- - Tuesday, June 26, 2018

ISTANBULIdlib is under siege — from within and without.

Since January 2016, Syrians driven from their homes by the country’s brutal civil war have arrived en masse in the northwestern city and its surrounding province bordering Turkey. Those fleeing fighting arrive at the rate of a person a minute at one of the few sanctuaries the government will allow, according to the United Nations.

But reaching the sanctuary does not signal an end to their troubles. Violent jihadi groups that control much of the region are seeking to impose their version of Islamic law on residents and refugees flocking to the Idlib enclave.

This past week alone, roadside bombs, targeted assassinations and firefights claimed at least 163 lives in Idlib, according the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a leading monitor group. On Thursday, at least five civilians were killed and dozens more injured when a pair of bombs strapped to a car and a motorcycle exploded near the city’s western entrance, the Anadolu news agency reported.

The vicious crosscurrents that have marked the Syrian conflict from the start are on vivid display in Idlib.

Multisided battles that include the rebel Free Syrian Army; the al-Qaeda-affiliated Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the terrorist group’s main chapter in Syria; another al Qaeda-linked militant group called Haras Al Din, or the Guardians of Religion; and remnants of the still-potent Islamic State forces are daily occurrences. Although Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, known as HTS, has faced military setbacks in Idlib in recent months, it still controls about 60 percent of the territory.

“The situation in completely out of our hands, and we are exhausted from this continuous war and displacement,” said Ali Kamal, a physician who evacuated from the rural Homs province town of Waer after surrendering to Syrian government forces in April.

Panos Moumtzis, the U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Syria, warned this month that Idlib was becoming a “dumping ground” for civilians and militants relocated from other parts of Syria, putting some 2.5 million civilians in the region at risk.

For Idlib residents, he told a briefing for reporters in Geneva, “there is no other Idlib to take them to.” He said the carnage could outstrip the bloody battles that ousted rebel forces from eastern Aleppo and the Damascus suburb of Ghouta. “Really, this is the last location.

“Our worry is that with the Idlib situation, we have not seen the worst in Syria” yet, Mr. Moumtzis said.

Last year, Idlib was declared one of four “de-escalation zones” in Syria included in a Russian-brokered agreement between Syrian President Bashar Assad and the main rebel forces. But people on the ground call the agreement a farce.

“How can you call this a de-escalation when a Russian missile destroyed a 12-story building where we operated a clinic?” said Dr. Kamal, who works for a network of health care centers supported by the Syrian American Medical Society in Idlib. “Meanwhile, the criminal gangs and extreme groups are kidnapping specialist physicians and asking for ransoms.”

Left defenseless

The jihadis are giving the Russians a pretext to attack and a reason for Western donors to pull back from efforts to assist Idlib civilians. That formula effectively leaves Idlib residents defenseless.

“HTS does not have a base within the local population,” said Ammar Kahf, executive director of the Omran Center for Strategic Studies in Istanbul. “Most of the local population rejects them, and we are publishing our field study in July documenting how many state that they are publicly against HTS and how many are coerced into collaborating with them.”

The situation is increasingly dire even though the extremist fighters are estimated to number fewer than 10,000, he said.

“It’s important not to exaggerate the size of HTS,” Mr. Kahf said. “What the Russians have done is haphazardly target the civilian populations in those regions, risking hundreds and thousands of lives. What the United States needs to do is empower residents and the anti-Assad armies to consolidate and eliminate the al Qaeda groups in the north.”

This month, a group of civilian activists in the provincial towns of Ma’arat Al Nu’man and Saraqib took the initiative to exclude jihadi groups from their neighborhoods by posting “termination of contract” notices on trees and electrical poles telling foreign fighters that they are not welcome in Idlib.

“People are sick of foreign commanders constantly intervening in local affairs,” said Samir Mansour, an activist who prints and posts the notices. “We are showing that these foreign fighters are not welcome in Syria, and they have been the main reason behind the air attacks.”

In January, the students of Free Aleppo University, an independent higher-education center that has relocated 40 miles from Syria’s second-largest city to Idlib, staged demonstrations that blocked the replacement of deans and department heads by functionaries backed by Islamist militias.

“We are about training students to fight against all kinds of injustice, said Free Aleppo University law professor Abdulkafi Alhamdo. “But our biggest problems now are Russian and Assad regime bombing together with the scale-back in assistance from Western donors because they don’t see how we are defeating al Qaeda and the other extremist groups in the classroom, hospitals and town councils.”

The U.S. government put a hold on some $200 million for civilian projects in Syria in March, citing fears of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham influence and a desire to see other nations.

The freeze included money for the White Helmets civilian search-and-rescue teams that help recover people from bombed-out buildings and other rubble, help restore water and power, and remove unexploded weapons from agricultural areas. President Trump last week ordered $6.6 million specifically allocated for the White Helmets’ work.

Mr. Kahf, the Istanbul-based Syria analyst, said the Idlib situation requires coordinated Western military intervention — a tall order when many of the outside powers are working at cross-purposes in the Syrian war.

“Eliminating HTS and Haras El Din will require infiltration and elimination using the anti-Assad Syrian forces supported by the Americans and the Turks and precision logistical support for targeting the leaders of these groups, especially the foreign elements,” Mr. Kahf said. “We also need to make sure that residents have access to basic services like water and gas because it’s clear that HTS is using control over these resources as a revenue stream for themselves and for control over civilians.”


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