Via Juan Cole at Informed Comment, while the world has been paying attention to developments in Yemen with the Saudis settling in for a long airstrike campaign, developments in northwest Syria have taken a definite turn for the worse.
The provincial capital Idlib, a city of 165,000 in the old days and administrative center of the northwestern Idlib province, appears to have fallen completely to a Muslim fundamentalist coalition spearheaded by Ahrar al-Sham (Free Men of Syria) and the al-Qaeda affiliate, the Support Front (Jabhat al-Nusra). Most of the Idlib countryside has long been in rebel hands, and some of it was held by pro-Western, relatively secular-minded forces until last fall, when they were preyed upon and defeated by the Support Front, which is loyal to Ayman al-Zawahiri’s core al-Qaeda (responsible for the 9/11 attacks).
One fundamentalist Islamist coalition is bad enough, but if they are teaming up with AQ's Support Front, things are even worse than we imagined. These guys know what they are doing, showing tactical and strategic discipline necessary to take and hold ground.
Aron Lund seems to argue that the fall of Idlib city is not terribly consequential. It was already nestled in the midst of rebel-held territory. The chief strategic danger to al-Assad’s forces is that the Sunni fundamentalists could use it as a launching pad to move against the Alawite Shiite populations around Latakia and to attack Latakia port to the west. The latter is important to resupply for the regime, which still controls the roads from the capital of Damascus up to Homs and over to Latakia. So far, however, the regime has managed to hold about two-thirds of the country population-wise, and these advances of rebels have sometimes been reversed, albeit with the help of Lebanon’s Shiite militia, Hizbullah. Al-Hayat also mentions the danger that the fall of Idlib could further isolate regime-held areas in the major northern city of Aleppo.
So this Terrible Twosome now have a base of operations to hit both Aleppo to the northeast, and the al-Assad regime's major resupply port to the southwest at Latakia. Again, this seems like a pretty solid strategic move on the part of the rebels, and that's bad news.
But here's Cole's real point:
Some Syrian and Western supporters of the rebel forces are annoyed to have it pointed out that Free Men of Syria and the Support Front are extremist fundamentalists or that the latter, which is al-Qaeda, played a leading role in the past week’s Idlib campaign. But for those of us in the US who lived through 2001, it is unforgivable that the Support Front pledged fealty to the mass murderer of Americans Ayman al-Zawahiri. That is not to say that al-Assad’s forces are preferable. In my own view, it is a shame both cannot lose to some sane group. But the revolution and war have erased sanity from all sides, and the secular or even just non-Salafi rebel forces have been targeted and wiped out by al-Qaeda, Daesh and so forth. Those who support the rebel side should reach out to the Support Front and let them know that until they repudiate al-Qaeda and declare for democracy, they have no cheering sections in the West and they are de facto helping al-Assad by their stance.
There are no "good guys" in Syria with military power right now. This is a battle between the horrific guys and the truly horrific guys and the latter has made a big victory this week, and this gives the former the excuse to try to flatten a city of 150,000 in order to retake it.
Fun times, huh.