In January, Hayy'at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) reasserted its control over almost all of Idlib Province in northwestern Syria. Given HTS' ties to extremist factions, locals are worried about the group's repressive rule, and that its takeover may draw in a regime offensive
For the Greater Idlib region of Syria, 2019 has so far been nothing short of turbulent. The region, already suffering form myriad social, economic and security concerns, found itself facing heavy fighting between the two main rebel groups, Hayy’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and the National Front for Liberation (NFL). The clashes, which saw the HTS ascendant, has left the future of the region uncertain.
Looking to legitimize its control over the region, the HTS forced many local councils to accept authority the Syrian Salvation Government (SSG), which the group supports. For the people of Idlib, however, the end result is the same. A number of elected local councils have been forced to resign, replaced with SSG appointees. HTS authorities have also conducted numerous arrests in the towns they took over, including Atarib, which has been an anti-HTS hotspot.
The HTS authorities have also shut down a number of universities and have barred women from being involved in local civil society. Medical services have also faltered due to HTS militants looting medical facilities and international aid groups too afraid to operate in the region due to lack of security. The events have resulted with widespread displacement, especially among NFL supporters. In an eerie reflection of regime policies, HTS forced a number of NFL supporters and fighters onto buses and transported them to Afrin.
For those who stayed, life is on the brink. Many locals fear that the regime, which considers the HTS a terrorist group, will capitalise on the HTS gains, using it as a pretext to launch military operations and airstrikes. Already, the frontlines with the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) have witnessed increased clashes and shelling.
Despite these challenges, locals remain resolute against the HTS threat. Cities like Ma’arat Nu’man, which officially came under SSG control but on the condition that HTS does not enter, witness regular protests against the group. Locals here hope that they can keep the original ideals of the Syrian Revolution alive.
What was meant to be a sanctuary for the Syrian Opposition has turned into something far worse in recent weeks, with the oppression of the regime replaced with that of the HTS. Today, the future of Idlib is uncertain at best.