The Fight for Northern Idlib Province

By Asher Berman

The rebels of northern Idlib Province have consolidated control of the entire northern border area and are attacking the regime’s remaining positions along the eastern border. Idlib city has remained out of the rebel’s grasp since they were pushed out in early March, but attacks in the provincial capital are rising. Although rebels brigades in northern Idlib collaborate during specific operations, they have yet to form the larger regional command structures that have emerged in Aleppo province and Damascus city, and are not collaborating with the powerful rebel groups in southern Idlib Province. The regime’s position in northern Idlib has weakened significantly since early 2012, but the rebels are not yet strong enough to mount a final push against the regime. Northern Idlib province borders Turkey to the north and West, Aleppo province to the east, and the Jebel al-Zawiyah region to the south. The area is mostly rebel-controlled with the exception of Idlib city, the provincial capital which sits between the rebel-held Jebel al-Zawiyah region to the south and the rebel-held north. Despite the presence of strong rebel groups on all sides, the regime has maintained tight control of Idlib city and the Mastouma military base located six kilometers to the south. The regime also controls the town of Harem near Idlib’s northwestern border with Turkey. The dominant rebel groups in northern Idlib are the Shuhada Idlib and Tawhid Brigades based outside Idlib city, the Dera al-Thawra Brigade and Farouq al-Shamal Battalion based around Sarmada near the Turkish Border, The Ahrar al-Shamal Idlib Battalion based in Sarmin.

The rebels of northern Idlib began forming in the summer of 2011, mostly around Idlib city. Significant early attacks included the October kidnapping of a sergeant from a market, as well as a December 1 assault on an intelligence building that reportedly lasted three hours.1 Beginning in late January 2012, rebel attacks increased significantly in Idlib city. Rebel capabilities encompassed a range of guerilla tactical attack types, including a midFebruary car bombing at a regime checkpoint, the assassination of a judge, an assault on a police station, the kidnapping of a police officer, and an IED attack on a police patrol.2 Unable to control the entire country, the regime decided in February 2012 to focus its limited resources on clearing and holding Syria’s urban centers at the expense of its presence in the countryside. After driving the rebels from Homs during the course of a 26 day siege, the regime turned to Idlib city, clearing it after a short three day battle. Part of the explanation for the disparity in the strength of rebel resistance was the lack of organization among the rebels in northern Idlib, where separate militias attempted an uncoordinated defense with an insufficient supply of ammunition.3 As of early
1

Khaled Yacoub Oweis, “syria Army Defectors Target Assad’s Military,” Reuters, 2 December 2011; R. Raslan, "police Sergeant Major Martyred After His Abduction By Terrorist Group In Idleb," Sana Online In English, October 27, 2011. 2 Sana: Five Law Enforcement Personnel Martyred In Idleb, Sana Online 2/18/2012; Sana: A Law-Enforcement Member Martyred And Others Injured In Homs, Sana Online, 2/22/2012; Sana: An Armed Terrorist Group Assassinates, Sana Online, 2/19/2012 3 “Outgunned Syria Rebels Turn to Homemade Bombs,” Los Angeles Times, April 1, 2012. http://articles.latimes.com/2012/apr/01/world/la-fg-syria-idlib-offensive-20120401

March, none of the main brigades of northern Idlib existed, with the exception of the Lt. Bilal Khabir’s Ahrar al-Shamal Idlib Battalion whose initial focus was the Aleppo countryside. Prominent rebels that fought inside the city in early 2012 reorganized into hierarchical command structures after leaving the city. An al-Jazeera report on the battle for Idlib city in early March included a street interview with the future leader of the Jaffar alTayar Battalion, the most prominent battalion of the Shuhada Idlib Brigade which formed in late April north of Idlib city.4 In May, frustrated by the regime’s firm grip on Idlib city, the rebels turned their attention to softer targets in the border region. The first position attacked was a military outpost in the town of Delbiya on the Turkish border whose garrison and arms were captured by the Ahrar al-Shamal Idlib Battalion.5 The Bab Hawa border crossing, the largest in Idlib province, was targeted next. Roads from Bab Hawa lead south to Idlib city, as well as east to Aleppo city, making it an important line of communication for both the regime and the rebels. The late May assault on the crossing was led by the Deraa al-Thawra Brigade, formed in late March under the leadership of Col. Muhammed Abdul Razzuq in the town of Sarmada, six kilometers south of the crossing. Before the attack, Razzuq briefed his men in a field outside Sarmada, warning that some fighters would not return, then divided his men into teams with assigned targets.6 Col. Razzuq died during the battle but his fighters succeeded in seizing the border crossing. A few days later, as the regime mobilized to re-take the crossing, the rebels pulled out from Bab Hawa, possibly at the urging of Turkey which feared a major battle spilling over its border.7 By mid-May it was clear that the capabilities of the rebels were markedly improved. The rebels had shifted from quick hit-and-run attacks to seizing territory. This change occurred as the rebels fought under new hierarchical command structures, and as their supply of weapons increased as a result of both a growing flow of equipment over the Turkish border, and the successive capture of increasingly large regime positions. In June, fighting shifted to the western border area when Basil Issa’s Shuhada Idlib Brigade assaulted the town of Armanaz. A journalist embedded with the group
4 5

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xg2p5HXeydQ&feature=youtu.be, March 5, 2012. http://youtu.be/zVgZSAy97cs, May 7, 2012. 6 http://youtu.be/JR3ZtA8S0yE, May 20, 2012. 7 Joseph Holliday, “Syria’s Maturing Insurgency,” Institute for the Study of War, June 2012, 14.

reported over 400 rebels gathering before the attack and commanders distributing weapons to fighters organized into “ground assault teams, fire support groups, and defensive units.”8 The rebels then traveled to their target in a convoy of pickup trucks and microbuses.9 They failed to overrun the regime position, but the attack and its preparations showed a clear step forward in rebel organization, operational capabilities, and freedom of maneuver. The following month, Shuhada Idlib set their sights on Salqin, a Shabiha-held town seven kilometers north of Armanaz. After a series of heavy gun battles, Shuhada Idlib gained uncontested control of the town, marching dozens of captured Shabiha through the streets and allowing the mothers of Shabiha victims to confront the men that killed their sons.10 The fate of the captives is unknown. In late July, as the regime focused its attention on pushing rebel fighters out of central Damascus, the Deraa al-Thawra Brigade turned again to Bab al-Hawa. After Col. Razzuq’s death, leadership passed to the brigade’s chief of operations, Col. Muhammed Bakur. Deraa al-Thawra units, along with a contingent of foreign fighters walked from Sarmada to the border crossing, bypassing the heavily guarded and less important Old Bab Hawa Crossing.11 The rebels were able to seize the crossing after a portion of the garrison defected, but control of the strategic crossing would become a source of tension between rebel groups.12 After the regime consolidated its control of central Damascus in late July, it turned its attention to Aleppo city where the newly formed Tawhid Brigade had captured large portions of the city. Some Northern Idlib groups participated directly in the early stages of the battle for Aleppo city. The leader of Ahrar al-Shamal Idlib, Bilal Khabir, traveled to Aleppo with his brother Mahmud and a contingent of rebels to fight in the streets of the heavily contested Salah al-Din neighborhood.13

8

Ian Pannell, “Idlib dispatch: Syrian rebels are better armed, more numerous and stronger by the day” The Telegraph, July 1, 2012. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/syria/9367015/Idlib-dispatch-Syrian-rebels-are-betterarmed-more-numerous-and-stronger-by-the-day.html 9 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LPiJUcPULp0, June 20, 2012. 10 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1-Z0fRE29ok, July 4, 2012.; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4jTvroDt6E, July 3, 2012. 11 http://youtu.be/yEh8ypJfCQM, July 19, 2012. 12 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HkbcrWRjHo0, July 19, 2012; Suleiman al-Khalidi and Raheem Salman, “Syrian Rebels Control Border Crossings with Iraq, Turkey” Reuters, July 19, 2012. http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/07/19/us-syria-crisis-turkey-border-idUSBRE86I11J20120719 13 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SNbvT5cPSBQ, August 8, 2012.

Other groups turned their focus back from the countryside toward Idlib city whose garrison saw a drawdown in order to reinforce the regime position in Aleppo. Rebel attacks around Idlib city, primarily by the Idlib Tawhid Bridage, increased in late July through the month of August. In one high-profile attack, the Idlib Tawhid Brigade and the Jaffar al-Tayyar Battalion of the Shuhada Idlib Brigade carried out a joint car bombing of a checkpoint on the edge of the city.14 In a sign of continuing rebel divisions, however, the groups then bickered over branding, as only the Idlib Tawhid Brigade’s logo appeared on a YouTube video of the attack, an omission the Shuhada Idlib Brigade labeled an “injustice.”15 In mid-August the regime decided to evacuate its strongest remaining position in the northern Idlib border area, the Old Bab Hawa Border Crossing. On the August 14, an armored convoy left Idlib city on its way north to Bab Hawa. The journey through rebel held territory was arduous as the convoy endured ambushes the length of the 30 kilometer trip north. The following morning, the Bab Hawa garrison evacuated the position and joined the convoy for a sprint south, enduring additional ambushes and losing a significant amount of men and material before arriving in Idlib city.16 With the northern Idlib border area under complete rebel control, the fighting shifted west again to the town of Harem, one of the last regime-held towns north of Idlib city. The first day of fighting did not go well for the rebels as a contingent of fighters from the Uthman Dhu Nurain Battalion of the Shuhada Idlib Brigade got pinned down by machine guns positioned on the citadel. Local Coordination Committee Facebook pages in surrounding towns mobilized rebel groups to provide cover for the Uthman Dhu Nurain Battalion, allowing it to withdraw.17 Regime convoys arrived via Route 56 to relieve the Harem garrison, but only after enduring ambushes and IED attacks in the vicinity of Salqin. As of the current date, the regime has succeeded in holding Harem despite coordinated rebel attacks. Rebel control of the Bab Hawa crossings have led to tensions in the area throughout August and September. When Deraa al-Thawra captured the crossing in July, they were accompanied by a contingent of foreign fighters who raised an Islamic State of Iraq flag
14 15

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wUqB2hbMYk0, August 15, 2012. Shuhada Idlib Facebook page, August 18, 2012. http://www.facebook.com/Brigade.idlib. 16 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pt0UT8Kf4Xk, August 15, 2012. 17 Salqin Local Coordination Committees Facebook Page, September 1, 2012. https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=268650353252560&set=a.255380841246178.57266.255239994593596 &type=1&relevant_count=1

at the crossing.18 Shortly after seizing the crossing, Muhammed Bakour, the leader of Deraa al-Thawra, left the group and a new leadership structure was created under Mustafa Karim, a defected colonel.19 Bakour reappeared in early September as the leader of the Sayed al-Shuhada Battalion in the Muatasim Allah Brigade based in Atareb, a town in Aleppo Province near the Idlib Provincial border where the Idlib and Aleppo networks overlap.20 Deraa al-Thawra went into decline at this point, allowing Farouq al-Shamal, a southern Idlib group led by Abdullah Auda and associated with the Farouq Battalions based in Homs, to take control of the crossing and force the jihadists to withdraw east to the town of Tel al-Karama.21 Tensions between the Jihadists and the local fighters endured, leading to the assassination of the Jihadist leader al-Shami al-Absi at the hands of Farouq al-Shamal fighters.22 Tensions remain high in the Sarmada region. Though their power has grown, the rebels of northern Idlib have not been able to consolidate control over their entire region. The regime remains firmly in control of Idlib city, while Route 56, connecting the regime-held town of Harem to the coast, remains open to regime convoys. The two areas are the focus of current fighting, but gaining control of the entire region may require increased coordination between Idlib rebel groups, either based on the northern Aleppo model, whereby multiple brigades coalesce under a common leadership, or by enticing powerful rebel groups in Jebel alZawiyah to join the fight in the north.

18 19

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ig9M_aqo9_s, July 19, 2012. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sPvaoe8S7Wc, August 9, 2012. 20 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qIuLYdJbqBE, September 9, 2012. 21 “ The Killing of a Jihadist Leader” The Economist, September 12, 2012. 22 David Enders, “Syria Rebels Say They Killed Leader of Extremist Group that Kidnapped 2 Journalists,” McClatchy Newspapers, September 7, 2012.

Confirmed Attacks of the Northern Idlib Rebel Groups

Asher Berman is the author of the Syria Survey blog. He holds a M.A.L.D. from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, and a B.A. from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. You can follow him on Twitter @asher_berman.