Activists have labelled the militant rebel coalition, Hayy'at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), as another face of the Regime. HTS controls vast swaths of the last rebel-held province of Idlib.
Clashes in Idlib and northern Hama are intensifying, as the Syrian Government eyes a major offensive to capture the region known as Greater Idlib from rebel groups. This follows eight months of relative calm provided by the Sochi deal reached between Turkey and Russia last September. Over the last week, the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) expanded its ground offensive on the outskirts of Idlib and Hama provinces and took control of new villages including Kafar Nabuda and Qalaat al-Madiq in Hama province amid calls to adhere to the cease-fire reached in the Sochi deal.
A full-scale military offensive to recapture Idlib is expected to cause the most brutal fighting in Syria’s civil war, which so far has killed close to half a million people and displaced millions of others. The shelling over the last few weeks has already resulted in hundreds of deaths and injuries and the exodus of 100,000 people from the province to the Atmeh camp near the Turkish border in the last 20 days.
Amidst these fears, Hayyat Tahrir al-Sham, al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria has made life for many civilians particularly difficult. The ascendance of HTS in the Idlib region has led to the spread of its repressive policies, which have included the arrest of ordinary civilians, teachers and civil society activists who are seen to be in any way critical of HTS, leading to widespread protests against its rule and policies. Many see the group as complicit in the murder and assassination of Raed al-Fares and Hamoud Junaid.
Additionally, the group’s presence has meant that very little humanitarian aid is flowing into Greater Idlib, which has further increased the suffering of civilians in the region. By wiping out most of the moderate rebel factions in the region, some have claimed that the presence of HTS has only served to bolster the regime and weaken the Syrian opposition.