Men –- mostly in black and wearing a beard — are on guard pointing their guns at various targets. Some of them are even able to drive tanks and use anti-tank missiles. They are flexible when it comes to rotation and orientation in their new “lands.” They frequently use nicknames on the ground. Nobody actually knows where their homeland is as long as they stay alive and battle under wraps. They sometimes fight each other. And sometimes you see them form an alliance. Some of them are in an affair with internationally designated terrorist groups. They will not go back home.
Those men are somewhat a symbol and “dark force” of Syrian civil war, now in its 7th year and already devastated the whole country. They are called with many names: insurgents, moderate opposition, rebels, fighters, jihadists, Sunni extremists, or terrorists by different regional powers. All have a common goal: To topple President Bashar al-Assad as part of an uprising against him started in 2011.
Without knowing Arabic or unable to read symbols on their flags, it is difficult to easily distinguish these fighters on the first sight. Even seasoned observers may have a hard time since their symbols are constantly changing.
It’s become significant to underline the difference between Syrian rebel groups at a time when the U.S. and Russia make common cause with fighting against Islamic State and Syrian forces show a marked improvement at cleaning up the south from insurgents. A string of victories by the Syrian regime pushed the jihadists to the northern Syria.
Many are concerned whether or not Al Qaeda and its affiliated groups are strengthening their grip in northwestern Idlib especially after Damascus and Hezbollah made an evacuation deal with Al Qaeda’s former branch al-Nusra on the Lebanese border last week. The agreement let Nusra militants reach to the north together with thousands of refugees accompaned by Syrian regime officials.
Idlib, located near the Turkish border as the only Syrian province that is entirely under rebel control, has long been a stronghold for many rebel groups, including “Western-vetted” Free Syrian Army. After most of western Syria was recaptured by government forces and their allies, this rural area has been the scene of clashes between insurgent groups for the influence.
The main fight around Idlib is between two major groups, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham — a new-born alliance that includes Jabhat Fateh al-Sham — and another Sunni Salafist group called Ahrar al-Sham.
Although Ahrar al-Sham is considered more moderate Islamist group since it allies with mainstream rebel factions and denounces radical faction’s global jihadist agenda, it was once a close ally of al-Nusra. The group was also a partner of ISIS before the extremist group killed an Ahrar al-Sham fighter after their leader Hassan Abboud criticized ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in 2014.
Abboud, who was killed within the same year together with his top commanders in an underground gathering by an explosion, set the framework for his group’s “pragmatic” relationship with other groups. In an interview with Al Jazeera in 2013, Abboud laid out his vision.
“As for the al-Nusra Front, it is a very effective body on the ground. We have never seen them fight other opposition groups of the Syrian revolution. As long as it remains like this, we welcome them against the regime,” Abboud said.
He noted that ISIS was created after splitting with al Nusra. “We did work with them in some defensive battles. However, we disagree with what appears to be their agenda. We share the same end goal, an Islamic state. This is sought by the FSA, the Islamic Front, al Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. However, when it comes to tactics, strategies or methods, we may agree or disagree,” he added.
Ahrar al-Sham is considered a terrorist group by Russia, while countries opposed to al-Assad such as Gulf Arab states and Turkey backed the group as a rebel faction. The group is not on the terrorism list of the U.S.
Al-Nusra, on the other hand, the pioneer of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham alliance, has stayed closer to al-Qaeda’s hardline jihadist ideology, even though it said it cut its ties with al Qaeda in 2016.
The U.S., designating al Nusra as a foreign terrorist organization in 2012, announced last year that the group’s militants remained a fair target for U.S. and Russian warplanes. Al Nusra is branded as a terrorist organization by Russia, Turkey, and the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition, too.
Ahrar al-Sham and al Nusra are in opposing sides in their bid to dominate over Idlib, the strategic province which they captured together in 2015, by fighting shoulder to shoulder against the Syrian regime.
In July, Hayat Tahrir al Sham consolidated their grip over large parts of the northwestern province of Idlib by attacking Ahrar al-Sham at a strategic border crossing Bab al-Hawa on the Turkish border.
Three days of heavy fighting left nearly 100 rebel fighters dead, and al-Nusra militants could successfully drive their rivals out of Idlib. This also meant that the al-Qaeda-led group announced its superiority in the north of Idlib, controlling much of the villages that share a border with Turkey.
Members of Hayat Tahrir al Sham declared their aim was to prevent Turkish forces and rebel groups from setting foot in Idlib.
The rise of al-Nusra in northern Syria provoked anxiety as a new security challenge for the region while regional powers focused on fighting against ISIS in Raqqa. The jihadists’ new presence there is also likely to be a cause for alarm for moderate FSA groups, endangering their already weak positions in the area.
The city, which is housing over two million people including refugees, is on the brink of a humanitarian crisis.