SYRIA: «Yes, this area is under our control,» says a logistician of the Ahrar al-Sham, while pointing at a checkpoint on the map in front of him. «But to be honest, if I were you, I would stay away. People who have gone through this way, have gone missing.»
Who are the jihadists in the Syrian war?
In Syria there is no clear front line anymore, with the regime on one side and the rebels on the other. The maps of UN mediators are all colour coded: Yellow means Assad, red is for the rebels, green is for jihadists, blue for the Kurds. And further: here you’ll find the Kurdish forces that are fighting alongside the rebels, while over there are the ones that are in alliance with Assad. Rebels backed by the United States, or rebels backed by Turkey. The map I am examining now is not focused on defining geographical areas anymore; the colour coding divides the terrain group by group, commander by commander. Rather than a map, it looks like one of those paper sheets you might find in a stationary shop, for testing pens in different colours. And there are more criminals than armed groups.
Multiple battles. After the fall of Aleppo last December, fighters and activists who didn’t surrender moved to Idlib, a city some 59 kilometres to the southwest. Idlib is ruled by two militias: Ahrar al-Sham and Tahrir al-Sham, which is actually the latest denomination of the al-Nusra Front – which in turn is described as the Syrian Al-Qaeda. “We all expect the regime to focus on Idlib now. To raze it to the ground just like they did with Aleppo. But there is no need for it,” admits the logistician who sketched the map. “Most of the time, I have to watch my back for fellow rebels, rather than for the regime forces,” he says. “We will wipe out Idlib by ourselves.”
Since the start of Russia’s intervention in support of Assad in September 2015, jihadists have been in disarray, fragmented into countless militias. They all advocate, vaguely, the enforcement of Sharia law – but they don’t have any political vision anymore. Nor do they have a military strategy. Fighters move endlessly from one group to next, but not because of ideological differences. They relocate based on where they can get more guns, or where there might be fewer airstrikes. And it is only when my map is done that I realise there is one essential group missing. The very group that all the world is supposedly here for: the Islamic State.
“Whoever wins, nothing changes in Iraq.”
For jihadists, it’s already over. Assad may be back in power in Syria – but in neighbouring Iraq, the battle for Mosul is still going. This is despite the fact that ISIS leader al-Baghdadi already conceded defeat in February, urging his men to flee and scatter, or to blow themselves up in attacks on the enemy. Al-Baghdadi himself disappeared. “The Prophet, instead, has been always on the front line like any other fighter,” I’m told by a Tunisian who has just arrived. According to the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, there were approximately 2 000 new jihadists were crossing every month from Turkey into Syria until recently. Today, that number is closer to 50. Is it as you expected it, I ask the Tunisian. He looks at me. “It is what it is,” he says.