By Donnelly McCleland

The leader of Syria’s al-Qaeda affiliate has vowed to fight on in Idlib province, the country’s last major rebel stronghold, in the face of a possible government offensive. Abu Mohammed al-Golani of the militant Levant Liberation Committee says state-sponsored surrenders of rebel groups, similar to those that recently occurred in southern Syria, won’t happen in Idlib. His comments came as government forces have been sending reinforcements into Idlib, in the country’s northwest along the border with Turkey. Al-Golani’s comments came in a video posted online to mark the Muslim feast of Eid al-Adha. The statement was posted shortly before midnight on Tuesday [21 August]. (Hürriyet Daily News)

“Peaceful enclave” or “last jihadist stronghold”?

The north-western province of Idlib appears to be the next focus for the Syrian government forces of President Bashar al-Assad and Syria’s Russian allies. This formerly ‘sleepy’ corner of the country has, over the past two years, seen a tremendous influx of people as reconciliation efforts between the government and rebel forces led to those rebels (and their families) who did not choose reconciliation being ‘shipped off’ to Idlib province. A number of mainstream Western media outlets, such as CNN, portray Idlib’s population as the last remaining “peaceful enclave” of “fighters for democracy”. However, a closer look at the province’s inhabitants paints a very different picture. The region is dominated by extremist groups such as Tahrir al-Sham (better known as Al-Nusra, or Al-Qaeda in Syria, which is said to control about 60% of the province) as well as Ahrar al-Sham, Jaysh al-Islam, and Nour al-Din al-Zenki. Fighters from these ‘moderate rebels’ have, according to RT, been accused of “beheadings, abductions, torture, and attacks on journalists and aid workers”, among other crimes.

Targeted killings and kidnappings for ransom have rattled Syria’s Idlib province for months, angering residents who blame dominant rebel and jihadist forces for the chaos. It’s been reported that car bombings, roadside explosives and gunfire have targeted and killed more than 200 rival fighters in the province, as well as 50 civilians. Abual-Fath al-Farghali, a senior commander with al-Qaeda’s Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, took a defiant stance, saying they were at their “strongest” currently, while at the same time warning members of dire consequences should they pursue reconciliation with government forces. They are said to have already arrested at least 100 people for seeking a deal with Damascus or establishing contacts with its ally, Russia.

Possibility of another ‘false flag’ attack

On 22 August, US President Donald Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, warned that the US would respond “very strongly” if forces loyal to Mr al-Assad used chemical weapons in an offensive to retake Idlib province. Some critics of the US foreign policy in Syria maintain that such statements invite ‘false flag’ attacks by the beleaguered ‘moderate’ rebels. A ‘false flag’ attack is when a weaker party in a conflict (such as the Syrian rebels) perpetrates an attack (e.g. a chemical weapon attack or a simulation of such) while ensuring that the blame falls on their opponent (the stronger party in the conflict – in this case, the Syrian army). They would do this in the hope of gaining support from their backers (the US, the UK, France, and other Arab countries). Rick Sterling, an investigative journalist and member of the Syria Solidarity Movement, told Radio Sputnik that Bolton’s statement was “just another violation of international law”. He explained: “It’s a threat that the US will use force. It’s another unauthorised assertion that the US is the judge, jury and executioner of the violations of the chemical weapons treaty.” He went on to stress: “The US has no authority to do that.”

Bolton’s statement was preceded by a joint statement from France, the UK and the US on 21 August, likewise threatening further bombings of Syria if a chemical attack occurred. This follows a similar pattern of previous so-called ‘chemical attacks’ being followed by Western airstrikes in Syria, the most recent being in Douma in April 2018.

OPCW’s interim report on Douma

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) was requested by the Syrian government and their Russian allies to investigate the ‘chemical attack’ in Douma in April, but before representatives were allowed to conduct their investigation, the US, the UK and France launched aerial bombardments on so-called ‘chemical weapon making facilities’ in Damascus and Homs. These airstrikes were conducted without the authorisation of the UN Security Council or their respective government’s approval.

OPCW representatives, however, gathered and analysed evidence and an interim report was issued in July, declaring: “The results show that no organophosphorous nerve agents or their degradation products were detected in the environmental samples or in the plasma samples taken from alleged casualties. Along with explosive residues, various chlorinated organic chemicals were found in samples from two sites, for which there is full chain of custody.” Despite the report clearly stating that “no organophosphorous nerve agents” were detected, most mainstream media sources attempted to maintain the ‘chemical attack’ narrative by focusing on the “various chlorinated organic chemicals”. It is important to note that chlorinated organic chemicals are commonly found in many everyday items such as treated water, cleaning materials, plastic piping, etc.

Both Damascus and Moscow maintained that the attack in Douma was staged by militants and the White Helmets (a non-governmental organisation) to influence public opinion and justify foreign intervention.


The Syrian government currently controls an estimated 60% of the country after recent campaigns to liberate rebel-held areas around Damascus and further south. Most areas where reconciliation efforts have taken place have seen a fairly rapid return to ‘normal life’, with freedom of movement and goods being quickly restored, and attention given to the restoration of services. Those who chose amnesty rather than being transported to rebel-held Idlib are generally viewed with some scepticism by civilians, but they have been allowed to return to normal life in their various towns/cities without reprisals.

A large majority of civilians interviewed in areas previously held by rebel groups testify to “hellish” conditions of forced labour, deprivation, denial of access to humanitarian aid (often found afterwards in rebel stockpiles) and constant fear. There are civilians who previously opposed the Syrian government who now welcome the return of state control to their communities, and simply desire peace and security.

The Syrian people have suffered through more than seven years of brutal war, but gradually the hope is growing that an end is in sight. Thousands of refugees are already returning even though not all areas are yet secured, but their desire to go home and rebuild is such that they are willing to face the risks. Extensive efforts are being made to promote reconciliation rather than conflict (each rebel-held area was offered amnesty from prosecution in return for the surrender of firearms, or an option to relocate to Idlib, and those in Idlib now face the final opportunity to surrender and receive amnesty or face the consequences). These reconciliation processes may not be perfect (many are a result of force), but should be encouraged and commended as the preferred option to war. However, some parties continue to seek and promote conflict.

2 Corinthians 5:18-19 states: “All this is from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to Himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And He has committed to us the message of reconciliation.” Christians across the globe should promote, applaud and support all efforts towards reconciliation.


  • For reconciliation efforts to prevail over war
  • For civilians in Idlib to be allowed safe exits should the war intensify there
  • For Syrian believers to continue to be active in the reconciliation process