Over the past week, Hayy’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) has taken over towns in northwestern Syria. The subsequent fighting has seen the extremist group kill other rebel fighters and forcibly displace hundreds of civilians.
Over the past week, north-western Syria has witnessed another wave of clashes and instability. Yet again at the forefront of this violence is Hayy’at Tahrir al-Sham or HTS, which is a coalition of extremist groups that includes a former Al Qaeda affiliate.
The conflict started last week when HTS attacked a rival group, Nour al-Din al-Zinki, near the Zinki-held town of Darat Izza in western Aleppo on the border with Idlib Province. Zinki is part of the rival Turkish-backed National Liberation Front (NLF) and clashes broke out after HTS accused the group of killing five of their militants.
Despite Zinki denying responsibility for the attack, HTS attacked the group, using it as a pretext for taking over wider swaths of territory in Idlib and western Aleppo. HTS eventually took over Darat Izza, despite protests from local people, and went on to capture others prominent towns such as Khan al-Asal, Urem al-Kubra, and Saraqib. Reports emerged of civilians being killed by cross fire, as well as Zinki fighters being killed extrajudicially by HTS militants.
Other reports also suggested that the Turkistan Islamic Party and Hurras al-Din fought alongside HTS at times. Both groups have ties to Al Qaeda, with Hurras al-Din widely acknowledged as the unofficial Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria.
Also falling into HTS hands was the town of Atarib, which was taken over the weekend. Atarib had been heralded throughout the Syrian Conflict as a symbol of resistance and civil society, as well as a vocal opponent of extremist groups such as HTS.
As recently as March 2018, locals from Atarib took to the streets in defiance of HTS who had arrived at the gates of their town, threatening to overrun it. Despite being shot at by militants, the locals stayed firm and eventually an agreement was made so that HTS would not enter the town.
Until now, that had remained the case.
While an HTS official said that their issue is with Zinki fighters not civilians, the exodus of people from Atarib highlights the lack of support that the group has on the ground. Furthermore, HTS sought out 70 people who were on their “wanted list” and forced them to leave Atarib, echoing tactics employed by the Syrian Regime when “evacuating” people out of former rebel-held territories.
And the wider reaction to HTS’ takeover has not been much more positive.
Following last Thursday’s demonstrations in Darat Izza, protests spread to other areas such as Maarat al-Numan, Afrin and al-Bab. These protests called for the removal of HTS, its leader Abu Mohammed al-Joulani, and even in some cases the prominent HTS militant Abu Yaqdhan al-Masri.
For those remaining in HTS-held areas, life will be upended. Civil society, which was already threatened by extremist groups, will be stifled and the HTS-aligned Syrian Salvation Government will begin to implement restrictive policies that it has introduced in other areas, such as closing down universities and banning women from cultural centres.
More worryingly, the threat of a Regime offensive will be ever nearer, much to the detriment of the estimated three million people living in the wider region.