DAMASCUS/BERLIN/WASHINGTON (Own report) - Berlin and the EU are intensifying pressure on Damascus in view of the Syrian troops' presumed imminent offensive in Idlib against the jihadi militias, including al-Qaeda's Syrian offshoot. According to a German government spokesperson, it is "anticipated" that the Russian government will "restrain the Syrian regime's escalation." Washington is threatening with an unspecified intervention, should chemicals weapons be used. Syrian jihadists have used chemical weapons in the past, and would be in a position to provoke this US intervention. Since last summer, the Syrian al-Qaeda offshoot Hayat Tahrir al-Sham is in control of Idlib Province, with some 30,000 combatants. Additional smaller, mostly salafist jihadi militias are also ready to battle the Syrian army. By referring to them as "rebels," politicians and media are downplaying the jihadists - including al-Qaeda - as the 17th Anniversary of the 9/11 attacks approaches.

The Jihadi Emirate Idlib

Already in the summer of 2017, the Syrian offshoot of al-Qaeda, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (formerly al-Nusra) had prevailed over rival insurgent militias in fierce battles in Idlib Province. Hayat Tahrir al-Sham was tolerating some other armed cliques - as long as they were essentially submitting to its rule. "But there is no longer any question, who is ultimately in charge" in Idlib Province, the Syrian expert Aron Lund wrote in August 2017, calling Idlib a de facto "jihadi emirate."[1] At the time experts on the region assessed that the western powers could have no interest in defending the al-Qaeda regime. Al-Qaeda is temporarily refraining from large-scale terrorism in the West, because it prioritizes the stabilization of its structures, the US American Council on Foreign Relations wrote in March. The terror attack against the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and the St. Petersburg Metro bombing - both being ascribed to al-Qaeda - prove that the organization has not given up its old strategy.[2] The Syrian expert Sam Heller, who, today, is working for the International Crisis Group, speculated in Mai 2017 that "someone" will most likely put an end to those activities in Idlib soon. It could be either the West or the Syrian government with support from Moscow because for both "a big jihadist safe haven is intolerable."[3]

Under al-Qaeda Control

Slightly more than a year later, it is unclear whether this assessment still holds true. The situation in Idlib has not fundamentally changed, in spite of some shifts in power while the Syrian government is preparing to recapture the province, with Russian support. The al-Qaeda offshoot Hayat Tahrir al-Sham suffered minor setbacks for two reasons. On the one hand, small fractions have split off because of internal dissention. After invading parts of Idlib, Ankara, on the other hand, has begun to strengthen militias, which had been marginalized by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and merge them into a new alliance. Its members are, to a large part - such as Ahrar al-Sham or Jaysh al Ahrar - salafist jihadi oriented like the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham's split-offs. Militias who are oriented otherwise - such as those close to the Muslim Brothers - are in the minority.[4] Experts report that the al-Qaeda offshoot now controls nearly 60 percent of Idlib province and consists of about 30,000 fighters, according to the London based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights , which western media and government agencies often quote as their source of information on Syria.[5] Thus, al-Qaeda has about one percent of Idlib's current population under arms - shortly before the 17th anniversary of the attacks on September 11, 2001.

"Very Worried"

And yet, currently western politicians and media are against Syria and Russia much more than al-Qaeda. Thus, al-Qaeda-predominated jihadi militias in Idlib are regularly euphemized as "rebels," and the province, itself, as a "rebel stronghold." If one goes along with this terminology - which comes quite close to the way the jihadis see themselves - then al-Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri and his predecessor Osama bin Laden must be "rebel leaders," and the terrorists of Paris and St. Petersburg would have been acting in the name of a "rebel organization." Otherwise, this pattern of argumentation resembles that during the combat waged by the Syrian army against Salafist and jihadis for East Alleppo, for East Ghouta and more recently for Daraa. Warnings of massacres at the hands of Syrian troops and the supporting Russian military are already being propagated in advance. According to a German government spokesperson, who expressed that the government is "very worried about the escalation of the situation in northwest Syria" and "anticipates" that Moscow "will restrain the Syrian government from an escalation thereby averting a humanitarian catastrophe."[6] "We must prevent military engagements in Idlib that could lead to a humanitarian catastrophe," announced Federica Mogherini, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security.

"Worse than Auschwitz"

Further escalation of this argumentation is easily possible. For example, in German media, it was claimed during the battle over East Aleppo that the Syrian military was committing "genocide" in the city. What was happening there was "worse than Auschwitz." (german-foreign-policy.com reported.[7]) On the other hand, German politicians and media, have had no criticism of the bloody battles waged for Falluja, Mossul, and Raqqa, which had been carried out by western military forces. Aside from regrets at the loss of civilian lives, these battles are still today being celebrated as heroic victories over jihadis. But in fact, the battles waged by the West have differed little from those waged by Syria and Russia, in terms of the number of deaths and the extent of destruction. (german-foreign-policy.com reported.[8]) A team of the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) even declared in the spring, that the extent of destruction in Raqqa had "exceeded anything" they had "ever seen before."[9] Raqqa had not been devastated by Syrians and Russians in the course of the war against the IS but rather by western air strikes using reconnaissance data provided by the Bundeswehr in collaboration with pro-western troops on the ground.

Ready for Intervention

Whether this will simply remain a case of negative coverage of the upcoming battle for Idlib or whether individual western powers will intervene, remains uncertain. A few days ago, the USA, Great Britain and France published a statement, wherein they expressed their "serious concern over reports," according to which, "the Syrian regime is preparing a military offensive against civilians and the civilian infrastructure in Idlib." They are also "worried" that the Syrian military forces will probably use chemical weapons. If this happens, the three countries are "determined to take action."[10] Subsequently, US President Donald Trump's National Security Advisor, John Bolton affirmed that the USA would react "very strongly" should there be a chemical weapons attack.[11] In fact, the western powers are giving jihadi militias in Idlib an option: should they not be able to vanquish the Syrian military, they can feign a chemical weapons attack and the West will intervene on their side. That Syrian jihadis have already used chemical weapons and, therefore, know how to do it, is well known. A western attack against Syrian forces in or around Idlib would, in the current situation, help the Syrian offshoot of al-Qaeda.


[1] Aron Lund: New order on the border: Can foreign aid get past Syria's jihadis? irinnews.org 15.08.2018.

[2] Bruce Hoffman: Al Qaeda's Resurrection. cfr.org 06.03.2018.

[3] twitter.com/AbuJamajem/status/864575114511253504

[4] Bruce Hoffman: Al Qaeda's Resurrection. cfr.org 06.03.2018.

[5] Hayat Tahrir al-Sham: Syria Regime's Toughest Foe in Idlib. military.com 01.09.2018.

[6] EU warnt vor Katastrophe in Idlib. handelsblatt.com 31.08.2018.

[7] See also Die Schlacht um Mossul (IV).

[8] See also Double Standards and Die präzisen Luftangriffe des Westens.

[9] Zitiert nach: Amnesty International: "War of Annihilation". Devastating Toll on Civilians, Raqqa - Syria. London 2018.

[10] US, UK, France statement on the chemical weapons attack in Syria. reliefweb.int 21.08.2018.

[11] Sommer Brokaw: Bolton: U.S. will act 'strongly' if Syria uses chemical weapons again. upi.com 22.08.2018.