Will Al Qaeda Leave Syria’s Idlib?

Under a deal that prevented a Syrian military assault on the province of Idlib, “radical” militant groups are supposed to withdraw by October 15th. The al-Qaeda affiliate Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) is said to control about 60% of Idlib but has not said if it will comply. We discuss the situation in Idlib with Rania Abouzeid, an award-winning reporter and author of “No Turning Back: Life, Loss, and Hope in Wartime Syria.”

Will Al Qaeda Leave Syria's Idlib?

Story Transcript

AARON MATE: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Mate.

A major step in a deal that had prevented a Syrian military assault on the province of Idlib appears to be complete. Turkey says militant groups have withdrawn their heavy weapons from the frontlines as part of the establishment of a demilitarized zone. The next phase is supposed to be the withdrawal of radical groups by October 15. But who exactly will pull out and where they will go is unknown. The Al Qaeda affiliate Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, HTS, is said to control about sixty percent of Idlib, and it has not said it will comply.

Well, joining me from Beirut is Rania Abouzeid. She’s an award-winning reporter who has covered the Syrian crisis from the beginning. She is the author of No Turning Back: Life, Loss, and Hope in Wartime Syria. Welcome, Rania.

RANIA ABOUZEID: Thank you.

AARON MATE: If you could explain to us what is at stake here in Idlib, the challenges that await this deal that prevented a military assault by the Syrian government, and if you can predict what you think is going to happen.

RANIA ABOUZEID: The deal, as you said, one of the key elements, according to Turkish media, has been fulfilled. And that is the withdrawal of heavy military equipment out of that 15 to 20 kilometer zone which they hope to turn into a demilitarized zone. The other key part, or one of the other key parts of the agreement, is the withdrawal of “radical elements” without defining who is considered a “radical element,” of course. Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham is present in Idlib, and without being named, that’s the main force that needs to withdraw out of that area. As you said, they haven’t formally announced a position on this deal. However, informally, various high-ranking members have taken to social media to indicate that they’re not really keen on this idea and on withdrawing from this zone.

Idlib is a massive province in the northwest of Syria, bordering Turkey, hemmed in by the Turks on one side. That border has been effectively shuttered for years now, it’s very difficult to get across. The Turks have adopted a shoot to kill policy there. And on the other sides, you have the Assad regime-controlled areas. And also, as you head towards the east you start to come across the U.S. backed Kurdish zone of control. So it’s a key province. According to the UN, there are about three million people in there, including a number of people who were evacuated out of other parts of Syria in “evacuation deals,” which some members of the opposition referred to as “surrender deals,” from Aleppo, Daraa and other parts of Syria. These are people who do not want to return to the fold of a regime which they say is committing war crimes against them, and they were given the option to be bused to Idlib province.

AARON MATE: So how many, if it’s possible to say, of the Al Qaeda fighters and other jihadists are from foreign countries? And if this agreement calls for their withdrawal, where would they go?

RANIA ABOUZEID: It’s very difficult to tell with the numbers. And frankly, the numbers that are out there are just guesstimates. And even if the numbers come from the group, if a group says, “We have like 5000 fighters,” commanders often either beef up the number or downplay it for propaganda purposes. So it’s very hard to tell how many people are on the ground unless you literally count them. So that’s the first thing. So take any numbers with a grain of salt. Secondly, in terms of the foreign fighter presence, that’s a very good question. Where will these people go? We know that, for example, if we look at Islamic State foreign fighters who have been detained in the U.S.-backed Kurdish held territory of Syria, I mean the Kurds are saying, “Look, what are we supposed to do with these people who are in our prisons? They need to go back to their home states and be and be tried in their home countries.”

And to date, very few countries have accepted those detained Islamic State fighters. So when it comes to foreign fighters who are still roaming free in Idlib province, what’s going to happen to them? Can they can they make it across that tight Turkish border or will they try and seep into, say, the U.S.-backed Kurdish areas of the regime-controlled areas? Because frankly, they really have very few options and very few places to go, so they’re likely to be fighting hardest because they simply have so few options if and when this offensive kicks off. And having said that, only yesterday, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad made it clear that this deal, brokered by the Russians and the Turks, is a “temporary measure,” to use that term. And he reiterated what he’s always said, that he intends to reclaim every inch of Syrian territory.

AARON MATE: Do you think he will? Do you think that Assad will eventually go ahead with an offensive, especially if Al Qaeda forces don’t withdraw?

RANIA ABOUZEID: Who knows? Because it’s bigger than Syria. This is a question … I mean, even this deal that was negotiated over Idlib was negotiated by the Turks and the Russians. There weren’t any Syrians present. So it’s bigger than what Assad wants or what Syrians and the opposition want. It’s an international conflict in every sense of the word.

AARON MATE: And you’ve reported from Idlib. What is the reality for civilians there, especially those living under groups like HTS?

RANIA ABOUZEID: Well first of all, I just want to stress that Idlib is a really big province. It’s a very big place. So HTS has different levels of support in different areas. I was in Idlib City, for example, the provincial capital, back in mid-2016, finishing up reporting for my book. And at the time, it was controlled by the HTS or the HTS group, whatever it was calling itself at that time. And it was pretty hardcore Islamist in a sense. I mean, they had imposed a dress code on the women, for example. There were roving patrols of Hisba morality police in the streets.

But there was also pushback, pushback by the locals against these forces. So they weren’t accepted. They were in some ways tolerated because they were the stronger party. And there was pushback, and it took many different forms, whether it was women who were flouting the dress code, to Christians who stayed in the city, in the provincial capital, and were protected by their Muslim neighbors, to people in the civil service who were pushing back against their new overlords. And so, it’s not quite black and white. I mean, yes, they are there, but it doesn’t mean they’re there and that their flag is firmly planted in this territory. There’s a lot of dislike of these groups in the province.

AARON MATE: And if people want to organize protest, are they able to do so without facing repercussions, punishment, even killings from groups like HTS?

RANIA ABOUZEID: Well, we have seen in the past few weeks the resurgence of protests in Idlib city and its surroundings, across the province on Fridays. And in some areas, there have been clashes – I’m going to use that word, but it wasn’t necessarily like armed clashes. But there have been altercations between the more hardcore, ultra-conservative groups like HTS and locals in these areas as well as with other armed factions. And this is this is something that has been true at least for the last few years of the Syrian uprising opposition areas. These groups have often come to blows with other armed groups in Idlib province and in other parts of opposition-held Syria that dislike the ultraconservative views and the type of regime that they want to install in parts of Syria where they have sway.

AARON MATE: You mentioned the Kurdish areas, so let me ask you about that too. So you had, earlier this year, attacks on the Kurdish area of Afrin by the Turkish military and the Free Syrian Army, another Syrian militant group. What position are the Kurds in right now? The Syrian regime has talked about negotiations with them, but the Kurds right now have the backing of the U.S. with its bases in the Kurdish region. What do you expect the Kurds to do in the position that they’re in right now?

RANIA ABOUZEID: I think in part it depends on what the U.S. will do.

AARON MATE: How so?

RANIA ABOUZEID: Because U.S. President Donald Trump earlier this year said that he intends to withdrawal the 2000 or so U.S. personnel in those areas. And then months later, he said actually they’re going to stay indefinitely. So it’s a very wishy-washy U.S. policy. And the Kurds, if they’re counting on the Americans … well that’s what I mean in terms of what the U.S. does. Bear in mind also that both Turkey and Russia and Damascus don’t want to see this U.S.-backed Kurdish enclave in these areas any more than, say, some of the Arab Syrians who are from the areas want to be ruled by these Kurdish groups. So it’s a very kind of volatile mix in the Kurdish areas and we’ve really seen that some Kurdish groups have approached the regime and have had had preliminary meetings, at least, with some members of Assad’s government.

AARON MATE: Do you think the Kurds can trust the regime based on the history of the Kurds and the Syrian government?

RANIA ABOUZEID: That’s not for me to say, they have to make their own calculations.

AARON MATE: All right. Well we’ll leave it there for now, and in part two we’ll come back and talk about your book, your years of reporting inside Syria. The book is called No Turning Back: Life, Loss, and Hope in Wartime Syria. My guest is Rania Abouzeid. Join us in part two.