Conflict

Defections and assassinations plague Hayy'at Tahrir al-Sham in Idlib

Syria

Abbas Sharifa the researcher in Islamic Affairs explains the reasoning behind the defections and assassinations that have recently targeted Hayy'at Tahrir al-Sham in Idlib.

The situation in Idlib remains tense as violence and political instability continue to plague the province. Rebel-infighting also continues to be an issue, along with the emergence of ISIS cells that are contributing to widespread assassinations of rebel fighters and civilians.

Idlib has recently been at the centre of clashes between Hayy’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which controls Idlib City and large parts of western and eastern Idlib countryside, and Jabhat Tahrir Souria (JTS), which is a amalgamation of the two rebel groups Nour al-Din al-Zinki and Ahrar al-Sham that control parts of southern and northern Idlib countryside.

Although clashes between these two sides, which have a diluted history of collusion and animosity, have now ceased, their impact has contributed towards widespread instability and tension among two of the most powerful rebel blocs in Idlib.

Amidst these clashes, the HTS has been hit by defections further perpetuating instability. Earlier this month, there were reports of a branch of the HTS in neighbouring Aleppo deserting the group. According to a statement issued, the defection was due to the HTS making agreements with “outside powers”, freezing fighting against the Syrian army, infighting with other groups, maintaining ambiguous political stances and containing a “new generation of rulers who know nothing other than handing over territory”.

The resulting impact of this instability has led to widespread assassinations across Idlib. Last Monday, Khalil Ismael Arslan, the deputy-commander of Jaish al-Ahrar, another large rebel group in Idlib, was killed with his son shortly after morning prayers, which represented one of the most high-profile assassinations in recent months.

Amidst these developments, the so-called Islamic State has reemerged in parts of Idlib. On Sunday 10th June, ISIS militants killed three HTS militants and hanged another two from a bridge in the town of Ariha in retaliation for the destruction of an ISIS training camp in the west of the province.

The development highlights the worrying emergence of ISIS in Idlib, as well as the more brazen attempts by the group to target other rebel groups. However, according to Abbas Sharifa, a researcher in Islamic Affairs, the HTS holds responsibility for this rise and the subsequent attacks on its own group.

“ISIS cells, which Abu Mohammad al-Joulani took out of prison to use in fighting the Syrian Liberation Front, are turning against him today with thousands of militants who came from Raqqa and Deir ez-Zour,” said Abbas.

Amidst this, citizens in Idlib are forced to bear the brunt of these clashes, with some saying that the HTS’ foreign contingent have been treating local citizens poorly. Furthermore, despite the de-escalation zone in place, which was agreed upon between Russia, Iran and Turkey, Regime airstrikes continue to target areas in the province’s south, which are destroying agricultural land and infrastructure.