In recent weeks, Hayy’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) has attempted to consolidate power in Idlib Province, following attacks on its rival Ahrar al-Sham (AAS). By imposing and implementing local laws, HTS has sought to demonstrate its ability to govern and gain grassroots support.
Historically, HTS has preferred more glamourous PR projects. But after reassessing their strategic objectives, HTS has now begun setting up local ‘civilian’ councils and forcibly taking over governance functions.
However, the ‘civilian’ councils are not as they seem. After taking control of the Bab al-Hawa Border Crossing with Turkey, HTS agreed that the border would be managed by a ‘civilian authority’. Yet, all officials appointed were ‘vetted’ by HTS.
In the town of Saraqib, HTS dissolved the local council that had been democratically elected just days beforehand. HTS replaced it with their own ‘civilian council’, despite local civilians protesting and calling for their removal from the town.
And so far, HTS governance in Idlib has been disorganised and chaotic. They have attempted to show involvement in governance and reconstruction efforts. However, its actual governance is enforced and haphazard. The group has reportedly issued guidance on celebratory gunfire, introduced new regulations towards cutting down trees, and reportedly banned the smoking of cigarettes and shishas, fuelling condemnation from residents of the province. The tactics that HTS employ are similar to those that Daesh imposed in Syria and Iraq. Already, a number of people, including rebel fighters, were reportedly arrested for flouting the ban.
The group’s ability to provide security has also been overshadowed. Just days after the group removed checkpoints in Sarmin in what had been described as a PR stunt, a building used by the Syrian Civil Defence was robbed and seven staff were killed. Bombings and assassinations attributed to Daesh have also been endemic.
Despite promises of peaceful governance and stability, there are also signs that the group is intent on a new wave of warfare. In southern Idlib/northern Hama, the group merged four smaller rebel factions that joined its ranks recently into a faction named “Hama Army.” Meanwhile in Daraa, there are reports of the group stepping up its recruitment efforts in preparation for a new offensive.
Further conflict only means one thing for sure – that civilians will continue to suffer. So why would HTS, who are apparently aiming to assist in rebuilding and local governance, seek to perpetuate the conflict? These aggressive actions, along with their take down of genuine civilian councils, suggest that HTS may have other, more complex and long-term motivations for taking territory in Idlib.