After over three months since defeating its closest rival Ahrar al-Sham, Hayy’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) continues to struggle to govern in Idlib and the wider province. The jihadist group has alienated a large number of its allies, made itself a target to regime bombardment campaign, and exposed itself to harsh rebel politics.
Moreover, HTS is contending with a battle against Daesh in south-eastern Hama. Although the blame has been attributed to the Assad regime for allowing Daesh militants to enter into HTS areas, HTS has proven time and time again that it is guilty of facilitating Daesh’s rise. Moreover, HTS has shown that its territory is fertile ground for their own development and ideology, with HTS allowing Daesh sympathisers to operate openly in Idlib.
But the battle against Daesh is the least of HTS’ worries. The group’s failed attempts to govern have led to unprecedented civil unrest. Earlier in October protesters took to the streets demanding that HTS leave Idlib, after a shopkeeper was killed along with his two sons when unknown assailants robbed the shop. The protestors held up placards saying “if you’re unable to protect us then leave us” and “Dear Idlib will be protected by its youth”. These protests highlight a growing trend of discontent at the increase in petty crime, vandalism and murders that have plagued Idlib since HTS took control.
Furthermore, many of the Idlib reconstruction projects hailed by HTS as examples of governance were already underway when the group took over. And even basic decrees sanctioned early on by the group have been ridiculed, like the tree cutting and celebratory gunfire guidelines.
In recent weeks, HTS’ media spokesman, Amad al-Din Mujahid, has also had to address allegations of HTS arresting journalists and other media figures. On the TV channel Orient, Mujahid claimed that the group protects journalists, despite these arrests, and that HTS would set up a support office “from within” –to protect journalists. Yet, observers believe that this is HTS continuing to stifle civil society and a further way for the group to attempt to legitimise their rule.
It is clear that for all the group’s attempts to organise and legitimise a political base, HTS’ true nature remains and its ever-unchanging habits die hard.