Despite having gained battlefield superiority over its rivals, the hold of the rebel group Hayy’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) over the rebel-held Idlib and west Aleppo is growing increasingly tenuous. The latest flash-point for the group is the town of Darat Izza in western Aleppo countryside.
The events in Darat Izza began over the weekend, when the HTS arrested a local preacher and administrator on unknown charges. The arrests drew the ire of the locals who took to the streets to protest against the actions of the group. Just like it did in towns such as Saraqib and Ma’arat Nu’man, HTS militants tried to suppress the protests here in Darat Izza. What they didn’t expect was an internal revolt against the violent suppression of the protesters. One of the largest units within the HTS, the Darat Izza-based Ibn Taymiyya Brigades turned against the HTS leadership and announced that they were splitting from the group.
For much of Sunday, the town witnessed clashes between the defectors, who were joined by the townspeople, and the HTS loyalists, culminating in the HTS retreating from the town and surrounding it, demanding a surrender. By Monday, the two groups had reached an agreement in which the HTS surrendered control of the town but retained control over some strategic areas around it. Things, however, are far from calm. On social media, HTS supporters have been issuing death threats to the townspeople and calling for the group to take over the town and punish anyone who rose up against it.
For the people of Darat Izza, the behaviour of the HTS recalls comparisons to the earlier days of the Syrian conflict, when many Syrians rose up against the government forces over the belief that their response to the protests in 2011 was disproportionately brutal.
Meanwhile, the HTS is struggling to maintain its internal unity. Although the group has defeated its main rival Ahrar al-Sham and, by extension, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) factions that sided with it, the victory came at a massive political cost. The Ibn Taymiyya Brigades are the latest in a series of defections that took place since the HTS “won” the war in Idlib. In addition to many smaller groups, the HTS has so far lost two of its founding members, the Nour al-Din al-Zinki Movement and Jaish al-Ahrar, the pro-HTS splinter of Ahrar al-Sham.