US strike on Syria's Idlib only complements Assad-Russia agenda

US strike on Syria's Idlib only complements Assad-Russia agenda
6 min read
03 Sep, 2019
Comment: If the US was really interested in preserving civilian life in Idlib, it would act to weaken the Assad-Russia alliance, writes Sam Hamad.
A health facility in northern Aleppo province hit by a Russian strike this week [Getty]
On Saturday, the US Central Command (CENTCOM) announced it was responsible for airstrikes that hit Northern Idlib earlier that day.  

At least 40 people were killed in the 
strikes on what the US claimed was "an al-Qaeda-linked training camp," which contained "leaders responsible for attacks threatening US citizens, partners and innocent civilians."   

Just a few hours before the US struck Idlib, Assad and Russia's warplanes had momentarily ceased their own bombardment of the province. 

Under pressure from Turkey, which is keen to stop the unprecedented flow of refugees that is coming and will come, should the Assad-Russia alliance conquer Idlib, Russia had 
declared a ceasefire early on Saturday morning.  

Given the tentative nature of any Russian-led ceasefire in Syria - this is the second in a month - whether they last for a day or a week, these temporary moments of calm are sacred for those Syrians trapped in Idlib. 

Without the shells flying and the bombs dropping, it's at these times that they can count and mourn their dead, waiting in grim anticipation for the war machine of mass murder and ethnic cleansing to be re-launched.   

But then the US decided it would get in on the action. In Idlib's free-for-all, if you're an unaccountable state force, you can apparently kill, maim and cleanse as many Syrians as you wish. The world is scarcely likely to suddenly start caring. It's enough to cite "al-Qaeda" and suddenly the last strands of humanitarian accountability, political scrutiny and logic are viciously severed. 

Just a few hours before the US struck Idlib, Assad and Russia's warplanes had momentarily ceased their own bombardment of the province

No one doubts that militants linked with al-Qaeda have a significant presence among the various armed groups in Idlib. But, as was the case in other areas of Syria, the demands of resisting Assad's brutality elsewhere have often led to an uneasy coexistence between groups on the ground. 

The machinations of who is and isn't affiliated with Al-Qaeda in Idlib are too complex to be dealt with here. But it seems likely that the group the US allegedly targeted was Hurras al-Din, which split from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) back in 2016, due to their public disavowal of al-Qaeda. 

o complicate matters further, HTS has publicly disavowed the group, and has mainly focussed on fighting Assad and cooperation with the Turkish-backed rebel alliance. Many suspect this to be merely a pragmatic move designed to temporarily conceal its true intentions.  At times, the mask has slipped and it has attacked rebels for its own gain. It continues to practice al-Qaeda's authoritarian Salafi-jihadi ideology in the areas of the province it controls.  

Read more: Over 70 children killed in Syria last month

These nuanced dynamics cannot be over-emphasised when considering the political and humanitarian totality of Idlib, and Syrian in general. Given Assad, Russia and Iran don't differentiate between civilian, rebel or Salafi-jihadi, the obsession with al-Qaeda placed on Syrians facing genocide is more often than not an attempt to justify that genocide.  

But this doesn't mean that al-Qaeda's presence in Idlib doesn't also pose problems for Syrians. We've seen over the years protests erupt against the presence of such groups in places such as Maarat al-Numan, where residents frequently gathered to protest against Assad and al-Qaeda.  

These temporary moments of calm are sacred for those Syrians trapped in Idlib

We've also seen that the price they pay for such protests is to be ruthlessly targeted by Assad and Russia. Tens of thousands have been cleansed by Russian-Baathist bombs, making the once boisterous revolutionary Idlib into a ghost town. Just last month, 50 people were massacred when Russia deliberately bombed the packed marketplace. 

Contrary to the absurd idea that their motivations are against "extremists", the overwhelming majority of these victims are civilians and non-extremist rebel groups, in what is a calculated, tried and tested strategy of destroying the civil infrastructure of the province, all the better to ethnically cleanse it.  

Hence the 
targeting of everything from hospitals and schools, to markets and bakeries. All of it is geared towards making normal life unliveable in the last liberated province.  

According to UN figures, since April this year, Assad's regime has killed 1,408 people
and displaced at least 400,000 others [Getty]

And this is why the stated motivations of the US bombing of the "al-Qaeda training camp" must disturb Syrians. Just yesterday in the town of Saraqeb in Idlib, hundreds of people making the most of the precarious ceasefire, took to the streets to protest against Assad, Russia and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the group which controls the town after it chased out moderate Syrian rebels and dissolved the town's popularly elected local council.   

If the US is truly committed to "counter-extremism", instead of bombing the most bombed place in the world, a place packed full of civilians surrounded by enemies with nowhere left to go, shouldn't it be working to support and protect them?

Aren't these exactly the "innocent civilians" that the US cited in its statement regarding its bombing?

Or do "innocent civilians" only truly matter if those who victimise them are al-Qaeda?

The people of Saraqeb's message, is that the major reason why any force even remotely linked to al-Qaeda and its Salafi-jihadi ideology has come to have a grip in Idlib, is the ruthless campaign of genocidal war waged by Assad and Russia.

Or do 'innocent civilians' only truly matter if those who victimise them are al-Qaeda?

But the US isn't interested in that. 

Though some might argue that the US, by bombing Hurras al-Din (though I'd urge caution in assuming that it actually hit the group, or that there wasn't significant collateral damage), is actually aiding Idlib's moderate forces - civilian or otherwise - the reality is that the US is simply acting for its own narrow interests.  

The US claimed in the statement that its aim was to stop a force that is a threat to life in "the region and the West". 

If it cared about innocent life being lost in "the region", it would act to weaken Assad, who since April this year has 
murdered 1,408 people, and displaced displaced at the very least 400,000 others.

As for the West, the idea that Idlib is a source of terror for them is an absolute absurdity in the face of the mass terror the residents of Idlib face on a daily basis.  

If the US truly cared about civilian life, as it claims, it would focus its considerable resources on protecting civilian life in Idlib, and weakening those who take so much of it, instead of interrupting and endangering extremely tenuous but precious ceasefires.  

Though the civil war is lost for the rebels or the Syrians who dreamt of a future free of the Assad dynasty, the US only sees in Idlib a safe haven for terrorists, and not the last remaining bastion of people who simply demand the fundamental right to liberty. People who, in the dismal conditions of Syria's triumphant counter-revolution, simply want a right to live.

Sam Hamad is an independent Scottish-Egyptian activist and writer.

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