Over the past week, a number of developments have taken place within HTS, the hard-line Opposition group that currently controls much of Idlib Province in northwestern Syria.
Last Monday, a prominent HTS commander named Abu al-Abd Ashidda uploaded a video, criticising the HTS leadership for a number of failings. Among the criticisms made by Ashidda were political failings with regards to Turkey’s influence in Idlib, being too slow to react or prepare for the Syrian Army’s offensive into Idlib, and not recruiting enough fighters and wasting experienced fighters on the frontlines. Ashidda also stated his frustration at the HTS leadership’s failure to sufficiently pay front-line fighters while giving well-paid jobs to their friends and family monopolising industries that disadvantage locals.
Ashidda’s statements clearly stirred up a hornet’s nest within the HTS. The group dismissed and subsequently arrested Ashidda, as well as media activists Ahmed Rahal and Mohammed Jadaan, who was later shot under mysterious circumstances in the lead-up to his arrest near Jisr al-Shugour. HTS accused the two activists of trying to “split the ranks of the mujahedeen” by sharing the video. In its statement commenting on the situation, HTS acknowledged failings and mistakes in leadership but accused Ashidda of being inflammatory.
The arrests have not eased the pressure on the HTS leadership but rather increased it, with numerous other personalities condemning the group for its arrest. Chief among them was Bilal Abdul Kareem, a controversial figure known to be close to the HTS. Despite his credentials, Abdul Kareem condemned the arrest and demanded Rahal’s immediate release, as did the prominent pro-Opposition newspaper, Zaman al-Wasl.
In Idlib, activists have sought to keep the pressure up on the HTS by starting a Twitter hashtag campaign in which they proclaimed that “the people want their own looted money” and demanded that the HTS stop controlling financial resources. Activists also criticised the HTS after footage of a group of militants dismantling an oil pipeline near al-Eis were uploaded online. The pipes were loaded onto a truck and taken to an unknown location. On Friday, protesters at demonstrations – which have become a regular feature in the Opposition-held Idlib countryside – condemned both the Regime in Damascus but also the HTS-backed Salvation Government.
These events come at a time that is critical for the HTS. In recent months, the group has sought to rebuild its image among Syrians and internationally by presenting itself as a legitimate representative of the Syrian Opposition and even sought to present itself as a supporter of all Syrians. Coming on the heels of the group failing to win against the regime during the recent SAA offensives around Khan Sheikhoun – culminating in the regime gaining control of the city – these accusations of corruption and incompetence are damning for the leadership of Abu Mohammad al-Jolani. Although Ashidda did not reference Jolani directly, the loud condemnations of Ashidda and the protest movement from Jolani’s loyalists is telling of the defensive mentality among the core militants of the HTS.
Furthermore, these events highlight a feature that has become all-too-common within the HTS in which its rhetoric – often calculated to present a legitimate face for its cause under the banner of the Revolution – fails to match its actions. Just as the leaders of the group continued to vocally attack minorities even after Jolani spoke less critically of them, the group now arrests activists and journalists. This raises the same concerns about the type of corrupt practices that led to the initial protest movement in 2011 even as it seeks to frame itself as the defender of the Syrian Revolution.
It should be of no surprise that despite the claims made by the HTS and even groups like ISIS, a tyrannical and fundamentalist government does not equate to good governance and accountability any more than a tyrannical nominally-secular government. Although supporters of al-Qaeda have seized up on the opportunity to equate the corruption within the HTS as proof of the group’s ideological lack of commitment and softening, the true lesson here is that corruption, nepotism, inequality and incompetence can only be allayed with effective governance, regulation and transparency, none of which are offered by the repressive governments in Damascus or Idlib.