The state of Syria’s northwest: A month-long reporting series

AMMAN: The largest expanse of opposition territory left in Syria lies in its northwestern reaches. Displaced Syrians from the rest of the country, as well as rebel fighters, now reside in a swathe of land—largely controlled by a former Al-Qaeda affiliate—that extends across Idlib, Hama and Aleppo provinces.

After talks between Iran, Russia and Turkey, the three nations agreed to become guarantors of a de-escalation deal first revealed at a conference in Astana, Kazakhstan in May. The agreement, its supporters argue, will provide a framework for ending the war, with the three guarantor nations setting up checkpoints and observation posts inside Syria to ensure its terms are carried out.

The violence, however, has not fully ceased. Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham (HTS), once Al-Qaeda’s official Syrian branch that is not part of the ceasefire, controls the majority of Idlib province, where months of inter-rebel fighting have frayed the patience of residents there.

Russian and Syrian warplanes routinely strike cities and villages in Idlib and Hama provinces where HTS purportedly maintains a presence, and a sudden Islamic State (IS) offensive south of rebel-held Hama in October saw more than a dozen HTS-controlled villages fall into the militants’ hands. Despite an HTS counteroffensive, IS has held nearly half of the territory it captured in October.

Over the course of the next month, Syria Direct, in partnership with the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, is working with a team of six Syrian journalists in Idlib, Hama and Aleppo provinces to zoom in on Syria’s northwestern expanse.

Our goal is to give readers a month of high-quality news and feature reporting focused on northwestern Syria, as well as to teach aspiring young journalists to produce objective, well-rounded coverage of the war’s impact on their own communities.

Here, we bring you a primer on a few of the major players and developments in Syria’s northwest.

Q: What is Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham? Where did its members come from? What role do they play in northwest Syria?

Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham is a hardline rebel coalition formed in January 2017 whose main power base lies in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province. It is one of the most powerful anti-regime factions in the country today, and is led by Jabhat Fatah a-Sham (JFS), Al-Qaeda’s former Syrian affiliate.

The territories HTS controls today include parts of Idlib, Aleppo and Daraa provinces as well as parts of Outer Damascus. In these areas, the organization imposes a strict interpretation of Islamic law on civilians, tightly controls the press and monopolizes civil and legal authority on the ground.

The story of HTS is one of repeated shifts in alignment, infighting and name changes. In late 2011, a number of militants from the Islamic State in Iraq—a precursor to today’s Islamic State group—crossed into Syria under orders from their leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The men, including future JFS leader Abu Muhammad al-Jolani, were tasked with establishing an Al-Qaeda branch in Syria, where largely peaceful demonstrations had grown into a full-on uprising against the government.

In winter 2012, members of Al-Qaeda in Syria announced the formation of Jabhat a-Nusra. Fighters from Nusra fought alongside others from the newly formed Free Syrian Army (FSA) in Aleppo and Homs, where its fighters became notorious for both their religiosity and fighting skill. Nusra, unlike many other FSA factions, brought battle-hardened fighters and a rigid, tested command structure with them from Iraq.

Syrian children ride in carriages in Idlib city during the Eid al-Adha festival in September. Omar Haj Kadour/AFP.

Originally, Nusra and what we now know as the Islamic State were two branches of the same entity—Al-Qaeda. In spring 2013, however, IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced that he was merging his organization with Jabhat a-Nusra and forming a single group under his command. The decision was panned and denounced by both Nusra and Al-Qaeda leadership, and a period of violent clashes between the two groups commenced as fighters from both sides defected.

Nusra and IS never reconciled, and in a November 2013 statement Al-Qaeda leader Ayman a-Zawahiri denounced al-Baghdadi’s IS and declared that Nusra was the sole organization representing Al-Qaeda in Syria. 

Nusra’s official relationship with Al-Qaeda continued until summer 2016, when its leader al-Jolani announced in a recorded speech that the faction was formally severing its ties with Al-Qaeda. Al-Jolani also revealed the organization’s new name: Jabhat Fatah a-Sham.

The move appears to have been a strategic rebranding, and relations between Jabhat Fatah a-Sham (JFS) and Al-Qaeda have remained amicable since the split. JFS was swiftly designated a terrorist organization by the international community, which still views it as an Al-Qaeda affiliate. In the months following the split, US and coalition aircraft and drones left more than a hundred of the faction’s fighters dead.

Following Nusra’s rebranding as JFS, the group moved to consolidate power in northwestern Syria during a power struggle with another major, Idlib-headquartered rebel faction: Ahrar a-Sham. By early 2017, many smaller rebel groups had chosen sides, aligning themselves with one of the larger two blocs. 

On January 28, JFS announced that it had formed a new coalition made up of itself and several smaller Idlib factions called Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham. The infighting, and the announcement of HTS’ formation, led to a major restructuring of Idlib rebels into two major blocs—HTS and Ahrar a-Sham—and curtailed the factional infighting briefly.

Clashes broke out again this summer, however, and the latest round of infighting ended with HTS wresting power of most of the province away from Ahrar a-Sham, the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rightsreported at the time. Today, HTS is firmly entrenched in Idlib province, controlling the provincial capital as well as several other major population centers.

This complicates Idlib’s future, as HTS has flatly rejected peace talks and agreements, including the recently implemented de-escalation agreement that encompasses much of the territory they control. HTS’ unwillingness to negotiate, unofficial affiliation with Al-Qaeda and propensity to fight with rival rebel groups are set to present unique challenges to both the Syrian regime and the international community as the war progresses.

Q: What are the de-escalation zones and where are they? What does this mean for northwestern Syria? Has violence been curtailed there?

Russia, Turkey and Iran agreed to set up four ceasefire zones in Syria in a deal brokered in Kazakhstan this past May. The agreement was the product of months of talks between the Syrian government, its opposition and international actors.

The Kazakhstan agreement established four “de-escalation zones” across the country: much of northwestern Syria, a besieged rebel enclave north of Homs city, Daraa and Quneitra provinces and Outer Damascus. The deal stipulates that Iran, Russia and Turkey act as guarantors, sending in their own observer forces to ensure that the terms of the agreement are carried out. The rebel coalition HTS and the Islamic State (IS) are not covered by the deal.

In northwestern Syria, the ceasefire zone stretches from northwestern Latakia to rural west Aleppo and covers much of Idlib and northern Hama provinces. It was the last of the four zones to be fully implemented—negotiators required two further rounds of talks in Astana, Kazakhstan, before announcing the zone’s establishment and boundaries on September 15.

The Turkish army—in keeping with its role as a guarantor in the de-escalation deal—entered rural Idlib and Aleppo in early October, set up a number of observation posts between Kurdish-controlled and rebel-held territory and established checkpoints along major roadways in the north of Idlib.

Nevertheless, much of the ceasefire zone is controlled by HTS, which is not included in the de-escalation deal. Regime and Russian warplanes have frequently targeted areas under HTS control, including a major bombing in the city of Atareb that left at least 40 civilians dead two weeks ago, Syria Direct reported.

In October, HTS launched an attack on regime positions near the town of Abu Dali in northern Hama, sparking a protracted ground battle between the two forces there, with regime and Russian warplanes attacking HTS targets in the area.

And so, de-escalation has not completely halted the violence in Syria’s northwest, but it has decreased hostilities on some fronts and decreased the frequency of airstrikes in certain areas.

Q: What is Turkey’s current role in northwestern Syria?

Turkey has directly intervened in the Syrian conflict and taken control of major swathes of territory in the country’s northwest.

Since the beginning of the Syrian revolution in 2011, Turkey supported forces opposed to the regime of Bashar al-Assad, sheltering political dissidents and training and arming opposition factions.

But Ankara’s current, direct involvement in the Syrian war began in August 2016, when Turkey sent armored vehicles and troops across its southern border to support FSA factions battling IS there.

Ariha, south of Idlib city. Photo courtesy of Idlib Media Center.

The operation—dubbed Euphrates Shield by the Turkish government—had two primary objectives: to push back IS fighters away from the border and to limit the advance of Kurdish forces—who Ankara regards as terrorists—in the same area.

Over the following months, Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels with Turkish air, artillery and ground support captured a number of IS strongholds in northern Syria’s Aleppo and Idlib provinces. Although Euphrates Shield officially concluded in late March 2017, Turkish-backed rebels still control much of the territory captured during the operation.

On October 8, Turkish forces once again entered Syria, this time in the far northern reaches of Idlib province, to set up the observation posts and checkpoints outlined in May’s de-escalation agreement. The operation also aims to stop what Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has called a “terror corridor” from forming along the Syrian-Turkish border, where HTS and Kurdish forces have dug themselves in.

Ankara has firmly established itself as a major player in Syria’s north and continues to play an important political and military role there. Turkey is invested in what happens south of its border in Syria’s north and will likely play a pivotal role in shaping the future of that territory.

Q: One year after the final battle for Aleppo city, what is happening there?

In December 2016, after four years of fighting, the last rebel fighters in Aleppo boarded green government buses bound for rebel-held Idlib province, and the Syrian government took control of the entirety of Syria’s largest city.

A ferocious ground war and a concentrated regime and Russian air campaign left entire neighborhoods in the city’s rebel-held east in ruins. East Aleppo, comprised mostly of factories and working-class families, had transformed from the heart of Syria’s economy to a hellish landscape of collapsed buildings and bomb craters.

Today, the fighting is over, and many residents have returned to what is left of their homes and businesses. Now that Aleppo is back in government control, the Assad regime has reasserted its grip on the press while its security apparatus reportedly keeps a tight watch over local residents.

According to figures released by the United Nations in November, an estimated 440,000 Syrians have returned to Aleppo since the beginning of 2017—300,000 of them returning to the city’s war-torn east.

In much of Aleppo’s eastern section, basic services like water and electricity have yet to return, according to a November 2017 Chatham House report. While western neighborhoods of the city were shelled periodically by rebel fighters, infrastructure there was largely undamaged by the war.

The long process of rebuilding Aleppo has begun, but almost a year after the battle for the city ended the details of precisely how the city will be rebuilt—and who will fund the project—remain murky.

Q: What is the status of the two Shiite-majority villages in Idlib province that rebel forces are holding under siege?

During the successful rebel offensive to capture Idlib from the Syrian regime in the first half of 2015, the advancing forces encircled and laid siege to al-Fuaa and Kufraya, neighboring, Shiite-majority villages in the center of the province.

Beginning in March 2015, rebel forces barred approximately 20,000 residents from entering or exiting the towns and blocked humanitarian aid and food shipments. Since then, residents have been primarily sustained by regime helicopter airdrops of food and supplies.

An aid convoy reaches al-Fuaa and Kufraya on September 7. Photo courtesy of al-Fuaa and Kufraya News.

A few months after the siege of al-Fuaa and Kufraya began, regime forces hundreds of kilometers to the south in Outer Damascus implemented a siege of their own in Zabadani and Madaya. In the neighboring, opposition-held towns, more than 50,000 people were trapped behind an airtight encirclement.

Rebels used the siege of al-Fuaa and Kufraya as a bargaining chip with the regime. In September 2015, the regime and major Islamist faction Ahrar a-Sham reached a deal: the Iranian-brokered “Four Towns Agreement.” Under the deal, whatever happened in one town—including aid deliveries and humanitarian evacuations—was required to happen in all four.

The often-violated Four Towns Agreement stayed in place until this year, when an evacuation deal in April saw thousands of opposition fighters and their family members evacuate Zabadani and Madaya and head to Idlib province. Simultaneously, several thousand civilians from al-Fuaa and Kufraya were transported from their besieged towns to government-controlled west Aleppo. Under the agreement, all residents of the two regime-held towns were to leave.

During the evacuation of al-Fuaa and Kufraya, a suicide attack hit one of the bus convoys on April 17, killing more than 100 people—mostly civilians evacuating the Shiite-majority settlements. Evacuations resumed following the attack, and were completed in Madaya and Zabadani, which then returned to government control.

But more than six months later, remaining residents and fighters in al-Fuaa and Kufraya have not been evacuated. It is not clear if or when they will be.

Aid shipments infrequently arrive in the towns, with the latest aid convoy arriving in al-Fuaa and Kufraya in September. That aid entered as part of deal that saw a simultaneous Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) aid delivery to the besieged, HTS- and IS-held Yarmouk camp south of Damascus, opposition media sources reported at the time.

Q: Does the Islamic State have a presence in northwestern Syria?

Yes. Syrian government forces currently surround IS holdouts near the desert town of Uqayrbat in eastern Hama province, while rebel coalition HTS is fighting to retake territory it lost to a surprise IS offensive last month in northern Hama.

In August, the Syrian Arab Army began a ground battle against IS forces in the rural Uqayrbat region of eastern Hama. After weeks of fighting, the Syrian regime eventually declared victory and announced that they had taken control over the town of Uqayrbat on September 3. Nevertheless, an unknown number of IS forces reportedly remain in the area.

On October 9, IS fighters launched a surprise attack on HTS-held territory in northern Hama province, 30km north of Uqayrbat. Striking from the desert near Uqayrbat, the IS forces—armed with tanks, heavy weapons and 20 pickup trucks—managed to wrest control of more than a dozen villages from HTS.

Today, HTS has regained a portion of the territory it lost to IS in October, but a handful of northern Hama villages remain in IS hands. Questions remain as to exactly how IS forces were able to pass through regime-held territory to reach HTS-held Idlib province.

Though IS holds a fraction of the territory it did at its height, in recent weeks the group has shown an ability to launch suicide attacks and spontaneous assaults deep inside both regime and rebel territory.

Justin Clark

Justin studied Arabic at Western Michigan University. He continued his studies at Bethlehem University in the West Bank and the Qasid Institute in Jordan. Justin's work and studies have taken him to Jordan, the West Bank, Egypt and Greece.