Four years and one caliphate later, Daesh claims Idlib comeback

Opposition fighters head towards the frontline near the village of Al-Khuwayn during ongoing battles with government forces in Syria's Idlib province on January 13, 2018. (AFP)
Updated 16 January 2018
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Four years and one caliphate later, Daesh claims Idlib comeback

BEIRUT: Daesh has been roundly defeated across much of Syria — which made it all the more surprising when it announced an official comeback in the country’s northwest last week.
Syrian regime troops are currently waging a fierce assault against other terrorists and rebels in Idlib province, and in the chaos, Daesh appears to have gained a foothold.
On January 10, Daesh media channels began claiming hit-and-run attacks against Syrian government forces in Idlib, from which the group was ousted in 2014.
Two days later, Daesh officially declared Idlib one of its Islamic “governorates” and has published news of raids against Syrian troops there with increasing pace every day.
Most notably, the organization claims to have killed around two dozen soldiers and taken nearly 20 hostage from an area near the key Abu Duhur military airport in Idlib.
“There are probably hundreds, maybe over 1,000 (Daesh fighters) at most. A number of Daesh guys who fled territory elsewhere made it to this enclave via smuggling,” said Aymenn Al-Tamimi, an academic and expert on the group.
Tamimi told AFP the new Idlib presence was an “extension” of Daesh’s small but established bastion in neighboring Hama province.
More than four years ago, Daesh operated an Islamic “governorate” in Idlib, but it was kicked out of the province in early 2014 by Islamist fighters and allied rebels.
Those fighters went on to oust the regime from the province too, as Daesh extended its Islamic “caliphate” across swathes of Iraq and Syria — but not Idlib.
In Syria, Daesh has since lost almost all that territory to Turkey-backed rebels, US-backed forces, or Syrian army troops.
In December, it made a brief incursion into Idlib for the first time since 2014, but last week’s announcement could signal something more.
So far, it seems Daesh’s territorial grip on Idlib remains limited, with the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights saying it only holds about five villages there.
The Britain-based monitor challenged Daesh’s claims of kidnapping government forces, saying most of the 31 troops captured during the past week in Idlib were held by rival terrorists.
But six were unaccounted for, and Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said it was possible, though not confirmed, Daesh was holding them.
“They came out of nowhere, but Daesh was long suspected to have sleeper cells in Idlib,” said Hassan Hassan, a senior fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy.
“I doubt Daesh can get significantly bigger in that area, but this is a big moment for it to build influence and revitalize its cells, some of which will probably remain clandestine,” he said.
A key factor in Daesh’s now-public presence in Idlib, analysts agreed, was the ongoing government offensive against rebels dominated by Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) in Idlib.
HTS is led by Al-Qaeda’s one-time franchise in Syria and now rules over a vast majority of Idlib, but the regime’s Russian-backed assault has been chipping away at territory there for several weeks.
Daesh could hardly resist stealing the spotlight, Hassan said.
“Idlib is now a big rebel cause. Everyone is trying to gain popular relevance through their role in defending the area,” he told AFP.
“Such moments are perfect for Daesh to make some noise,” and the group “used the publicity around the offensive to play up its role there.”
Nawar Oliver, an analyst at the Turkey-based Omran Center, suspected Daesh was also trying to take advantage of infighting among Idlib’s rival jihadists to poach hard-liners keen on establishing an Islamic entity.
“With this announcement, extremists in other groups will find a place where they belong,” Oliver said.
“Daesh played this right — they’re saying, I set myself up in Idlib, in the right place at the right time,” he told AFP.
Since war broke out in 2011, Syria has been carved up into complex zones of control held by rebels, Kurdish fighters, pro-regime forces, and competing jihadists including Daesh.
For Charlie Winter, a researcher at King’s College London, it remains “too early” to predict whether IS could make a full-scale comeback across Syria.
“It is battered without manpower, resources, weapons, or the networks to do any strategic offensives like they were able to do in 2014, 2015, and first half of 2016,” he told AFP.
Instead, its proclamation of an Idlib presence was an attempt to say, “we’re still here, knocking around, if we have to pull out from one place we’ll set up somewhere else,” Winter said.
“It can’t have propaganda be about nothing.”


Lebanese seek to save landmark concrete park from crumbling

Updated 21 min ago
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Lebanese seek to save landmark concrete park from crumbling

  • An exhibition is ongoing at the site designed by legendary Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer in a call to save it
  • Until Oct. 23, a show titled “Cycles of Collapsing Progress” seeks to celebrate the era that gave rise to the fairground

TRIPOLI, Lebanon: Close to the seafront in Lebanon’s Tripoli, giant curves of concrete stand testimony to dreams before the civil war, etchings of an exhibition park never finished but already cracking.
This month, a rare exhibition is being held at the site designed by legendary Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer in a desperate call to save it from ruin.
Inside the vast grey grounds of the Tripoli International Fair in northern Lebanon, a palm tree throws its dark silhouette onto a giant concrete dome.
A thin arch sweeps high over a narrow footbridge, and a steep staircase spirals up vertically, onto a circular cement platform perched on a curvaceous pillar.
“It’s a futurist paradigm that is unique in Lebanon and the region,” said Lebanese architect Wassim Naghi.
“In its modernity, in its reliance on curves, it sums up the progress of architecture over a hundred years,” he said.
And with buildings dotted over an area the size of 70 rugby pitches, it’s among “Niemeyer’s largest works outside Brazil,” he said.
The Brazilian architect designed landmarks around the globe during a decades-long career that started in the 1930s and ended in the 21st century.
When he died six years ago aged 104, he left behind hundreds of buildings, in Brazil as well as in the United States, France, Malaysia, Algeria and Cuba.
But today his work in Lebanon is in urgent need of restoration.
“These buildings of reinforced concrete need to be restored rapidly. There are buildings being eaten away at, blocks falling down, and many cracks,” Naghi warned.
“We fear there will be unpleasant surprises, especially during the rainy season,” he said.
Until October 23, a show titled “Cycles of Collapsing Progress” seeks to celebrate the era that gave rise to the fairground, but also sound the alarm.
In the halls under the perched platform, visitors can admire a seabed of snaking rebar, or even an elongated white space rocket hanging from the cieling.
The show “documents a golden age in Lebanon’s modern history — the architectural, scientific and cultural dreams of the time,” said curator Karina Al-Helu.
During the 1960s, the tiny Mediterranean country had its own space program, successfully launching a small unmanned rocket into space.
When Niemeyer was first asked to design the outdoor space in 1962, there were plans for the rooms under the circular platform to house a space museum.
But dreams of outer-space exploration, and any museum to commemorate it, were indefinitely put on hold with the outbreak of the 1975-1990 civil war.
The exhibition aims to remind Lebanese visitors of this chapter of the country’s recent past, Helu said, but also shine a light on a landmark about to collapse.
In a country whose history goes back millennia to the Phoenician period, she urged the authorities to give equal attention to modern architecture.
“It’s great to restore buildings that show Lebanon’s ancient history, but we should also care about the landmarks of this country’s modern history,” she said.
Architect Naghi said he was not optimistic about any immediate intervention by the government.
“The current atmosphere of crisis in the country doesn’t bode well,” he said, referring to a months-long deadlock over forming a cabinet.
Any renovation should involve in-depth studies and specialized companies, he said, “and that would require a lot of money, as well as a government decision.”
Instead, Naghi and others hope that the site can be added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List.
Brazil’s capital Brasilia and an outdoor center in the south of the country, both of which were designed by Niemeyer, are already featured on it.
Sahar Baassiri, Lebanon’s delegate to UNESCO, said efforts were now being made toward adding the concrete park to the list’s contemporary architecture section.
Akram Oueida, president of the fairground, said Lebanese officials have made promises of assistance, but none have yet materialized.
Getting the concrete park listed by UNESCO may help, Oueida said: “That could open the door to funding from donors.”