December 16, 2017 – Fort Russ News – Paul Antonopoulos – Translated from Descrifrando La Guerra.
IDLIB, Syria – Idlib has been for several years a place of tensions between so-called moderates and groups favorable to the creation of an Islamic caliphate. After the foreseeable defeat of the militias sponsored by the United States, the hard wing of jihadism has taken the main roads, border crossings and cities of the Government. However, what seemed a priori as the cohesion of militias around an extreme core has become a particular game of thrones among the most fanatical factions of Islam.
In Idlib everything was fine
The swarm of rebel groups, Islamist’s and jihadists lived in the period [2014-2015] a sort of honeymoon, they controlled the governorate totally, they advanced at a rapid pace in the north of Hama and South of Aleppo, and even threatened Latakia. The government was crushed on almost all fronts, in fact until the anthological Tiger Forces were defeated at the Battle of Wadi al-Ghab and his new commander Brigadier General Suhail Hassan, was about to die, which would have changed the course of the war completely, if that day the mortar fired by a Jordanian had impacted him, however the victim was his closest bodyguard.
It is not a secret that the division existed, but generally the invisible borders that separated the territories controlled by the militias associated with the Free Syrian Army, the Islamists of the Islamic Front – led by Ahrar al-Sham – and the nuclei of concentration of groups were respected. jihadists. With some exceptions, the al-Nusra Front, Jund al-Aqsa, the Uyghurs of the Islamic Party of Turkestan and other terrorist groups took the front lines, and in each advance the more moderate groups like Jaysh al-Nasr, Jaysh al-Izzah , Division 13 associated with the Free Syrian Army occupied the territories left behind by the jihadists, who were provided with cover fire from the rear with the thousands of US-made anti-tank TOW missiles, provided by Saudi Arabia, the rest of the Gulf monarchies and even the Americans from the Pentagon and the CIA.
With Aleppo something twists
The presence of Hezbollah and various Iranian and Iraqi militias coordinated by Qassem Sulemaini himself, commander of the Quds Forces and the Army of the Islamic Revolution Guardians, served to cushion the decomposition of the Syrian Army. After dozens of epic battles, the government begins to break sieges in the city of Aleppo: the Central Prison; the Kweires Base; the Shiite enclaves of Nubl and Zahara. On the ground the leadership was held by Sulemaini the commander in the shade, while in the air Russian aviation absolutely dominated the Syrian skies, from them hit again and again the enthusiastic attempts of the Islamists to stop the advance.
Between the end of 2015 and the middle of 2016 there are three events that change this fragile balance in the rebel side and that will open another fratricidal war within this fratricidal war.
On November 24, 2015, a Turkish F-16 fighter would shoot down a Russian Su-25 that anticipated operations against the 10th Free Syrian Army Coastal Brigade, which had been organizing offensives on the Latakia coast along the Nusra Front. That day the co-pilot of the aircraft was killed and a successful rescue operation of the pilot was organized avoiding the same fate. On the ground the result was a greater involvement of the Russian air force greatly expanding the number of daily targets. In the offices the repercussions were greater, the Russian leaders began a campaign against Erdogan’s policies and presented numerous proofs of the participation of their secret and family services in shady deals with the Islamic State. To clean up its history, Turkey had only one option, to create an operations room that focused on the fight against ISIS, taking advantage of this in passing to avoid the union of Kurdish cantons. Inevitably the Turks put pressure on the various militias to join their light coalition formed by militias that should refuse to collaborate with Nusra and ISIS, thus cementing the bases of the rebel confrontation by leaving the militias established in Idlib in a delicate position.
On February 3, 2016 another important event takes place, the Syrian Army manages to break the siege of Nubl and Zahara by separating the rebel forces of North Aleppo from those positioned in Idlib and Aleppo West, cutting off the direct supply line from the Turkish city of Kilis to Aleppo 30 minutes away, and forcing the convoys to make longer routes from the border with Idlib. Not only was the supply line interrupted, but government forces acted as a kind of wall that froze relations between the opposition forces to the south and the north. In the north, less belligerent militias were framed and in the South al Qaeda and all its variants. Later on, the transfer of moderate groups to the North of Aleppo would be recurrent, fleeing jihadist violence.
Syrian Army commanders direct the operation at the Mallah farms to surround rebels in Aleppo.
At the end of July of that same year the Syrian Army manages to recover the Mallah farms and for the first time near the eastern sector of the city of Aleppo, begins a long operation of attrition not only in the military but also in the relations intra rebels. At that time there were two major rebel coalitions operating in Aleppo: Jaysh al-Fatah formed by radical Islamist groups and jihadists, located mainly outside the fenced areas, although with a presence inside the fence. And Fatah Halab formed by groups belonging to the Free Syrian Army and moderate Islamists, located in the fenced territories and closer to the groups belonging to the Turkish operations room ‘Escudo del Eufrates’. During the siege rebellious relations collapsed, while Jaysh al-Fatah accused the Fatah Halab fighters of not engaging in the battle, Fatah Halab lamented that Jaysh al-Fatah took advantage of the conjuncture to reassert his control over Idlib attacking other militias.
Islamic State schism in the global jihad
The global jihad has always been a total monopoly of the Al-Qaeda network, with the beginning of the war in Syria, its highest authority the Egyptian al-Zawahiri instructs the Islamic State of Iraq to send an advance party of fighters of the Iraqi insurgency to destabilize even more the Levantine country. For this, they select an important detachment of jihadists from all over the planet, supported by hundreds of Syrian militants, among which Abu Mohammad al-Julani stands out as the maximum commander of this new organization the ‘Front al-Nusra’.
In 2013, the Islamic State entered Syria and began to confront all groups trying to lead the armed opposition to the Syrian government and create the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. His caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi rejects the subordination to al-Qaeda, defying the leadership of this in the global jihad, and initiates a war to the death with the Front al-Nusra who do maintain loyalty to those of al-Zawahiri.
A group of Islamic State fighters arrest and execute several militants of the al-Nusra Front.
Those of al Qaeda playing their political cards better manage to make alliances with the other militias and exterminate the Islamic State north of the Salamiyah-Ithiriya-Khanaser road, where they barely survive by organizing themselves into sleeping cells. While to the south and east of the road they impose an absolute dominion.
In 2014, the war between Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State was at its height, which directly affected the battlefield against the Syrian government by delaying some offensives. The Egyptian al-Zawahiri aware of this, sends one of his trusted men to Maskanah to mediate with the Islamic State, the chosen one is a member of Ahrar al-Sham named Abu Khaled al Suri, a Syrian resident in Spain who together with Mustafá Setmarian had created and financed al-Qaeda Spain, a group that would finally attempt in Madrid on the so-called ‘Death Trains’. The negotiation did not take place, as the al-Baghdadi assassinated him and his men in a suicide attack, thus breaking any option for reconciliation.
Jaysh al-Fatah, the battering ram in Syria
The pro-al Qaeda Saudi cleric Abdullah al-Muhaysini, who had been leading the jihad for a year and a half, tries to stop the confrontation and organizes a peace plan among the jihadist factions, the so-called ‘Umma Initiative’ would resolve the hostilities through of a Sharia court.
The militias, one by one, welcome the initiative, but the Islamic State categorically rejects it, arguing that the other groups must abandon democracy and relations with militias supported by the West, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies.
Due to the failure of the peace plan, Muhaysini charges the Islamic State and asks them to go to Iraq, the sheikhs and clerics exhort them to stay away from their influence. While the total rupture becomes effective, it begins to build a grand coalition that defeats the Syrian Army: ‘Jaysh al-Fatah’ of which we have already written here.
Jaysh al-Fatah initiating the offensive in which they took the city of Ariha in Idlib.
The new coalition was born on March 25, 2015 and includes groups such as Jund al-Aqsa, Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham the Turkestan Islamic Party and the Muslim brothers of the Sham Legion among others, making up 83% of the rebel troops in the northwestern area of Syria. What wins them important victories in the city of Idlib, the base of Abu Duhur and the plain of al-Ghab.
Jaysh al-Fatah was formed by a range of Islamist groups very different from each other, which affects its stability, by the end of 2015 this translates into disputes over the interpretation of Sharia between Legion sham, Ahrar al-Sham and Jund al -Aqsa, the latter also accuse the latter of not being true Muslims for murdering Sunnis in a clear nod to the Islamic State, thus abandoning the coalition and declaring war.
Facing al-Nusra, it transforms and abandons part of its essence
In July 2016 the Syrian Army completes the siege to the eastern districts of the city of Aleppo. Starts from the West a strong campaign to stop the Russian-Syrian offensive. In all media bombard with texts appealing to humanitarianism and government virulence. However, the presence of the Frente al-Nusra and other groups in those neighborhoods is used as a counter-argument, taking advantage of the fact that the United States smashes cities such as Mosul or Ramadi. When the campaign does not work, al-Julani, aware that the International Community can not openly support jihadist groups, decides to change the name of the group to Jabhat al-Fateh al-Sham, issues a video announcing the separation of al-Qaeda and retouching its symbolism of global jihadism, to local jihadism.
This move feels bad to several commanders of Jabhat al-Nusra belonging to the elite known as Khorasan, who decide to split and contact the sleeper cells of ISIS, and militiamen of Jund al-Aqsa, who had been expelled from Idlib for their hostility towards Ahrar al-Sham
With the defeat in the siege of Aleppo, leaders of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham accuse the militias of the Euphrates Shield of not having involved what is necessary to defend the city, especially in the two attempts to break the siege where they carried all the weight. The accusations with greater emphasis point to Ahrar al-Sham who had divided his forces months before, sending a large contingent north of Aleppo to fight against the Islamic State. Thus begins a new chapter in the game of jihadist thrones.
Two great currents in Idlib
The battle of Aleppo takes its toll on Ahrar al-Sham, the group was attracted to the Turkish orbit and they demanded that it send its most capable forces to combat the Islamic State in North Aleppo, and leave the defense of the enclosures in the background . The most radical wing of Ahrar al-Sham, made up of its foreign fighters, begins to defect from the organization. Meanwhile Jabhat Fateh al-Sham leaves Jaysh al-Fatah and creates a new group called Hayat Tahrir al-Sham with which he absorbs dozens of militias, al-Julani’s diplomatic ability also manages to attract a dozen and a half of Ahrar brigades al-Sham, including Jaysh al-Ahrar his armored brigade and its leader Abu Jaber by offering him the leadership of the organization.
At the beginning of 2017 HTS makes a hostile takeover of the majority of moderate militias that still operate in Idlib, expels them from their main strongholds and assassinates the most reluctant commanders to swear allegiance. Ahrar al-Sham considers that the next to be attacked will be offered as a protector of these militias in exchange for loyalty, and agglutinates them in Jabhat Tahrir al-Souriya. With the support of Legion Sham and the Free Army of Idlib, in a clear miscalculation they dare to challenge HTS and a blitzkrieg begins in which they are defeated resoundingly, as a result they sign a humiliating armistice with which they avoid being exterminated , in exchange for yielding the city of Idlib.
Cracks in Hayat Tahrir al-Sham
The announcement that Jabhat al-Nusra was splitting from al-Qaeda felt bad among the most veteran. The first two to take a step forward were Abu Julaybib and Abu Hammam, who were hardened in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, instantly resigned and in late 2016 began forming the new jihadist group ‘Taliban Shamya’, followed by other veterans such as Abu Khadija al-Urdni and Sami al-Uraydi, supporters of Islam more rigorist close to Deobandism, school of Sunni Islam practiced in Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.
Almost a year later and coinciding with a message from al-Zawahiri describing al-Julani as a traitor, they issued a new communiqué in which they called themselves Jamā’at Anṣār al-Furqān in Bilād al-Shām, a group of Sunni Muslims both foreigners and Syrians, who sought the unity of all factions under the umbrella of al Qaeda, as well as the subjection of groups that they considered had moved away from Islam collaborating with ungodly regimes such as Turkey, Russia, United States or the Free Syrian Army.
In addition Hamza Bin Laden, son of the famous founder of al Qaeda issued successive messages requesting the unity of the opposition in Syria and the continuation of the jihad, which increased the rumors about his stay in the country and his possible leadership within that organization.
The cracks were exacerbated when al-Julani in his attempt to control all the militias in Idlib and after the announcement of Turkey-Russia-Iran in which they divided the government, caused a carousel of defections within HTS: Abu Jaber; Muhaysini; Jaysh al-Ahrar; Nouredin al-Zenki; and many prominent clerics and sheiks who were loyal to him. The war spread to the Northeast of Idlib and the West of Aleppo, between Nouredin al-Zenki and HTS.
While around the governorate the murders of judges of the Sharia, and prominent commanders of brigades of HTS were killed by unknown gunmen or in bomb attacks. Later it could be known that they corresponded to the dirty war being waged within the organization between the pro-al Qaeda and the followers of al-Julani in a pulse of this to establish an independence over those of al-Zawahiri as He had done al-Baghdadi in Iraq in the past. The victims were those militants favorable to al Qaeda and eager to kill al-Julani who they consider has abandoned their duty as a good Muslim by embracing Syrian nationalism, forcing a separation with the world jihad with the alleged support of Turkish intelligence. with whom it seems that they maintain relations. However the Turkish Army has entered Idlib with the support of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.
War of thrones today
The current division is palpable, after reaching the top HTS begins to suffer the attack of rivals competing to snatch the throne. Al-Julani has gone from being the alliance expert to having to use a strong hand against those who doubt his leadership. Inside his fief, he has a hard battle to dismantle the wayward, the new organization Ansar al-Furqan that brings together the foreign veterans of al Qaeda. The most recent arrests unleashed throughout the Gobernación would be the majority of its leaders and ideologues. It is infuriating to former influential members such as Muhaysini who has cast harsh criticism on the course of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.
Another front has been opened with Jund al-Aqsa who was expelled in 2016 from Jabhat Fateh al-Sham for attacking members of Ahrar al-Sham, and forced to leave Idlib for the desert of Homs. However, everything indicates that they have remained in the area and recently they have snatched the city of Sarmin from HTS. Clerigos who have mediated with HTS and Ansar al-Furqan have sought as a solution that the al-Julani liberate the detainees and send them to that city, which implicitly indicates that there are connections between Ansar al-Furqan and Jund al-Aqsa.
On the other hand, the Islamic State that believed itself defeated, has burst out of nowhere and has taken control of several dozen villages in Hama that were in the hands of HTS, all after an operation in which it is suspected agreed with the Syrian Army to allow the passage from the south of the Salamiyah-Ithiriyah road to the north. Your last letter could be the link with Jund al-Aqsa fighters with whom you have friendly relations.
Further north, Muhaysini is trying to rebuild the Jaysh al-Fatah operations room, although for the time being the progress in that company is unknown, but the division is such that it is very questionable that it could be put into operation. The clergyman defected from HTS when they started their attack on Noureddin al-Zenki who had previously left the coalition for disagreements over relations with other militias. This group that earned an infamous image when beheading a Palestinian minor, remains in the West of Aleppo thanks to an armistice signed with HTS after an operation of attrition that was on its way to suppose its defeat.
Meanwhile Ahrar al-Sham turned into a caricature of what he came to be, he remains with a low profile in the shadow of the Turkish troops interned in Aleppo and Idlib, hoping that a new conjuncture will restore him to his greatness of the past.
Undoubtedly, winter has been installed in Idlib and there are still many chapters to figure out who will take the throne, although as the Syrian Army advances, the options evaporate.