Radical jihadis have cemented their dominance over northwestern Syria with the victory last month of Tahrir al-Sham over its main rival, the Turkish-backed Islamist group Ahrar al-Sham. But the two million civilians in the region may pay the price for that win as aid agencies rethink their strategies.
International donors and aid professionals in Turkey have long been worried by jihadi influence on the Syrian side of the border, where Islamist factions have been running rival governance projects and tried to influence aid distribution. Tahrir al-Sham and Ahrar al-Sham both operated civilian bodies that organised road repairs, electricity, food distribution, and other services.
In March, internal conflicts saw Tahrir al-Sham clamp down on an Ahrar-aligned group channelling aid from Turkey. Soon after, Tahrir al-Sham tried to extend its influence over Idlib’s financial infrastructure and money transfer offices, which handle salary payments from donors abroad, as noted in a recent report by the American Syria expert Sam Heller.
The fact that Tahrir al-Sham is widely listed internationally as a terrorist entity and Ahrar is not now has major repercussions. A terrorist-designated group trying to control aid distribution and salary payments in Syria is unacceptable to the international aid community. “We’re all bound by sanctions lists,” an official with a Western donor government told Heller. “We can’t work with organisations linked to a listed entity.”
After Tahrir al-Sham’s defeat of Ahrar on 21 July, its military hegemony quickly rolled over into civilian sectors, with Tahrir-run service bodies knocking their Ahrar-backed counterparts out of business. For example, Ahrar’s organisation for electricity provision in Idlib was folded into a similar group created by Tahrir on 29 July.
“If you work in an area controlled by a terrorist-listed group, you will be branded suspicious.”
Most importantly, the jihadis seized Bab al-Hawa, the main border crossing between Turkey and Syria’s northwestern Idlib Province, which has been in opposition hands since mid-2012.
While Ahrar’s control over Bab al-Hawa was not unproblematic, having a terrorist-designated group like Tahrir in control of this logistical bottleneck is a potential deal-breaker for international donors. Turkey, too, considers Tahrir al-Sham a terrorist group and has limited traffic through the crossing.
For now, the jihadis seem willing to rule with a light touch by Syrian standards, leaving local aid and governance arrangements in place to avoid a clash with Western nations, humanitarians, and the UN system. But there is no longer any question who is ultimately in charge — in Idlib, as elsewhere, political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.
Sustaining a democratic opposition or subsidising a jihadi emirate?
Right now, foreign donors are taking stock of the situation, trying to figure out how to bypass Tahrir’s political and military dominance and whether doing so is really worth the effort.
Emergency humanitarian assistance such as food or medicine will likely continue to flow through Bab al-Hawa, unless the jihadis make a self-destructive move. “There are some relatively clear tripwires that will panic donors and get humanitarian aid cut off, but so far Tahrir al-Sham seems to have been smart enough to avoid triggering them,” Heller told IRIN. “If Tahrir al-Sham starts openly, systematically interfering in relief distribution, donors are going to cut off support.”
Political stabilisation assistance outside the UN framework, which has been delivered by Western and Arab nations to select opposition structures, is at greater risk of being cut.
In Idlib, the UK has led the way on this type of support, though many other nations have contributed too. The centrepiece of this effort has been to fund and empower Idlib’s local councils, which provide villages and towns with some semblance of political representation while also functioning as service implementers and aid distributers: handing out subsidised food and fuel, paying municipal salaries, fixing potholes and collecting garbage, coordinating aid groups, running clinics and schools, and so on.
Donors have also put money into high-visibility, opposition-branded civil society and media activism as well as emergency services like the Free Syria Police and Syria Civil Defence, better known as the White Helmets. Most of these efforts are carried out in deliberately visible collaboration with Western-friendly, anti-jihadi actors such as the Turkey-based National Coalition and its governance body, the Syrian Interim Government, in order to cultivate a constituency for them in opposition-held Syria.
The results have been mixed at best, with some support also benefiting jihadi groups. Nevertheless, political aid from the UK and other nations has helped pro-Western and democratic strands of the opposition survive inside otherwise inhospitable Islamist-run regions of northwestern Syria.
However, if Idlib’s foreign-backed activist groups and local councils cannot throw off the jihadi yoke, and if they also have no plausible future under the government of President Bashar al-Assad, the original logic behind supporting them is no longer there. Continued support will then come to be seen as a strategic dead end or, worse, as a subsidy for Idlib’s jihadi rulers.
It may take some time for the situation to shake out completely, but it is highly unlikely that a Tahrir al-Sham-dominated Idlib will receive Western-funded stabilisation and governance aid indefinitely. Neither Americans nor Europeans are interested in bankrolling the civil service of a jihadi emirate, and that is increasingly what Idlib looks like to them.
“Idlib Province is the largest al-Qaeda safe haven since 9/11,” said Brett McGurk, who heads US efforts against the so-called Islamic State, at a Middle East Institute panel last month.
As a result, northwestern Syria is abuzz with rumours about impending aid cuts. For Syrians who live there, or whose families do, it is a deeply unnerving thought.
“The northern region is directly dependent on foreign aid since it is more or less encircled,” an activist involved with Idlib opposition and aid operations told IRIN. “If you were to stop that aid you would expose the people to an incredible amount of brutality and horror, especially the already-exposed medical care and infrastructure.”
Private donors fear jihadis, and being seen as jihadis
The activist was more hopeful about the prospect for support from non-state donors. “Privately-funded aid won’t cease to work,” he told IRIN. “It is implemented by local actors on the ground who act and work in spite of the circumstances.”
In many cases, that is probably true, but private aid groups are worried too. Even some Islamist aid groups seem deeply concerned by Tahrir al-Sham’s growing dominance, either because they fear being shut down by the jihadis or because they’re afraid that Tahrir’s terrorist designation will rub off on them.
“Of course, it is very hard having them there,” said Karim Ben Daher, a member of the Sweden-based Islamic Charity Center, which funds a privately run hospital in Idlib Province. “Before, the other groups in that area, like the Islam Army or Ahrar al-Sham, provided a kind of security,” he told IRIN in a recent interview. “You could have them as protection when you were there. But now we don’t know what’s going to happen.”
The hospital backed by Ben Daher’s group is located in Aqrabat, near the Turkish border. “It’s in this little village that has its own local council and the armed groups never ran things there,” Ben Daher said. “But it is close to Saraqeb and Sarmada, where they were fighting recently. It is also close to the Bab al-Hawa crossing, which was previously controlled by Ahrar al-Sham. Now I guess it is controlled by Tahrir al-Sham, even though it is a little unclear at this point.”
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Ironically, although Ben Daher opposes the jihadi militants on both religious and political grounds, he fears that Western governments will lump him in with Tahrir al-Sham. “If you work in an area controlled by a terrorist-listed group, you will be branded suspicious,” he told IRIN. “We can try to wave this problem away as much as we like, but that’s unfortunately how things are.”
How will Tahrir al-Sham manage Bab al-Hawa?
The Bab al-Hawa crossing was shut down during the intra-rebel violence on 19 July, causing an immediate spike in prices in Idlib. After reopening on 25 July, Bab al-Hawa is nominally run by a group of neutral civilians, but the current administration is widely understood to serve Tahrir al-Sham, just as it previously obeyed Ahrar al-Sham.
Who controls the crossing matters – a lot. Transports through Bab al-Hawa accounted for two thirds of all international cross-border aid from Turkey in 2016, according to Linda Tom, a Damascus-based spokeswoman for the UN emergency aid coordination body, OCHA. In an email to IRIN, Tom described the crossing as “extremely important”, explaining that millions of civilians have received humanitarian assistance through Bab al-Hawa in the past year alone, making it a “lifeline for civilians in northwestern Syria”.
Until ousted from the crossing in July, Ahrar al-Sham derived both money and influence from Bab al-Hawa, where it was able to regulate the civilian trade – the Bab al-Hawa administrators even sought to weed out purportedly counter-revolutionary and un-Islamic literature. But although Ahrar al-Sham had excellent relations with Turkey and isn’t internationally sanctioned, there were limits to how much the group could interfere with traffic without provoking a backlash.
In particular, the Ahrar al-Sham leaders are said to have been careful about causing problems for humanitarian transports, and they generally appear to have respected the red lines drawn by foreign donors. But the group reportedly siphoned off millions of dollars from commercial traffic and high-value goods like construction material.
Tahrir al-Sham had surely hoped to maintain arrangements established by Ahrar after seizing Bab al-Hawa, but the jihadis’ hostile relationship to Turkey and the outside world makes that difficult. On 30 July, the group issued a statement pleading for aid to continue, saying it will facilitate humanitarian work and uphold a “principle of neutrality and independence”. Aid groups say they have so far not been forced to pay for passage into Idlib.
Neither Americans nor Europeans are interested in bankrolling the civil service of a jihadi emirate, and that is increasingly what Idlib looks like to them.
“It seems they're aware of the terms of this debate,” Heller told IRIN. “They understand humanitarian principles of neutrality and independence enough to voice their commitment to them, although who knows, they might end up violating them anyway.”
Heller noted that despite Tahrir al-Sham’s extreme politics, the group is far from the worst offender when it comes to aid theft and exploitation in Syria. “In some respects they've been better than other armed factions – they've provided security in their areas, instead of anarchic predation. Hopefully, they keep that up.”
The question is whether they can afford it. If Tahrir al-Sham wants to hold the Syrian army at bay while also administering a functioning regime in Idlib, it will need money. And if the jihadi takeover persuades anti-Assad governments to stop sending stabilisation funding, paying local council salaries, and feeding ammunition into the insurgency through Free Syrian Army factions, then the group will need even more money to develop and defend the area.
Tahrir al-Sham already gets under-the-table support from private Islamist donors in the Gulf and it has made money from kidnappings and other illicit activity, and by taxing some economic activity inside Syria. But it doesn’t seem to have the sort of financial base that could sustain the entirety of insurgency and administration in Idlib if Western, Turkish, and Arab support is scaled down. Should Idlib’s front lines or internal stability begin to buckle, the jihadis may be forced to throw caution to the wind and really sink their teeth into the civilian aid sector and the traffic through Bab al-Hawa.
But would even that raise enough funds? Siphoning resources from Bab al-Hawa is unlikely to be as profitable as it was for Ahrar al-Sham. In what seems like a deliberate strike at Tahrir’s economic base, Turkey just banned the crossing from bringing in taxable high-value construction materials like cement and steel.
And although Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan says “food, medicine, and clothes” will be allowed in under Turkey’s tightened regulations, that could change. If Tahrir al-Sham tries to finance its military-political project by confiscating aid, subjugating foreign-backed local councils, or diverting salaries and cash flows, the jihadis risk sawing off the branch they’re sitting on – not to mention triggering a humanitarian disaster for the two million civilians in need.