HTS militants in Atarib (Aleppo countryside) open fire on protesters after they demand an end to infighting between rebel groups.
The rebel group Hayy’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) continues to cling on to power across Idlib and Aleppo even as its rule is facing increased resistance from local populations and a crisis of legitimacy. The most recent developments come from the town of Atarib in the western Aleppo countryside where the militants opened fire on a group of protesters.
Atarib has been at the centre of local developments in recent weeks. Located near the border of Idlib, the town has always been something of a fault-line between the HTS and other rebel factions such as the Free Syrian Army (FSA)-affiliated groups. More recently, the town has witnessed heavy clashes between the HTS and Jabhat Tahrir Suriya (JTS), a newly-formed group made from the union of two rivals of the HTS: Ahrar al-Sham and Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zinki. The war between the HTS and JTS has been going on for weeks, with numerous ceasefire attempts failing.
The infighting has not only drawn the ire of the wider rebel movement, who rightfully worry that the rebel discord is preventing a unified response to the forces of the Syrian Government, it has also drawn the ire of many locals who feel tired of getting caught in the crossfire. The protests by the local population in front of the HTS security offices were meant to communicate these frustrations, as well as the wider dissatisfaction with the HTS rule.
The HTS reacted to the protests in Atarib in the same manner it has reacted to other protests in towns such as Ma’arat Nu’man and Saraqib and elsewhere: By opening fire on the crowds and injuring at least one protester. For many of the demonstrators here, this latest act of violence is in line with how the group has been behaving across Idlib and Aleppo.
Indeed, the group’s loss of legitimacy and its growing desperation is evident from its pick of supporters, which lie firmly in the extremist side of the rebel movement. The self-proclaimed pro-al-Qaeda group Tanzim Hurass al-Deen maintains neutral (if occasionally tense) relations with the HTS. Meanwhile, activists reported that the HTS has been releasing militants belonging to ISIS and its one-time Idlib affiliate, Jund al-Aqsa, from prison to recruit them against its war against the JTS.
A number of analysts had warned against a possible, pragmatic nexus between HTS, ISIS and al-Qaeda militants even as the formal ties between three factions remain tense. It would appear that this is now happening even as the HTS grows ever-more desperate.