GAZIANTEP, Turkey — The biggest surviving rebel stronghold in northern Syria is falling under the control of al-Qaeda-linked extremists amid a surge of rebel infighting that threatens to vanquish what is left of the moderate rebellion.
The ascent of the extremists in the northwestern province of Idlib coincides with a suspension of aid to moderate rebel groups by their international allies.
The commanders of five of the groups say they were told earlier this month by representatives of the United States, Saudi Arabia and Turkey that they would receive no further arms or ammunition until they unite to form a coherent front against the extrimists, a goal that has eluded the fractious rebels throughout the six years of fighting.
The freeze on supplies is unrelated to the change of power in Washington, where the Trump administration is engaged in a review of U.S. policy on Syria, U.S. officials say. It also does not signal a complete rupture of support for the rebels, who are continuing to receive salaries, say diplomats and rebel commanders.
Rather, the goal is to ensure that supplies do not fall into extremist hands, by putting pressure on the rebels to form a more efficient force, the rebel commanders say they have been told.
Instead it is the extremists who have closed ranks and turned against the U.S.-backed rebels, putting the Qaeda-linked groups with whom the moderates once uneasily coexisted effectively in charge of key swaths of territory in Idlib, the most important stronghold from which the rebels could have hoped to sustain a challenge to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Moderate rebels still hold territory in southern Syria, in pockets around Damascus, and in parts of Aleppo province where they are fighting alongside Turkish troops against ISIS.
But the loss of Idlib to the extremists has the potential to prolong — or at least divert — the trajectory of the war at a time when the United Nations is reconvening peace talks in Geneva aimed at securing a political settlement. The talks opened Thursday with little sign that progress was likely.
The Syrian government and its ally Russia will now be able to justify intensifying airstrikes against the area, perhaps in alliance with the United States, which is already carrying out its own strikes against Qaeda targets in Idlib, analysts say.
“Idlib is now basically being abandoned to the exrtimists. This might be the end of the opposition as understood by the opposition’s backers abroad,” said Aron Lund, a fellow with the Century Foundation. “They won’t have any reason to support it.”
The Qaeda-backed offensive appears to have been triggered by the Russian push last month to make peace with the same moderate rebel groups that the United States had in the past sought, unsuccessfully, to protect from Russian airstrikes. The Qaeda affiliate Jabhat Fatah al-Sham — which is still widely referred to by its previous name, Jabhat al-Nusra — has since led a series of raids, abductions and killings against moderate rebels, activists and Western-backed administrative councils across Idlib.
The most radical rebel groups have joined a new coalition created by Jabhat al-Nusra called Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. More moderate ones have sought protection by allying themselves with the largest non-Qaeda group, Ahrar al-Sham, which subscribes to a school of “Salafist jihadism” that is considered too extreme for the United States and its Western allies to countenance.
“Qaeda is eating us,” said Zakaria Malahifji, an official with the U.S.-backed Fastaqim rebel group, explaining why his group has chosen to join with the Ahrar al-Sham alliance. “It’s a military alliance only, for protection from Qaeda,” he said. “Politically, we don’t share their views.”
Around a dozen U.S.-backed groups are still holding out against the pressure to join forces with the extremists, but they acknowledge that their cause is increasingly hopeless.
Radicals “are controlling every aspect of life, the mosques and the schools. They are radicalizing 14-year-old boys. Qaeda ideology is spreading everywhere and we have been abandoned,” said Lt. Col. Ahmed Saoud, a -Syrian army officer who defected and commands a rebel unit in the U.S.-backed Free Idlib Army, one of the groups that has stood aloof from the extrimists.
Suspending the supplies seems guaranteed only to ensure that Qaeda continues to expand, the rebel commanders say. “Of course if you cut off the moderate rebels, Qaeda will grow more powerful,” Malahifji said.
The Washington Post