Showdown at Bab al-Hawa

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On Tuesday, the Syrian opposition news site Zaman al-Wasl and Lebanon’s al-Aan TV both reported that the Islamic Front, a coalition of some of the largest Islamist rebel factions in the Syrian civil war, had seized control over Bab al-Hawa. This large border crossing between Turkey and Syria’s Idlib Province has long been a main entry point for supplies to the insurgency.

Bab al-Hawa was seized by the rebels in July 2012 and eventually fell under the joint control of several groups. The most important, for a long time, was a faction of the Farouq Battalions, but its fortunes have dwindled. Several other groups have also had a stake in the border traffic. At least three Islamic Front factions were among the stakeholders—Ahrar al-Sham, the Army of Islam, and the Suqour al-Sham Brigades—and now, we are told, the Islamic Front has taken sole ownership.

This follows a series of controversial events in the villages nearby.

Babisqa is a small site about a kilometer to the south of Bab al-Hawa—part of the famous Syrian “dead cities,” or abandoned settlements that date from the first to seventh centuries, and previously known only for its Byzantine church ruins. Since 2012, however, it has also served as one of the Syrian opposition’s largest depots for guns, ammunition, and equipment. Like some other storage sites in the area, the Babisqa warehouses are run by the Supreme Military Council (SMC), the command structure of the rebel Free Syrian Army, and its leader, Salim Idris, rather than by any individual rebel group. They are stuffed full of weaponry donated by Saudi Arabia and Qatar as well as vehicles, body armor, and medical supplies from the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and other countries.

Controlling arms stockpiles like those at Babisqa has been the main source of the SMC’s influence (such as it is), and these weapons have accordingly been kept under close guard—so close that command seems to have stayed within the family. The First Battalion, one of the SMC units tasked with overseeing the stockpiles at Babisqa, is run by one Major Bassam Idris, who defected at the same time as Salim Idris in July 2012.

December 6: The Islamic Front Steps In

On the evening of Friday, December 6, the warehouses suddenly changed hands. One of the first reports on the matter was from an opposition news agency, Masar Press. On December 7, Masar Press reported that the Babisqa warehouses had been raided by the al-Qaeda-aligned opposition group the Nusra Front, which took off with weapons and equipment. According to Masar Press, quoting SMC sources, Salim Idris’s General Staff then called for help from the Islamic Front. The Islamic Front refused to fight the Nusra Front and instead offered to raise its own flag over the area, thereby extending its protection over the warehouses.

The same day, however, Reuters interviewed Free Syrian Army spokesman Louay Meqdad, who claimed that members of the Islamic Front “had entered the bases after saying they wanted to help to secure them. They then asked officers and employees to leave and replaced an FSA flag with one of their own.”

The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights added a few details of its own: fighting had gone on all night, people had died, and the Islamic Front had also seized buildings used by other groups, including the hardline jihadi Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and the pro-SMC Ahfad al-Rasoul Brigade.

Al-Aan TV added to the confusion by reporting that it was the Islamic State that had raided the SMC warehouses in Babisqa and had then been fought off by the Islamic Front. Soon, several different narratives of what happened on December 6 had begun to emerge.

The Islamic Front Version

Islamic Front spokesperson Islam Alloush, a member of the Army of Islam, gave the following explanation in a press statement:

    On the evening of Friday, December 6, 2013, there came a phone call to the Islamic Front from the office of Brigadier General Salim Idris, the head of the General Staff of the . . . [SMC], asking us to intervene to protect . . . [SMC] warehouses at Babisqa from an attack by unknown groups that were trying to take them over. We then sent a force to the area. When the force tasked with protecting the warehouses arrived, it found that the guards and officers had already left their positions and withdrawn, bringing with them as much as they could of vehicles and weapons.

    We set up checkpoints and spoke to those officers that remained and began to guard the headquarters and warehouses. Several calls were made between the commanders of the above-mentioned intervention force and the SMC. The officer in charge, under commission from Salim Idris, then handed us the keys to the General Staff headquarters, while the officer in charge of the First Battalion gave us the keys to that, after it had been emptied of what was inside. We made an inventory of the warehouse supplies, and they will be kept safe until the situation stabilizes. Regarding the Second Battalion, it was already empty when we reached it, having been seized by an unknown group.

Ahrar al-Sham’s supreme military commander, Abu Talha, gave the same story to Al Jazeera on December 8, saying that “armed gangs” had attacked the Second Battalion warehouses and that the Islamic Front had arrived after a request of the SMC, whose fighters were fleeing their positions. According to Abu Talha, the Bab al-Hawa checkpoint was then still under the control of multiple factions, most but not all from the Islamic Front, as it had been before December 6.

An Alternative Version

In an interview posted to YouTube, two SMC fighters who say they were part of Bassam Idris’s First Battalion describe the events rather differently. They talk of a mysterious force driving up from Sarmada, a rebel-held town a few kilometers down the road. When this force reached the Babisqa warehouses at around 9:00 p.m., the First Battalion identified it as friendly. But as the leaders of the two units were talking, fighters fanned out across the base as if they were storming it. They pointed guns at the SMC guards, stripping them of their weapons, cell phones, and private money. Some were handcuffed, thrown to the ground, and called traitors or infidels. But, much as in the other versions of events, the leader of the intervention force, an Ahrar al-Sham member called Abu Nour, later explained to the SMC fighters that he was seizing the compound to protect it from another attack (that is, an attack like the one that had struck the SMC’s Second Battalion warehouses).

Some SMC officials, like Meqdad, tried to downplay the apparent conflict between the Islamic Front and the SMC. But after the Islamic Front went on to take possession of Bab al-Hawa, a senior SMC official speaking to the pan-Arab daily newspaper al-Sharq al-Awsat called the Babisqa takeover “a complete coup” against the SMC and a “conspiracy against the Syrian people being funded by known states.” He claimed that Abu Nour’s Islamic Front unit had managed to take control over a total of ten SMC warehouses, seizing thousands of arms—mostly Kalashnikov rifles but also M79 Osa rocket launchers, rocket-propelled grenades, and heavy machine guns—as well as 200 tons of ammunition and at least 100 vehicles.

According to the Wall Street Journal, which is quoting anonymous U.S. and Islamic Front officials, Salim Idris himself “fled as a result of the Islamic Front taking over his headquarters” and passed from Turkey to Doha, Qatar. This report isn’t borne out by any other source. Idris is often in Turkey, and none of the accounts from the ground place him on the scene in Babisqa on December 6. In a press statement sent to me, the SMC explicitly denies that Idris has fled to a Gulf state and says he’s with his commanders right now—presumably still in Turkey. Most probably, he was already outside of Syria or left the area because of the fighting. The real issue is whether he will be able to go back to Syria since the SMC headquarters currently appear to be under Islamic Front control. I’ve asked an Islamic Front spokesperson but received no answer.

Reactions to Bab al-Hawa’s Seizure

The SMC’s sponsors have reacted strongly to the news of the seizure and now seem to be putting pressure on the Islamic Front. On December 10, several days after the Islamic Front took the warehouses and the SMC headquarters but immediately after the reports that it was assuming sole control over the Bab al-Hawa traffic, Turkey closed the crossing and increased its military presence on the border.

The United States and the United Kingdom also declared that they were “suspending” all deliveries of nonlethal equipment to the SMC through Turkey (but not humanitarian aid). It wasn’t clear that this was part of any strategy to influence events, and both states seemed confused about what was going on. Hugh Roberts, British minister of state for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, simply noted that it “does make sense to suspend that aid until we know exactly what’s happened.”

What seems to have happened is this: in the dog-eat-dog environment of northern Syria, the SMC and its allied factions simply turned out to be too weak to protect the high-value assets entrusted to them. Depending on whose story you trust, the Islamic Front either reacted to this by launching a preemptive strike to fill the void before anyone else did or was invited by SMC leaders fearing an extremist-jihadi takeover—and then simply pocketed their gains. Whether the Islamic Front will surrender what it has won is anyone’s guess, but Syria doesn’t seem to be a place where much is given for free these days.

 

 

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