MARCH 30, 2015
An Anxious Wait in Syrian City Held by Insurgents
By ANNE BARNARD
BEIRUT, Lebanon -- Residents of the northern Syrian provincial capital of Idlib are waiting anxiously to learn who will govern them, and how, after Islamist insurgent groups hoisted their flags over the city last weekend.
The victorious factions, including Al Qaeda's Nusra Front, are consolidating control in and around the city after routing government forces, and their shifting coalition of Sunni Islamists -- opposed to both the Islamic State group and the Syrian government -- is cementing its sphere of influence in northwestern Syria.
The takeover of Idlib, along with a notable victory in southern Syria last week by a different set of insurgents, demonstrates that government troops and Islamic State militants are not the only powerful forces on the ground, and that after four years of an increasingly complex war, the map of control in Syria is far from settled.
The long-planned Idlib offensive showed a new degree of coordination among insurgent groups in an area long plagued by infighting, with an estimated 5,000 to 7,000 fighters attacking government checkpoints from several directions.
Analysts said that Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, American allies long frustrated with what they see as insufficient American support for insurgents fighting President Bashar al-Assad, have recently sent more arms and cash to groups they favor. Syrian officials have accused Turkey of backing the Idlib assault.
But at the same time, Idlib represents a failure of sorts for such American-allied governments, who had sought to persuade some Islamist insurgent groups to distance themselves from Nusra, the Qaeda affiliate, in the hope they would become more palatable to Western governments.
"That didn't happen," said Emile Hokayem, a Middle East-based analyst with the International Institute for Strategic Studies, who has pushed  for more Western aid to relatively-moderate insurgent groups. Instead, the Idlib battle showed increased "strategic cooperation" between other Islamist groups and Nusra.
In recent months, Mr. Hokayem said, after Nusra routed two American-backed groups, the Syrian Revolutionaries Front and Harakat Hazm, from Idlib Province, the insurgent coalition has become more coherent, now ranging from what he dubs "Islamists lite" to ultraconservative Salafists to extreme radicals.
While "it's not going to please Washington," he said, that shift left the fighters "more in sync."
The new insurgent coalition formed to take Idlib calls itself Jaish al-Fatah, the Army of Conquest. Two of its most powerful components are Ahrar al-Sham, a hard-line Islamist group that has declared it will turn over administration of the city to civilian councils, and Nusra, which has issued no such pledge.
Idlib's future is uncertain: the city could face daily bombardment by government forces, like insurgent-held sections of nearby Aleppo, or come under the harsh religious rule that Nusra's rival, the Islamic State, has imposed further east in Raqqa, the only other provincial capital to slip from the government's hands.
Still, Ibrahim Hamidi, an Idlib native, government opponent and political analyst for the Saudi-owned pan-Arab newspaper Al Hayat, said some friends and relatives, newly able to return home without fear of security forces, "feel liberated."
But he said he fears "repeating Raqqa," where a Nusra-led victory was first welcomed by many government opponents, but soured as the Islamic State took over.
"What is important is to win the war, not just to win battles," he said.
The Idlib battle could be a blow to morale for government forces, at a time when President Assad has been in what Mr. Hokayem called "victory mode." Mr. Assad has embarked on a new round of media interviews, saying that he remains Syria's legitimate ruler and that he is waiting for serious diplomatic overtures from American officials. Government media outlets have played down the battle for Idlib, sticking to regular programming like cooking shows and bodybuilding displays, while members of the military, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that forces are being gathered for an attempt to take back the city.
But if extremist insurgents try to rule Idlib, it could also be a blow to the opposition, which would lose a rare chance to show it could provide a viable alternative to both Mr. Assad and the Islamic State. The increasingly marginalized Syrian exile opposition coalition embraced what it called the city's liberation, and urged local councils and departments of health and education to take charge.
But the exile coalition's nominal interim government in Gaziantep, Turkey, has few opportunities to assert itself in Idlib, said Oubai Shahbandar, a Syrian-American public relations consultant for Syrian opposition groups.
"I don't think we're going to see them riding down from Gaziantep to take over the mayor's office anytime soon," he said.
Tensions are already evident in Idlib over the treatment of Christians, a bellwether issue. Two activists, who asked not to be identified out of fear for their safety, said that foreign fighters from Nusra had killed two Christians after hearing they worked in a liquor store.
They said that fighters from Ahrar al-Sham had rebuked the foreigners and set up checkpoints to protect Christians from them.
Abdullah Mohamad Al-Muhaisini, a Saudi Islamic law jurist traveling with the fighters, used Twitter to construct a complex argument against killing Christians who do not resist.
Christians appeared to be suffering from both sides, as rescuers said government airstrikes hit Christians' homes. In video of shaken, crying residents in smoking, damaged homes, a non-veiled woman yelled, "bastard tyrant!"
Zaina Erhaim, a journalist from Idlib, returned after the government forces withdrew, but said she did not yet feel free.
"Men -- Syrians & foreigners -- are roaming around freely, taking pics in Idlib & I, who was born & lived all my life there, couldnt coz am a woman," she said on Twitter, as videos from Idlib showed jubilant men, and few women.
Asked to elaborate, she added that she was "too saddened."
Mr. Hamidi, the journalist from Idlib, said that Nusra fighters disagree on governance. Foreign fighters, he said, believe that declaring an emirate and imposing religious rules would stem losses of recruits to Islamic State, while Syrians remain focused on fighting Mr. Assad.
The best-case scenario, Mr. Hokayem said, might be an "Islamist lite" civilian rule that the Gulf states and Turkey might try to foster.
"Do they know how to do it?" he asked. "Probably not."
Maher Samaan and Hwaida Saad contributed reporting.