Syrian rebels have told RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq that they fear the recent capture of Idlib by Al-Qaeda-affiliated fighters could lead to an Islamist takeover of the city akin to what happened in Raqqa, which was transformed by the Islamic State (IS) group into its de facto capital.
On March 28, Syrian Islamist rebel forces led by local Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra (JAN) took control of the city of Idlib, ousting Syrian government forces in what analysts say was the largest insurgent victory since the fall of Raqqa to the IS group almost two years earlier, in March 2013.
According to analyst Jennifer Cafarella of the Institute for the Study of War, the JAN-led assault on Idlib "exhibited highly effective command and control," made possible by "a newly formed 'operations room' named Jaish al-Fatah."
Participating in that "operations room" alongside JAN were Islamist factions Ahrar al-Sham, Faylaq al-Sham, and Jund al-Aqsa, which reportedly comprises non-Syrian Arab militants. The Chechen group Ajnad al-Sham (formerly the Khalifat Battalion) also took part in the Idlib offensive. Ajnad al-Sham, which is based in Latakia Province, is aligned to the North Caucasus militant group Caucasus Emirate and led by the veteran Chechen militant Abdul Hakim al-Shishani.
In the wake of the JAN-led victory in Idlib, JAN leader Abu Muhammad al-Jolani has said that JAN does not intend to rule the city alone. Jolani called for ongoing rebel cooperation, and stressed the importance of establishing a Shari'a court in Idlib to settle disputes, Syria Direct reported on April 4.
'Back to the Middle Ages'
But Mustafa Seejri of the Syrian Revolutionary Command Council, an alliance of Syrian rebel factions formed in August 2014 and which excludes JAN, told Radio Free Iraq on April 4 that he had serious worries about Jaish al-Fatah control over Idlib.
"Jund al-Aqsa and JAN previously had some differences in the liberated areas and attacked numerous factions, but we will think positively and pray that their behavior will be different in Idlib," Seejri said. "But if things remain the same -- with both JAN and Jund al-Aqsa remaining as we have known them -- then the situation would not bode well."
Seejri said that the behavior of JAN and Jund al-Aqsa "suggests that they want to take Syria back to the Middle Ages."
The moderate Free Syrian Army (FSA) is excluded from the fighting against the Assad government in Idlib, according to Seejri. "Any faction belonging to the FSA is prohibited from taking part in that fight. What we know is that they have particular ideas and a particular agenda which calls for imposing control over the region; they do not want any alternative," Seejri told Radio Free Iraq (RFI).
'No Extremist Factions In Idlib'
Other Syrian opposition groups have denied that there are extremist groups present in the city.
Ziyad Aroor, a field commander with the Jaish al-Islam faction, which is also a member of Jaish al-Fatah, told RFI that "all of the factions [in Idlib] are moderate, including JAN."
"This media propaganda about this faction being moderate or of being extreme Islamists or aiming at creating an Islamic State is false. All of the factions, including JAN, Jund al-Aqsa, and all the others have a 10 percent element that can be described as extremist," Aroor said.
All of the armed factions in Idlib would work together to "bring about the beginnings of a revolutionary region that will become a buffer zone and will represent the beginning of a new modern Syria," Aroor told RFI.
Following the rebel takeover of Idlib, Syria's provisional government, which is affiliated with the Turkey-based Syrian National Coalition opposition group, said that it would begin efforts to capitalize on the defeat of loyalist forces to turn the city into the base of its operations.
"The Syrian provisional government will strive to make the free city of Idlib an example to the entire world about what Syrians want for the future of their country.... It will begin sending its [government bodies] to work inside the city, along with the local council for the province of Idlib, to begin coordinating with its partners and with the [militias] and influential forces to make the city a headquarters for administering liberated regions of Syria," it said, according to Lebanon's Daily Star.
Muhammad Yaseen Najjar, a minister in the Syrian provisional government, told RFI correspondent Manar Abdul-Razzaq that the Syrian government-in-exile had been studying this step for some time.
"This decision was previously reached by the Syrian provisional government: to move most of the offices and the administration inward. About 60-70 percent of the employees are already working there. The move into Idlib was originally a military operation that took the second city or provincial seat out of the [Assad] regime's grasp, after Raqqa Province," Najjar said.
"We were in contact with the military forces and the internal professional cadres regarding the move. Any chaotic activity affecting or destroying infrastructure facilities would be forbidden. We then moved on to transforming the operation into administering the state from within. That is why we are still actively studying the various mechanics and the required organization in a proper fashion."
According to Najjar, the Syrian government is waging a "quite deliberate" media campaign claiming that JAN has taken over in Idlib. Najjar said that, in reality, the military forces in Idlib were "composed of a number of factions" including Ahrar al-Sham. "The JAN presence does not exceed one-quarter of the total military presence there," he added.
"The Syrian provisional government is trying to clarify that it wants to administer the state's components in a proper fashion, and to release the military factions so that they can concentrate on their military work. It makes no sense to administer the state's institutions from within Idlib -- including the electricity and water networks, the hospitals, and communications. These require competent specialists and most of them have been with the revolution since the beginning," Najjar explained.
'Idlib Not Conducive To Islamist Takeover'
Osama Edward, the founder of the Assyrian Human Rights Network, told RFI in a telephone interview from Stockholm that, unlike in Raqqa, the "social environment" in Idlib was not conducive to an Islamist takeover.
While the Syrian government withdrew from Raqqa in eastern Syria and effectively handed it over to IS militants, that would not happen in Idlib, where Islamist control would pose a far greater threat to Assad.
"The Raqqa environment that facilitated IS control was created by the withdrawal of the Syrian regime and its voluntary handover of the region to [the IS group]. I can confirm that Syrian regime warplanes were roaming the skies over Raqqa where IS banners and flags were flying all over the city for two years without firing a single shot. I don't believe that this will be repeated in Idlib because of its closeness to the coastal area, and this would constitute a threat to the regime," Edward said.
Even though there are about seven Christian villages in the countryside surrounding Idlib, as well as about 12 Druze villages to the north near the Turkish border, Edward said he did not believe there would be attacks by Islamists against these minorities, as there have been in IS-controlled areas in Syria.
"Most of the civilians in these villages have left; the area was not seized by a single faction, but rather by a group of factions with varying ideologies and outlooks. I don't believe that what happened in Hasaka and Raqqa will be repeated in Idlib," Edward told RFI.
'We Fear Assad's Forces Will Return And Seek Revenge'
However, while Edward believes that Idlib should not fear an imminent IS-style Islamist takeover, ordinary Syrian civilians in and around the city are vulnerable in the wake of the fighting, he said.
However, it is not Islamist rebels, but government troops that the civilians fear.
An estimated 100,000 Syrians were internally displaced as a result of the fighting between JAN-led forces and government troops in Idlib. Now, there are almost no civilians left in the city, Edward said.
"There is nearly nobody left in the city, because there are expectations that the Syrian Army will launch a strong response to the loss of Idlib that is very important to them," Edward told RFI.
Idlib and its countryside had protected Alawite areas and the areas under government control, so the fall of Idlib is crucial because it "opens the way to the coastal areas" for the armed opposition, according to Edward.
In the wake of the JAN-led takeover of Idlib, civilians say that they fear forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad will return to the city and conduct revenge attacks.
Usama Abdul-Razzaq, a teacher who fled Idlib's Thawra district, told RFI that the flood of civilians from the city was due to fears that Assad's forces might use chlorine gas or other chemical weapons to avenge the government's defeat in Idlib.
"The fear is that the regime will return at night to infiltrate the residential districts to seek revenge. We feared only the regime's forces in that they would use chemical weapons and chlorine against us. That is what drove us out," Abdul-Razzaq said.
-- Joanna Paraszczuk