, as video journalist Paul Refsdal noted in Dugma: The Button, were often the volunteers for suicide bombings. “Abu Basir Al Britani (a British foreign fighter) told me his highest dream was to complete a martyrdom operation, but I don't think there was a problem because it was normal to change your mind.” said Refsdal in an interview with Vice, “It's always part of a bigger operation anyway; they send in the truck with the bomber, he blows it up on the front-line, makes a hole and the main force attacks through that hole. But they always have back-up in case the first bomber changes his mind. There's a lot of people on the list, so I don't think there's any stigma for him.”

The nature of HTS’s military and political activities, however, has spread fears amongst Idlib’s civilians in 2019 that Russia, Iran and Syria, or Turkey will launch an offensive against Idlib to dislodge and weaken the Salafi-jihadist group. In the past few months, the Russians, the Syrian Army and Turkish forces have been stepping up their military activity in the Idlib province. In March, Syrian and Russian airstrikes have been the heaviest in months. On 14th March, the Russian Defence Ministry announced it had hit Idlib in coordination with Turkey in an effort to target weapons stores belonging to HTS. The response of the jihadist group was stubborn: “There is no solution against the Russian occupier, Assad’s forces and the Iranian militias except confrontation and confrontation only.”

The airstrikes and rocket-fire have killed dozens of men women and children in Kafr Amim, Khan Shaykhun (targeted by a chemical weapons attack in 2017) and Khaled Al Zeer, as casualties have spiked. A twin suicide bombing targeting an HTS partner, and a motorbike laced with explosives killed several people. There have been several suicide bombings, and several strikes on marketplaces and buildings have occurred while activists have posted videos on social media of military aircraft deploying white phosphorous in Al Tamanah, Idlib. On January, 29th, a dozen were killed and over thirty five were wounded in Maarat al-Numan by artillery fire by the Syrian Army. Several White Helmet volunteers have been killed in the fighting in efforts to rescue survivors, as aid workers have been targeted and humanitarian support is drying up.

Russia, and the Al-Asad government, which has been building up its military capabilities around Idlib for months after capturing Eastern Ghouta, a rebel-stronghold and Damascus suburb in 2018, have lost patience with the Turkish military. Turkish forces have procrastinated on the issue of the jihadists for months, and it was only on 8th March, 2019 that their soldiers began patrolling the demilitarised zones. The delay is partly motivated by the Turkish military’s focus on the Syrian Kurds in northern Syria, who the Turkish government is keen to contain, and if need be drive militants and innocent civilians into different parts of Syria away from the border where the YPG could coordinate cross-border attacks with the PKK.

The two groups are regarded by the Turkish government as terrorist organisations, and U.S support for the YPG and Syrian Democratic Forces in the fight against Islamic State have caused serious ruptures in the relationship between Ankara and Washington on several occasions during the Syrian War. HTS has been a useful, if not volatile, proxy in the conflict against the Kurds. For example, during its assault on Afrin in Operation Olive Branch the international media was quick to identify that under the term Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army, Turkish forces were giving an armed escort into rebel territory by fighters from HTS.

In the context of Idlib and within the framework of the Astana Agreements and Sochi Ceasefire Agreement, Turkey currently holds twelve ceasefire observatory points in Idlib’s de-escalation zone while Russia has ten points. Russia reiterated within the memorandum that it would ‘take all necessary measures to ensure that military operations and attacks on Idlib (would) be avoided and the existing status quo maintained.’ Furthermore in point 5 and 7 it was specifically stated that ‘All radical terrorist groups will be removed from the demilitarised zone by October 15, 2018’ and that ‘Turkish Armed Forces and the military police of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation will conduct coordinated patrols and monitoring with UAVs along the boundaries of the demilitarised zone.’

These agreements have not happened, and HTS’s control of eighty percent of Idlib province is a testimony to the failure of Turkish army and government to implement the Sochi Ceasefire Agreement with Russian Military Police. The result, alongside the dominance of the opposition by HTS (which prompted aid slashes and humanitarian budget cuts to Idlib camps by Western governments), is pushing the city of Idlib further into crisis, and the offensive which is underway could displace millions of people, causing another wave of refugees to flee Syria into Turkey.