Syrian Al Qaida leader vows to fight on in Idlib rebel stronghold

Says surrender by other rebels would be considered ‘treason’ by his organisation

This undated file photo released by a militant group in 2016, shows Abu Mohammad Al Golani of the militant Levant Liberation Committee and the leader of Syria’s Al Qaida affiliate, second right, discussing battlefield details with field commanders over a map, in Aleppo, Syria.

Beirut: The leader of Syria’s Al Qaida affiliate has vowed to fight on in Idlib province, the country’s last major rebel stronghold, in the face of a possible regime offensive there.

The rare public statement by Abu Mohammad Al Golani came as Syrian President Bashar Al Assad’s forces have been sending reinforcements into areas around Idlib in the country’s northwest, alongside the border with Turkey.

The United States, Britain and France have expressed concern at reports of the Syrian military targeting civilians, schools, hospitals and other public infrastructure in Idlib and underlined “concern at the potential for further — and illegal — use of chemical weapons” to bring the province under regime control.

Earlier this year, Syrian regime forces captured rebel-held suburbs of the capital Damascus, as well as the southern provinces of Dara’a, Quneitra and Sweida. In parts of these regions, rebels accepted the reconciliation with the regime, handing over their heavy weapons in return for amnesty, or agreed to be bussed out together with their families and other civilians to rebel-held areas in Idlib.

But taking Idlib would be a much more difficult challenge for Al Assad’s forces, as the province is also the base of Al Golani’s militant and heavily armed Levant Liberation Committee, as the Al Qaida branch in Syria is known.

In his comments, which came in a video released late on Tuesday, Al Golani said state-sponsored surrenders of rebel groups — similar to those that recently occurred elsewhere in Syria — won’t happen in Idlib as such actions would be considered “treason” by his Al Qaida-linked fighters.

Earlier this month, the Syrian regime dropped leaflets over Idlib, urging residents to reconcile with its authority. Officials have warned regime forces would take back the province by force if necessary.

According to UN estimates, 2.9 million people live in Idlib and surrounding opposition-held areas. The UN has appealed to Turkey to open its border to refugees, should the Syrian regime decide to attack the province.

Turkey, which has established itself as a sponsor of rebels in northern Syria, already hosts some 3.5 million Syrian refugees, the most of any nation. It has also established 12 monitoring posts in Idlib and deployed 1,000 troops in the province.

In the video, released on the occasion of the Muslim holiday of Eid Al Adha, Al Golani is seen wearing an olive-green military uniform and saying that “Turkish monitoring towers” cannot be relied on to take on Al Assad’s forces. “Our weapons are the source of our strength and honour,” Al Golani says. “Thinking about surrendering to the enemy and handing over weapons will be considered treason.”

Meanwhile, another militant figure from the Al Qaida-linked group, Abu Yaqzan Al Masri, was unharmed when a gunman opened fire at him and missed, on Tuesday. The shooter was detained, according to Mazan Al Shami, an opposition activist based in northwestern Syria.

Dozens of members of the group have been killed over the past few months in attacks blamed on Daesh.


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