How did ISIS conquer Syria

Last stronghold of the Islamists in Syria

The strongest force is Hajat Tahrir al-Scham (German: Committee for the Liberation of the Levant, HTS), formerly the Syrian branch of the al-Qaeda terror network. HTS also dominates the civil administration of the region, the "government of rescue".

2.9 million people live in the area, two thirds of them are displaced according to the UN. They fled other rebel strongholds when they were retaken by government forces. More than a million of them live in improvised camps.

Part of the relief supplies are "confiscated"

The Islamists lost territory through several offensives by the Syrian army and its Russian allies against Idlib. "Now they control 3,000 square kilometers," said political scientist and Syria expert Fabrice Balanche. “In September 2017 it was 9,000 square kilometers.” Despite sporadic clashes, the region has benefited from the ceasefire negotiated by Moscow and Ankara since March 2020.

The HTS, classified as terrorist by the United Nations and the EU, has around 10,000 fighters, mostly Syrians, according to a UN report. The jihadist group controls the fuel trade and makes about a million dollars a month, according to the report. HTS also oversees the distribution of humanitarian aid. Some of the relief supplies are "confiscated to strengthen the network of their favorites," the report said.

Fight among jihadist groups

The jihadist groups in Idlib are also at war with one another. One of the opponents of HTS is Hurras al-Din (German: Guardian of Religion), also a Syrian offshoot of al-Qaeda with around 2,000 to 2,500 fighters according to the UN. Another group is the Islamic Turkestan Party, whose supporters mostly come from the Uighur Muslim minority in China. It has around 3,000 to 4,500 fighters.

Thousands of foreigners, including many French, British and Chechens, are fighting on the side of the Islamists, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Islamist militias financed by Turkey also operate in Idlib. The observatory is based in the UK. It is considered to be well connected and close to the Syrian opposition. However, your information is usually hardly verifiable.

3.6 million fled to Turkey

Ankara definitely wants to prevent even more Syrians from fleeing to Turkey. The country has already taken in 3.6 million refugees. "A new wave of Syrian refugees would pose serious political, economic and humanitarian challenges for Ankara," said Dareen Khalifa of the International Crisis Group (ICG). The country is therefore trying to find a “balance” between its interests, not to let Idlib fall to Damascus, while at the same time “maintaining relations with Moscow and avoiding a risky confrontation,” Khalifa said.

The Syrian government, on the other hand, wants to recapture the entire province. It has already taken territories along the strategically important M4 motorway, which connects the metropolis of Aleppo with Latakia, the stronghold of the Assad family. If Damascus continues to pursue this strategy, Ankara would "want something in exchange," said political scientist Balanche. “In my opinion a new Kurdish area.” In the past few years Turkey and its Syrian militias have already conquered several areas of the Kurdish minority in northern Syria.

"New Gaza Strip"

A Syrian-Russian offensive against Idlib would mean “a head-on clash with the Turkish army,” said a Western diplomat, pointing out that Turkey already has 15,000 men in the enclave. The result would be millions of displaced persons and "a direct threat to Turkey and the West from certain terrorist groups".

Areas of the Islamists could remain as a “Turkish protectorate”, as a “new Gaza Strip”, said the political scientist Balanche. "A narrow strip under the control of Islamist groups like HTS, who manage a refugee population - dependent on international humanitarian aid."