Until a few years ago, Idlib was nothing but a sleepy and forgotten city in the Syrian northwest, famed for its agricultural fields and for a celebrated resistance leader it produced at the end of World War I, who staged a guerrilla war against colonial France in the 1920s.
This man, Ibrahim Hananu, secured a place for Idlib in Syrian history books and almost single-handedly created the cornerstone for the country’s national mythology for the rest of the 20th century. On his death in 1935, a statue of Hananu was erected in Idlib, only to be decapitated in mid-2015, when an assortment of Salafi groups stormed the Syrian city, claiming that statues were un-Islamic.
Two years earlier, Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda branch in Syria, beheaded a statue of the Abbasid-era poet and philosopher Abu Alaa al-Maari. In February 2015, the Islamic State released a five-minute video of its warriors smashing ancient statues into tiny fragments at the Mosul Museum, and two months later, repeated the same vandalism in the ancient city of Palmyra, destroying statues that were thousands of years old.
The self-proclaimed “caliph” of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has called for the destruction of both the Great Sphinx and the Pyramids in Egypt, similar to how the Taliban demolished the ancient statues of Buddha, carved into the side of a cliff in the Bamyan valley in Hazarajat, central Afghanistan, back in March 2001.
Those events in 2015 should have raised eyebrows on all four corners of the globe, but they received minimal media attention back then, in light of the horrendous daily death toll in the Syrian war. Idlib returns to the world radar today as intense fighting breaks out between different jihadi groups that have been funnelled into the city by Russian-directed campaigns over the past 12-months.
Since joining the Syrian battlefield in September 2015, Russia has steadily been deporting militias and their families to Idlib, creating what some now describe as a “Syrian Kandahar.” Rebels from the Damascus countryside, eastern Aleppo, and Homs have all recently been deported to Idlib, with no mention as to how long they will stay, and with orders to stay there or else get killed. Thousands of militants flocked to Idlib from Aleppo last December, and 1,600 militants are due to arrive in early February, uprooted from the valley of Wadi Barada in the Damascus countryside, through a Russian-mediated surrender.
This will be an A-class failed state that might inspire joint action one day between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin
Many were taped weeping as they made the journey from their homes, saying that Idlib was not their home and never will be. Idlib authorities are even complaining, saying that the city is grossly overpopulated today and cannot accommodate new residents, already strained to provide water, electricity, and other basic services to the city’s 2 million residents and the families that have been arriving there aboard green buses chaperoned by the Russian military.
One plausible view of Moscow’s end-objective is the creation of a horrible example of a failed state in Idlib, plagued by poverty and inter-rebel fighting. A center that incubates young jihadis and transforms them into professional terrorists. This won’t be like the ISIS government in al-Raqqa, which is a radical but functioning state with a proper bureaucracy, postal service, intelligence branch, and army. This will be an A-class failed state that might inspire joint action one day between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, if the new US president ever decides to put his campaign promises and inauguration speech into action and wage war against radical Islam.
Media attention will be trained on Idlib to show the world just how horribly wrong the city has gone, and it would be an easy and swift victory for the Russian and US armies.
Ad hoc Islamic centers have already been set up by Salafi clerics on the streets of Idlib, replacing government schools and institutions, manned mostly by non-Syrians who started arriving there in late 2015. It was easy for them to set up radical religious schools because the majority of the city’s traditional clerics, notables and elders have fled Idlib and are now residing in Turkey and Gulf states.
Deprived of the city’s traditional leaders and clergy, terrorists took the law into their own hands, transforming the city into a hub for extremism. If any moderate rebels end up in Idlib, they are encouraged to radicalize and turn violent, joining ISIS or any other Salafi group that will emerge.
The developments in Idlib aren’t wholly dissimilar to the situation in the West Bank or within Israel itself. Arabs who are considered troublemakers and potential militants, especially ones from the Shuafat camp in northwestern Jerusalem, are automatically deported to Gaza City. Gaza, ruled by the radical Islamic group Hamas, has also become an incubator for radical Islam, pretty much like Idlib today. The city is densely populated and lacks basic services, creating an environment for fanaticism to flourish.
Last January, Idlib sank into into a “rebel civil war” as fighting broke out between Jabhat al-Nusra and the Turkish-backed Ahrar al-Sham, a militia in the Syrian north that boasts of a powerbase of at least 20,000 fighters. The two groups had previously worked together in fighting off regime forces, and are now at daggers end for full control of the city. On paper, little separates al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham; both are Salafi militants, both aim at a theocracy in Idlib, both are anti-Russian and anti-regime, and both have worked together previously to clip the wings of ISIS.
When the international community spoke out against al-Nusra, pushing rebel groups to distance themselves from it, Ahrar al-Sham stood up in its defense, claiming that unlike ISIS, which is packed with foreign fighters, Al-Nusra is a 100% Syrian force — and the most effective on the battlefield, for that matter, in the fight against ISIS and the Syrian government troops. Ahrar al-Sham now blames al-Nusra for the internal fighting and has forged an alliance of fighters to oppose it.
Earlier in January, fighters from al-Nusra — now known as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham — stormed the state-prison in Idlib, where some of its members were being held by other rebel groups, and refused any mediation with Ahrar al-Sham. Over the past month, no fewer than 100 militants have been killed from both camps in Idlib, which has been music to the ears of officials in Damascus and Moscow. They are standing by and watching their arch enemies tear each other apart, without lifting a finger. They are eliminating each other — which is exactly what Russia wanted when the deportation campaigns started 16 months ago.