Exclusive – Enab Baladi
Hardly a day goes by in the province of Idlib without a clear assassination or killing of an unidentified person. This has become a major phenomenon in the areas that are outside the control of the Syrian regime. This is in addition to the direct targeting of military leaders, which carry the fingerprints of the global “war on terror” that has gained momentum in recent times.
Recently, there has been a rise in operations targeting checkpoints and military premises belonging to opposition factions and Islamic organizations in the province of Idlib in general. What is notable is that these operations are exclusively targeting isolated premises or those that are weak in terms of number of fighters and equipment.
These attacks have not targeted military leaders or command centers and large premises. Instead, they have been limited to assassinations of ordinary fighters charged with manning inspection points and security barriers. These attacks are also characterized by a high level of skill, both at the military and the security level, and are carried out late at night using silent firearms.
The attacks do not follow the methods used in kidnappings or detentions. Rather, the killings are carried out in cold blood and in a matter of a few moments. That is the only method used. In fact, the attacks usually target several interconnected barriers within the same geographical area at the same time and with a highly sophisticated and unusual method that is more similar to that used in battles between organized and highly trained mafias.
One of the operations that created a stir in northern Syria took place on 24 October. Unidentified groups assassinated nine officers at two checkpoints belonging to the Sham Legion and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham factions in the town of Marashureen in the countryside of Idlib. The nine officers were assassinated at the same time, most with a single shot to the head with a silent weapon at close range.
On 25 December, two leaders from the Idlib Free Army were killed in the town of Maarat Horma in the southern countryside of Idlib using silent weapons after attackers stormed the faction’s military premises in the early hours of the morning.
These incidents and others have raised questions about the real identity of those behind these groups, the type of training they receive, the weapons used and the motives behind their actions.
Enab Baladi contacted a security officer in the province of Idlib, who asked not to reveal his name. He said, “The groups targeting all the factions, the sophistication of the operations in terms of training and weapons, as well as the timing of their activities, confirm that the main objective is to spread chaos and infighting between the factions”.
He continued, “We have not been able to identify the perpetrators up till now, despite their many attacks. We are almost certain that there is no local actor in Syria that is able to plant sleeper cells with this level of training. Our investigations are ongoing and we are not ruling out the involvement of any regional actor.”
The Russian newspaper “Zvestia” confirmed, in an article published in late December, that the Lebanese Hezbollah group is the one carrying out these “special operations” in Idlib after Iranian and Syrian intelligence gave them detailed information on the location of the factions. However, neither Hezbollah nor any other party has declared its responsibility for these operations.
Unidentified bodies in Jund al-Aqsa areas
The southern countryside of Idlib province, which is adjacent to the areas outside regime control in the northern countryside of Hama, is witnessing daily killings and disposal of corpses on roadsides.
On the morning of Thursday 5 October, the bodies of three young men from the southern countryside of Idlib were found on the road between the village of al-Tamanaa and the town of Murk in northern Hama. According to private sources Enab Baladi spoke to, the bodies were removed and taken to the region’s civil defense headquarters to be identified by their relatives.
The same area has witnessed similar incidents in the past three months, along with arrests by armed groups belonging to Jund al-Aqsa, according to a relief worker in southern Idlib who, in an interview with Enab Baladi, accused the faction of being the one responsible for the almost daily killings and arrests in the region.
A doctor in the countryside of Idlib, who refused to disclose his name, explained that the method of killing and arrest confirms that Jund al-Aqsa are the ones responsible, as retaliation against members of local factions or those who are close to the Ahrar al-Sham Movement. A human rights activist in the northern countryside of Hama said that 20 people, including fighters from the Free Army were kidnapped, killed and their bodies disposed of in the southern countryside of Idlib since November.
Groups belonging to Jund al-Aqsa are spread throughout the countryside of Idlib, particularly in the towns and cities of Khan Shaykhun, Maarzita, Kafr Sajna, Madaya and Rakaya. According to certain sources, these groups are led by a Syrian from Hama and a Palestinian from Gaza.
Last November, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham have declared that it would swear allegiance to Jund al-Aqsa, after confrontations that were described as “bloody” between Jabhat Fatah al-Sham and fighters from Ahrar al-Sham in Idlib’s countryside.
The three sources who Enab Baladi spoke to all agreed that Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, represented by its leader, Abu Mohammed Joulani, is responsible for the kidnappings and killings taking place in areas held by Jund al-Aqsa, in light of the failure by the region’s factions to address the problem and put an end to it.
The United States “hunting” leaders of “al-Jabha”
Jabhat Fatah al-Sham in Idlib has faced a brutal week. It is being increasingly targeted in aerial attacks, which many say are conducted by American planes. This has resulted in the death of a number of its top leaders in the space of a few days, demonstrating the determination of the West to eradicate the group, despite its announcement that it has broken ties with al-Qaeda.
Operations targeting Jabhat Fatah al-Sham began this year, on 1 October, with a drone attack on two cars containing senior leaders from the group, who died immediately.
Enab Baladi’s sources state that a drone, most probably American, attacked a car near the Bab al-Hawa crossing on the evening of 1 October. This was followed by a second raid on a car in the town of Sarmada in the countryside of Idlib. According to the sources, these attacks caused the death of 12 people, including three leaders – Khattab al-Qahtani (a Saudi national), Abu Omar al-Turkestani and Abu Mussab al-Diri.
Khattab and al-Turkestani are considered among the most prominent leaders of Jabhat Fatah al-Sham. They were in charge of ground operations in most of the recent battles and had been nominated to be members of the Shura (Consultative) Council of the new organization to be formed out of the merger between the factions.
On Tuesday 3 January, a B52 US military aircraft targeted a key prison under the control of Fatah al-Sham on Sarmada Mountain in the northern countryside of Idlib, causing the death of four detainees – Wael Yaseen, Adnan Suleiman, Hassan Mohammed Bakrou and al-Khumaysini Ibrahim Abdulaziz Jalloud.
On Friday 6 January, Sheikh Yunus Shoaib (Abu Hassan Taftanaz), a member of Fatah al-Sham’s Shura Council, was killed after a raid on his city, Taftanaz, in Idlib’s countryside.
A reconnaissance flight, likely to be by the American-led international coalition, launched a raid on the city of Taftanaz in Idlib’s countryside on Friday afternoon. This raid caused the death of Shoaib, his 15-year-old son and his cousin and former member of the Jabha, Mohammed Kamal Shoaib (Abu Omar).
The “hunting” of Jabha leaders has not been limited to attacks by planes or drones. Last year, several were killed by improvised explosive devices, as was the case with Abu Mohammed al-Ansari, head of the division responsible for military equipment. He was killed by an explosive device in his car in the countryside of Idlib.
Idlib province has become the main center of opposition in Syria over the past year, becoming the scene of killings and assassinations. These attacks are carried out in accordance with divergent motives and various local and regional objectives whose primary targets are Idlib’s military factions, of all backgrounds and tendencies.