End of July 2017, the Syrian rebel coalition in Idlib – headed by the al-Qaeda (ex-)affiliate, Jabhat Fateh as-Sham (named until 2016 al-Nusra Front) – took up arms against Ahrar as-Sham, the second main Salafist faction operating in Syria, and has ousted the latter from Idlib town in northern Syria.
Therefore, the last big rebel-held town in Syria is now exclusively controlled by the coalition led by Jabhat Fateh as-Sham, called Hayat Tahrir as-Sham. The fighting was short-lived and it only took a few days for Hayat Tahrir as-Sham to take over major points controlled by the Turkish backed Ahrar as-Sham which also has leaders with al-Qaeda connections. Many of Ahrar as-Sham’s current and former leadership have been in the Syrian regime prisons and were released in the early days of the revolution by the government. This consequently played a major role in the radicalisation of the revolution.
The intra-rebel civil war in the north has picked up speed as more arms flushed into the country or were captured by respective forces from the government. Recently, several smaller rebel groups have disappeared or decided to join the two major players in Idlib province: Ahrar as-Sham and Hayat Tahrir as-Sham. Occasional flare-ups of fighting have been ongoing between these two groups. For the most part, the excuses were the exchange of fire at checkpoints, but the real reason lie elsewhere.
Jabhat Fateh as-Sham has since the past year managed to integrate into the Hayat Tahrir as-Sham several medium-sized rebel groups such has formerly US backer Nour al-Din al-Zenki (which has now left it) or Ansar al-Din among others. Jabhat Fateh as-Sham has also invited Ahrar as-Sham to join its ranks fearing the influence Turkey has on it and other foreign connections it has (such as taking part in peace talks abroad). Jabhat Fateh as-Sham has accused Ahrar of selling the revolution and working against a unified rebel force. All the fighting between these two groups have thus far been stopped by statements issued by clerics. The battle after the takeover of Idlib was ended in the same way.
Hayat Tahrir as-Sham has gained more and more influence in Idlib province jeopardizing civil society work. Today, they’re stronger ideologically than Ahrar as-Sham and several smaller factions inside Ahrar have joined Hayat Tahrir as-Sham.
This is good for Bashar al-Assad. If al-Qaeda rules the north, the army will have it easier to justify the use of force.
But how will the West react? Will the US coalition still openly oppose to Russia helping the Syrian regime… against al-Qaeda?
And, after the total destruction of Mosul by the coalition, what will the lives be like for the one million citizens and refugees living in Idlib and its countryside?