On March 24th, a coalition of rebel groups known as Jaish al-Fateh (جيش الفتح, Army of Conquest) announced its formation, and intention to liberate the city of Idlib in northern Syria. The army warned the residents of Idlib city to stay in their homes, and released a statement urging regime soldiers without blood on their hands to defect from the army. The city of Idlib had been in regime hands for three years, since being taken by the regime in late 2012. It was widely expected to be a formidable fortress for the opposition to take.
Later in the day, two fighters from the “Islamist” (insert media sensationalism at this point) Jund al-Aqsa (“Soldiers of al-Aqsa”) group blew themselves up at regime checkpoints on the eastern side of the city. After which, Idlib was stormed from three sides. Areas around the Industrial District were taken, before regime troops briefly pushed them back. However on the norther side of the city the revolutionary forces assaulted National Defense Force (قوات الدفاع الوطني Quwat ad-Difāʿ al-Watanī) positions at the north west, capturing seven checkpoints during the day, before the military recaptured four, including the Youth Housing in the north.
Ironically, during the assault the Islamist revolutionary group Jabhat al-Nusra used TOW missiles captured from groups occasionally backed by the US, like the Syrian Revolutionaries’ Front (جبهة ثوار سوريا, Jabhat Thowar Suriyya) and Harakat Hazzm ( حركة حزم, Movement of Steadfastness); groups which may have been earmarked by the US government in its program to built a proxy army in Syria – an army that, accordance with Obama’s Iran policy, would have ignored Assad and focused on fighting Da’esh. Harakat Hazm had a history of fighting well against the Assad regime, and a good reputation. SRF too, was well known for fighting the regime in the early days of the rebellion.
However, the latter was badly tainted by allegations of corruption; their leader Jamal Maarouf was alleged to have embezzled money from the revolutionary cause to line his own pockets. Few advances against the regime were made by the SRF in recent months; if this was due to US backers encouraging them to maintain the status quo in order to preserve the regime, or if this was simply due to extensive corruption, is anyone’s guess. However once SRF weapons were put into the hands of Jabhat al-Nusra, rapid progress was made, indicating that Maarouf hadn’t focused much on changing the status quo. Once Jabhat al-Nusra sent him packing in 2014 and used his arms more aggressively against Assad, the Wadi Deif military base fell in days. Once Harakat Hazzm disbanded, their weapons were similarly put to good use.(1)
Once the regime was confronted with tangible military power that it was unable to repel (partly due to a chronic lack of manpower) it responded the way it always does, by attacking defenseless civilians instead. Helicopters dropped chlorine gas on Binnish and injured dozens, and airstrikes on Saraqeb killed 11. However, the momentum was firmly on the side of the revolutionaries, retaking the four checkpoints on Match 25th, and gaining even more ground. Hezbollah commander Al Hajj Walaa was also killed in the attack. The regime, panicking, slaughtered 36 of its own men for allegedly passing information to the revolutionaries. 17 checkpoints were in their hands at the end of the day, on the 26th the Al-Sina’a (Industrial) Quarter fell and Kafrayah and al-Fu’ah were put under siege. On the 27th, revolutionary forces entered the city after NDF militants fled from the northern silos. An abortive regime counterattack on the 28th did nothing to reverse these gains, 24 checkpoints fell, and a few hours later the regime had lost the whole city.
Also true to form, the regime decided that if it was going to lose Idlib, then the prisoners in its dungeons weren’t going to taste freedom at all. If they couldn’t have Idlib, nobody could. 15 prisoners were summarily executed in the flight from the city. Thankfully the Free Men of the Levant (حركة أحرار الشام الإسلامية Ahrār ash-Shām) movement freed some 53 overjoyed prisoners from regime hellholes. The liberation was greeted with joy by the civilians of Idlib city, having lived under regime control for three years.
Many different groups took part in the assault on regime positions in the city. Under the auspices of Jaish al-Fateh waere moderate(2) groups like the Free Syrian Army aligned Sham (Levant) Legion, as well as Jaysh al-Sunnah (Army of the Doctrine), another Free Syrian Army aligned group from Homs (the “capital of the revolution”), Islamist Liwa’a al-Haqq (Brigade of Truth), the jihadist group Jund al-Aqsa (Soldiers of al-Aqsa), the Salafist/Islamist Ahrar al-Sham (Free Men of the Levant) containing men of various degrees of faith, as well as the Independent Ajnad ash-Sham (Soldiers of the Levant) group. Also part of the coalition was the Islamist/jihadist Jabhat al-Nusra (Victory Front). All in all, a very effective mixture of groups that accurately sum up the patchwork nature of the revolution, united to free the city of Idlib.
Not that the media coverage would let you believe that for a split second. Headlines spewed forth from all corners of the internet and printed newspapers: “Al-Qaeda affiliate claims capture of Syrian city of Idlib”, screamed the Telegraph, attributing the capture of the city soley to “Al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate and other Islamist fighters”, superimposed alongside an image of Hafez al-Assad being smashed to pieces alongside bearded men. Little mention was given of other groups that took part. Their disconcerting stance was plain for all to see: in the post-9/11 age Assad is better by implication.
“Jihadist coalition captures checkpoints around city of Idlib” blared the Long War Journal, homogenising an alliance of moderate and Islamist groups as a coalition of jihadists. Assad’s murderous regime army were referred to as the “security forces”, and much emphasis was placed on the fact that they were allegedly under attack by “jihadists” using tactics like suicide bombings (only two such attacks occurred). A few days later, as if trying to squeeze in as many buzzwords to alarm the readership as possible, they published “Al Nusrah Front leader preaches jihadist unity in Idlib”. Yahoo News published “Qaeda’s Syria wing battles to enter regime-held Idlib” in which it claimed that “coalition of rebels led by Al-Qaeda’s local branch” had started the battle against the government, and that the “opposition forces” carried out suicide bombings – showing no differentiation between the FSA groups and the jihadist Jund al-Aqsa whatsoever.
The glittering pinnacle of journalism that is the Daily Mail, in what must be the laziest piece of Syria-related journalism of the last few weeks, published a video from Idlib city with Syrian opposition logos on it from the Binnish revolution Facebook page… Claiming that Da’esh had captured the city of Idlib. Even though they’re nowhere near Idlib province.
None of these lies could be any further from the truth. While it is true that some of the larger and more outwardly secular groups have diminished in the north as a result of the lack of help from the outside world, and competition with jihadist groups, the Free Syrian Army retains a tangible, powerful presence in the north and is actively involved in battles to liberate the province, and the nearby province of Lattakia. Nor was the coalition that liberated the city dominated by “al-Qaeda”. In fact, not only is the al-Nusra front only one of many groups involved in the coalition, but generally al-Qaeda in name only. The members of al-Nusra are overwhelmingly Syrians who joined for various reasons; either to fight the regime with a strong group, gain effective weapons with which to do so, or use the salaries to feed their families. Often it can be all three. But this narrative is too complex for most, so a grassroots resistance movement composed of local Syrians of all ages is equated with Bin Laden’s clique.
This is directly linked to the scaremongering surrounding Da’esh; that is, the perception that an evil death cult responsible for about 1000 people out of some 200,000+ either slaughtered or killed in Syria (Assad is responsible for about 199,000 of those deaths) is somehow worse than a genocidal war machine manipulating a minority (the Alawites) of the population into taking part in a slaughter of the majority (the Sunnis). On the basis that Assad has no outwardly Islamic veneer, professes “secularism” and “protection” of minorities, and claims to be fighting Da’esh, half the world seems to believe that collaboration with Assad is necessary. “Sure”, they generally argue, “Assad is awful, but Da’esh will attack us if we don’t.” Or they float the idea that Da’esh are a “far greater danger” than his regime… For us. 200,000+ Syrian lives don’t seem to matter much, compared to the threat a lone lunatic or two could pose on the streets of one of our capitals. Neither do the lives of Europeans murdered by Assad-backed terrorists seem to come into this equation. Or South Americans for that matter, especially when trying to expose the truth.
Then comes the most obscene lie out of all this diatribe. In the words of less-than-clued up senator and (worryingly) GOP candidate Rand Paul: “If we were to get rid of Assad, it would be a jihadist wonderland in Syria.”
As a result of the sensationalism surrounding this terrorist guilt, the anti-Assad forces as a whole have been inexorably tainted by both “mainstream” and “alternative” media outlets as Islamic terrorists, and the focus has been taken off regime atrocities. Now, whenever the opposition makes progress against the regime, it has turned into “al-Qaeda” versus the “security forces”. Or in other words, just outward lies.
In any case, justifications for working with Assad are too easily debunked for words. Firstly, how can an evil death cult responsible for several hundred civilian deaths (in the case of Syria) be inherently worse than a regime responsible for 200-300,000? Secondly, Assad is nothing like a “secular” dictator. To supporters, he doesn’t even keep up the facade anymore. What remains of the once 300,000 strong Syrian army has shriveled to an estimated 115-180,000 men; those fighting against the majority Sunni population are overwhelmingly from the minority Alawite sect of Assad; young men forcibly conscripted and lied to. In other words, to fight a non-sectarian revolution, Assad has mobilised young men along a sectarian line, partly by convincing them that Islamic terrorists will slaughter them otherwise.
The community is tottering. Young men refuse to show up for conscription, losses are huge; Alawite villages are deserted of young men. Alawites are growing tired, referring to Defense Minister Fahd Jassem al-Freij as the “minister of death” for using their sons as cannon fodder. Some even created a “speak up” Facebook page to stand against Assad’s manipulation of their community. After Da’esh slaughtered hundreds of Alawite soldiers at Taqba Airbase, the “#وينن” (“where are they”) campaign was started on social media. After a car bomb somehow managed to turn up outside Akrama Al-Makhzomi Elementary School in an Alawite area of Homs and killed 27-47 innocent civilians (including children) many Alawites protested against the governor. While they are by no means revolting against the regime yet (the protest video contained regime iconography, and the protesters weren’t against Assad) this is very telling about Assad’s ability to keep their unquestioned loyalty.
The still loyal Alawite and Shiite regime supporters are openly sectarian in all respects; their “secularism” is about as strong as the secularism of Da’esh. Since the start of the uprising, Alawite militias and members of the “security forces” have butchered, raped, murdered and killed untold thousands of people, either on the front lines or in hideous dungeons. When on social media, they plaster cult-like images of Assad alongside Shiite/Alawite religious imagery and slogans; Assad is sometimes even depicted alongside Imams Ali and Hussain.
The biggest lie, that Assad would be a bulwark against the terrorist hordes in the alleged “Islamic State”, is the easiest lie to rubbish yet.
When Da’esh first entered Syria, the Assad regime engaged in an understanding with them, in order to weaken the revolution and damage its image in the eyes of the world. While Assad went after the popular Free Syrian Army with ferocity, bombing their bases and killing their supporters by the thousands, Da’esh and their loudly daubed headquarters saw nothing but silence and clear skies… Until the regime needed to convince the world that it was dedicated to fighting Da’esh. Then the bombs started miraculously falling on innocent civilians in Raqqa.
When they took over oil wells in Deir Ezzor, the Assad regime deliberately strengthened the organisation by conducting secret oil deals with them (ironically using a Christian businessman, George Haswani, as an interloper) at cut market prices for millions of dollars. That financial lifeline was a Godsend for the organisation; using it to keep up essential flows of arms and cash in order to kill and terrorise more innocent people. Da’esh also engaged in prisoner swaps with the regime, handing over enemies in secret exchanges. Somehow James Foley, whose beheading sparked the American intervention in Syria (on the side of Assad), somehow went from a regime prison in Damascus to the Da’esh capital of Raqqa, being beheaded by Mohammad Emwazi.
But importantly, instead of actively fighting the regime it professed to be against, it spent all its time attacking the regime’s enemies and leaving the regime’s military units alone. Free Syrian Army men were slaughtered with car bombs, beheadings and torture, while Syrian army units sat nearby, completely untouched. While Assad’s army attacked them in Aleppo from one side, Da’esh terrorists assaulted them from the other side. Did Da’esh even deal any genuine blows to the regime? Study maps by Arabthomness from before and after they entered Syria, and come to your own conclusion.
Even more importantly is the devastatingly effective PR victory the rise of Da’esh has handed to the regime; every time Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi sneezes, tens of articles and headlines are pumped out by media outlets daily. Searching “ISIS” yields many, many results. Search for “Assad” or “Free Syrian Army“, and you’ll be lucky to find even occasionally updated coverage. Even less media coverage is focused upon Obama’s increasingly bold alliance with Khamenei, in which the region was handed on a platter to the “Supreme Leader”.
The focus is off Assad, and he knows it.The world is focused on a small terrorist group, giving him leave to slaughter and barrel bomb with impunity. Like the Algerian military before him, he created a terrorist threat (in Algeria’s case, the Algerian regime organised “Armed Islamic Group” massacres of innocent people) then claimed to be part of the solution. So now we have cretins claiming that we should “work with Assad” against Da’esh, when he created them himself, in order to get back into our governments’ good books. To imagine that Assad, or even his ally Iran, want to see them defeated is nothing but a delusion. They need each other in order to justify their slaughter and expansionist aims. Hence why they strengthened Da’esh in the first place. Everybody is horrified when Da’esh murders westerners. Nobody bats an eyelid when Assad’s Grand Mufti Ahmad Hassoun calls for suicide attacks in Europe, and for liberated Aleppo to be “exterminated”.
The revolution’s recent victory in Idlib city is a stark reminder of the pitiful lack of media awareness. Or just complete disinterest. Having given a disproportionate (some would say disgusting) level of attention to the alleged “Islamic State”, and a woeful level of neglect towards Assad’s genocide and the legitimate resistance to his regime, the sudden shock of realising that the mainstream opposition was still relevant didn’t produce anything resembling better coverage. In fact, in the words of Scott Lucas of EA World View, the standard dropped to “worse than ignorance”. Media outlets ham-fistedly:
…misrepresented the offensive as being led by Jabhat al-Nusra, only one of the groups in the Jaish al-Fatah operations room. Excluding all factions that are not “Islamist”, it ignored any distinction between “Islamic” and “Islamist” groups, overlooked the Free Syrian Army and “independent” brigades, pushed aside local units, and missed Christian and Druze fighters who participated in the offensive.
What should have been touted to the increasingly ignorant world as a major source of hope for the Syrian revolution, and a wake-up call to those claiming the Free Syrian Army somehow doesn’t exist any more (in that case, the author has many invisible friends) turned into a pathetic knee-jerk reaction; a repetitive, regurgitated cascade of rubbish which demonising Syrian fighters from all walks of life that united to free a city from the Assad regime (including Christians, Druze, and FSA groups) as “al-Qaeda”. The Syrian people are making significant gains, despite the international intrigue against them. But their cause looks increasingly unlikely to gain much media traction in the age of post-9/11 sensationalism. For genuine, accurate information, I would recommend using brilliant sites such as EA World View, and Twitter. The mainstream media is about as useful as Russia Today or al-Manar when it comes to representing the suffering and struggle of the Syrian people.
(1) I am increasingly sick of the way in which the terms “moderate” and “extremist” are used to pigeon hole Muslims by the media. The less observant you are, the more inherently “moderate” you are. The more you complain about foreign policy, the more “radicalised”.
(2) I am also not supporting Jabhat al-Nusra in the instances in which it has attacked other revolutionary forces, merely pointing out the strategic benefits to the revolution that were reaped from the seeming hindrance of Obama’s plans to manipulate the Syrian revolution for the sake of his friendship with Khamenei.