Most media coverage of Syria focuses on two aspects of the country’s civil war: first, the campaign against the Islamic State (or ISIS) in northeastern Syria—including the battle by U.S.-backed Syrian forces to retake ISIS’ de facto capital, Raqqa—and second, the broader Russian involvement in the country.
In northwestern Syria, however, an overlooked but important battle has been taking place, pitting Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a successor to the Syrian al Qaeda affiliate known as Jabhat al-Nusra, against Ahrar al-Sham, a rival Salafist group aligned with Turkey and Qatar. The two have been engaged in heavy fighting for control of Idlib Province, the epicenter of the remaining anti-Assad insurgency, and HTS has acquired important gains. It has seized the provincial capital, Idlib city, and forced Ahrar out of Bab al-Hawa, the main border crossing with Turkey. HTS, in other words, has already scored a major strategic victory against Ahrar and will likely dominate Idlib from now on.
HTS control of Idlib means that the province will increasingly be viewed as a pariah internationally. Although the group claims to be independent, the United States and the international community at large see it as an al Qaeda front. One result of this perception is that while HTS may claim that it can preserve NGO independence, fewer and fewer NGOs will be willing to work in Idlib, leading to a further deterioration in the province’s humanitarian situation. Moreover, the Assad regime and its allies will likely have greater international support for an offensive to retake the province.
But how did this disastrous turn of events come about, and who is to blame for it? Largely, the fault lies with Ahrar itself.
DECLINE AND FALL
With support from outside powers such as Turkey and Qatar, Ahrar has emerged over the course of the war as one of Syria’s most powerful rebel organizations. It possesses networks across the country, but is strongest in the north. Its prominence has made
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