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Analysis: The Free Idlib Army’s Role in the U.S. Battle Against Al-Qaida in Syria

As the FSA-linked Free Idlib Army continues to struggle to counter al-Qaida’s control in the province, the U.S. may be looking to support a larger rebel merger on the ground in Syria, writes Syrian journalist Abdulrahman al-Masri.

Written by Abdulrahman al-Masri Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
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Free Syrian Army fighters take their positions as they observe the Syrian army base of Wadi al-Deif, at the front line of Maarat al-Numan town, in Idlib province, Syria. AP/Hussein Malla

In September 2016, three nationalist-oriented rebel forces merged to establish the Free Idlib Army (FIA), a division of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) that would, in theory, fight both jihadist groups and pro-government forces in northwestern Idlib province.

While the FIA has participated in battles against pro-government forces over the past seven months, it has been unable to go on the offensive and remains a secondary player to al-Qaida-linked factions, effectively forcing its actions to be intertwined with the military plans and operations of local extremist groups.

Idlib is the only governorate in Syria under near-complete control of anti-Assad rebels, and, for the last two years, has been largely dominated by Islamist rebel factions, including al-Qaida-linked Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS), which recently rebranded as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) after absorbing multiple other groups. HTS has targeted almost all non-Islamist groups in the area, particularly those with Western ties, like the factions that form the FIA.

What’s more, the jihadist dominance in Idlib makes it a likely target for a U.S.-led international coalition systematic bombing campaign, similar to that against the so-called Islamic State (ISIS). This likelihood increases as U.S. focus shifts away from removing Assad, and amid a growing international push to target al-Qaida positions in Syria. The U.S. has already targeted al-Qaida positions in Idlib – seemingly unilaterally, outside the coalition – which resulted in a high civilian death toll, much less effective than relying on a ground force.

Unless the FIA is empowered to counter and eventually fight al-Qaida in Idlib, the group may face increased targeting from HTS, with the objective of pushing FSA groups to abandon their nationalist ideals and Western backing.

The Free Idlib Army

Three well-established FSA groups merged to form the FIA: the Northern Division, the Mountain Hawks Brigade and Division 13; all of whom were supplied with U.S.-made anti-tank guided missiles (TOW) beginning in 2013. Headquartered in southern Idlib with an estimated manpower of 6,200, the FIA has operated on frontlines in eastern Latakia, western Aleppo and northern Hama.

Syrian military expert Nawar Oliver recently told Syria Deeply that the Free Idlib Army “is 100 percent an American project.”

Weaponry and financial aid for the FIA (and for its individual FSA groups in the past) has been funneled from the Ankara-based joint military operations center, known as the Müşterek Operasyon Merkezi (MOM), which was formed in 2014 by Western and Gulf powers, including the U.S., Britain, France, Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. The MOM center is known to be principally operated by the CIA with Turkish supervision.

Lt. Col. Fares al-Bayoush, the FIA’s former deputy leader and officer for foreign and political relations, told Syria Deeply that their funding did not increase after the original merger. Each faction continues to be funded as an independent group, preventing them from competing on the ground. Al-Qaida and other Islamist groups “have stronger power,” said al-Bayoush. “They receive unlimited funding from [foreign] countries. This has impacted [us] negatively.”

So far, the FIA has not been as actively engaged militarily as many rebels had hoped. The group played a moderate role alongside other rebels in the battle for eastern Aleppo last year, and its forces are often seen firing on regime positions on the frontlines in eastern Latakia and western Aleppo.

Most recently, the FIA assumed a larger role than previously seen in the HTS-led northern Hama operation. Their more prominent role in this campaign is likely due to the FIA’s solid base in the area, rather than a reflection of a new strategy or alignment. (The FIA also has a consolidated hub of power in southern Idlib, where it has at least two bases and significant public support in many towns more actively engaged in civil society activism, like Kafranbel and Maarat al-Numan.)

Despite instances of FIA cooperation with HTS and other hardline forces’ operations, the group has still been the target of suspected jihadist group attacks. Late last year, two military commanders were assassinated by an unknown force, and extremist group Liwa Jund al-Aqsa kidnapped and later killed another commander. On April 5, a group with suspected ties to HTS carried out an assassination attempt on the FIA’s general commander, Ahmad al-Saud, near Khan al-Sabl in southern Idlib. Al-Saud reportedly survived the attack, but another FIA colonel was confirmed killed.

New Merger Underway

Al-Bayoush, who remains active in the leadership of the Free Syrian Army, was a member of the Syrian opposition’s military delegation at January talks in the Kazakh capital of Astana. He told Syria Deeply that the CIA-controlled MOM is working on a new project “to merge 17 Free Syrian Army groups into one faction, or at least to work through a unified military operations room.” He added that the new coalition’s “overall manpower” would be roughly between 30,000-35,000 and is expected to include FSA-affiliated groups like the Free Idlib Army, Jaish al-Nasr, the Coastal Division, Failaq al-Sham and Tajamou Fastaqim.

According to al-Bayoush, the FSA groups working with Turkey in the Euphrates Shield campaign – which Turkey said had “successfully” ended last month – are not included in the proposed merger. “They have their independent planning,” he said.

When asked about the MOM funding to rebels and the new push for a merger, CIA Office of Public Affairs media spokesperson Jonathan Liu said Syria Deeply should “feel free to say CIA declined to comment on this inquiry.”

Gulf countries in the MOM “go towards Islamist factions more than they go towards the Free Syrian Army,” al-Bayoush said, meaning that the possible merger would be “a joint will, but America has the stronger word in such decisions.”

This purported U.S.-backed rebel merger would present a new dynamic to the war in Syria, particularly to the competition for power in the northwestern parts of the country. During President Barack Obama’s administration, observers argued that the U.S. disfavored large mergers among FSA groups, in order to maintain control over smaller factions. Allegations of this new merger indicate that President Donald Trump’s administration could employ a different strategy regarding rebel groups in Syria, and an increased attention to the risks of a rising al-Qaida in Syria, especially as the group has capitalized on the U.S. strategy to clear ISIS from other parts of Syria.

The terms of the merger are still unknown, but, if carried through, it would likely result in increased military support to the FSA, making it capable of countering al-Qaida. What is clear at this point, however, is that al-Qaida and other jihadist groups in Idlib will increase precautions against a potentially strengthened FSA, by targeting of the FIA and other FSA forces.

Al-Bayoush said he is in talks about a new role within the FSA, linked to the possible merger, that will likely be focused on counterterrorism.

“This time there will be unity,” said al-Bayoush. “[HTS] will have to calculate differently, it is not like attacking one faction by itself.”

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