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Al-Qaeda in Syria snuffs out competition in northwest

  • Published at 06:41 pm July 25th, 2017
Al-Qaeda in Syria snuffs out competition in northwest

Syrian rebels and activists are warning that an al-Qaeda-linked jihadi group is on the verge of snuffing out what remains of the country’s uprising in northwestern Syria, after the extremists seized control of the opposition-held regional capital, Idlib, last weekend.

With the jihadis cementing their authority over the city and its province, also called Idlib, Syrian President Bashar Assad has been supplied with a useful pretext for a long-expected assault against the rebellious province: that the uprising against him is largely driven by Islamists and terrorists.

The Nusra Front is one of the many names for the al-Qaeda-affiliate that now heads the mighty Hay’at Tahrir al Sham militant alliance, Arabic for Levant Liberation Committee, that seized the city of Idlib, as well as two border crossings with Turkey to feed its coffers. It is also known as HTS.

In July last year, the Nusra Front changed its name to Fatah al-Sham Front and said it was cutting all its links with al-Qaeda, an aesthetic move seen by many as an attempt to improve its image and market itself as a faction defending the Syrian people.

It abides by a deeply conservative code for ethics and jurisprudence and tolerates no dissent, leading many who live under its rule to complain they are no better than the government they sought to overthrow in 2011.

[caption id="attachment_116174" align="aligncenter" width="800"]This Sunday, July 9, 2017 photo, released by Ibaa news agency, the communications arm of the al Qaeda-linked Levant Liberation Committee, that is consistent with independent AP reporting, shows al-Qaida-linked fighters gathering ahead of raids in the northwestern Syrian city of Idlib in search for members of the Islamic State group. Syrian rebels and opposition activists say an al-Qaida-linked group is on the verge of snuffing out what remains of the 2011 Syrian uprising against President Bashar Assad in northwest Syria. Arabic reads, "Convoys of Levant Liberation Committees head to carry out raids on cells of the Islamic State group in the city of Idlib." (Ibaa News Agency, via AP) This Sunday, July 9, 2017 photo, released by Ibaa news agency, the communications arm of the al Qaeda-linked Levant Liberation Committee, that is consistent with independent AP reporting, shows al-Qaeda-linked fighters gathering ahead of raids in the northwestern Syrian city of Idlib in search for members of the Islamic State group AP[/caption]

The fresh gains by HTS in northern Syria come at a time when its rival, the Islamic State group, is suffering defeats at the hands of US-backed Iraqi and Syrian forces in both countries.

In Idlib demonstrations last week, the group’s members shot at protesters waving the tri-colour flag of the Syrian uprising. HTS will only accept their own, jihadi-inspired black flags to be flown in their presence.

With its previous incarnations, Hay’at Tahrir al Sham has long been the top dog in Idlib province but the putsch has had the effect of making it feel official. In recent weeks, the group deployed masked gunmen and carried out raids in search operations for alleged IS members.

HTS deployed across Idlib city last weekend after a rival faction, the ultraconservative Ahrar al-Sham group, withdrew. Five days of clashes around the province left 77 fighters and 15 civilians dead, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group.

HTS also seized Sarmada, the first town after the Bab al-Hawa crossing and an important trade hub in north Idlib, and Khirbet al-Jouz, home to a second, less important crossing with Turkey.

Assad, who has long eyed Idlib province since he lost it, will be further emboldened by a White House decision to halt the CIA supply-and-equip program for Syrian rebels. It was first reported by the Washington Post last week.

Opposition activists saw it as an acknowledgement that HTS was exploiting its position in northwestern Syria to pilfer weapons from vetted opposition groups.

Russia, a strong backer of Assad, had long pushed the United States to end the program. And US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was reported to have told UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres earlier this month that the US was leaving “Syria’s fate in Russia’s hands now,” according to Foreign Policy magazine.

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