Bottom Line Up Front:
- According to the United Nations Special Envoy for Syria, there are perhaps as many as 10,000 al-Qaeda affiliated fighters, and their families, remaining in Idlib Province.
- These violent extremists are intermingled with an estimated 2.9 million people who are now essentially trapped in Idlib with no other sanctuary to which they can reasonably escape.
- The untenable presence of so many violent extremists among a civilian population presents a humanitarian nightmare.
- A full-fledged military offensive in Idlib would be a catastrophe for non-combatants, while it is a virtual certainty a residual counterterrorism problem would remain in the aftermath of the battle.
Idlib has a terrorist problem. But the imminent military assault on a rebel stronghold, framed by the Assad regime and its Russian allies as a necessary step to stabilize Syria, will create an immense humanitarian disaster while still proving counterproductive in terms of an effective response. The scale of the estimates for terrorists—mostly al-Qaeda affiliated fighters from the former Jabhat al-Nusra—make any targeted counterterrorism approach impossible. Staffan de Mistura, the United Nation’s Special Envoy for Syria, said in August that there were perhaps 10,000 al-Qaeda affiliated fighters and family in Idlib. Confronting that number of armed combatants requires a massive military effort; yet the forthcoming conflagration will likely kill more civilians than violent extremists and lead to a cycle in which the terrorists will exploit the grievances that inevitably result from massive civilian casualties as a recruitment tool.
To comprehend what a military assault on Idlib would look like from a counterterrorism angle, it is helpful to look at the November-December 2004 U.S.-led assault on Fallujah, Iraq, though Idlib is far larger in population and territory. In Fallujah, the U.S.-led force faced perhaps 3,000 militants from a myriad of terrorist groups, with the majority of them, as in Idlib 14 years later, affiliated in some fashion with al-Qaeda or other lesser known Salafist organizations. Many of the estimated 300,000 residents of Fallujah had fled before the assault, but there were still enormous concerns over civilian deaths. The estimates of insurgents and terrorists killed in the assault range from 1500 to 2000 killed; the Red Cross estimated that perhaps 800 civilians were killed as well.
Yet the assault failed to alter the trend line of a growing terrorist presence in Iraq or even in Anbar province. Fallujah remained a stronghold for al-Qaeda in Iraq, which eventually morphed into the so-called Islamic State. Having established a deep-rooted presence in western Iraq, al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups proved incredibly difficult to dislodge, even in the face of an aggressive counterterrorism onslaught. The underlying issues fueling the violent ideology remained, with predictable results—in January 2014, the Islamic State ‘took’ Fallujah and held it for the next two and a half years.
Given their history in the war to date, the Assad regime and Russian forces (along with Iranian support) are likely to be reckless during the assault on Idlib, which is an entire province and not just a city. The prospect for massive civilian deaths and casualties is high if there is a major offensive; this is in addition to what will likely be a mass movement of internally displaced Syrians fleeing the carnage with few options on where to go. The assault will inevitably remove a significant number of al-Qaeda-linked terrorists from the battlefield. Yet these fighters and their ideology of bin Ladenism have been in Idlib for years and will remain long after the Assad regime proclaims victory. The cost of killing a sizable percentage of current terrorists in Idlib will not justify the cost of civilians killed, nor will it reduce the number of future terrorists generated by the chaotic aftermath. The underlying issues that are driving terrorism in Idlib will, as in Fallujah, remain and metastasize in the aftermath of this pending battle.