Idlib on the Hot Plate after Aleppo. Among Its Jihadists Are 3,000 Chinese Uyghuris
The battle for Aleppo was all but over this week when the rebels who captured the eastern half of Syria’s largest city in 2012 were beaten out of the Old City by the Syrian army and its allies. The rebels fought alone – and lost – when no Western (US) power or Arab or Muslim backer (Saudi Arabia, Turkey) was willing to come to their aid.
Since gaining 75 percent of the shattered city on Wednesday, Dec. 7, Bashar Assad and his backers are set to go after Idlib. This governorate stretches along 130 kilometers of the Turkey border, including the main Bab al Hawa crossing. Its capital is 60km from Aleppo. Idlib is also next door to the coastal region of Latakia, where most of the Russian forces in Syria are based, and abuts the Hama Governorate.
The region and its main town are the heartland of “Syria’s Waziristan,” which has been ruled for the last two years by Al Qaeda’s Syrian arm, the Nusra Front, and its chief Abu Mohammed al-Julani.
Hard-core jihadist fighters have made it a power base.
Before the war, Idlib had a population of 1.5 million. Its population today is unknown, since it became an asylum for refugees fleeing from the embattled towns and fronts across the country and a haven for foreign and Syrian troops in flight from retribution, for committing exceptionally savage and brutal acts.
To cut down the menace posed by this terrorist power center, the Russians have staged repeated intelligence-directed air strikes on the armed elements holding sway in Idlib – some of whom hail from Russia and other former Soviet countries.
The US has also bombed their lairs.
China’s interest was drawn to Idlib by the presence there of an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 fighters from its Muslim Uyghur minority, who have brought with them around five thousand family members.
Rear Adm. Guan Youfei, head of China’s international military cooperation office, was in Damascus in mid-August. At a meeting with Syrian Defense Minister Fahd Jassem al-Frejj, he offered military training and humanitarian aid. He also saw Lt. Gen. Sergei Chvarkov, a senior Russian commander in Syria.
The Chinese Uyghurs share villages abandoned by pro-Assad Alawite denizens with two radical groups, the Nusra Front and the Turcoman Islamist Current.
Ahrar ash-Sham, another jihadi group, maintains a strong military presence in Idlib, as part of the Jayshul Fateh, which also includes units of the rebel Free Syrian Army.
Assad’s military coalition took two years to overwhelm the rebels fighting in Aleppo. Far less time will be needed to clear Idlib of this ragtag assortment of Syrian rebels, jihadists and salafis, because they will be fighting with their backs to the wall, pushed hard against the Turkish border, with no path of escape
That border will be shut firmly against them, since the last thing Ankara wants is a large influx of armed jihadists and allies of Al Qaeda. Neither is Turkey too keen on messing with Moscow and Beijing.