Across Syria, many rebels groups that lost their territories and strongholds are finding themselves in Idlib, the only province that is controlled entirely by the Syrian opposition. Many groups that were previously based in east Aleppo City, Homs, Darayya, Muadamiyat al-Sham and Barada Valley are now in Idlib.
However, the rebel relocation to the province is not borne out of choice or a tactical decision but rather one that is forced upon the rebels by the Syrian Government. Over the course of the Syrian Civil War,the Syrian Arab Army has adopted a strategy unofficially known as “kneel or starve”. Based on inflicting attrition upon the residents through shelling and siege conditions, this strategy aims to instil the sense that the residents will only be safe under the government’s control and forcing the rebel fighters and their families to evacuate.
As a result of this tactic and the subsequent evacuations, the rebels now control approximately 13% of Syria with about 12% of the population. The regime’s calculus for gathering many disparate rebel groups in one region was motivated by the anticipation that factionalism and ideological divisions would lead to fragmentation, rather than unity.
It is a gamble that has paid off.
Over the past weeks, the already-tense relations between Ahrar al-Sham, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (Previously known as Jabhat al-Nusra) and the Free Syrian Army (FSA) have escalated into a intense clashes that has engulfed much of the rebel-controlled territories in Idlib and western Aleppo countryside.
Since the start of the conflict, many FSA-affiliated groups have joined Ahrar al-Sham with whom they had enjoyed closer relations. Meanwhile, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zinki, a number of smaller rebel factions and a number of defectors from Ahrar al-Sham led by the group’s previous leader Abu Jaber have merged into a new group called Hayy’at Tahrir al-Sham (Committee For the Liberation of Sham).
Although clashes between Syria’s rebel groups have taken place in the past, such intense factionalism between the largest rebel groups is unprecedented.