Iraq News

Syria's Idlib becomes hub for fleeing extremists

By Waleed Abu al-Khair in Cairo

Two members of al-Nusra Front, now known as Fatah al-Sham Front, handle a rocket launcher in the Syrian province of Idlib. [Photo courtesy of Abdullah al-Jarak]

Two members of al-Nusra Front, now known as Fatah al-Sham Front, handle a rocket launcher in the Syrian province of Idlib. [Photo courtesy of Abdullah al-Jarak]

Thousands of fighters from opposition groups, including many from extremist factions, are flocking to Idlib province in north-western Syria as they come under pressure in other areas, activists and local residents told Diyaruna.

A huge influx of fighters and their families have converged on Idlib, the al-Nusra Front (ANF) heartland, as they flee the coalition-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) or regime, chiefly in eastern Aleppo, rural Damascus and al-Raqa.

In December, reports revealed that several "Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant" (ISIL) leaders of foreign origin had defected from the group and joined the ranks of ANF, now known as Fatah al-Sham Front (FSF), in Idlib.

According to the Institute for the Study of War, there are more than 50,000 extremist opposition fighters in Idlib, regrouped under the umbrella organisation Jaish al-Fateh (Army of Conquest), which is led by ANF.

"Residents of the city and its countryside are in a real panic, because the region has become a massive barracks for fighters of various extremist groups, most of whom owe allegiance to ANF ," said media activist Mahmoud Hajj Kamel of Idlib.

Over the past two months, he told Diyaruna, thousands of militants from various factions have flocked to the city with their families.

They belong to factions previously based in the cities of al-Tall in rural Damascus, Daraya, Qudsayya, Khan al-Sheikh refugee camp near Damascus, and the towns of Zakia, al-Teeba and al-Mukailebya in al-Ghouta, he said.

The armed factions currently active in Idlib include al-Fateh al-Mubeen, Saraya al-Murabiteen, Shuhada al-Islam and Nour al-Din al-Zenki, he said.

Other armed groups include al-Miqdad bin Amr Brigades, which had been positioned in Daraya and Muadamiyat al-Sham, and Jaish al-Sunna, which recently gained prominence, in addition to Jund al-Sham, Jund al-Aqsa, Suqour al-Sham Brigades, Sayf al-Sham Brigades and Ahrar al-Sham, Kamel said.

Hundreds of foreign fighters of Caucasian and Chechen descent are in the vicinity, he added, estimating 20,000 fighters have entered Idlib in the last two months, along with 20,000 others, including their family members and other civilians.

Harsh rules under ANF

Lately ANF "has been trying to give the impression that civilian organisations and institutions are administering the city of Idlib and its rural areas", said Sumer Agha, a media activist with the local co-ordination committee in the city of Salamiyah who has been following the situation in rural Idlib.

"While these organisations have indeed been established, in reality they have no powers and are prohibited from interfering in any matter related to the administration of the region, as ANF emirs have the first and final say," he said.

ANF's patrols are trying to impose a strict Islamic dress code on men and women and have been detaining civilians at random, he told Diyaruna, adding that the region's prisons are now filled with civilians and militants alike.

"Death sentences have been carried out against civilians and militants in plain view of everyone in downtown Idlib, in acts that can only be interpreted as a message to anyone who considers rebelling against ANF’s rule that his fate will be certain death," he said.

Dozens of protesters have taken to the streets to demand that the city be administered by civilians, "however, they are suppressed every time", he added.

Extremist groups clash openly

The situation in and around the city of Idlib is rife with tension due to the presence of dozens of hard-line opposition factions, said Mohammad al-Khalid of the Saraqeb co-ordination committee, which is affiliated with the Local Co-ordination Committees of Syria.

The relationship between these groups always has been tense, he told Diyaruna, but the geographical distance between each group's area of control previously kept them largely apart from each other.

"They are now clashing openly and carrying out reciprocal assassinations," he said, noting that there have been several assassinations, and the leaders of these groups have been targeted with improvised explosive devices (IEDs).

Several of these factions have declared their allegiance to ANF under the banner of Jaish al-Fateh, while others refused to do so, he added.

Meanwhile, other groups openly support ISIL, such as Jund al-Aqsa, which has fought fierce battles against ANF , al-Khalid said.

ANF's "entire leadership" is present in Idlib, he said, as are its camps, particularly those affiliated with radical Saudi preacher Abdallah Muhammad bin-Sulayman al-Muhaysini.

These camps are a "main source" of fighters in the region, he said, and include the "cub camps", which are training the next generation of extremist fighters.

Fear grips civilians

Idlib province is teeming with new arrivals, said Abdullah al-Jarak, 27, a native of the town of Maaret al-Numan in Idlib province.

"The congestion is due not only to the presence of militants, but also internally displaced persons (IDPs), who live in camps scattered throughout Idlib," he said.

These stretch as far as the Turkish border and the Atma displacement camp, he told Diyaruna.

In addition to the militants and their families, he said, thousands of civilians have fled to the area from various regions witnessing fierce fighting.

Tens of thousands of displaced people have found refuge in Idlib province, of whom about 400,000 are in the city of Idlib alone, he said.

Idlib shop owner Abdul Aziz Barakat told Diyaruna that the province has turned into "a major hub for jihadi, Salafi-jihadi and Islamist groups", spreading fear among civilians who are trying hard to lead a normal life.

The influx of these groups has put the local and civilian IDP population at increasing risk of airstrikes , he said, which are killing dozens of people each day -- "most of them civilians".

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