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Michael Jansen: Radicals and power games
August 27, 2018
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Exclusive to The Gulf Today

Declarations by Hay’at Tahrir Al Sham’s head Abu Muhammad Al Julani and Daesh Commander Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi during Eid Al Adha have caused little stir in the global media.

But by resurfacing these two radical fundamentalist leaders could cause a great deal of trouble in this region and abroad.

Julani vowed his paramilitaries would fight on in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province where Tahrir, known as HTS, holds about 60 per cent of the territory and the capital. He said “reconciliation” deals with the government will not take place in Idlib. HTS militants based on the Syrian side of the Golan ceasefire line with Israel accepted “reconciliation,” to either surrender or be bussed to Idlib during a recent army campaign to clear all insurgents from the south. Idlib is, however, their last redoubt. There is nowhere else for them to go as neither Syria nor, in the case of foreign fighters, their home countries want them.

Julani’s rare appearance in a widely disseminated video coincided with the deployment of the elite Fourth and Fifth divisions of the Syrian army along Idlib’s southern and western borders and intermittent air raids and shelling of HTS positions within Idlib.

Fearing a fresh refugee influx, Ankara, which hosts 3.5 million Syrian refugees, has warned Damascus against conducting a full-scale military assault on Idlib, where at least 2.5 million civilians, half displaced from elsewhere, have settled. They are being used as a human shield by thousands of mainly fundamentalist insurgents who have taken refuge in Idlib.

The UN has warned of a catastrophe if the Syrian army launches its long-promised offensive.

Julani announced, “Mujahideen from all factions have assembly. God permitting, a precise plan has been drawn up to defend the area [and] repel an offensive by the regime and its supporters.”

His portrayal of the “mujahideen” as being united and ready to resist an army campaign, was, however, brazen bluff. Nothing could be further from the truth. There are two rival camps consisting of scores of diverse factions: the coalition cobbled together by HTS and the National Liberation Front formed in May by Turkey.

There is little unity within the two camps. Opportunistic officers and fighters defect from one faction or coalition to another. Instead of standing together, factions continue to commit violence against each other. Car bombs, improvised explosive devices and shootings have slain 220 commanders and fighters since the end of April and killed at least 55 civilians. Dozens have been abducted for ransom. Residents fear kidnapping and bombs every time they leave home.

Morale has been undermined by growing popular pressure for “reconciliation,” prompting HTS to arrest more than 100 civilians while the National Front has detained 95, accusing them of being “traitors” as they favour a peaceful solution for Idlib rather than war.

Armed intruders are not popular with the local population. The province is divided among various factions which hold towns, villages and countryside and have established surrogate local councils and Sharia (Muslim canon law) courts where judges are accused of incompetence and corruption.

While Julani argued that the Turkish army – which has established 12 monitoring points around Idlib — cannot protect Idlib, the National Front contradicted him by calling on Turkey to impose its “mandate” by placing the province under full Turkish occupation to deter attack.

Although not a major force in Idlib, Daesh also occupies a pocket of Idlib territory which it has defended against other factions. Baghdadi also criticised the armed groups for agreeing to accept “reconciliation” in the south and called on all opposition armed groups to merge with Daesh.

His main focus was, however, on the wider world where he used his Eid message to urge Muslims to wage “jihad” against the enemies of Muslims. He declared those who forget their faith and are not ready to fight are a disgrace but those who practise their religion and are prepared to do battle, will be “victorious, even after a certain time.” It has been reported there are still 20-30,000 Daesh fighters in Syria and Iraq, many of them in desert areas.

Although Daesh has lost 90 per cent of the territory it held in Syria and Iraq, the movement has overtaken Al Qaeda, the parent of both HTS and Daesh, by extending operations to Africa, the Indian Sub-Continent, and South Asia and by conducting brutal attacks in Europe.

Daesh has replaced al-Qaeda, based on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, as the premier radical fundamentalist movement in the world. Baghdadi, dubbed the globe’s most wanted man, threatened both the US and Russia which have destroyed his cross-border “caliphate” in Syria and Iraq.

Both HTS and Daesh have been branded “terrorist” organisations by the UN and are excluded from the Idlib ceasefire. Instead of keeping a low profile, HTS mounts attacks outside Idlib and launches bomb-loaded drones at Russia’s air base in neighbouring Latakia province.

Turkey has assumed the task of separating the radicals from other fighters and dealing with them. Instead, it has recruited HTS, Daesh fighters and other fundamentalists into its surrogate forces and deployed them in territory in northern Syria currently occupied by the Turkish army, thereby alienating many local residents.

Damascus and Moscow have made it clear to Turkey that HTS, Turkey’s newly minted coalition and other armed groups have to be rooted out of Idlib which cannot remain a radical base in Syria’s strategic north-west. Moscow has given Turkey more than a year to sort out the various groups in Idlib but the factions remain determined to hold onto territory they control and keep their weapons.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told a meeting of Turkish diplomats, “We consider all armed groups except the Syrian army as illegal and they should all leave Syrian soil.” This includes the Turkish army and its surrogates. This is also the position of the Syrian government which has depended on Russian backing to win back most of the territory lost to armed groups during the first three years of the war.

Ankara is concerned that once Idlib returns to Damascus’ control, Russia and the Syrian army will go for Afrin, Jarablus, al-Bab and Azaz, areas Turkey has occupied. The Kurds who — with US support — hold about 25 per cent of Syrian territory in Raqqa and Deir Al-Zor provinces have already begun talks with the government to return this vast territory to Damascus’ rule.

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