Counter-Terrorism: Pulling Together In Opposite Directions


March 15, 2021: “All politics is local” is an old observation about how local government develops its own character depending on the prevailing cultural, political and security situation. One of the strangest examples of a unique local government is the “Salvation Government” that has run Idlib province in northwest Syria since 2011. There is now a civil war brewing in Idlib as the main rebel coalition HTS (Hayat Tahrir al Sham) and its more than 15,000 armed men seek to replace the Salvation Government. One of the key disputes between the Salvation Government and HTS is control and regulation of the dozens of arms dealers who operate in Idlib under the authority of the Salvation Government and in cooperation with HTS, the biggest customer for weapons.

Both HTS and the Salvation Government tax the arms dealers and no one wants to lose that source of income. But during 2020 there were several explosions in arms dealer shops, which often double as warehouses for weapons, ammunition and lots of explosive material. There were also incidents of prospective customers insisting on test firing assault weapons and machine-guns before buying. This seems odd for arms deals in urban neighborhoods, often in major market neighborhoods where dozens of shops are located and hundreds, if not thousands of shoppers are always present. The explosions and occasional gunfire caused a lot of anger among the million or more civilians still living under the control of the Salvation Government. Only about half the province is currently controlled by the Salvation government because attacks by the Assads and the Turkish government over the last five years have forced the very pro-rebel civilian population into a smaller area. They are kept alive by foreign aid arranged by the UN, and the Salvation Government justifies its existence by dealing with the UN and the aid donors to see that the aid is distributed rather than stolen.

HTS justifies its presence by providing most of the firepower to keep the Turks and Assad forces from simply taking control of the entire province, now the last one not controlled by the Assads, the Kurds in the northeast or the Turks in the north. HTS suspects that the Salvation Government is supporting an internal rebellion against HTS leaders while HTS has, over the last year, demonstrated its political ambitions. This became obvious in February 2021 when HTS leader Abu Mohammed al Golani shocked many of his followers and supporters by appearing in a TV interview wearing a business suit and not holding an assault rifle. His interviewer was an American journalist. Golani justified the non-terrorist attire by describing his recent efforts to make alliances with foreign nations. To do this he had to convince them he was serious about turning HTS into an unarmed political movement in return for sanctuary. His enemies, including the Salvation Government, had always accused Golani of secretly doing that. Until 2021 Golani denied the accusations but now he embraces them. Golani has a $10 million price on his head as the leader of HTS. The Americans offer the reward for capturing or killing Golani, no matter what he is wearing or saying at the time. For Golani sanctuary is a matter of life or death.

Technically all Islamic terrorists in Idlib belong to the HTS, which al Qaeda supports but does not entirely trust. HTS is a coalition of coalitions and many of the factions never did trust each other. The major fear is that another faction, or even HTS leadership, has made a deal with Turkey which, so the story goes, wants to control HTS as a sort of Sunni Hezbollah and use it to drive Shia Iran and its Lebanese Hezbollah out of Syria. Many HTS leaders do have a history of working with the Turks. Russia and Syria believe the Turks are actually supporting some of the HTS factions. The Turks do support “moderate” Islamic terror groups but refuse to outright admit it. This policy is unpopular with Israel and Western nations as well as Syria, Iran and Russia. Many Turks also oppose any pro-terrorist policy but the current Turkish government is controlled by an Islamic party that favors “cooperation” with some Islamic terror groups to protect Turks from the more rabid Islamic terrorists. Syria used to play this game and it worked until 2011 when that policy backfired in a big way. The accommodation approach to Islamic terrorists rarely works for long, but to many shortsighted politicians it is still an attractive option. During 2020, the steady advance of Syrian forces, accompanied by Russian airstrikes and artillery fire plus the inability of the Turks to do anything about it, led to the unravelling of the HTS coalition and growing paranoia within the Salvation Government.

When the rebellion against the decades-old Assad government began in 2011, Idlib province was one of the first provinces to drive out the Assad officials and form its own Salvation Government of Sunni Arabs aligned with Islamic conservative groups, many of which became affiliated with Sunni Islamic terror groups like al Qaeda. This rebellion turned into a civil war with rebels, representing the Sunni Moslem majority (70 percent of Syrians) against the Assad coalition strongly supported by 13 percent of the population who are Shia Moslem. Initially it seemed that the rebels would win but political and religious reality intervened as more of the Assads lost control of more of the country and the Assad clan feuded with itself.

By 2015 it seemed as if the Assads were doomed. Then Iran increased its military support, made possible by a 2015 treaty that lifted economic sanctions on Iran in return for Iran promising to halt its nuclear weapons program, a project it always insisted did not exist. The 2015 treaty included the release of billions of dollars’ worth of frozen assets. Some of  this was flown in from the United States as pallets of cash. Suddenly thousands, eventually over 30,000, Iranian mercenaries were working with the depleted and demoralized Assad forces and winning. Another problem with the rebel forces was ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant), which became a major rebel faction in 2014 because of the fanaticism of its members and the ISIL policy of demanding other rebel Islamic terrorist factions submit to ISIL control or be destroyed. This weakened the rebel forces when they could least afford it. That was because in 2015 Russia intervened militarily and in 2016 the Turks did likewise. Meanwhile the United States was providing substantial material and training support for the Syrian Kurdish forces in the northeast. The American also organized and led a large air support coalition that concentrated on attacking ISIL. By 2017 ISIL had been defeated, but not entirely destroyed. At the same time the rebels lost control of most of the territory they ruled by 2014 and the only remaining rebel stronghold was Idlib province. That was because the Assads adopted the policy of offering surrounded rebel areas the option of surrendering their territory while the rebel fighters and their families were transported to Idlib province. The Assads, even with the help of Russia and Iran, did not have the manpower to fight for all the rebel areas they had cut off from the outside world. The trapped rebels did not want their families slaughtered in a last stand battle so the “surrender and move to Idlib” became a popular compromise solution for all concerned. That did leave one major problem; what to do with rebel dominated Idlib province. A solution has been elusive because no one, including the Turks, wants to accept these pro-rebel refugees and their hardcore Islamic terrorist members in as refugees. A large- scale military offensive is also unacceptable because the UN would not tolerate it nor could UN managed aid continue getting in.

The Assads were the only ones who seriously considered mass murder in Idlib as a solution because deliberate attacks on pro-rebel civilians had been Assad policy for a decade and they had cooperation from their Russian and Iranian allies in this policy. A decade of this sort of thing had changed the ethnic and religious composition of Syria. In 2011 the country was about 70-75 percent Sunni. Most of these were Arabs but over ten percent of the Sunnis were Kurdish, Turkomen and other minorities. The largely Sunni Kurds were about nine percent of the population. The Assad clan is Shia, a minority that comprised about 13 percent of the population. Various Christian groups totaled about ten percent of the population. Another religious minority were somewhat Islamic groups like Druze and Yazidis who are considered heretics by conservative Moslems but tolerated in many Moslem majority nations.

The Assads had always been brutal towards any Sunni opposition. This has been a problem for Iran in Lebanon, where the Iran-backed Hezbollah militia continues to expand its control of the entire country in the name of the Shia minority they represent. Because of the two million Sunni Arab Syrian refugees that have fled to Lebanon since 2012, the Lebanese Shia are now a smaller minority. Lebanon is overwhelmed, economically and otherwise, by the Syrian refugees it is hosting. That’s in a country of only five million. Since nearly all those refugees are Sunni Moslems, that radically changed the religious mix of Lebanon from 27 percent Shia, 27 percent Sunni, and 46 percent Christian (and other religions) to a more volatile combination. With the refugee influx there are now over seven million people in Lebanon and 47 percent are Sunni, 19 percent Shia and 34 percent Christian (and others). This puts the Hezbollah militia in a bad situation. Their better armed and trained fighters have been able to dominate the other minorities since the 1980s. That was possible because of Iranian cash, weapons and advisors. But the Iranian help and better organization is no longer enough when the Sunnis are nearly half the population and out for blood because of the slaughter the Iran backed Shia Syrian government inflicted on Syrian Sunnis. Lebanon does not want another civil war over this, but it is becoming more difficult to contain the anger. Hezbollah and Iran have had some success attracting non-Shia factions (especially Christians) to be part of the Shia coalition. This is traditional Lebanese politics, with the Christians surviving by forming a coalition with non-Christian groups. Now even these Christian factions are backing away from Hezbollah.

In Syria the non-Sunni groups now comprise about half the population because most of the of the Assad policy of driving Sunni Arab populations out of the country. About two percent of the pre-war population of 23 million have died during the war and half the prewar population, most of them Sunni Arabs, became refugees. Half were displaced inside Syria and half, almost all Sunni Arabs, outside the country. That means the Sunni majority is largely gone, although Sunni Arabs still comprise nearly half the current Syrian population. The most pro-rebel Sunni Syrians have been sent into exile and the Assads do not want them back. While most of the country is now controlled by the Assad government, most of that territory is shared with foreign troops; Iranian, Turkish, Russian and American, in that order. Syrian forces have to be wary of these allies, as well as the Islamic terrorist groups. The few thousand remaining ISIL fighters are split into dozens of independent factions and remain particularly active in attacking Syrian troops.

The Syrian civil war staggers on unresolved because few of the factions involved are able to agree on an overall settlement. The feuding within Idlib province between the rebels is an example of how dysfunctional the opposition remains. The anti-rebel coalition is not much better with the Assads, Russians, Iranians, Turks, Kurds, Israelis, Iraqis, Americans, Gulf Arabs and other NATO nations all pulling in different directions, and often regard the war between the Assads and the Syrian opposition a secondary consideration to why they are in Syria.


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