HTS’ takeover of north-western Syria in recent weeks would have been unthinkable just one month ago. But now, the group has gained control of Idlib and has set about imposing its brutal rule.
Just one month ago, it would have been unthinkable to see what’s unfolding in Greater Idlib today. Far from being the dominant power in Idlib, Hayy’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) was barely holding control of its towns and cities around Idlib at end of 2018. Assassinations were rife, it was beset by protests and other factions rebuffed its attempts to legitimise itself as part of the Syrian Revolution. Now, HTS is in effective control of the Greater Idlib region.
What started as a minor skirmish with the rival National Front for Liberation (NFL) – the latest of many such skirmishes to take place in recent months – quickly escalated into a full-scale war. When the dust settled, HTS used the opportunity to quickly impose the rule of the Syrian Salvation Government (SSG), an Idlib City-based authority that HTS created to try and demonstrate its ability to govern.
Through it all, the HTS leader Abu Mohammad al-Jolani lauded his group as the only worthy successor to the Syrian Revolution, calling for unity in the Syrian Opposition. But its actions were closer to two of the biggest enemies of the Revolution: Daesh and the Regime.
Taking a page from the Regime’s book, HTS’ first act after gaining territorial control was to force rebel factions to join it or otherwise be expelled to the Afrin region, where the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA) holds dominance. The irony was not lost to onlookers who watched HTS bus other rebel factions out of Idlib, mirroring tactics used by the regime in using green buses to “evacuate” fighters from former rebel-held areas.
The group was not beyond employing Daesh-inspired terror tactics either. When it first gained supremacy in western Aleppo, there were reports that it arrested and executed a number of rebel fighters. The brutal act served to not only eliminate enemies but also to scare smaller groups into submission. This is reminiscent of how Daesh took advantage of Opposition victories in Raqqa and Deir ez-Zour, only to betray them later. Like the Assad loyalists, Daesh supporters were well-aware of the irony. A recent article in a Daesh newsletter commented on how HTS is getting away with committing the same acts for which Daesh was condemned.
All of this comes against the backdrop of the Syrian people who refused to bow down to the brutality and corruption of the Regime and fled – or were forcibly displaced – to Idlib. The region was supposed to be where the seeds of the Revolution could flourish. Even with the steady increase of HTS influence and infighting, towns such as Saraqib, Atarib, Ariha, Ma’arat Nu’man and Kafr Nabl stood as the strongholds for what the Revolution was meant to be.
HTS does not care for the true principles of the Revolution. One of the first changes the ‘Salvation Government’ (SSG) imposed on these areas was the establishment of HTS-approved Sharia courts and the closure of all others. In Atarib, the local elected town council announced their resignation, no doubt under pressure from the SSG that seeks to install its own stooges. Atarib and Dar’at Izza also saw the arrests of numerous media activists by HTS, as well as the disappearance and subsequent killing of an aid worker. In Jarjanaz, the group looted a medical facility, depriving the people it claims to represent from sorely-needed care.
Despite this, there are rays of hope. The towns of Ma’arat Nu’man and Qalaat al-Madiq have so far kept HTS out, though only on the condition that they accept SSG governance. Protests also remain a regular feature in many towns despite HTS’ efforts to suppress them. The people there know that those who trampled the flags and ideals of the Revolution cannot possibly represent it.
But there is no denying that these are dark days for Idlib. For the people of the region who bore the full brunt of regime suppression, HTS is just another tyrant standing in the way of freedom.