Idlib and Its Environs – Narrowing Prospects for a Rebel Holdout

Author : Mircea Birca | Monday, February 17, 2020
Posted in category Eurasia, Middle Orient
Comments Off on Idlib and Its Environs – Narrowing Prospects for a Rebel Holdout

Greater Idlib and its immediate surroundings in northwest Syria—consisting of rural northern Latakia, northwestern Hama, and western Aleppo—stand out as the last segment of the country held by independent
groups. These groups are primarily jihadist, Islamist, and Salafi in orientation. Other areas have returned to Syrian government control, are held by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), or are held by
insurgent groups that are entirely constrained by their foreign backers; that is, these backers effectively make decisions for the insurgents. As for insurgents in this third category, the two zones of particular interest are (1)
the al-Tanf pocket, held by the U.S.-backed Jaish Maghaweer al-Thawra, and (2) the areas along the northern border with Turkey, from Afrin in the west to Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ain in the east, controlled by “Syrian

National Army” (SNA) factions that are backed by
Turkey and cannot act without its approval.
This paper considers the development of Idlib and
its environs into Syria’s last independent center for insurgents, beginning with the province’s near-full takeover by
the Jaish al-Fatah alliance in spring 2015 and concluding
at the end of 2019, by which time Jaish al-Fatah had
long ceased to exist and the jihadist group Hayat Tahrir
al-Sham had become the dominant actor. It also surveys
the main military and civilian actors around Idlib over
2019, as well as the efforts of the Syrian regime and
its allies to retake the area. Finally, this paper considers
the near- and medium-term future of the region, one
that entails bleak prospects not only for the insurgency’s
survival but also for the overall humanitarian situation.
Background
Much of Idlib province fell out of Syrian regime control
between 2012 and 2014, although President Bashar
al-Assad still retained control of the provincial capital,
Idlib city, and some other key towns such as Jisr alShughour and Ariha. By the end of 2014, al-Qaeda’s
official branch in Syria at the time, Jabhat al-Nusra, and
the hardline Salafi group Ahrar al-Sham had established
themselves as the strongest actors in the province; more
nationalist insurgents had suffered heavy losses when
Jabhat al-Nusra expelled the Syrian Revolutionaries Front
(SRF) coalition from Idlib province during a brief period
of fighting in October–November 2014.1
Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra subsequently
came to be the leading factions in the joint operations
room called Jaish al-Fatah (Army of Conquest), which
was officially formed in late March 2015 and also
included the factions Jund al-Aqsa, Ajnad al-Sham,
Liwa al-Haqq, Jaish al-Sunna, and Failaq al-Sham. Of
these other groups, Jund al-Aqsa was definitively jihadist, whereas the rest were considered Islamist and/or
Salafi. Jaish al-Fatah’s opening statement contained the
subtitle “The Idlib Expedition” and, in keeping with its
name, declared the intention of capturing Idlib city from
the Syrian regime while affirming the general goal of
“tearing out the roots of idolatrous tyranny in order for
its place to be filled with the rule of Islam and its mercy
and justice.”2
Jaish al-Fatah had taken control of Idlib city by the
end of March 2015, of Jisr al-Shughour by the end of
April, and of Ariha by the end of May. The only places
in Idlib province that remained outside insurgent control
were the isolated Shia villages of al-Fua and Kafarya,
whose local fighters were bolstered by a small presence
of Lebanese Hezbollah personnel serving in a training
and advisory capacity.3
Charles Lister has pointed out that the insurgent successes in Idlib involved coordination among the various
rebel factions in the northwest. This meant that U.S.-
backed Free Syrian Army groups were also working with
Jaish al-Fatah during the offensive. Further, the northwest
insurgency’s foreign backers took a more permissive approach to coordination with the likes of Jabhat al-Nusra,
having adopted a consensus view that increased military
pressure on the Syrian regime could help spur a political
transition in the country.4
In retrospect, however, these hopes were entirely
misplaced. The insurgency’s northwest offensive essentially saw U.S.-backed groups as auxiliaries for Jabhat
al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham, thereby enabling the more
hardline elements of the insurgency, rather than allowing
these groups to serve as a counterbalance to the influence of Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham.5 In addition,
the offensive did not lead to any progress toward a
political transition. By summer 2015, the Syrian regime
had adopted a more defensive posture to guard strategically vital areas but retained its political intransigence.
Moreover, the developments had convinced Russia that
a direct military intervention was necessary to turn the
tide in the Syrian government’s favor; the insurgency’s
backers (i.e., the United States, Turkey, Saudi Arabia,
and Qatar) were unwilling to counter with a direct military intervention of their own. Thus, the civil war has
moved decisively in favor of the government as opposed
to the insurgency.
For Jaish al-Fatah, whose apparent brand success
saw similar groups spring up in areas such as Qalamoun
and southern Syria, part of the idea behind the northwest coalition was to create a joint administration. This
is what arose in Idlib city, which saw the creation of a
Jaish al-Fatah administration that was promoted in videos
released by the group’s media outlet in September and
October 2015.6
Nonetheless, Jaish al-Fatah failed to create either
a true unity among its component factions or a joint
administration across the wider northwest. A notable
crack emerged in October 2015 when Jund al-Aqsa
withdrew from the coalition, citing support by some
of the Jaish al-Fatah factions for “the projects that are

in conflict with the Islamic sharia.”
Jund al-Aqsa also rejected pressure from Ahrar al-Sham to fight
actively against the Islamic State,
affirming that it would do so only
in self-defense.7 More broadly,
though, the two leading factions
in Jaish al-Fatah, Jabhat al-Nusra
and Ahrar al-Sham, maintained
their own areas of control and
influence in much of the northwest
rather than creating a joint Jaish
al-Fatah administration throughout
the entire province. The two groups
even backed different judicial and
service institutions.8 The success
of Jaish al-Fatah in the long run
depended on whether Jabhat alNusra and Ahrar al-Sham could
reach a true merger agreement.
Otherwise, Jaish al-Fatah would
never become anything more than
another military operations room
and thus would fail in its mission.
(See the appendix for a list of armed factions in and
around Idlib.)
Discussions about mergers and pressure for unity
among factions intensified in 2016 as the Syrian regime,
with Russian support, worked to encircle the rebel-held
parts of eastern Aleppo city and take them by storm,
with the aim of inflicting a decisive political blow on
the insurgency. A key impediment, however, was Jabhat
al-Nusra’s allegiance to al-Qaeda. In July 2016, Jabhat
al-Nusra decided to rebrand itself as Jabhat Fatah alSham and declared that it had no connection with any
“external entity.”9 Though this declaration was interpreted
as an apparent severing of ties with al-Qaeda, the
Jabhat Fatah al-Sham leadership had in fact agreed to
maintain a secret connection with al-Qaeda—at least
until broader factional unity was realized. Only once
such unity was achieved would al-Qaeda leader Ayman
al-Zawahiri supposedly permit Jabhat Fatah al-Sham to
break its organizational ties.10
Jabhat al-Nusra’s rebranding as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham
ultimately failed to achieve unity with Ahrar al-Sham,
even after the fall of Aleppo city in December 2016.
First, it was widely suspected that the rebranding was
simply an al-Qaeda-devised ploy. Second, it was feared

that Jabhat Fatah al-Sham was using unity talks and
mergers to exert dominance over the other factions,
which preferred to maintain ties with Turkey, their primary
foreign backer.
By the end of the following month, January 2017,
a round of infighting in the region had divided the
northwest insurgency into two primary camps that persist
today. On one side were Jabhat Fatah al-Sham and its
allies, which had merged to form Hayat Tahrir al-Sham
(HTS).11 This constituted a true and complete break from
al-Qaeda. On the other side were the nonjihadist elements of the insurgency, principally represented in Ahrar
al-Sham, whose most hardline components had by now
joined HTS. Despite these developments, Jaish al-Fatah
continued to endure as an administrative entity in Idlib
city, in contrast to competing administrations elsewhere
in the province.
But it was only a matter of time before Jaish al-Fatah
would definitively fall apart. Sam Heller has convincingly argued that the strategic logic of HTS has been
driven by the idea of attaining factional hegemony over
the northwest insurgency, at both the military and the
administrative levels.12 Though hegemony would not
necessarily mean complete destruction of other factions,

it would at some point have required a move against
rivals and obstacles.
Sure enough, multiple rounds of infighting occurred
from the time of the formation of HTS until early 2019;
the infighting ultimately cemented the organization’s hegemony. In summer 2017, HTS seized key assets in Idlib:
namely, the provincial capital—thus ending the Jaish
al-Fatah arrangement—and the Bab al-Hawa border
crossing with Turkey. In late 2017, HTS established the
Syrian Salvation Government (Hukumat al-Inqadh alSuriya) as the civilian wing for enforcing HTS authority
in the northwest. Finally, by January 2019, the group
had routed the Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zinki movement,
which had defected from HTS and maintained a grip on
parts of the western Aleppo countryside in opposition to
HTS. In that same round of infighting, HTS compelled its
nonjihadist rivals to agree in theory to the Salvation Government’s authority over the whole northwest region.13
Hence, by early 2019, HTS had secured its hegemony over the northwest, which continues today. The
next section will outline the main actors in Idlib and its
environs on all sides, with a particular focus on activities
and developments over 2019.
Hayat Tahrir al-Sham
Hayat Tahrir al-Sham remains the most powerful actor in
Idlib and its environs. It functions as the ruling authority
in the majority of the region’s remaining insurgent-held
areas, with its grip particularly strong in the northern
countryside near the Turkish border.14 HTS controls Idlib’s
key assets such as the provincial capital and the Bab
al-Hawa border crossing, and is active on all the main
frontlines against the forces of the Syrian regime and
its allies.
HTS has organized its forces into four main armies
named for the first four Rashidun caliphs following the
death of the Prophet Muhammad, though the group also
has independent brigades outside those four armies.
The two main brigades are the North Brigade, which
operates in the western Aleppo countryside, and the
West Brigade, which operates from the Jabal Shashabo
area in the Sahel al-Ghab plain to the Jabal al-Turkmen
area in the northeastern Latakia countryside.15 In addition, the group has its special Red Bands (al-Asaib
al-Hamra) force, which primarily conducts operations
behind enemy lines. HTS has conducted multiple social
media campaigns to recruit for its forces, and allows

potential recruits to enlist via WhatsApp or Telegram.16
Reports of HTS fighters’ monthly salaries vary. For example, one contact for the September 2019 recruitment
campaign reported the monthly salary to be 45,000
Syrian pounds (about $41–$45, according to January 2020 exchange rates) for a married person and
38,000 Syrian pounds (about $35–$38) for a single
person. In November 2019, a representative of the
al-Zubair squadron reported reduced salaries: 36,000
Syrian pounds (about $33–$36) for a married person
and 24,000 Syrian pounds (about $22–$24) for a
single person, although these amounts were subject to
increase. But conversely, a member of the Red Bands
recently reported that salaries have increased in light of
the depreciating Syrian pound. Though he did not give
specific figures, he added that salaries vary according
to sector, specific force affiliation, and the like.17
HTS’s status as the main military force among the
insurgents in the northwest is further illustrated by the
many casualties the group has sustained during its
recent engagements with the Syrian government and
allied forces. According to Abu al-Fatah al-Farghali, an
Egyptian official in HTS, the group lost 500 fighters in
the summer campaign that saw the Syrian regime and
its allies reclaim the northern Hama countryside and
Khan Sheikhoun in southern Idlib.18
Despite its broader hegemonic approach to military
and administrative control of the northwest, HTS has
shown some flexibility in working with other nonjihadist factions in Idlib. The group is a participant in
the al-Fatah al-Mubin (Clear Conquest) Operations
Room, which includes the Turkish-backed nonjihadist
factions of the National Front for Liberation (al-Jabha
al-Wataniya lil-Tahrir) and the independent nonjihadist
group Jaish al-Izza.19
Further, HTS has supported a military initiative
ostensibly intended to enlist recruits at a popular, nonfactional level. This initiative, which officially claims
to be independent, is called Saraya al-Muqawama
al-Shabiya (Popular Resistance Brigades). Established
during Ramadan 2019, Saraya al-Muqawama alShabiya bolstered the frontline mujahedin by strengthening fortifications and providing other auxiliary support.
The program has also used social media for recruitment
and donation-gathering efforts: its “equip a raider”
campaign encouraged donations via WhatsApp
and listed the dollar amounts of various types of military equipment.20 Another, more recent HTS-backed

initiative designed for mass appeal is the “mobilize”
campaign launched at the beginning of 2020 amid
regime and Russian advances and intensified bombing—even though it is purportedly aimed at recruiting
for the interests of all factions in Idlib and its environs.21
Other Jihadist Groups
Beyond HTS, a number of other jihadist groups of different orientations are active in and around Idlib. The
most prominent include the Turkestan Islamic Party, Huras
al-Din, Jamaat Ansar al-Islam, Jabhat Ansar al-Din, Ansar
al-Tawhid, and Katibat Imam al-Bukhari, though none
of these groups can match HTS in terms of military
power or administrative control. Indeed, they do not
exercise any real control of territory but function only with
HTS’s permission. Though such groups might sponsor
nonmilitary projects on the ground such as dawa (i.e.,
Muslim proselytizing and religious outreach activities)
and education programs, they neither have governance
wings that compare to the HTS-sponsored Salvation
Government nor exercise control over local councils
that provide services in and around Idlib. Further, these
jihadist groups lack the financial resources of HTS, which
effectively controls the northwest’s most lucrative assets.
In terms of their orientations, these jihadist groups can
be broadly divided into (1) allies of HTS and its project in
northwest Syria and (2) critics of HTS that are more sympathetic to al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri’s advice
on the need to pursue guerrilla warfare rather than hold
territory. Groups in the latter camp often criticize other
HTS moves, including its break from al-Qaeda and its
Salvation Government project. They further criticize HTS
concessions to “nationalist” sentiments at the expense
of transnational jihad, the group’s relations with Turkey,
and the fact that HTS permitted Turkey to set up military
monitoring points to enforce a supposed de-escalation.
Those at the extreme end of the jihadist spectrum in
the northwest argue that the Turkish presence needs to
be actively confronted as an apostate occupation and
removed by force.22
Among the jihadist critics of HTS, the most prominent
is undoubtedly Huras al-Din (Guardians of the Religion),
whose original members were HTS defectors who rejected the break with al-Qaeda, arguing that it was
carried out without appropriate permission from Zawahiri
and thus constituted disobedience of the emir. Huras
al-Din’s beginnings go back as far as July 2017 and
crystallized at the end of 2017, with the group formally
announcing itself at the end of February 2018.23 The
group’s weakness relative to HTS was illustrated in an
argument that emerged in early 2019 involving Huras alDin’s claims to weapons possessed by HTS. Ultimately,
the two sides came to an agreement in February 2019
when Huras al-Din dropped the dispute.24 More recently,
the group’s leadership reaffirmed its commitment to avoid
disputes with HTS, calling on its own members and
members of HTS to “keep away from the fitnas and
resolve disputes through resorting to the arbitration of the
law of God Almighty,” while reminding them to focus
on “repelling the assault of the Nusayris [a derogatory
term for Alawites, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s
sect] and those behind them.”25
Though Huras al-Din clearly cannot operate without
HTS’s permission, there are conflicting claims as to the
degree of HTS oversight of Huras al-Din operations. In a
conversation with the author in July 2019, one foreigner
in Syria who works in media and is sympathetic to HTS
affirmed that the group provides ammunition and food
for Huras al-Din at points of ribat (frontline manning). In
another conversation that same month, however, a foreign fighter associated with Huras al-Din denied that HTS
provides any support to Huras al-Din on the frontlines.
Regardless of its level of support from HTS, Huras
al-Din rejects participating in the al-Fatah al-Mubin
Operations Room, working instead in the Wa Harid
al-Mouminin (And Rouse the Believers) Operations Room
alongside Jamaat Ansar al-Islam and Jabhat Ansar alDin. Wa Harid al-Mouminin set up a social media
campaign called Jahhizuna (Equip Us) to raise money
for fighting on the frontlines.26 For further context, Jamaat
Ansar al-Islam originated in Iraq and expanded into
Syria as the civil war broke out. Jabhat Ansar al-Din was
part of the original merger of HTS but broke off as an
officially independent group in 2018. In an interview,
the Jabhat Ansar al-Din media office avoided criticizing
HTS by name, but stressed the importance of independent decisionmaking for the future of the revolution and
criticized international talks and agreements involving
the northwest, such as the Astana talks that began in
2017 and the Sochi agreement struck between Turkey
and Russia in September 2018.27
Huras al-Din has been marked by its own internal
problems. In summer 2019, a dispute emerged over participation in fighting on the northern Hama front against
the Syrian regime and its allies. Some sharia officials in

Huras al-Din apparently rejected the idea of working
alongside the nonjihadist groups of the National Front
for Liberation and were thus removed from the group by
leadership.28 Those removed and their supporters, including breakaway group Jamaat Ansar al-Haq, criticized
the leadership of Huras al-Din for refusing to come to
sharia judgment.29
At the other end of the spectrum, the most prominent HTS ally is the Turkestan Islamic Party’s branch in
Syria, which has its primary base in Jisr al-Shughour in
northern Idlib province and focuses on military operations, though there are multiple allegations the group has
engaged in theft and confiscation of property.30 During
the dispute with Huras al-Din in 2019, the party signed
a statement from foreign fighter groupings, alongside
others working formally inside HTS, declaring their support for HTS.31 But the Turkestan Islamic Party is not
the sole Uyghur-led jihadist group in the field. Another,
Katibat al-Ghuraba al-Turkestan (Turkestani Strangers
Battalion), has its primary base in the Harem area of
northern Idlib province. Indeed, a number of Uyghurs
tied to Katibat al-Ghuraba al-Turkestan have taken up
residence in what was originally the Druze village of
Qalb Lawzah, which is currently controlled by HTS.32
Although obtaining precise information on Katibat alGhuraba al-Turkestan is somewhat difficult, evidence
suggests that it is a more hardline breakaway from the
Turkestan Islamic Party. Members of Katibat al-Ghuraba
al-Turkestan see the Turkestan Islamic Party as too lax in
advancing the implementation of Islamic law, a criticism
that parallels al-Qaeda loyalist critiques of HTS and the
Salvation Government.33 Even so, Katibat al-Ghuraba alTurkestan has claimed coordination with the nonjihadist
Jaish al-Ahrar in a recent operation;34 such coordination
illustrates that, despite its pretense of ideological purity,
Katibat al-Ghuraba al-Turkestan will nonetheless work
with groups that differ from it ideologically.
The Islamic State
The Islamic State has not exerted meaningful control
over territory in Idlib province since 2013, given that its
forces withdrew eastward and concentrated in Raqqa
after a round of infighting with Syrian rebels that began
in early 2014. Nevertheless, arrests and operations by
HTS security apparatus against Islamic State cells in and
around Idlib are common. Reports of these crackdowns,
which are featured on the HTS-linked Ebaa News outlet,
accuse the Islamic State cells of manufacturing improvised explosive devices and of placing them on roads
to target vehicles belonging to the mujahedin.35 The
Islamic State’s own media agency, however, has been
silent on any recent activities by the group’s cells in and
around Idlib and on the group’s general presence in
the northwest. The most likely reason for this silence is
operational security.
The need for operational security in Idlib is hardly
surprising. The Barisha area in the region’s northern
countryside was a refuge for Islamic State leader Abu
Bakr al-Baghdadi, who was killed in a U.S. raid in late
October 2019. Some misconceptions have emerged
about the raid and factional control in the area. First,
Barisha is not controlled by Huras al-Din, but rather by
HTS, as illustrated by the affiliation of Barisha’s local
council with the Salvation Government.36 Second, there
is no evidence that Baghdadi received protection from
Huras al-Din or that he was in the area to negotiate
some kind of understanding with the group. On the
contrary, the Islamic State and Huras al-Din are enemies,
with the former having declared takfir (i.e., a charge of
being a “disbeliever”) on the latter.37
It is possible that the Islamic State has sympathizers
or infiltrators in Huras al-Din, as demonstrated by an
internal Huras al-Din memo from February 2019; the
memo warned that contact or affiliation with the Islamic
State would result in automatic expulsion from Huras
al-Din.38 For Huras al-Din, any organizational cooperation with the Islamic State would amount to no less than
group suicide, providing a pretext for HTS to dismantle
the al-Qaeda-loyalist outfit.
Theories behind Baghdadi’s choice to take refuge
in the Barisha area will inevitably be speculative in
nature. Indeed, Baghdadi’s presence in Idlib surprised
analysts and observers, many of whom had thought
he was in hiding in areas along the porous Syria-Iraq
border. One likely reason for Baghdadi’s choice of Idlib,
and of the Barisha area in particular, is the region’s airspace, which has generally been off-limits to the U.S.-led
anti–Islamic State coalition. Barisha is also a relatively
quiet and unremarkable area where people tend to
keep to themselves. Testimony gathered in October and
November 2019 reveals no indication of awareness
among locals of Baghdadi’s presence in the area in
the days, weeks, or months leading up to the Barisha
raid. Had locals known of his presence, they would
almost certainly have informed HTS, whose own leaders

expressed disappointment that they themselves were not
the ones who found and killed Baghdadi.
Another possible explanation for Baghdadi’s presence in the area is that he was trying to cross the
border into Turkey either alone or with his family. Indeed,
fleeing to the northwest of Syria or Turkey as the Islamic
State’s territorial empire collapsed had been a preferred
means of escape for many Islamic State members and
leaders, including those from rival ideologies inside the
group who eventually came to oppose the Islamic State’s
leadership and ultimately defected. Thus, al-Nadhir alUryan (one of the few remaining active Telegram channels representing the more extreme trend that emerged
within the Islamic State) wrote in November 2019 in
disparaging reference to the “dissidents” who eventually
turned against Baghdadi: “And what will make you
realize what Idlib is? It includes all the worst scum of the
Jahmites of [the Islamic State] who fled from al-Baghuz
(students of its knowledge and its Shari’i officials, as
they call themselves).”39 But on the other side, Idlib and
its environs have also been a refuge for extremists. In
fact, al-Nadhir al-Uryan mentioned in July 2019 that the
owner of the Wa Harid al-Mouminin channel ended up
“in the prisons of Jabhat al-Nusra” and that the owners
of similar “extreme” channels had been arrested.40
The Syrian Salvation
Government and Local
Councils
As noted earlier, HTS was able to compel its nonjihadist
rivals to accept, in theory, the authority of the Syrian
Salvation Government over the whole of Idlib and its
environs, pointing to the importance that HTS attaches
to the Salvation Government as part of its project in
the northwest.
The Salvation Government is divided into multiple
ministries (see box 1). These institutions can be viewed
as more “civilian” outgrowths of previous institutions
that existed under HTS and its predecessors, Jabhat
Fatah al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra. Thus, the Dawa
and Awqaf Ministry developed from the Dawa and
Guidance Office that existed under Jabhat al-Nusra,
the Justice Ministry and its courts evolved from the dar
al-qada (“judiciary abode” or, simply, “court”) set up
by Jabhat al-Nusra in 2014, and the Ministry of Loca

Administration and Services grew out of the Civil Administration for Services, previously called the General
Administration for Services under Jabhat al-Nusra.41
The most important local councils in Idlib and its
environs, including the Idlib city council, the city council
of Jisr al-Shughour, and councils in important border localities such as Salqin and Harem, are openly affiliated
with the Salvation Government.42 Members of the local
councils that answer to the Salvation Government vary
in their willingness to give statements to journalists. The
head of the city council in Jisr al-Shughour made himself
readily available for interviews. In contrast, requests for
interviews were made with members of local councils
from the villages of Keftin and Qalb Lawzah in the Jabal
al-Summaq region of the northern Idlib countryside. The
original inhabitants of Keftin and Qalb Lawzah were
Druze and have been forced to convert to Islam.43 The
council members insisted on obtaining authorization from
the Salvation Government and HTS authorities, and in
both cases, the possibility of an interview was rejected.
Although no explicit reason was given for rejecting the interview requests, HTS clearly regards media
coverage of the area as particularly sensitive in light
of the original inhabitants’ minority origins, in addition
to the fact that foreigners have settled in the homes of

many departed original inhabitants.44 A similar sensitivity seems to exist regarding the originally Shia villages
of al-Fua and Kafarya, which were evacuated entirely
of their original inhabitants in summer 2018 and are
currently under the control of HTS, which has resettled
the villages primarily with displaced (Sunni) Syrians.
The local councils of both villages now answer to the
Salvation Government. Though the head of the local
council in al-Fua surprisingly agreed to an interview
in summer 2019, the local council head in Kafarya
rejected the idea, citing the sensitivity of the village’s
status.45 Conversely, the current iteration of the local
council in Kafarya agreed to an interview in January
2020, and spoke about how the village was initially
divided into “sectors” consisting of various insurgent
factions that settled the village with their own personnel.46 Supposedly, though, these factions largely left,
leaving in place the Salvation Government–affiliated
local council and leaving the village largely resettled
with displaced persons.47
In theory, all local councils in Idlib and its environs
answer to the Salvation Government per the agreement
between HTS and the nonjihadist factions that followed
a round of infighting in January 2019. Until recently,
some councils have claimed an exception, but any
claims of “independence” must be treated with caution.
One example is the case of Taftanaz, whose head of
the local council claimed in a September 2019 interview
that the council was “independent.” In a subsequent
conversation that took place in January 2020, though,
the council head said that there are “work relations”
with the Salvation Government, including discussion
of “organizational plans and technical studies” from its
Technical Services Directorate. Another example is the
town of Binnish, which has been outside Syrian government control since 2012. In an interview at the end of
August 2019, the local council’s media representative
claimed the council was independent, describing the
town’s “revolutionary institutions” as “far removed from
the Salvation Government.”48 This independence was
attributed to the town’s rejection of HTS, as Binnish was
a stronghold of the Free Syrian Army and Ahrar al-Sham.
It is notable that a new local council was formed
in early November 2019, with a new social media
page clearly displaying the council’s affiliation with the
Salvation Government.49 In a January 2020 conversation, a former media activist from Binnish further clarified
the matter. According to him, a general distrust had
developed among the people of Binnish and the various
factions—and, by extension, those civil institutions that
are, in reality, controlled by whichever faction controls
the land. The previous local council was ostensibly
formed on the basis of being independent and representing the people of Binnish, but in truth HTS was directing
the council “in a hidden sense.” Multiple complaints
about the quality of services were lodged against the
previous local council, which dissolved at the end of
October 2019.50 This was followed by the establishment of a new council, which now openly declares its
affiliation with the Salvation Government. In the view of
the former media activist, though, the current council is
better than the previous one because it provides better
services—not because it is openly affiliated with the
Salvation Government.
One question that naturally arises is what the Salvation Government means for local councils’ daily operations. The ministries of the Salvation Government issue
some general regulations that are to be circulated to
the local councils, such as those that call for appropriate licensing for new well construction or ending the
practice of watering crops with contaminated sewage
water.51 Further evidence also exists of local council and
Salvation Government collaboration on matters such
as the monitoring of rent prices.52 Therefore, it cannot
be argued that the Salvation Government is entirely
laissez-faire in its approach to local councils.
Whether the Salvation Government has led to any
meaningful improvement in the day-to-day functioning of
local councils remains uncertain. Although the Salvation
Government has announced plans for bigger projects,
including housing units for displaced people, it does not
seem to have the financial means to support projects
initiated by local councils.53 Thus, councils that are now
formally affiliated with the Salvation Government still
depend heavily on NGOs.54
The Salvation Government is, in part, intended to
resolve the dilemma that faces HTS in Syria’s northwest.
In comparison with Syria’s east, where Jabhat al-Nusra
had a strong presence until 2014, the northwest lacks
natural resources and thus depends on outside aid. The
region relies specifically on NGOs that enter through
Turkey to sustain the population, which has substantially
grown on account of internal displacement. HTS has
long been aware of its reliance on outside aid, having
called for NGOs to continue operating after its major
gains in July 2017.55 If HTS were to administer everything

in its own name as the Islamic State did in its areas of
control, then Syria’s northwest region would face much
greater isolation on account of the group’s designation
as an international terrorist organization.
Nonetheless, some locals do not give credence
to this apparent distancing. Discontent exists in certain
areas whose local councils are affiliated with the Salvation Government, on the grounds that the local councils
are seen as mere tools of HTS. An example of this can
be found in the locality of Hazano in the northern Idlib
countryside.56 The local council’s media representative,
who was interviewed by this author in August 2019,
subsequently left the council, affirming that “the whole
locality is hostile to the council” because “it has been
imposed for personal goals for the [HTS] and they have
seized all the resources, and they have not had recourse
to any of the locality’s notables.” Indeed, some locals
in Hazano launched a social media campaign, “Down
with the New Hazano Council,” which claims that the
council has been chosen illegitimately by HTS and does
not represent the locality’s groups, that its members are
neither learned nor educated, and that the council has
been imposed for personal goals.
A much tenser situation arose in the northern Idlib
town of Kafr Takharim in November 2019 when local
protestors refused to pay the zakat tax on their olive
crops to zakat committees affiliated with the Salvation
Government. The protestors saw such payment as theft
of their wealth. They proceeded to expel personnel and
members of HTS from the town in yet another display
of locals perceiving the Salvation Government and HTS
as a single entity.57 In response, HTS worked to come
to an agreement with the so-called Shura Council of
Kafr Takharim—a body of senior locals—that stipulated,
among other things, that checkpoints be returned to
HTS control, and the police station and all government
institutions to the Salvation Government.58 It appears,
however, that the agreement was not implemented: HTS
proceeded to mobilize its forces and was reported to
have besieged the town in preparation for an assault
while blocking hundreds of demonstrators from Idlib
city and other localities from entering Kafr Takharim in
solidarity with the protestors.59 In a January 2020 conversation, a former member of the local council in Kafr
Takharim indicated that the situation eventually seemed
to be defused in favor of HTS and the Salvation Government, with HTS’s display of force effectively deterring
continued opposition.60
This particular episode shows how, despite local
protests against its dominance in the northwest, HTS uses
force to exert influence over the people of Idlib and its
environs. The group’s hegemony has crystallized over the
years through local tolerance; support on the battlefield
from other factions (particularly Ahrar al-Sham); outright
assaults on rival factions; and, likely, assassinations of
civilians.61
Another illustrative example is the town of Kafr Nabl,
which became renowned in wider media over the years
for its display of colorful and creative banners during
protests. The town became a center of nonviolent civic
activism and saw demonstrations against HTS. In November 2018, unidentified gunmen, likely members of
HTS, assassinated Raed Fares, an activist from Kafr Nabl
who had participated in the town’s demonstrations from
the outset and in 2013 founded the independent talk
radio station Radio Fresh FM. Fares’s colleague Hamoud
Junaid was also killed by the gunmen. Eventually, Ahmad
Jalal, who had been a designer of Kafr Nabl’s protest
banners, fled Syria.62 In 2019, repeated, indiscriminate
bombings by the Syrian regime and Russia left Kafr Nabl
virtually devoid of its original inhabitants, while some of
the few civilians who remained were reportedly forced
by HTS from their homes, which were converted into
military bases.63
In sum, the Salvation Government project should be
viewed largely as a failure in terms of improving actual
governance in Idlib and its environs. Its shortcomings
and pariah status by virtue of its association with HTS
are readily apparent, and if anything, it has served only
to enrich and empower HTS.64

The Syrian Regime and Its Allies


The Syrian regime undoubtedly intends to retake Idlib
and its environs in their entirety. Such intentions not only
are in keeping with the oft-stated goal of reasserting the
sovereignty of the Syrian state over the entirety of Syrian
territory, but also could have economic benefits for the
Syrian regime. Such benefits could include regaining
control of the important M5 highway that runs from
Damascus to Aleppo, passing through insurgent-held
areas of Idlib. Indeed, Idlib is seen as the main military
priority at the present time. As Syrian president Bashar
al-Assad said during an October 2019 visit to the Idlib

area, “The battle of Idlib is the basis for resolving chaos
and terrorism in all other areas of Syria.”65 Unlike other
previously rebel-held areas of Syria and the areas of the
northeast controlled by the Kurdish-led SDF, where the
Syrian regime has struck agreements in bids to reassert
its control, the northwest is seen by the regime as a
bastion of jihadists and other irreconcilables who can be
overcome only by sheer military force. After all, for years
Idlib has been the area to which those who rejected
reconciliation agreements in other parts of Syria have
been sent in green buses.66 The Syrian regime never
intended to leave the Idlib area alone because of its
status as a center for displacements; rather, the regime
would deal with Idlib last—after retaking whatever other
rebel-held areas it could.
The most important campaign launched by the Syrian regime in the past year began in May 2019 and
culminated with the capture of Khan Sheikhoun and
northern Hama towns such as Morek, which had served
as an effective “border crossing” between governmentheld areas and insurgent-held areas in the northwest.
The campaign was backed by intense Russian aerial
bombardment and saw an important ground role played
by Russian-backed formations such as Gen. Suhail alHassan’s “Tiger Forces,” which are currently branded
as the 25th Division Special Assignments, and Liwa
al-Quds.67 Part of the rationale behind Russia’s support
for the campaign was to put pressure on Turkey to fulfill
its end of the bargain in the Sochi agreement struck
in 2018. The agreement stipulated that the Idlib deescalation zone be preserved through the fortification
of Turkish observation points, but also called for the
creation of a demilitarized buffer zone fifteen to twenty
kilometers deep, from which “all radical terrorist groups”
were to be removed by October 15, 2018.68 This buffer
zone was never in fact created. As for the course of
the campaign, the most plausible explanation for the
insurgent losses is that, ultimately, the Syrian regime has
more intense firepower at its disposal with open-ended
support from its allies, which will eventually lead to the
regime’s gaining the upper hand in a war of attrition.
It has been claimed that the Iranians have somehow
been excluded from the campaigns in Syria’s northwest
region or that they have little or no interest in the region’s
future, but these claims are not accurate. In fact, Iran
has worked with the Syrian military to organize Syrian
fighters in the region within the framework of the Local
Defense Forces (LDF). Throughout Syria, the LDF has
been organized into regional or provincial sectors that
are supervised by officers of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary
Guard Corps (IRGC), such as the Idlib sector under a
figure named al-Hajj Asghar and the coastal sector
under al-Hajj Ayoub.69 Though many LDF groups fight in
places other than their designated provincial or regional
sectors, the very existence of these sector designations
reveals Iran’s interest in Syria’s northwest region—despite
the lack of an obvious tangible benefit (e.g., the prospect
of a land crossing such as that along the Iraq-Syria
border). Iran is ultimately an ally of the Syrian regime
and supports restoration of the regime’s control over
the Idlib area and all Syrian territory. There is also the
sectarian angle of the exiled Syrian Shia communities of
al-Fua and Kafarya: because Iran portrays itself as the
champion of Shia communities, it surely makes sense for
Iran to support the eventual return of those communities
to their original homes.
As far as operations go, evidence shows that some
LDF groups functioned in a more backline role in Hama
during the summer campaign.70 More recently, though,
some LDF formations such as the 313 Force, Fawj alNabi al-Akram, and Fawj Qamr Bani Hashim played
a more active role in clashes in late 2019 on the mountainous Latakia front, losing a number of fighters in the
process.71 A member of Fawj al-Nabi al-Akram, who
had been fighting on the Latakia front and was then
transferred to the Hama countryside, confirmed in a January 2020 conversation that Lebanese Hezbollah had
participated in the Latakia fighting. That same source
also confirmed the role on that front of al-Hajj Asghar,
who died fighting in western Aleppo in early February
2020.72 Even more recently, LDF formations including
the more well-known Liwa al-Baqir have mobilized in the
western Aleppo countryside front as part of the greater
campaign to eat away at the remaining insurgent-held
areas. An LDF fighter on this front said that this is part of
a “broad campaign, and the Republican Guard, Fourth
Division, and Local Defense are [participating] in it.”73
Finally, some evidence suggests that the Afghan
Shia Hazara Liwa Fatemiyoun unit of the IRGC has
been involved in the northwest campaign, as shown in
leaked radio communications that were intercepted.74
This point was partly corroborated by a Fatemiyoun
media official, who stated in September 2019 that
the group was operating in “Abu Kamal, Aleppo, Damascus, Hama, et cetera. In all of the areas, there is
division [of the forces].

Outlook for the Region

In late 2019, the Syrian regime, with Russian support,
intensely bombarded the rebel-held town of Maarat
al-Numan, triggering a new wave of internal displacement in Syria’s northwest.76 The short-term objective of
that round of fighting was to seize control of the town
as part of the larger goal of reopening the M5 highway. In late January 2020, Maarat al-Numan was
recaptured.77 Meanwhile, the availability of services
and the humanitarian situation in general in and around
Idlib have declined significantly owing to the recent
fall of the Syrian pound against the U.S. dollar. With
higher prices on basics such as mazut (a heavy fuel),
hours of electricity from private generators have been
reduced and prices for delivery of water via tankers
have increased.
While the entirety of the northwest region is unlikely
to return to Syrian regime control in the near or medium
term, this outcome would seem to match the long-term
trend.78 This will likely be the endgame unless Turkey
takes unilateral steps to intervene more directly and extensively through, for example, larger troop deployments,
such as can be seen in northern Aleppo countryside
areas stretching from Afrin to Jarabulus, and a willingness
to use airstrikes against advancing Syrian regime forces
and their allies in the area. In the meantime, even if
ceasefires are agreed to and ground fighting is halted
temporarily, the Syrian regime and Russia can make
life increasingly demoralizing for the people remaining
in insurgent-held areas through indiscriminate bombing
raids and targeting of civilian infrastructure such as hospitals.79 Despite speculation about tradeoffs between
Turkey and Russia for various regions of Syria (e.g.,
Turkey’s allowance of Idlib’s recapture in exchange for
Russia’s tolerance of the Turkish campaign against the
SDF east of the Euphrates River), no evidence exists
to support such claims. In the long run, both countries
have an interest in effectively dismantling the SDF: Turkey
because it sees the SDF as an extension of the Kurdistan
Workers Party, and Russia because it views the SDF as
a U.S.-backed “separatist” project. In this regard, Russia
has no concessions to make to Turkey.
In fact, Turkey’s current hold in the northwest is rather
weak. Any indirect Turkish interventions in the region,
such as supplying more weaponry and vehicles to the
insurgent groups, will not be sufficient to reverse the longterm trend. Even so, Turkey appears unwilling to intervene
more extensively. This is because most of the original
observation outposts were set up with the consent and
cooperation of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which has no wish
to see an enlarged Turkish presence that interferes with
the group’s hegemony over the insurgent-held northwest
and the Salvation Government’s administration. After
all, one of the conditions under which HTS agreed
to Turkey’s deployment of outposts was the principle
of noninterference in administration of the northwest.
Another condition was that HTS should maintain military
superiority over the Turkish deployments.80 Furthermore,
the Turkish military’s monitoring points by themselves
have not proved an effective deterrent against military
campaigns by the regime and its allies, given that they
can work around these points to avoid inflicting casualties on Turkish forces. This became apparent in the
summer campaign that saw the retaking of parts of the
northern Hama countryside and south Idlib, as well as
more recent advances that took parts of the southeastern
Idlib countryside.81
No viable alternatives exist for challenging HTS’s
hegemony over Idlib and its environs beyond a foreign
actor confronting the group directly. Anything short of
this measure effectively means reaching a de facto understanding with HTS.82 Though local protests against
the group and the Salvation Government continue, demonstrators are not equipped to coordinate a coherent
movement that can drive HTS from various areas and
significantly reduce its power.83 The group maintains a
monopoly on the use of force, which is what matters.
In short, Turkey’s desire to avoid a confrontation with
HTS is inhibiting a more extensive intervention that could
prevent the larger trend in Syria from playing out in and
around Idlib: takeover by the regime in Damascus.

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