'Syrian rebels, Idlibi activists, Western officials and others describe an Idlib pulled between Syrian al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra and opposition faction and Islamist movement Ahrar al-Sham, with each trying to outmaneuver the other for control of the province. Yet they also said that all sides in Idlib are too interdependent militarily and too tangled up at the local level to really turn on each other. Syrians who spoke to The Daily Beast described a sense of a coming showdown—but only at some vague point in the future, maybe after the fall of the regime.
To the east of Idlib, Aleppo province was long a bastion of the mainstream opposition—the rebel-held eastern half of Aleppo city was a hub for revolutionary civil society, and non-jihadist, “Free Syrian Army” rebels dominated the city and countryside. But the regime has relentlessly attacked rebel positions in Aleppo, and a Russian-backed regime offensive in February cut rebel Aleppo to pieces. Now Free Syrian Army units only really dominate an isolated triangle of territory along the Turkish border and areas in and around rebel-held Aleppo city, whose single, precarious supply route is in constant danger of being cut by a new regime offensive.
Most of what is left of the rebel north could be called “greater Idlib.” Idlib itself is almost entirely rebel-held, and so fighters man front lines against the regime where rebel territory spills into neighboring provinces: the western and southern Aleppo countryside, the northern Hama countryside, and remaining rebel-held areas in coastal Latakia. Any major new moves by rebels are likely to come from Idlib. While other rebels’ backers have pressured them to respect the U.S.- and Russian-sponsored nationwide “cessation of hostilities,” Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra are excluded from the main conduits of international support and thus less susceptible to foreign pressure. Ahrar has its own revenue streams—including effective control of Idlib’s Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey, now the sole major inlet for trade into the rebel northwest—and alternate backers in Qatar and Turkey. Meanwhile, interviewees said al-Nusra has no state backers who can pull its strings, although that also means it has had to create its own resources.
“Ahrar al-Sham has a lot of Arab support,” said Idlib activist Obeidah. “Jabhat al-Nusra doesn’t have backing, so it resorts to any means it can to get support, including kidnapping journalists.”
Now, along with the rest of Jeish al-Fateh, the two factions are waging battle against the Syrian regime and its allies in the southern Aleppo countryside and retaking the towns Russia helped the regime seize earlier this year.
“Ahrar are Islamists, true, but they don’t interfere in your business,” said Idlib activist “Omar,” who spoke to The Daily Beast in Gaziantep, Turkey. “In Ahrar areas, for example, you can smoke, no problem. In Armanaz, which is controlled by Ahrar, there are lots of stores that sell cigarettes and shisha. But in Jabhat al-Nusra areas, it would be impossible to sell shisha—they’d break it over your head.”
Part of the split, Syrians say, is because Ahrar al-Sham’s commanders are Syrian and tend to be locals. While many are religiously conservative, they have ties with other local rebels and activists from early in the revolution. Jabhat al-Nusra’s rank-and-file is mostly Syrian, but many of its commanders are “ghuraba” (strangers)—either foreign fighters or Syrians from elsewhere in the country.
Ahrar al-Sham is seen by many as protecting not just local civil society, but also the various Free Syrian Army factions in and around Idlib. Jabhat al-Nusra and its jihadist allies have attacked and destroyed more than a dozen Free Syrian Army factions in the past two years, including some with a reputation for criminality and predation, but others that just fell afoul of al-Nusra.
Speaking in the offices of the Toran Center in the Turkey border town of Reyhanli, center director Muhammad Mustafa told The Daily Beast that most Free Syrian Army brigades are essentially local, something he blamed on foreign backing that had kept them small and divided. As a result, they have been incapable of any collective defense when al-Nusra has picked off individual factions.
“We’re talking about something with a regional character,” said Mustafa of the Free Syrian Army. “According to this regionalist logic, there’s no coordination. Someone looks at the whole revolution—or what he considers the revolution—through the lens of his area. If his area is fine, he’s fine. If his faction is fine, he’s fine.”
The Assad regime and its terrifying violence against residents of opposition areas is still most opposition Syrians’ main concern. Even through the cessation of hostilities, the regime and its allies have periodically launched air strikes on civilian centers in the heart of Idlib that have killed and injured dozens at a time. Al-Nusra has fought the regime ferociously, and its sacrifices have earned the appreciation of many opposition Syrians.
“Jabhat al-Nusra has popularity in Syria,” Dr. Rami al-Dallati, a rebel political representative who has been involved in the armed opposition since early in the revolution, told The Daily Beast in an Istanbul café. “Where does it get its fighters from, Europe? No, from the people.” And given how much effort al-Nusra had put into earning credibility and building a base of popular support, interviewees who spoke to The Daily Beast all discounted recent reports that al-Nusra might unilaterally announce a jihadist “emirate” in Idlib. Al-Nusra was smart enough not to make such a provocative move, they said, one they thought would turn Ahrar al-Sham and the broader Syrian opposition against al-Nusra.
“The strongest relationships you have on the ground aren’t intellectual or organizational in nature; they have to do with family and regional ties,” said an Ahrar al-Sham official who spoke to The Daily Beast over a messaging app. “You have families with members in Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar, and the Free Syrian Army.”
Interviewees told The Daily Beast that macro splits between “al-Nusra” and “Ahrar” did not necessarily mean that the young Syrian men actually flying these factions’ flags—many of whom are not hugely different from each other, or from other rebels—are at each others’ throats.
“At the leadership level [there are tensions between al-Nusra and Ahrar],” said the Ahrar official, “but not at the base level—especially among Syrians—because the base doesn’t see the big picture. They just view each other as very similar, in terms of their approach and orientation, in addition to whatever social ties that might exist.
“They’re sharing the same fronts and the same religion, and you can’t really tell the difference in terms of behavior,” he said. “You hear acute differences when you talk to religious officials and theorists, but those aren’t always communicated to the lower levels.” '