The Syrian Regime’s Campaign Against Militants in Idlib Will Backfire

Haid Haid

Syria is a challenge for the perennial optimist. It is a cauldron of misery and a theater of conflict that anyone will struggle to apprehend. Afrin and Eastern Ghouta currently attract the most attention, particularly abroad, but the battlefields of Syria include many more names. Among these, once again, is Idlib, where an offensive by pro-government forces threatens to greatly complicate the calculus in defanging extremists – with ramifications for any party involved in the Syrian conflict.

Pro-regime forces – supported by Iran-backed militias and Russian air cover – recently launched an offensive to capture territories in Idlib, under the pretext of evicting Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS), also known as Al Qaeda in Syria, which is ensconced in the area. The fighting has had a catastrophic impact, with nearly 300 civilians killed already and over 300,000 internally displaced. The campaign also violates the de-escalation agreement signed by sponsors of the Astana Talks – Russia, Turkey and Iran. Still, western governments have resisted strong condemnation of the regime because of HTS’s presence in Idlib. Yet, instead of weakening the terrorist group, pro-regime attacks are likely to push a local populace that had been resisting the group into pragmatic cooperation with it.

Northwestern Syria has been portrayed as HTS’s main stronghold, where the group often is said to face no significant resistance. That isn’t entirely true. For while HTS has greatly increased its control of the area and become the strongest armed group after its defeat of Ahrar Al-Sham last year, it has struggled to match its military gains with a similar level of community support. People in many areas, notably Kafranbel, Maarat Al-Nu’man and Atarib, have frequently demonstrated against the group and actively resisted HTS’s claim of authority. Now, the pro-government campaign against the group is actually undercutting local resistance.

HTS’s influence is dependent on its claim to be a foe of the Bashar Al Assad regime. It also gains support by its domination, during stressful times of conflict, of local institutions that supply public services. Conversely, its popularity diminishes when it isn’t fighting the Assad regime. At such times, local civil society groups are best able to organize resistance against HTS. They re-establish control of public institutions and they lobby for people to withhold cooperation with, and obeisance to, HTS, thereby starving the militant group of new recruits and material resources. Recently, the region has also seen a graffiti war that undermines HTS’s claim of supremacy – satire being a powerful tool to erode the atmosphere of fear through which HTS rules. You cannot be scared of what you make fun of. Thus, in the absence of armed conflict, HTS is weakened on many fronts.

But now, no more. In a case of your enemy’s enemy is not necessarily your friend, the regime’s campaign in the region has forced people to reassess their position. Pro-regime airstrikes have systematically targeted areas known for resisting HTS. In November, the Atarib market was targeted by three airstrikes, resulting in the death of 69 civilians and significant damage to buildings. Other towns were also hit, such as Kafranbl (twice in January) and Maarat Al Noaman (also in January).

A steady escalation of hostilities by pro-regime forces that cause civilian casualty, severely damage homes and businesses, and hamper the provision of essential services, will push the local population to once again pin their salvation on HTS’s military capacity to repel the pro-Assad forces. These forces, therefore, provide HTS with the opportunity to increase support from the local population through its military advances. In addition, the campaign will likely push other rebel groups to cooperate with HTS, adding to its strength.

HTS is well aware of the conditionality of its local popularity, which prompted its leader, Abu Muhammad Al-Jolani, to make an audio statement recently that claimed regime attacks rally people around him and his group and tighten HTS’s bonds with other rebel groups that previously distanced themselves from it. Al-Jolani’s message was clear: even if the regime captured some of HTS’s territory, the group will still prevail because regime attacks revive people’s willingness once more to fight and, in turn, prompt them to cooperate with HTS.

To be sure, HTS deserves to be defeated and eradicated. But this can only be accomplished if it is with local support. But, despite their resistance to, and distaste for, HTS, the people of Idlib also consider the Syrian regime to be their number one enemy. As such, given a choice, they will support anyone except the regime, even if this means tactically cooperating with HTS – no one wants to be ruled by the Assad regime again. But such cooperation must not be mistaken for the local community’s unreserved support of HTS. It should, however, factor into prudent strategies against both extremist groups and the Assad regime. Binary, zero-sum calculations often don’t work in Syria.

Haid Haid is a research fellow at the International Center for the Study of Radicalization at King’s College London. He is also a consulting research fellow of Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa program.