Syria's Idlib faces collapse following the capture of the opposition province from the hard-line HTS faction, risking huge civilian suffering.
While the eyes of the world were on a planned American withdrawal from northern Syria – and an expected Turkish intervention – in January a former Al-Qaeda affiliate declared war on moderate rebel groups and stealthily captured most opposition territories in Idlib, Hama and Aleppo provinces. Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) have some of the most hardened fighters in the Syria war, and is dominated by jihadi and foreign militants.
The fear among western governments is that the group’s formal severing of ties with al-Qaeda was superficial to avoid wide-scale American airstrikes or hide their ambitions for the total domination of Syrian opposition areas.
With Idlib and other rebel areas now ruled by the hardline jihadi faction, vital funding from western governments for desperately-needed medical centres, civil rescue teams, and activist groups are beginning to dry up.
It has come as a deadly winter storm hits the region, which has killed at least 15 displaced children in Syria.
Aleppo Health Directorate sounded the alarm this week saying that international donors have cut funds following the HTS takeover, and the situation for civilians is growing more dim, Laila Kiki, Executive Director of The Syria Campaign said.
“The humanitarian crisis in northwest Syria is worsening by the day with families in displacement camps hit by flooding and forced to rely on humanitarian aid that fails to meet the needs of the millions in need of food, water and shelter,” she told The New Arab.
“International governments and humanitarian organisations must do much more to protect children and their families from the biting cold.”
Civil society breakdown
Medical centres have already been shuttered due to funding cuts, police units have ceased operations leading to outbreaks of lawlessness, and the whole civilian infrastructure risks collapse. Civil society and humanitarian groups say they are closely following developments.
“Fortunately, the White Helmets’ operations and services are going on as usual. However, we are currently evaluating the situation on the ground in light of the recent military developments,” a spokesperson from the civil rescue team told this reporter.
Democratically-elected local councils are said to be preparing to quit Idlib or biding their time to see what comes next.
The HTS-affiliated Salvation Government will take up some of the roles of the previous democratically-elected administrations. In territories they have ruled their reputation is poor, accused of bad management, authoritarianism and a pre-occupation with enforcing hardline Islamic law rather than implementing civil freedoms and security.
“While the governance of all armed forces in Syria is characterised by abusiveness and corruption, the HTS-linked Salvation Government is seen by Syrians in opposition-held areas as particularly oppressive,” said Elizabeth Tsurkov, Research Fellow specialising in Syria at the Forum for Regional Thinking.
“[This is] particularly [true] on three measures: the collection of taxes, imposition of a strict interpretation of Islamic law and persecution of opponents, whether activists, civil society leaders or members of rival factions and relatives of these opponents.”
Among the organisations already affected by funding cuts and the HTS operation are the Free Syrian Police. The UK government ended its support to the civilian security team due to a lack of faith in their ability to survive amid a planned joint regime-Russian offensive on Idlib.
Police officers and staff have been working for free since funding dried up in September. Last week, they announced the police force would be disbanded after HTS captured opposition territories.
“HTS asked to take all police equipment and centres from the Free Police. We handed our equipment to local councils and the owners,” Mahmoud al-Abbi, a translator with the Free Syrian Police said.
“If HTS wants to use those centres they will pay rents to the owners and take over equipment from the local councils.”
Kidnappings and murder
Abbi said outbreaks of lawlessness have already been reported across Idlib, making the area more vulnerable to kidnappings and assassinations, which have been rife in other HTS areas.
Mindful of the murder of Kafrnabel-based campaigner Raed Fares by suspected HTS militants, activists are already fleeing to areas controlled by the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army.
If more western donors cut payments to activists and civil society groups in Idlib, it will further empower HTS and force more civilians to rely on Salvation Government services they say.
Once HTS can consolidate its power, the next move would be to immediately target those that oppose it.
– Haid Haid, consulting research fellow, Chatham House
Bassam al-Kuwatli, managing director of the Research and Management Team, said there is a feeling among pro-democracy activists that the west – and now Turkey – have abandoned them.
“Activists are very worried, some of them are starting to leave Idlib to go north to Afrin or Turkey… fearing arrests or being killed by al-Nusra,” he said, using the previous name for a HTS militia.
“Everyone was expecting further expansion from the militias connected to Turkey at the expense of HTS, not the other way round.”
The Salvation Government will probably rely on its fighters and interior ministry to enforce security, Syria researchers have said, rather than a professionally-trained police force such as the Free Syrian Police. Military rule will likely see a deterioration in relations between HTS and the local population.
“Once HTS can consolidate its power, the next move would be to immediately target those that oppose it or who pose a threat,” Haid Haid a Research Fellow at Chatham House told The New Arab.
“The next step depends on whether HTS and the Salvation Government will be able to control these areas, and if there will be resistance to HTS. If it is a military one then that will create chaos, and criminal activities will increase.”
For now, HTS are treading softly, he said, fearing they could spark protests that might pressure the fighters to leave, as has happened in other parts of Idlib.
“The HTS takeover is a tragedy for those who have been bravely standing up for a free and democratic Syria for years. Only a few months ago residents of the province went out on the streets to protest against extremist rule,” Kiki from The Syria Campaign added.
“It is these peaceful activists, human rights advocates and civilians who will be the leaders that eventually build a fair and equal country. But at a time when they most need support to push back against extremists they are being abandoned by the international community.
“Local groups are afraid for the future of their communities and are calling out for funding and international action.”