[Editors Note: This report is from August 2017. It is now outdated, especially given the Syrian government's operations inside Idlib. Its main purpose was to highlight how the Western powers have been propping up an al-Qaeda safe-haven in Idlib for years, and how it got to be dominated by al-Qaeda in the first place. Hopefully this can help shed further light on the history behind the situation in Idlib, and give the proper context that can help to contextualize the media propaganda regarding it.
Apologies as well for the lack of reports. New reports will be forthcoming very soon- stay tuned :) ]
For years the Syrian province of Idlib has been under the de-facto control of Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s official affiliate in Syria which has now rebranded as Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), and allied jihadist groups. Western governments have also been pouring in humanitarian assistance ostensibly to support the beleaguered civilian population.
However, these programs are also bolstering al-Qaeda.
Despite the implications of this, press coverage has been scarce. When it is reported coverge is uncritically supportive.
As Nusra’s control becomes more overt, donors are rethinking their efforts. Yet these organizations have been conducting their operations for years while the same fundamental situation was present: al-Qaeda held de-facto control, and they were helping to prop-up an Islamist emirate with the aid of Western social and administrative assistance.
A coalition of foreign donors, NGOs, and humanitarian organizations are being coordinated and funded outside of the United Nations framework by the United States, and to a smaller extent its European allies. These have seen a steady stream of foreign support enter into Idlib for multiple years now.
The extent and breadth of the aid is quite enormous, ranging from necessary staples such as food and medicine all the way down through “political stabilization assistance”, which essentially consists of US-funded and directed governance and municipality operations which aim to set up a functional and alternate state apparatus that is independent from the Syrian government. This covers everything from distributing subsidized aid, food, and fuel, to the setting up of schools, clinics, and local administrative councils, the paying of municipal salaries, etc., all the way down to garbage collection, road repairs, and infrastructure maintenance. Essentially the social and administrative framework for a functional 21st century industrial society.
It is important to understand the implications of this.
During the Arab Spring protests in Egypt it became clear that the success of the nascent uprising depended largely on its ability to create independent spaces outside of the control of the traditional state-system, where new ideals and values could have room to transform into tangible societal change. If the congregation of protesters were able to organize and administer their own incipient societies within effectively self-governing spaces, they would have to be taken seriously by the authorities and would hold negotiation leverage, having largely extricated themselves from state-dependence.
The same basic principles apply to an outside power attempting to undermine and/or overthrow the government of another state, and such realities are of course understood by the United States as it sets up independent structures under the influence of its proxy militias, aid organizations, and municipality councils.
At core, this is as a modern form of imperialism: the overtaking of another nation’s territories and extricating them under your control. Instead of using colonial armies and viceroys however it is done through proxy guerrillas and NGOs.
This idea has been raised by the esteemed scholar of international relations John J. Mearsheimer, professor at the University of Chicago, who explains that such “democracy promotion” political assistance programs are, fundamentally, a way of ousting foreign leaders and replacing them with pro-US clients.
However, there is a deeper problem inherent to all of this. Namely that Idlib has been under the military control of al-Qaeda and other radical terror groups since it was overtaken from government hands in 2015, and that the United States and its allies are therefore subsidizing the civil-service apparatus of the al-Qaeda militias that operate as the de-facto rulers of the province.
The contemporary situation in Idlib is the product of a joint offensive in 2015 which captured the provincial capital and solidified the province under opposition control.
The takeover was itself the product of an amalgamation of the various opposition factions into tightly-organized military-command structures dominated and led by the hard-line jihadist extremist groups. This was facilitated by the coordinated efforts of the various backers of the opposition, the United States, Turkey, and Gulf monarchies, and exemplifies the level of influence these state-sponsors were able to exert over their proxies.
Turkey and Saudi Arabia officially coordinated assistance to the newly formed Army of Conquest coalition, led by Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham and supported by the various US-backed FSA groups, to assist the effort, while Qatar played a key sponsorship role as well.
However, rebel commanders revealed that it was specifically the influence of the US military operatives overseeing support to the insurgency that facilitated the organization of the “moderates” into a military structure commanded by al-Qaeda-affiliates and their allies. “The US-led operations room[s] in southern Turkey” and Jordan, the commanders told Charles Lister, were “instrumental in facilitating their [Islamists’] involvement in the operation.” Far from barring CIA-backed groups from coordinating with al-Qaeda, as Western officials continually claimed, the US-led operations rooms “specifically encouraged a closer cooperation with Islamists commanding frontline operations.” However, this US-directed alliance between al-Qaeda and the FSA was only really a more overt example of what had been going on for years.
Commenting on this, leading political scientist Dr. Nafeez Ahmed wrote that “in other words, al-Qaeda’s official arm in Syria, and another group closely affiliated with al-Qaeda, were among the “moderate” vetted groups receiving arms and aid from the Gulf states and Turkey, under the supervision of US military intelligence operatives in the field.”
The US and its allies then “dramatically increased [their] levels of assistance and provisions of intelligence” to the opposition, including the introduction of “gamechanging” advanced weaponry such as TOW anti-tank missiles. The British press reported the results of this “were shocking.” The capital of Idlib fell within days.
It was noted by knowledgeable observers that “the jihadist contribution was fundamental to these victories… suicide bombers from JN's [Jabhat al-Nusra’s] fellow al-Qaeda affiliate Jund al-Aqsa played a major role in opening access to the provincial capital of Idlib city.”
This had horrendous, yet not unforeseeable, real-world implications for the surrounding villages. The Century Foundation’s Sam Heller documented how the newly-victorious al-Nusra-Ahrar alliance very quickly “then blazed a path south into the regime’s sectarian heartland, massacring Alawite villagers and featuring their children in hostage videos.”
Within Idlib, the extent of who was in control from this point onward was never seriously in question: it has been ruled by al-Qaeda’s Syria affiliate in alliance with Ahrar al-Sham.
Militarily the FSA and other armed factions acted as mere auxiliaries of their superiors, wherein Nusra allowed vetted militias to appear as though they were independent so that the influx of CIA-distributed arms and supplies was maintained. Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, Research Fellow at the Middle East Forum, says it is arguable that “insofar as some FSA groups have been allowed to exist in the northwest, it is only to ensure the continuation of an aid and arms flow from which Jabhat al-Nusra and its successors have almost certainly taken a slice.” According to Joshua Landis, a highly respected academic specializing in Syria, “the radical militias prey on the weaker ones. They extort arms and money from the CIA-supported factions.”
This relationship, of course, was known to Washington, but support was maintained due to the battlefield success of the al-Qaeda groups. Recently the Trump administration officially ended that support, though analysts report that the “moderates” have been given a six month “grace period” to find other sources of support before the operations rooms supplying them are completely dismantled.
Nusra and its close affiliates, militarily dominant over the other factions, began constructing their vision of a future Idlib.
Writing for the Washington Institute, researcher Fabrice Balanche explains that Nusra “has a consistent ideology and clear political project for Syria… JN [Jabhat al-Nusra] leader Abu Muhammad al-Julani clearly stated his intention to create an Islamic emirate in northwestern Syria.”
It is not surprising then that “the group has used brutal methods similar to those of IS,” the only distinguishable difference being that Nusra’s are not so overtly advertised. Meanwhile, non-Sunni’s and religious minorities were either massacred, forced to convert (and then sometimes still massacred), or were lucky enough to have fled and became refugees. Jihadi militants patrol the streets, routinely arresting civil-society activists and others, “many of whom disappear.”
One of the more fortunate of these activists was able to document a first-hand account of life under Nusra-ruled Idlib, published then by The Nation. “Masked, armed men roam the town. Whole streets are blocked off to protect the leaders of the Islamist militia that rules here,” they write.
Idlib city, once “known for its mosaic of different religions and its tolerance,” now looks very different. Nusra “created an entire apparatus to impose Sharia law,” and “Sharia courts remain the only form of justice." The people simply saw no choice but to accept the rules of al-Qaeda.
“When Nusra took control here in March 2015, Idlib entered a dark tunnel of deprivation. Public education deteriorated, the university was closed, and public debate was stifled.” They note that the situation had improved since then (certainly in part due to the influx of Western aid), but still the people “feel suffocated by their masks, their guns, and their arrogant manner.”
On the subject of governance and civil-society organizations, they are described as essentially a sham, nobody having any real doubts about who holds power.
“Local government is a facade for the Islamists. There is a governor, a mayor, and a Shura, or municipal council, but the supreme body is the Committee of the Fatah Army, which has no contact with residents. It carries out military planning, staffs the front lines, and organizes the fighters. It directs a body called “The Executive Force,” which carries out raids, searches for sleeper cells of the Assad regime or the Islamic State, and generally functions as the all-powerful intelligence agency we are familiar with from the Assad regime.”
Proponents of the humanitarian programs argue that “Islamist and jihadist armed groups hold power at the local level... Yet ultimate decision-making power has typically sat with donor organizations outside the country.” Yet “holding power at the local level” is realistically only a euphemism for a society where terrorist-factions exercise a monopoly on the use of force, arbitrate a totalitarian police-state, control vital infrastructure and resources, impose Sharia courts, and hold final decision-making power backed by the barrel of a gun.
The Respectable al-Qaeda
Within this general framework, Nusra and its partners were smart enough not to be overly aggressive in their interference with the humanitarian aid arrangements. According to Syria analyst Aron Lund, Nusra has been “willing to rule with a light touch by Syrian standards, leaving local aid and governance arrangements in place to avoid a clash with Western nations, humanitarians, and the UN system.”
A key contingent to this was the participation of Ahrar al-Sham, who functioned as a sort of go-between separating Western governments and the al-Nusra militants.
Nusra and Ahrar held a mutually complimentary relationship, enhanced even more by attempts to categorize Ahrar as a more moderate and respectable al-Qaeda-affiliated group that the US should partner with. Within this context, Western governments do not officially classify Ahrar as a terrorist organization, even though it has a near-identical sectarian ideology to al-Nusra and works alongside al-Qaeda in pursuit of the establishment of an Islamic caliphate in Syria. The only meaningful ways in which it differs from Nusra is that it has a less centralized management structure and has not pledged direct allegiance to al-Qaeda.
This created a situation whereby the hard-line nature of the rulers in Idlib was sanitized, the “respectable” image of Ahrar in many ways working to balance out the more malevolent picture associated with Nusra’s presence. Opposition supporters pointed to Nusra’s numeric deficiency next to Ahrar to prove its diminutive influence over Idlib, disregarding how Ahrar had historically functioned as “Jabhat al-Nusra’s main enabler and partner,” and how, despite appearances, Nusra was able to “intervene pretty much anywhere in Idlib province without much opposition from whatever groups may be officially controlling a given village or city.”
Al-Tamimi writes that Ahrar’s main problem “has always been its role as an enabler of jihadists,” saying that the group had worked “to bring large numbers of foreign jihadists into the country and undermine local councils and civil society.” Even more strikingly, al-Tamimi says they “played a significant part in enabling the rise of ISIS in Syria in 2013,” their “moderate” portrayal of course only exacerbating their effectiveness in these regards.
This is important because after the takeover of Idlib it was Ahrar that took charge of controlling the only official border crossing with Turkey, Bab-al-Hawa, through which the Western-backed humanitarian assistance is channeled. This arrangement helped to distance Western governments from an appearance of collusion with al-Qaeda’s official arm in Syria, despite the fact that all of the roads leading from the crossing were directly controlled by Nusra.
Much like how the FSA factions maintained a superficial degree of separation from Nusra for the benefit of Western aid, so too was Ahrar able to portray an aura of “respectability” which helped mask the reality that they were not really separate from Nusra and that Western humanitarian assistance ultimately was working toward the benefit of al-Qaeda. In terse, blunt terms, “Thus far, JN [Nusra] has tolerated the work of foreign NGOs and the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs because it needs their social services to help establish its political power.”
Out of Ideas
Despite their implications these programs have enjoyed overwhelming support in the media and among intellectuals. It is generally conceded that they are helpful, moral, and needed, with reluctant admissions that they may have been of some minor benefit to extremists, a point which is usually quickly brushed aside.
The prevalent consensus can be summed up by a recent assessment made by Aron Lund, who concludes that the program’s results “have been mixed at best, with some support also benefiting jihadi groups. Nevertheless, political aid from the UK and other nations has helped pro-Western and democratic strands of the opposition survive inside otherwise inhospitable Islamist-run regions of northwestern Syria.”
One wonders what the response would be if it was proposed that our policy toward ISIS in Raqqa should be to send in massive amounts of aid and set up civil society and governance structures that bolster their control, but which also, fortunately, “help pro-Western and democratic strands survive” within the ISIS-run enclave. Al-Qaeda in Idlib, it must be remembered, only meaningfully differ from ISIS in the less-advertised nature of their brutality.
There are alternatives, of course, which are not considered. The militias and extremist factions are heavily dependent on, and thus influenceable by, their state-sponsors, which also happen to be the United States’ main regional allies. The US could use its superpower status to pressure its allies to stop assisting the armed factions and compel them to negotiate with the Syrian government and abdicate their control of the territories. Threatening to discontinue the assistance they rely upon to administer the province could expedite this. If they refused, intelligence and coordination could be given for Russian and Syrian military action. It would not take long to defeat ill-equipped militants after state-sponsorship has dried up, as was seen with Turkish support in Aleppo, and would certainly be much less brutal and costly to civilians than America’s siege of Mosul, for instance, which had been shocking in comparison to other recent military operations in the region. Priority should be given to non-violence, the cutting off of funding and assistance channels, though eventually Idlib would need to be relinquished to Syria.
The seizure of Idlib from the Syrian state was an illegitimate act of aggression by hostile foreign powers done through dependent proxies, which utilized the support of internationally-recognized terrorist groups without whom the efforts would not have been successful. Returning it to Syrian rule is thus the correct and legitimate option.
Almost forgotten now, under UN Security Council Resolution 2249, the US is obliged to “take all necessary measures… to prevent and suppress terrorist acts committed specifically by… Al-Nusra Front (ANF), and all other individuals, groups, undertakings, and entities associated with Al Qaeda.” And as well to “eradicate the safe haven they have established over significant parts of Syria,” of which Idlib would certainly qualify, at least according to the leader of the US-led coalition against ISIS, who called Idlib “the largest Al Qaeda safe haven since 9/11.”
This must only be done, however, “in compliance with international law,” i.e., not through illegal interference inside Syrian territory without the permission of the Syrian government or approval of international law. The resolution did not, just to clarify, stipulate the US should coordinate assistance programs to territories under the control of al-Qaeda-official.
Protecting al-Qaeda, Again
Questions regarding these policies have only seriously been raised recently as infighting broke out between Nusra and Ahrar. Nusra for all intents and purposes defeated Ahrar, solidifying its unilateral dominance over the province while taking effective control over the Bab al-Hawa crossing. This overt Nusra control has led donors to rethink their operations. However, after Nusra reopened the crossing regular traffichad continued up until recently when Turkey started to reduce the amount of shipments down to basic necessities and emergency aid, following pressure due to Nusra’s takeover.
But the takeover does not fundamentally transform the situation from what it was before. It is in many ways only a superficial change. While donors are rightfully worried about Nusra siphoning revenue streams from their aid shipments, allowing Ahrar to do the same for years was equally as objectionable yet elicited no such response. Nusra very quickly took advantage of the opportunity to reinstitute some of their more hard-line Islamist decrees, like the banning of tobacco products, and concerns have been raised as they’ve begun to take a more heavy-handed approach toward subordinating civilian councils and controlling administrative processes. Yet this had been happening under the surface for years. It should have been obvious that Nusra was just tolerating the West’s social services and that it would move on them once it felt it had become strong enough, which appears might be happening now. Government officials who are only just now becoming alarmed at this had been enabling all of it while it had been developing for years.
This exposes the deep cynicism and hypocrisy of US officials like Michael Ratney, the State Department’s top official in charge of Syria policy, who described the situation as one fundamentally altered which only now requires action. Ratney said that “everyone should know that [Nusra leader] Jolani and his gang are the ones who bear responsibility for the grave consequences that will befall Idlib,” describing their takeover as “one of the greatest tragedies” to hit Syria’s north that puts the region “in great danger,” saying the United States therefore hopes “to find channels that enable us to deliver humanitarian assistance to the Syrian people without passing through the hands of the Nusra Front and the crossings that have fallen into its hands.”
But “even before the July assault,” a recent LA Times article reports, Nusra had already “demanded a portion of the aid entering its area.” This is not a surprising, given that Nusra controlled the majority of roads and checkpoints throughout the province. The amount of aid that had to be turned over “depends on the number of checkpoints you have to pass and what you’re carrying,” an aid worker told the Times. “Normally for food [Nusra] don’t take so much. They’re merciful. But medicines are highly taxed.” As well, civil society activists have been warning that Nusra “routinely seizes aid convoys and disrupts service provisions,” and that it had “tried to kidnap and kill activists.”
Ahrar, Nusra’s greatest enablers, also reportedly were able to siphon off millions of dollars of revenue from the aid cargos, from “commercial traffic and high-value goods like construction material,” during their run as enforcers of the crossing. One can only assume that the cut taken by Nusra was equally as substantial.
This all, however, is really beside the point. The fact is that even if no revenue was being pocketed in these illegitimate ways the influx of humanitarian aid would still crucially be bolstering al-Qaeda and their allies. Its ultimate end-result is the maintenance of “the largest al-Qaeda safe haven since 9/11”, as well as the al-Qaeda members within it.
In a recent piece, Aron Lund says that it is unlikely “that a Tahrir al-Sham-dominated Idlib will receive Western-funded stabilisation and governance aid indefinitely. Neither Americans nor Europeans are interested in bankrolling the civil service of a jihadi emirate, and that is increasingly what Idlib looks like to them.”
Yet the province has looked like that for a long time, and Nusra has been dominating it; the bankrolling of a jihadi emirate is exactly what they have been doing.
It is only now, after Nusra’s role has become so overt as to be undeniable, that questions are being raised. What this shows is not an honest and forthright concern on the part of the US government about aiding terrorist organizations, or caring whether that is objectively the truth or not, but instead only concern for the perception of having been seen to have done so.
In truth, the US government had ample and detailed intelligence regarding the true makeup of the insurgency in Syria going back multiple years now. They understood who was driving it and what the implications were. It was known that in order to have any chance of success at undermining the government in Damascus they were going to have to rely on al-Qaeda and extremist shock-troops to pave the way toward battlefield success and the seizure of important cities and provinces, like Idlib. It is no wonder then that the operations rooms led by the US would instruct their FSA proxies and “encourage further cooperation with Islamists commanding frontline operations” in order to take Idlib.
The US and its allies gave crucial intelligence, organizational, and material support to an insurgent opposition led by al-Qaeda-aligned extremist groups in order to wrest control of Idlib away from Damascus. The byproduct of such a strategy was always going to be the empowerment of those extremist groups who would of course come to hold ultimate military control of the province afterwards, no matter how much influence is taken away from them by outside NGOs administering social goods and services. The empowerment of al-Qaeda groups to the level of military and security supremacy over an entire Syrian province was a foregone conclusion given this set up.
Yet after the fact the continued preservation of these forces through Western-funded social services subsidization, as opposed to a policy of actual counterterrorism, only goes to show the level at which the US state is willing to empower the forces of terrorism in order to achieve imperialistic geopolitical agendas. The level at which these actions are tolerated and/or given ideological cover by the media and intellectual classes only exemplifies how far these have devolved into functional propaganda for state and corporate interests.
The fact that the US has been helping to maintain the largest contemporary safe haven for al-Qaeda, the organization claiming responsibility for the 9/11 terror atrocity, should have been front page news across the country and the topic of an extensive debate. Instead, experts and important agenda-setting journals sanitize the public from these unfortunate circumstances, and people are therefore spared from having to look in the mirror and confront such ugly realities.
Steven Chovanec is an independent journalist and analyst based in Chicago, Illinois. He has a bachelor’s degree in International Studies and Sociology from Roosevelt University, and has written for numerous outlets such as The Hill, TeleSur, Mint Press News, Consortium News, and others. Follow him on Twitter @stevechovanec