Foreign jihadis playing a big role in Syria’s Idlib

Helena Cobban
11 min readMar 6, 2020

The thousands of highly motivated foreign fighters at all ranks of the fighting forces that control Syria’s Idlib enclave pose a particular challenge to policymakers worldwide trying to deal with the bitter fighting in the enclave and the humanitarian crisis that has resulted from it. (Many of these foreigners have also brought their children with them, as I’d noted here.)

Col. Myles Caggins, the spokesperson for the U.S. military group that has been fighting ISIS in northeastern Syria and Iraq since 2014, is one of the few Western officials who have openly acknowledged the challenge posed by the foreign fighters in Idlib. Most Western leaders and pundits have avoided any discussion of the issue at all, talking instead only about the humanitarian emergency in Idlib-and doing so in a way that ignores the often harsh control that foreign and Syrian extremists exercise over the civilians in the enclave and the aid flows into it.

This makes the blogging of a young Iraqi-British man called Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi particularly valuable. On his blog, Tamimi presents numerous interviews with key foreign jihadis-currently, mainly those operating in Idlib, though earlier he had also interviewed numerous foreign ISIS fighters and organizers in eastern Syria and Iraq. On his English/Arabic/French blog, Tamimi shares a wealth of detail from what these foreign fighters tell him.

Since February 13- and during some periods of very intense fighting in Idlib- Tamimi has recorded interviews with seven foreign jihadis who play significant roles in the public and administrative life of the enclave. All of them work more or less closely with the al-Qaeda-affiliated (and genocidal) Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) faction that has controlled most of the enclave since 2017. They had all come to Syria to join the “jihad” there during the early years of the armed insurgency that erupted against the Syrian government in 2011. They have thus now been in the country for several years and have attained positions of some responsibility in the HTS-led administration of Idlib.

Three of the seven interviewees were Egyptians. The other four came from the United States, France, Germany, and Chechnya. Some described their role as working within the “Shari’a court” system that HTS has established in…

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Helena Cobban

Veteran analyst of global affairs, w/ some focus on West Asia. Pres., Just World Educational. Writes at Globalities.org.