Idlib, the Regime, and Militia Politics

Many media outlets would have you believe that the Assad regime’s fall is imminent. This is due to the latest opposition offensive in Idlib province whereby a coalition of rebel groups have captured Idlib city and then proceeded to capture the symbolic and strategic town of Jisr ash-Shughur. New life has apparently been breathed into the anti-ISIS, anti-Assad opposition due to increased coordination between Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar.

The fall of the Syrian regime is not imminent. Assad’s forces are stretched thin and he is probably weaker than ever before in relative terms. Yet, his “core” provinces of (central) Damascus, Homs, and Latakia are, at this point, not under threat. Assad keeps a presence of troops in regions he considers peripheral in the hopes that he will one day rule all of Syria again. In al-Hasakeh province, for example, largely controlled by the Kurdish PYD party at this point, his troops retain a small presence in the main urban centers of Qamishli and al-Hasakeh city. Idlib can be viewed in a similar vein. Many of its residents are fervent opponents of the Assad regime and enthusiastically joined the uprising. Its locals put up fierce fights in villages and towns across the province in order to expel Assad forces and were largely victorious. It is for this reason that Assad’s forces mainly holed up inside Idlib city.

Idlib province is important in that it is adjacent to strategically important areas (such as Latakia and Hamah). Indeed, the capture of Jisr ash-Shughur brings the opposition much closer to Latakia. But Idlib province is not itself of intrinsic strategic value to the regime. I do not believe that Syria is imminently or even inevitably headed for partition. But, if it were, hypothetically, Idlib would not be one of the provinces that the regime would fight for. An Assad statelet would be comprised of Damascus, Homs, Tartus, Latakia, and probably Hamah. If any of these places were under threat, that would be cause for the regime to sound the alarm. The capture of Idlib city and Jisr ash-Shughur can possibly be read as a step towards that, yet, we need not overstate it as a leap. It is a small step. Defeating the regime in one of the areas it considers peripheral is very different than defeating it in one of its core provinces.

However, whereas the capture of Idlib can be read as largely symbolic, this symbolism should not be written off. While it may not be the greatest threat to the regime, opposition control of Idlib—particularly the city—can have great strategic value if the opposition makes use of the opportunity to show that they can effectively and inclusively govern. Thus far, the opposition has largely failed at attempts at self-governance. This failure is in no small part due to the difficulty of political organizing under aerial bombardment. But political vacuums left by the regime have been filled either by the chaos of rule by competing militias, or the austere tyranny  of ISIL. Thus, both tropes used by the regime to refer to the opposition—“armed gangs” and “Takfiri militants”—have largely become self-fulfilling prophecies. We should not underestimate the rhetorical and symbolic value this has for the regime and its effect on everyday Syrians’ views towards the rebellion.

Jabhat al-Nusra participated in the latest military operation in Idlib. The Islamist battalions were generally dominant in the battle. This obviously should be cause for concern. But more than this, militia rule in Idlib, no matter the political bent, would be a failure. Even the most secular of brigades can be chauvinistic and corrupt political rulers. The fear regarding political governance of opposition areas is not only the prospect of Islamicization, but also the prospect of rule-by-militias generally.

Perhaps the residents of Idlib will succeed in preventing this. The fact that many of the participants in the Idlibi battles are natives to Idlib, particularly members of Ahrar al-Sham and other smaller, local Idlibi groups, is a sign that Idlib may not inevitably be headed towards governance by militias. A spokesman for Ahrar told The Wall Street Journal that while cooperation with Nusra would continue, matters of governance “would be turned over to the city’s residents eventually.” While this does not sound very promising, this is an indication that there may be some pressure—from below as well as from outside—to hand over political control to civilian residents.

The prospects seem bleak given the nature of the groups involved and the persistence of aerial bombardment from Assad’s air force, but a civilian and locally governed Idlib would indeed be a strategic blow to the regime in terms of what the alternatives to its rule are. While it may be naive to think that civilian residents can wrestle political power away from battle-hardened militias, the embeddedness of some of the militants in local society suggests that it may not be as unlikely as it has been in other areas, as fighters may be more responsive to local concerns and demands.

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