Last Saturday, after a four-day offensive, rebels captured Idlib in northwest Syria, the third provincial capital lost by the Assad regime in Syria’s four-year conflict.
The five major lessons of Idlib for the winners (the rebels, the Islamist faction Jabhat al-Nusra), the losers (the Assad regime, mainstream media), and those on the side (the US, the Islamic State)….
1. A BIG VICTORY — BEYOND CAPTURING A CITY — FOR THE REBELS
Taking control of a provincial capital is significant in itself, of course, but this victory is far greater for Syria’s rebellion. If it does not point to the overthrow of the regime in the foreseeable future, it indicates that the opposition is likely to advance and consolidate its hold on much of the country.
The lesson in the manner of the success. For almost a year, rebels have begun working together in northwest Syria with the co-operation culminating in a joint operations room, Jaish al-Fatah. Already holding much of Idlib and Aleppo Provinces, they had been successful in attacks against regime bases and enclaves as well as defeating the Syrian military’s own offensive in February.
An eventual assault upon Idlib had been long anticipated, but no one could have expected the city — with a pre-war population of 165,000 and a reputation for providing many of Syria’s police officers — to have fallen within four days. The surprise lay in the coordination of the offensive, attacking Idlib from all sides and cutting off routes for any regime reinforcements.
That coordination included Jabhat al-Nusra, the “Al Qa’eda” falsely identified by an errant mainstream media (see below) as the leader of the offensive. However, it also involved Ahrar al-Sham — the largest faction in the operations — and other elements of the Islamic Front, the independent bloc Faylaq al-Sham, local brigades, and Free Syrian Army units.
This will not end with Idlib. Rebels are already putting pressure on Mastoumeh, the major regime base south of Idlib, and cutting the highway between other key regime positions in the province. With control established, the Jaish al-Fatah operations can look at moves into Hama Province — with Assad vulnerable in Hama city if an offensive can break through regime defenses — and Latakia Province on the Mediterranean.
The rebel coordination is also paying dividends in the south. Days before Idlib feel, the opposition took the historic town of Busra al-Sham on the Jordanian border, opening up the route to Suweida Province. Last night, it claimed the regime’s last border crossing with Jordan, taking the post at Naseeb.
Meanwhile, the headline threat to the rebels has receded. The regime has not only failed, after months of pressure, to cut off insurgents in Aleppo city; its forces have been pushed back after the casualties taken in February’s failed offensive.
None of this means a pendulum swing to a “rebels are winning” narrative. But it does indicate that the opposition is in a far stronger position — and is likely to remain so — than six months ago.
2. A BIG LOSS FOR ASSAD
Conversely, the loss of Idlib is not just a specific military defeat for the Assad regime. It is a powerful sign that the President will never “win” this conflict, even if he can hold onto power in Damascus and control other Syrian cities.
The prospect of a reunited Syria under Assad was already long-gone, even if State media continue to put out the vision. Even if cities could be secured — and even if control of all of Aleppo could be regained — large portions of the north remain beyond reach. Even if the Islamic State could be vanquished in the east, it is far from certain that local groups would again accept Damascus’ rule. Much of the south has slipped away, especially near the borders with Jordan and the Israeli demilitarized zone. In some areas under regime control, authority is only assured through brutality and enforcers such as the “shabiha”.
Assad’s political argument has been reduced to “I’m better than anyone who might follow if I fell”. That declaration has been successful to the point of rallying support in some areas of Syria who fear a rebel victory for political, economic, or sectarian reasons. But it will never be enough to win back large parts of the country, especially those with a mostly-Sunni population, with the facade of “reconciliation” and the reality of the regime’s remaining military advantage of aerial bombardment. Even in areas where it has a clear advantage in firepower — such as Jobar in northeast Damascus, suburbs such as Douma, and areas south of the capital — the regime has been unable to break the opposition.
Now the President faces the prospect of an alternative government in one of his provincial capitals. That had already occurred with the rise of the Islamic State in Raqqa, but this could be set aside as the temporary distraction of a “non-Syrian” force. Now it is Syrians who have control of a key symbolic and political base — if they can turn that control into governance accepted by most of the population, withstanding the Syrian air force’s attempts to bombard them into oblivion, then the opposition challenge has set down deeper roots.
3. A DISASTER FOR THE MAINSTREAM MEDIA
The other big loser last week was the mainstream media, which not only failed to cover the events but turned them into a hyperbolic fiction of “Al Qa’eda” taking control of Idlib.
Few outlets noticed the start of the rebel offensive, an understandable neglect given the lack of sustained coverage to developments on the ground in northern Syria. However, when the media realized that Idlib might fall, the outcome was worse than ignorance.
Rather than assessing the information from the area, almost all of the press turned to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and its packaging of claims on social media as accounts from a “network” of sources inside the country.
The Observatory’s narrative is sometimes accurate, but on other occasions it is a distortion of developments. In this case, it set up such a distortion with its take-away line of an offensive by “Al-Nusra Front and its Islamist allies“.
That presentation misrepresented the offensive as being led by Jabhat al-Nusra, only one of the groups in the Jaish al-Fatah operations room. Excluding all factions that are not “Islamist”, it ignored any distinction between “Islamic” and “Islamist” groups, overlooked the Free Syrian Army and “independent” brigades, pushed aside local units, and missed Christian and Druze fighters who participated in the offensive.
But no need for such details. Instead, it was only a small step from the first reports to headlines such as “Qaeda’s Syria Wing Battles to Enter Regime-held Idlib“.
Error upon error followed, with the Observatory further reducing Saturday’s rebel victory to “Jabhat al-Nusra have taken control of Idlib city”. The Guardian proclaimed, “Islamists Seize City in Alawite Heartland for First Time”, a curiosity since there are few Alawites — the group to which President Assad belongs — in Idlib. The newspaper subsequently reframed Idlib as a “strategically important city”. However, thanks to the Observatory, it assured that the “hardline Islamist groups” of Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State “now control two provinces”.
The faulty narrative, further bolstering the media’s portrayal of Syria as “Extremists vs. Assad”, is now entrenched. The Daily Telegraph converted the story to “Islamic State v. al-Qa’eda” with “Syrian Militants Jabhat al-Nusra Seize City of Idlib, Giving Al-Qaeda a Rival Capital to Isil’s Raqqa”. Just to make sure no one missed the distorted point, writer Richard Spencer opened:
Little-noticed, al-Qaeda has a new capital.
Even the most reputable of outlets chose illusion over detail. The New York Times continues to feature a photo with the caption, “[Idlib] was seized last weekend by the Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front.” Reuters added to the hyperbole: it linked “the Nusra Front and its allies” to the claim from a “Syrian military source” — unsupported outside regime propaganda — that Turkey “led and planned the operation” in Idlib.
The Associated Press takes the distortion nationwide:
The opposition drive is being led largely by al-Qaida’s branch in Syria, the Nusra Front….All told, the Nusra Front and its rival, the Islamic State group, now control roughly half of Syria, raising concerns about the country’s future.
4. THE BIG CHALLENGE FOR THE OPPOSITION
The media misrepresentation adds to the political challenge for the opposition, perhaps its greatest of the four-year conflict. The groups now trying to re-establish basic services in Idlib have to show the ability to govern rather than fight among themselves, to implement a legal and social system which is seen more as protecting the lives and rights of civilians rather than subjugating them to punishment and the threat of regime bombing.
The initial statements from the rebel factions — even the “extremists” — shows cognizance of this. Ahrar al-Sham quickly put out a call for cooperation in the establishment of an independent sharia court and restoration of administration and services. Jabhat al-Nusra’s leader Abu Mohammad al-Golani followed with his appeal for unity and promise that all in Idlib would be respected. Early tests of planning, such as the evacuation of vulnerable civilians from the anticipated regime bombing of the city, are now followed by challenges in assuring communications — a free wi-fi network has already been established — power, and food and shelter.
The odds are stacked against the rebels and opposition. The Islamic State’s takeover of Raqqa, the first provincial capital to fall, sets a bad precedent, even if the jihadists — expelled from Idlib Province in 2014 — will not repeat the feat in Idlib.
Jaish al-Fatah, the Islamic Front, and civilian bodies will have to guard against in-fighting over corruption, profit-taking, and detentions — the real cause of Jabhat al-Nusra’s victorious fights against both the Syrian Revolutionary Front and Harakat Hazm in the northwest in the last six months, rather than the “Al-Qa’eda” takeover proclaimed by many in the media. The Assad regime will pounce on any mis-step as proof that Idlib is held by “terrorists”.
But if the challenge can be met, the opposition will have won a victory as great as the military success. A “no-fly zone” still cannot be expected — the US (see below) has let indecision set into fear of the “extremists” — but an alternative government is likely to bolster financial, political, and even military support from other backers. It will de-fang some of the criticism that there is no “non-extremist” movement left in Syria. Most importantly, it will further galvanize the opposition in the belief that a coordinated approach can make steady progress against President Assad and his forces.
5. THE BIG DISAPPEARANCE OF THE US
Perhaps the most interesting lesson of Idlib is that the rebels and opposition are not dependent on the US for victory.
Despite the show of the aerial intervention against the Islamic State — and, unproclaimed, Jabhat al-Nusra — since last September, Washington has no policy for Syria. The token train-and-equip program for a force of 5,000 fighters has still not begun; even when it does, its goal of Syrian fighters facing the Islamic State is peripheral to the main arena of Rebels v. Assad. The misguided hope of a Russian-organized conference between regime and opposition is going nowhere, and the short-sighted “freeze” plan of UN envoy Staffan de Mistura is now close to burial. So the US finds itself at a point where an attempted statement by Secretary of State John Kerry to cover up the muddle only adds to it, as his garbled words are re-framed as an acceptance of President Assad as a partner for a political resolution.
In the past, that refusal to back the opposition — stepping away from a no-fly zone in 2012, stepping back from any action against Assad after the chemical weapons attacks in 2013 — would have been seen as a vital blow. Now it is an irritant but far from an insuperable hindrance.
Idlib demonstrated that the rebels and opposition can pursue their campaign without reliance on a US-backed military council or umbrella political group — the Syrian National Council, once supported by Washington, was quickly dismissed when it declared its intention to set up a headquarters in the city. It also probably established, although this will not be said publicly, that countries beyond the US can provide the backing needed to assist a successful military offensive.
American aid would certainly be welcomed by the rebels, provided it did not come from conditions to accept the authority of a long-eroded military council based in Turkey, but they can now plan their next steps without relying on any hope of this. Similarly, the opposition’s political project in Idlib does not need the endorsement of Washington as much as it needs internal cooperation and cohesion.