Al-Qaeda’s shadow still hangs over Syria’s Idlib

PARIS (AFP) – The militant group now controlling Idlib province in northwest Syria claims to have broken with Al-Qaeda, but analysts say that despite several rebrandings there’s no sign it has changed its stripes.

Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) sealed its hold on Idlib last week after signing a ceasefire with what was left of rival factions in the region.

Over time, HTS has changed both names and leaders, and statements posted on the internet suggest it had severed ties with Al-Qaeda, the terror group founded by Osama bin Laden.

But many experts dismiss such claims as smoke and mirrors, saying the organisation is simply attempting to muddy the waters and confuse intelligence agencies.

Jabhat al-Nusra, the rebel faction which gave birth to HTS, announced in July 2016 it had broken with Al-Qaeda.

A disabled Syrian woman from the province of Hama is pushed on a wheelchair through a muddy road following torrential rain that affected a camp for displaced people near the town of Atme close to the Turkish border in Syria’s mostly rebel-held northern Idlib province. – AP

But this was just “rebranding while maintaining a secret pledge of allegiance,” said Hassan Hassan, who specialises in militant movements at the Washington-based Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy.

“Throughout its numerous iterations, HTS has not altered its ideology and is still widely thought to maintain links with Al-Qaeda,” the US-based Soufan think tank said on Monday.

“HTS maintained links with Al-Qaeda’s loyalists in northern Syria and even allocated areas and resources for its supposed rivals,” Hassan said for his part.

A number of terrorist groups in Idlib still officially pay allegiance to Al-Qaeda, led by Ayman al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian, since Bin Laden’s death.

These include Hurras al-Deen, a faction comprising a few thousand terrorists including Syrians and foreign veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The group also includes members of the Turkestan Islamic Party, a militant group dominated by Uighur fighters, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based monitor.

Hurras al-Deen fought alongside HTS when it took control of Idlib from other rebel groups backed by Turkey.