Despite the ousting of the Islamic State from its last controlled territory in Syria, the Jihadists have not been defeated there. This is not only about sleeper cells but also about the Al-Qaeda emirate in Idlib Governorate.
The documentary ‘Of Fathers and Sons’ by the Syrian director Talal Derki, who spent over two years in the Syrian province of Idlib currently ruled by Al-Qaeda, shows the grim truth about the events taking place in this stretch of Syria by the example of a family living there. Abu Osama, a member of the Al-Qaeda-related Jabhat an-Nusra, renamed Hajat Tahrir ash-Sham (HTS), is the protagonist. Although arrested at the beginning of the Syrian revolution, he managed to escape from prison. His story shows that he has always been an Islamist and a supporter of Al-Qaeda. He named his eldest son after its creator and praised Allah for his son being born on the anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Center. He also named other children after the terrorists who carried out the attack on September 11. However, Abu Osama is not a monster nor a psychopath; he is a man who truly loves his family, yet the war brought dramatic changes to his value system.
In one of his dialogues, Abu Osama talks about his faith in a just world, which is to follow the introduction of Sharia rule. Naturally, this is a reaction to authoritarian and corrupt governments across the Arab world. Islam also had a social revolutionary aspect at its origin, which was against the domination of the Quraysh aristocracy. Al-Qaeda supporters such as Abu Osama refer to this Koranic tradition of opposing the injustice of authority. However, this is utopian and, as history has shown, attempts at translating utopias into practice ended in genocide. As befits a member of Al-Qaeda, Abu Osama does not conceal the fact that a just world must be built by violence, by murdering all enemies of Allah.
Regardless of what Abu Osama would believe in, it becomes secondary in wartime. To be able to put these ideals into practice, it is necessary to win first. That is why his talks with his neighbours and Al-Qaeda companions focus on bombs, mines, executions and head-cutting. This is the kind of mood in which Abu Osama’s children are raised. Violence becomes a value as such.
The example of Abu Osama’s family is not an isolated one. It is a picture of reality in the province of Idlib under the rule of Al-Qaeda. This reality is still being renounced in Western media and in the statements of politicians with the story of ‘moderate opposition’ and ‘moderate rebels’. Meanwhile, the so-called opposition government residing in Turkey has no influence whatsoever on what is happening in Idlib, and local jihadists such as Abu Osama see its representatives as traitors and cowards. There is no place for any ‘‘moderate opposition’’ in this province, and it would immediately be in danger of being put to death. In the meantime, children such as Osama, the first-born protagonist of Talal Derki’s documentary, are receiving brutal military training to become killing machines.
For a considerable time now, the focus of international public opinion has been on tackling the so-called Islamic State. Meanwhile, Al-Qaeda has been somewhat forgotten and the establishment of the organisation’s emirate in Idlib has slipped the news spotlight. This was fostered by recalling the province only in the context of the threat of a humanitarian catastrophe if hit by Bashar al-Assad or the Russians. However, this attack is, in fact, inevitable, and the later it comes, the worse it will paradoxically be for Europe. There is no doubt that the emirate of Al-Qaeda in Syria would not only be a permanent threat to that country and the Middle East region but would also be a source of terrorist attacks in Europe. Their attitude towards ‘unbelievers’ is not affected by any Western support for Jihadists there. They made this clear in Libya, where they attacked the American consulate in Benghazi and murdered the country’s ambassador only a year after they had come to power as a result of a military intervention involving the USA.
As early as July 2017, HTS took control of the capital of Idlib, the city of the same name, and enjoyed absolute dominance in the region. Its rivals were not any pro-democracy troops; those were competitive pro-Turkish jihadists from organisations such as Ahrar ash-Sham or Nur ad-Din al-Zenki. At that time, as a result of the Turkish-Russian-Iranian talks started in January 2017 in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, the so-called de-escalation zones were introduced. In fact, they opened the way for the Syrian army supported by Russians to take full control over all areas controlled by rebels and jihadists in 2018, apart from Idlib and the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, i.e. the territory controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). And since then, only they have remained outside the control of the government in Damascus, aside from the territories of the Islamic State, which have since been incorporated into the autonomous administration of North and East Syria.
In the meantime, HTS was expanding its holdings in Idlib, although Turkish troops entered the province in October 2017. Formally, their aim was to support the de-escalation process; but in fact, it was to prevent the Syrian offensive. Therefore, the Turkish army set up its observation points on the front line. In September 2018, as part of the so-called Astana format (Iran-Turkey-Russia), it was decided in Sochi that they would establish a demilitarised zone in Idlib, which would be controlled by joint Russian-Turkish patrols. Indeed, they appeared in March 2019, after another summit in Sochi, at which Russia expressed its deep dissatisfaction over Turkey’s failure to implement earlier agreements. This is because the agreement was to include the withdrawal of HTS from the demilitarised zone.
Meanwhile, in January 2019, the organisation once again launched its offensive against competitive jihadists. The fights did not attract much global attention. The focus was on SDF clashes with the so-called Islamic State in the last bastion of the Caliphate, the Hajin enclave, and then Al-Baghouz Faukani, in the East Syrian province of Dajr az-Zaur.
The announced withdrawal of the USA from north-eastern Syria and the threat of a Turkish invasion of this region, as well as Iranian plans to conduct a land connection from Iran through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon and the Mediterranean Sea, have become another high-profile issue. As far as Idlib is concerned, it was generally taken with a sigh of relief that what Jan Egeland, the UN representative for humanitarian affairs in Syria, warned about a number of times in 2018, i.e. a full military invasion, did not happen. Although there was no real invasion, the fights continued. The Russians and the government army carried out raids, often intense, and both sides fired artillery fire. Above all, however, HTS forced Nur ad-Din al-Zenki, Ahrar ash-Sham and the so-called National Liberation Front (a coalition of jihadist groups created under the auspices of Turkey) to surrender and withdraw from Idlib in a flash campaign, taking full control of 80% of that territory, consisting of the province and adjacent parts of the provinces of Aleppo, Latakia and Hama.
At a summit in Sochi, the leaders of Russia and Iran made it clear to Recep Erdoğan that the situation in which Al-Qaeda controls Idlib is unacceptable. Although Putin has ruled out an invasion of Idlib for the time being, it seems inevitable in this context. The problem is complicated by the activation of the Islamic State in Idlib after the fall of its last redoubt in Baghouz. The Syrian army has long been ready for operations against HTS, but it is blocked by Turkish observation points and the lack of consent from Russia. The issue of this province is also closely linked to the autonomous administration of North and East Syria. Moscow was delighted to learn that the USA had announced that they would leave the area and that everything indicated that the Kurds would be left with nothing but to give in to the Kremlin’s protection. Therefore, in February 2019 Putin ruled out consent to Turkey’s entry into these areas. However, when it turned out that the withdrawal of the USA would be incomplete, and the Kurds maintained an alliance with the Americans, it increased the probability of a new ‘deal’ between Turkey and Russia. Ankara is going to attack the Kurds in North and East Syria even though the US presence in those areas is maintained, and Russia and Al-Assad will start invading Idlib at that time.
The offensive against Al-Qaeda in Idlib will certainly trigger a new humanitarian crisis and mass migration to Europe, stimulated by Turkey and Russia. There is also no doubt that, for Turkey, this operation will be a distraction from its own invasion of North and East Syria, where the war came to an end a few years ago. The West will focus on condemning Russia and will return to the rhetoric based on the fiction of the ‘moderate opposition’ and ‘moderate rebels’. Meanwhile, the migratory flow towards Europe will be exploited by defeated jihadists who want to get out of the Middle East. The terrorist threat in Europe will therefore increase. Paradoxically, however, the later the offensive on Idlib starts, the worse the situation will be as there are increasingly more alike Osamas in the province, children shown in ‘Of Fathers and Sons’.
Witold Repetowicz was a war correspondent in Syria and Iraq in the years 2014-2018 and reported on the fight against the Islamic State on a variety of fronts. He also authored two books, ‘My Name is Kurdistan’ [Polish: Nazywam się Kurdystan] and ‘Allah Akbar. War and Peace in Iraq’ [Polish: Allah akbar. Wojna i pokój w Iraku].
autor zdjęć: Aaref WATAD / AFP / East-News