WASHINGTON - Several al-Qaida-aligned militant groups in the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib have announced the formation of a joint military operations room aimed at coordinating efforts to fight Syrian government troops and its allied forces.
The new operations center, dubbed as “Be Steadfast”, consists of five jihadist groups that operate in parts of the restive Idlib province, according to a statement published Friday on jihadist blogs and local media outlets.
“In order to repel the attacks of the aggressors and to break the conspiracies of the occupiers, the following factions mentioned announce the formation of the ‘Be Steadfast Operations Room’,” the statement said.
These factions include Hurras al-Din, Jamaat Ansar al-Islam and Jabhat Ansar al-Din, all of which are affiliated with the al-Qaida terror group. The other two groups, al-Jihad Coordination and the al-Muqatileen al-Ansar Brigade, are recent splinters from the powerful Islamist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which was al-Qaida’s Syria branch until 2016 when it formally severed ties with the global jihadist group.
That decision by the HTS, formerly known as al-Nusra Front, triggered many members to break away from it and form jihadist groups loyal to al-Qaida.
Idlib is the last major stronghold for anti-government rebels and jihadist groups in Syria. While Syrian government troops and allied Russian and Iranian forces have captured parts of Idlib, rebels and Islamist fighters still control strategic parts of the border province. HTS is the main Islamist group that operates in Idlib.
Rejecting truce deals
The new so-called operations room “is an attempt by the jihadist critics of HTS to bolster their efforts, continue to launch raids against the enemy and in their view work to sabotage the international agreements over Idlib that they view as a conspiracy,” said Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, a Syria researcher at Swansea University in the UK.
Jihadist groups active in Idlib have consistently rejected several agreements sponsored by regional and international actors over the province.
In March, Russia and Turkey brokered a cease-fire deal in Idlib aimed at bringing an end to a Syrian government offensive that had begun last year to recapture Idlib.
Moscow and Ankara, who support opposing sides of Syria’s civil war, reached the agreement after several previous unsuccessful deals over Idlib, which is currently home to over 2 million people.
For example, Russia and Turkey reached an agreement in September 2018 that had postponed a planned Syrian offensive on Idlib and other areas near the Turkish border.
According to that agreement, Turkey was required to remove all extremist groups from the province, including those allied with the al-Qaida. But the deal proved unsuccessful as Ankara allegedly failed to implement its part of the agreement.
The current truce, however, remains largely holding as Russia and Turkey have been conducting joint patrols in the Syrian province.
But fighting between Syrian government forces and jihadist groups have continued in the northwestern part of the war-torn country.
Last week, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that at least 22 jihadists and 19 government soldiers were killed in fierce clashes in the province of Hama, south of Idlib.
The Observatory, which has researchers across Syria, said jihadist fighters affiliated with the Hurras al-Din group briefly seized two villages in Hama before government troops regained control of them.
Balance of power
Analyst al-Tamimi says he doesn’t believe jihadist factions in Idlib “are going to alter the balance of power with HTS,” noting that the latter “still has the effective sway over the area.”
He added that supporters of HTS “find them annoying and dismiss them as small groups falsely claiming to unify efforts.”
Other experts, however, argue that these extremist groups haven’t entirely broken away from their mother organization, the HTS.
“Most of the leaders of these jihadist groups were until recently crafting the current ideology of HTS,” Ahmed Rahal, a former Syrian military general who is now based in Istanbul, told VOA.
“On the one hand, the HTS tells Turkey that it agrees with the deployment of Turkish troops and military observation posts in Idlib,” he said. “On the other hand, the HTS activates these groups to show the Turks that it has leverage and cards to use in any negotiations over the future of Idlib.”