In early February, two dozen American Delta Force commandos descended on a town in northwest Syria near the Turkish border to apprehend the Islamic State’s chief, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi. He blew himself up, just like his predecessor Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had in 2019 in a nearby area during a similar operation by U.S. special operations forces. Both jihadi leaders sought shelter in the northern province of Idlib controlled by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS)—a former al Qaeda affiliate that claims to have reformed into an Islamist nationalist force.
Since 2015, the United States has killed scores of al Qaeda and Islamic leaders inside Idlib, often in drone strikes. The presence of high-profile Islamic State and al Qaeda leaders in the last rebel-held Syrian enclave has confirmed that Idlib has become the hideout of choice for remnants of all sorts of Syrian jihadi groups.
Al Qaeda’s leader Osama bin Laden was found hidden in Abbottabad, Pakistan, in 2011. Back then, the South Asian country was widely believed to be a sanctuary of al Qaeda and Taliban fighters, most of whom had been trained in madrassas inside the country. Now Idlib seems to have replaced Pakistan as a favored sanctuary of terrorists. And this raises the question of what—if anything—should be done about it.
The United States could continue to back the status quo in northern Syria—namely, Turkey’s broader control over the region coupled with America’s own freedom to carry out counterterrorism raids and airstrikes. Alternatively, Washington could develop a strategy for a new regional arrangement, together with Russia, that again brings Idlib under the control of the Syrian government. The presence of a large number of jihadis in this territory could conceivably tip U.S. calculations toward the latter solution—and against the dominant rebels in the region.