Over the past few years, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a Salafi-jihadi group led by Jabhat al-Nusra, Syria’s former al-Qaeda affiliate, has come to occupy a prominent position in northwestern Idlib Governorate. Idlib is the country’s last rebel-held bastion of any significance, although the Syrian regime began retaking large areas of the governorate toward the end of 2019. Idlib is populated by some 3 million people, half of whom are internally displaced, with HTS the strongest faction there. Even before the Syrian regime and its allies retook much of Idlib in a recent ground assault, they played up its association with hardline Islamists to justify a brutal air campaign against it. Much of the world accepted the regime’s assessment and acquiesced in its behavior, as evidenced by the inaction over large-scale air strikes on Idlib by the Syrian and Russian air forces, which resulted in numerous civilian casualties. This paved the way for the regime’s largely successful ground offensive.
Yet, insofar as the influence of hardline Islamists was concerned, the situation on the ground in Idlib and beyond was a good deal more complicated than it appeared. For one thing, HTS failed to penetrate major segments of society due to their functioning as closed groups. Moreover, locals translated their opposition to HTS, particularly its monopolistic economic practices and embodiment of a harsh strain of Islam, into action. In 2017 and 2018, the towns of Saraqeb, Maarat al-Numan, and Atareb held elections for local councils in open defiance of HTS, which considers such practices to be un-Islamic. Residents of these towns as well as those of Sarmada, Kafr Takharim, and Ariha also staged demonstrations in which they openly condemned HTS and called for its removal. Fearful of further eroding its standing, HTS increasingly avoided direct confrontation with locals.
How Idlib Jihadis Lost Their Cachet
With the start of the Syrian uprising in 2011 and through its transformation into an armed conflict, many people in northern Syria were sympathetic to armed Islamist groups fighting the regime. A number of these groups would in time fall under the umbrella of Jabhat al-Nusra, which from 2012 to mid-2013 provided much-needed services as a means of ingratiating itself with the population. Jabhat al-Nusra operated bakeries, distributed heating fuel, and set up sharia courts to resolve disputes. Its cadres also established a network of indoctrination centers to spread its ideology.
The honeymoon did not last long. In addition to repeated instances of theft, looting, kidnapping, and killing of civilians by Jabhat al-Nusra, the group engaged in battles—widely seen as counterproductive—with anti-regime Free Syrian Army (FSA) factions. In late 2013, Jabhat al-Nusra declared itself to be the Syrian branch of Al-Qaeda. Such actions alienated many ordinary Syrian Sunnis from the Salafi jihadism embodied by Jabhat al-Nusra and similar groups. This mood was palpable even when the self-proclaimed Islamic State took over Idlib (it would be expelled from the governorate in 2014), and well before HTS came into existence.
In early 2017, Jabhat al-Nusra merged with four Islamist rebel groups to create HTS. Early in 2019, HTS seized control of Idlib and its environs following battles with a coalition of rebel factions known as the National Front for Liberation as well as with one of the Islamist groups—the Noureddine al-Zinki Brigades—that had originally joined with Jabhat al-Nusra to create HTS but later broke away. Once it had seized control, HTS proceeded to institute a harsh form of rule in the areas under its control. The group clamped down on independent merchants in favor of those whose allegiance it had secured, and it levied high taxes on farmers, traders, and other professionals. It raised the price of basic services such as water, electricity, and telephone communications and confiscated the property of Christians who had fled the city of Idlib. By all accounts, HTS attempted to dominate and profit from all aspects of economic life in the region.
Predictably, such measures stoked disaffection, even more so given the residents’ already negative experiences with Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State. This resentment manifested itself in the local elections held in defiance of HTS in 2017 and 2018, as well as in demonstrations against the group in various parts of Idlib. For example, in September 2019, after a period of relative quiet, demonstrations flared in the towns of Saraqeb, Maarat al-Numan, Atareb, and Sarmada. More recently, protests also erupted in Kafr Takharim and Ariha. HTS was in nominal control of all these towns yet failed to cow the population or even deter people from publicly denouncing the group.
Detractors of HTS in these localities did not restrict themselves to criticizing the group for its monopolistic practices, financial corruption, and clampdown on freedoms. They even brought up the explosive matter of its dealings with the regime. In what struck many outside observers of the Syrian conflict as counterintuitive, HTS and the regime maintained trading links through their respective economic networks. On one occasion, protesters even publicly criticized HTS leader Abu Mohammed al-Jolani, accusing him of effectively handing over northern Hama Governorate to regime forces by mounting insufficient resistance there.
Syrians who spent years silently enduring oppression at the hands of HTS, in large part because they saw it as constituting their main defense against the regime, began to realize that HTS was unable to prevent the continued encroachment on Idlib by regime forces. To make matters worse, the group’s salient role in the administration of the governorate provided the regime (and its Russian backer) with a pretext for future military campaigns, including a dreaded all-out assault to recapture the governorate. Indeed, the regime repeatedly expressed its keenness to launch an offensive through which it would retake this pocket of opposition.
As for HTS, it found itself in a bind. Rising opposition to its rule appeared to necessitate a crackdown on its part. However, the Syrian regime’s attempts to bring to heel the towns and villages of Idlib, which embraced the uprising starting in 2011, had backfired in that opposition grew even more fervent. Given already simmering tensions, it was more than likely that a similarly repressive effort on the part of HTS would lead to the same outcome. Nevertheless, granting the opposition leeway, as HTS took to doing, could embolden it and cause it to increase its activity. HTS was wary of going the way of the Islamic State, which was expelled from Idlib in 2014. This dilemma for HTS underlined a broader reality in Idlib. Time and again, the population proved able to resist the jihadis’ influence. As such, in considering its options, HTS was obliged to take into account local society’s ability to translate its distaste for the group into active opposition.
Reasons for the Effectiveness of Opposition to HTS
While the inhabitants of Idlib showed great courage in standing up to HTS, the governorate’s complex social structures and networks are what enabled them to prevent the group from making significant inroads into their society. These structures and networks, which proved cohesive enough to resist penetration by the militant group, included political parties with a history of opposition to the Syrian regime, the socioeconomic makeup of certain towns and the strength of their middle class, the pull of a regional movement with a charismatic religious leader, and even tribal politics. Together, they played a decisive role in thwarting HTS’s attempts to embed itself in Idlib.
Political engagement served as one of the notable barriers to HTS influence. Locals with a history of political activity, much of it clandestine owing to the nature of Baath Party rule under the Assad regimes, made use of what they knew about operating in secrecy and staying one step ahead of those in power. The impact of long-running political engagement was characteristic of the relatively prosperous town of Saraqeb, for instance, a hotbed of resistance to HTS rule where residents had joined a multitude of political parties since the 1950s. These ranged from various communist organizations—the Communist Party–Political Bureau, the Communist Action League, the Syrian Communist Party’s Youssef Faisal wing—to the Muslim Brotherhood. The people of Saraqeb also enthusiastically supported the Damascus Declaration, an opposition coalition named for a document of the same name that opposition figures signed in 2005 calling for reform in Syria.
Not surprisingly, while the politically active incurred the wrath of the authorities, they also learned how to sustain underground information networks, organize low-key civil disobedience campaigns, and stymie intelligence-gathering efforts by security agencies. Saraqeb’s residents employed these same skills against the jihadis. When able, they also brought their opposition out into the open, as with the establishment of a local governing council that for years prevented Jabhat al-Nusra from gaining a foothold in the town. Later, the council successfully resisted attempts by HTS at encroachment until the group seized control of Idlib and its surrounding areas by force.
Not surprisingly, while the politically active incurred the wrath of the authorities, they also learned how to sustain underground information networks, organize low-key civil disobedience campaigns, and stymie intelligence-gathering efforts by security agencies.
Another barrier to the advance of HTS in Idlib was class identity and solidarity. The middle class in the governorate resisted allowing HTS, whose ranks were filled with working class, poor, and conservative young men, to gain authority over it. Despite enthusiastically supporting the Syrian uprising almost from the very beginning, most middle-class families in Idlib drew the line when it came to throwing their weight behind HTS and similar groups. After carving out its area of control in the governorate, HTS attempted to convince prominent members of Idlib’s middle class to join a salvation government it had established. The offer was largely rebuffed. Many of the governorate’s well-known families then progressed from boycotting HTS-sponsored initiatives to agitating against the group directly. This trend was particularly noticeable in the towns of Atareb, Sarmada, and Hazanu. The Akkoush, Ubaid, and Fajj families took the lead in organizing popular resistance to HTS in Atareb. In Sarmada, the Sheikh family played a similar role, while in Hazanu the Zayn, Saleh, Zukkur, Hablas, and Khatib families were at the forefront of the struggle.1
HTS generally tried to avoid antagonizing Idlib’s middle class. The reason for such diffidence had more to do with a recognition of its economic clout than anything else. The middle class in Idlib enjoyed a high degree of self-sufficiency, thanks in large part to its long-standing role in operating a black market economy that ran parallel to the state-run economy. As a result, it was less susceptible to the financial rewards that HTS offered the poor and disadvantaged in return for their loyalty. For its part, HTS was more interested in penetrating this class than in fighting it. A confrontation could have led to the flight of the middle class and consequently the collapse of the local economy.
Intra-group solidarity of a different sort was apparent on the tribal scene and also militated against HTS’s attempts to tighten its grip on Idlib. Although tribal affiliations are relatively weak in Idlib and northwest Syria as a whole, particularly when compared to the northeastern part of the country, they still galvanize a sector of the population. The Muwali tribe is the most cohesive of the tribes in the region. HTS tried unsuccessfully to win over its leadership,2 which is drawn from a single family and based in the village of Qatrah. The group then sought to fragment the Muwalis by both backing member clans that have long dreamed of unseating the traditional leadership and intimidating weaker clans into submission. This strategy met with limited success in areas other than the tribal stronghold of Qatrah. However, HTS failed to isolate the bulk of the tribe, let alone dislodge the leadership. For all its use of violence against some of the Muwali clans—including a mass killing in Abu Dali following a dispute with a tribal leader with whom it had formerly been allied and a murder and kidnap operation targeting two members of the Siyad branch of the tribe in Barisah—HTS refrained from launching a military offensive against Qatrah. In all likelihood this was because it had learned a lesson from the experience of Jabhat al-Nusra, whose initially violent approach to the Muwalis prompted, among other responses, a warning by the tribe that took the form of a quasi-military display in 2014.
Opposition to HTS also emerged from former members of, or sympathizers with, the Fudoul Alliance. This was a short-lived homegrown coalition of armed Islamist-leaning factions that expelled the Islamic State from Idlib in 2014. The Fudoul Alliance was led by Sheikh Salah Hablas, a charismatic Muslim religious figure who wielded much influence in northern Idlib and the adjoining area of western Aleppo Governorate. Hablas’ family had long opposed the Syrian regime. One of his brothers died in the notorious Palmyra Prison, while another was released after more than twenty years of incarceration. Hablas played a key role in organizing demonstrations and acts of civil disobedience against the regime shortly after the uprising broke out in 2011. As such, he was well-suited to lead a movement focused on combating jihadi groups.
Following Hablas’s establishment of the Fudoul Alliance and his constant agitation against the Islamic State, the latter attempted to assassinate him in late 2013. Hablas was critically wounded and withdrew from politics in order to convalesce. The Fudoul Alliance proceeded to launch an all-out military campaign against the Islamic State in early 2014 and succeeded in expelling it from Idlib later that year. With the Islamic State out of the picture and Hablas still recovering from his injuries, the Fudoul Alliance fell apart some months later.
However, when locals held demonstrations early this year denouncing attacks by HTS against other armed opposition groups, Hablas returned to the political scene. His reemergence infused people with confidence.3 For many in Idlib, the legacy of the Fudoul Alliance is that it reinforced a conviction that interlopers such as the Islamic State and HTS, however militarized and ruthless, are not invincible. This encouraged them to take an activist approach to opposing HTS, one characterized by demonstrations, civil disobedience, and occasional acts of sabotage. Furthermore, rumors swirled among locals that, in addition to organizing demonstrations, Hablas would either revive the Fudoul Alliance or create a new military coalition.4 This would allow him to launch an offensive against HTS, much as he did against the Islamic State.
An Untenable Situation
From the moment it captured Idlib in early 2019, HTS found itself in a fraught position. It clearly wanted to cement its control over the governorate but feared further alienating an already restive population. At the same time, the opposition was hardly poised to oust the group from Idlib. If anything, a stalemate took effect. Such a development granted both HTS and the opposition breathing space. However, the Syrian regime, backed by Russia, considered this state of affairs less than satisfactory, as it wanted to reclaim control over the country in its entirety.
In order to maintain its very existence, but also to avert a humanitarian disaster, the opposition sought to forestall a regime offensive. For the opposition, the importance of expelling HTS was therefore twofold. Not only would such a step have removed from Idlib a group most locals viewed as repressive and exploitative, it would also have deprived the regime of its major justification for an all-out military attack on the governorate. Moreover, the population’s loss of trust in the willingness of HTS to fight the regime meant that it no longer viewed the group as a deterrent to such attacks.
The problem, insofar as those opposed to HTS were concerned, was that the social networks in Idlib lacked the ability to expel HTS from the area. With a reconstitution of the Fudoul Alliance or the creation of a similar coalition not yet in sight, this made all the difference. Though some networks, such as the Muwalis, were armed, their ability to go on the offensive was limited; correspondingly, their posture remained defensive. Frustrating HTS’s attempts to integrate itself into the local milieu constituted the extent of what the different elements of Idlib society could achieve on their own.
The stalemate between HTS and the opposition has been broken by the Syrian regime—not in favor of one or the other, but at the expense of both. When the regime, backed by Russia, launched its ground offensive toward the end of 2019, it steadily overcame armed resistance, displaced nearly one million civilians, and upended the local HTS-versus-opposition equation. The struggle between HTS and civil society has become largely moot. Despite the intervention of Turkish-backed Syrian rebels and the Turkish military itself to halt its advance, the regime by March 2020 controlled at least half the governorate and may succeed in retaking more territory if that month’s ceasefire fails to hold. Yet the political fallout is far from clear. Time will tell whether the various social structures and networks described here succeed in blocking the regime’s attempts not only to subdue Idlib, but to penetrate its society.
About the Author
Manhal Bareesh is a Syrian journalist and researcher within the framework of the Wartime and Post-Conflict in Syria project, part of the Middle East Directions Program in the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies at the European University Institute in Florence. He focuses on the local and regional dynamics of the Syrian crisis, working extensively on military mapping, armed groups, local councils, and civil management in northwest Syria.
1 Author’s observation, based on interviews with activists in Atareb, Sarmada, and Hazanu.
2 Author’s observation, based on conversations with leaders of the Muwali tribe.
3 Author’s observation, based on conversations with residents of Hazanu, Sarmada, and Atareb, bastions of support for the Fudoul Alliance.