Since last year, Al Qaeda’s presence in Idlib has only grown, as Al Qaeda affiliates in other parts of Syria were evacuated to Idlib province as part of several deals negotiated with the Syrian Arab Army that resulted in the surrender of then-rebel-held territories to the Syrian government.
WASHINGTON – As the Syrian government and its allies prepare to begin a military offensive against the last rebel-held province in the country, top U.S. government officials and even U.S. President Donald Trump have recently urged Syria to refrain from “recklessly” attacking the Idlib province, warning that it could result in a high civilian death toll. These recent statements of U.S. government officials have sought to portray Idlib as chiefly populated by civilians and benign opposition “rebels.”
Yet, just last year, one of the U.S. government’s top counterterrorism officials involved in the country’s Syria and Iraq policy stated on video that, in contrast to current government statements, Idlib is dominated by none other than the Al Qaeda terrorist group and that the province should be a major focus of U.S. counterterrorism policy given the threat that Idlib represents to global efforts to fight terrorism.
Speaking last July at a conference organized by the Middle East Institute, Brett McGurk – the U.S. government’s Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL (Daesh, ISIS) – called Syria’s Idlib province “the largest Al Qaeda safe haven since 9/11 tied directly to Ayman al-Zawahiri [current leader of Al Qaeda].” He then immediately added that the Al Qaeda presence in Idlib was a “huge problem” and had been so “for some time.”
McGurk later stated that the efforts by foreign governments, including the U.S., “to send in tens of thousands of tons of weapons and looking the other way as foreign fighters come into Syria may not have been the best approach. Al Qaeda has taken full advantage of it and Idlib now is a huge problem.”
Watch | Top U.S. counterterrorism official calls Idlib “largest Al Qaeda safe haven since 9/11″
McGurk’s characterization of Idlib as an “Al Qaeda safe haven” has also been reported on by the mainstream U.S. press. For instance, last February, The Washington Post published an article that stated that Idlib, “the biggest surviving rebel stronghold in northern Syria,” was “falling under the control of Al Qaeda-linked extremists.” One of the rebels quoted in the Post article stated that Al-Qaeda-linked radicals “are controlling every aspect of life” in Idlib and that “Al-Qaeda ideology is spreading everywhere.”
That same article went on to report that most rebels have joined one of the two most powerful factions in Idlib: Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a coalition formed by Syria’s Al Qaeda branch al-Nusra Front; or the “more moderate” Ahrar al-Sham, a coalition known for being a common battlefield ally of al-Nusra Front. The New York Times wrote in 2015 that Ahrar al-Sham membership included associates of Osama bin Laden.
However, recent statements made by Trump administration officials omit this key fact, despite the fact that the Al Qaeda presence and threat within the Idlib province remains unchanged from last year. In fact, since last year, Al Qaeda’s presence in Idlib has only grown, as Al Qaeda affiliates in other parts of Syria were evacuated to Idlib province as part of several deals negotiated with the Syrian Arab Army that resulted in the surrender of then-rebel-held territories to the Syrian government.
Unsurprisingly, U.S. mainstream media outlets now echo the Trump administration on Idlib, despite their own past admissions that the province is dominated by Al Qaeda-linked terrorist groups. For instance, a New York Times article published this past Sunday opened by lamenting that the Syrian government offensive targeting Idlib presented a threat to “rebel fighters and their civilian supporters who rose up more than seven years ago demanding regime change,” noting only in the story’s 21st paragraph that these same “rebel fighters” are “affiliated with Al Qaeda.”
While it may seem striking that the Trump administration would spring to the defense of a known “Al Qaeda safe haven,” government officials have stated in recent months that the U.S.’ objectives in Syria are no longer about fighting terrorism but about countering the “Iranian menace,” as National Security Adviser John Bolton stated in July. Thus, it seems that defending Al Qaeda has become par for the course given the Trump administration’s ultimate goal of targeting Iran, a country that has spent much of the past seven years fighting terrorists like ISIS and Al Qaeda in Syria.