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Idlib Faces a Fearsome Future: Islamist Rule or Mass Murder

Despite this week’s meeting of Putin, Erdogan, and Rouhani, there is no good news in the last redoubt of the Syrian revolt.

People walk near heavily damaged buildings in the rebel-held city of Idlib in northwestern Syria on Sept. 16.
People walk near heavily damaged buildings in the rebel-held city of Idlib in northwestern Syria on Sept. 16. ZEIN AL RIFAI/AFP/Getty Images

In recent months, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the radical Islamist group that now controls Idlib—the last redoubt of Syria’s armed opposition—has shown a growing willingness to compromise. 

HTS was once as extreme as they come, with roots in al Qaeda. But with Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad’s victorious Russian-aided forces bearing down, and mindful of the collapse of the ultra-hard-line Islamic State, the group’s leaders are taking a more lenient, pragmatic approach to enlistment. The rank-and-file composition of the group has also changed. Through several rounds of infighting with more moderate rebel groups, HTS absorbed thousands of nonobservant Muslim fighters into its ranks from the defeated factions. In addition, it welcomed more moderate fighters who have been displaced from further south—much to the surprise of some of the new enlistees.

“In Damascus I was sure that HTS are like the Islamic State, that no one smokes among them and they dress in Islamic garb, but honestly, I didn’t find any of that,” said one HTS fighter called Mazen, who smokes cigarettes and crops his beard. Like many of the remaining regime opponents, Mazen is a sort of warrior-refugee—a former Free Syrian Army fighter from the southern suburbs of Damascus who was displaced to Idlib in 2018 and then joined Hayat Tahrir al-Sham because, he said, “it was the biggest thing in control of the region.”

But for residents of Idlib in northwestern Syria, the organization’s increasing willingness to engage with outsiders for the sake of expediency is little comfort. Because despite the group’s ideological pragmatism, one thing has not changed: its authoritarian conduct. The group’s internal security organ continues to kidnap opponents and occasionally executes them. Torture is rampant in its prisons. 

“The internal security cadres in HTS are the most extreme,” Suleiman, an Idlib-based journalist, told Foreign Policy in an interview. (All names of Syrians in this story were changed to protect them from retribution by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and the Assad regime, and the interviews were conducted over the summer on WhatsApp, in Arabic.) “They routinely arrest people based on false denouncements without any proof.” Even an HTS fighter named Abdullah admitted: “The people hate the internal security of HTS.” 

So only two bleak alternatives now face Idlib’s 3 million residents: a gradual regime takeover or a long-term de-escalation deal that would ensure the protection of the region under HTS dominance. The first means death or imprisonment for many at the hands of a vengeful Assad. The second outcome would bring a new kind of harsh oppression.

Even as neighboring powers haggle over their future—earlier this week, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani agreed to try to “de-escalate tensions” in Idlib province, although each is backing different groups—Assad’s Russian-backed forces are moving in, already breaking the partial cease-fire announced last spring in Sochi, Russia.

Residents know that a regime takeover of all parts of Idlib would spell doom for many of them. In all previous regime offensives on rebel-held pockets, those refusing surrender at the end had the option of displacement to Idlib. Idlibis have nowhere left to go, and the Assad regime sees those who refused to surrender to it as terrorists and traitors. Interviews and conversations with residents of areas retaken by the regime describe the return of a highly paranoid and aggressive police state. Arrests are happening daily, fear is pervasive, and the population slipped back into the habit of informing on one another to curry favor with the regime. Those targeted for arrests are former activists, members of families that are known to have sided with the opposition, civil defense and medical personnel, rebels who have not joined regime forces, and defectors from the Syrian Army. Assuming a similar policy is adopted in Idlib, much of the region’s 1.5 million original inhabitants will be in danger, as peaceful and armed opposition activity lasted there the longest, implicating many. 

Thus, the regime regards much of the population in greater Idlib—whether locals or people displaced to it—as traitors and terrorists and will treat them accordingly: If it is unable to kill them on the battlefield, it will likely fill up its prisons with the area’s inhabitants and then gradually notify the families that their relatives “passed away” in prison. According to a United Nations report on Syrian government prisons, the regime “has committed the crimes against humanity of extermination, murder, rape or other forms of sexual violence, torture, imprisonment, enforced disappearance and other inhuman acts.”

That frightening prospect is inching closer to Idlib. In late April, the Russian Air Force, Russian-trained militias, and the Syrian Army launched a new offensive against Idlib and its environs, which are home to about 3 million people, half of them children. After an initial stalemate, since early August, regime forces were able to make relatively rapid gains. The ferocious air campaign, which repeatedly targeted hospitals, bakeries, schools and other vital infrastructure, coupled with regime ground advances, have led to the flight of over 630,000 people who are moving north, to the locked border with Turkey. At least 1,031 civilians have died in these strikes.

Prior to the end of April, as a result of Turkish and Russian negotiations in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan, and Sochi, the area witnessed a reduction in violence. Under the Sochi agreement, jihadi factions were to leave a demilitarized zone bordering the regime and allow the reopening of two highways passing through the region from regime-held Syria to the cities of Aleppo and Latakia. The rebels were also obligated to hold fire, as was the regime. Both the regime and the rebels failed to abide by the terms of the deal, but the cease-fire continued to hold—until it didn’t.

To a certain degree, Russia and Turkey both have an interest in freezing the conflict in the region, which is why they are carrying out a new round of negotiations to de-escalate violence. Turkey wishes to avoid the flight of Idlib’s residents across the border and even into northern Aleppo, an area under direct Turkish control. Turkish-backed local councils in those regions are refusing to register displaced persons from Idlib, making them essentially illegal residents of their own country. Turkish border guards routinely shoot and kill refugees attempting to cross into Turkey. Russia, for its part, also has an interest in de-escalation: It wishes to maintain its blossoming relationship with Turkey, and assaulting Idlib means dispersing thousands of jihadis across Syria, whereas they are now contained and focused on governance of Idlib.

Under pressure from Turkey to moderate, HTS in recent months has invited journalists and foreign researchers to visit Idlib under its protection, whereas its predecessor, the Nusra Front, routinely kidnapped foreigners for ransom. The group also allowed Turkey to establish observation posts in areas under its control, despite the opposition of hard-liners in its ranks. “We were against the entry of the Turks, but it was forced on us. If the Turks did not enter, the area was going to be bombed out, so we let them in to keep the population safe,” Abu Iman, an HTS commander from Aleppo, told Foreign Policy.

But this relationship with Turkey rankles hard-line Islamist opponents of HTS. Mustafa, a fighter in an armed faction belonging to Hizb ut-Tahrir, whose members were assassinated and arrested by the group for opposing its willingness to work with outside actors, told Foreign Policy that “the commanders in HTS are not making decisions independently. They [HTS fighters] are restricted. … If the commander says to withdraw, they will, to appease the Turks.” He said he intends to fight against HTS in this battle, since he sees its members as sellouts following foreign orders.

The infighting among various radical Islamist factions began taking place in 2016, after the Nusra Front changed its name and severed ties with al Qaeda. “Some people [inside HTS] got upset … and split to form Huras al-Din [al Qaeda’s branch in Syria]. Some of them believed that Nusra deviated and began to follow the West,” said Abdullah, a fighter who joined the organization when it was still the Nusra Front. “And concessions follow concessions … all of them due to pressures” to which HTS was subjected, he said. 

This further erosion in the rebels’ strength may now be leveraged by Turkey to pressure the organization to agree to cease-fire terms the faction previously refused, including the reopening of roads to Aleppo and Latakia, and a greater role for Turkey and Turkish-backed factions in the region, possibly in the form of a merger with more moderate factions. HTS and the other factions would then have to ensure that radical groups do not violate the cease-fire. Hossam, a member, of the organization, told Foreign Policy that the best solution for Idlib would be a long-term cease-fire. He expects his organization to be able to take care of the wayward factions, because “HTS today is the decision-maker.”

“We are going to see a big round of infighting soon,” said Mustafa, the Hizb ut-Tahrir fighter. “Turkey is going to give [HTS and more moderate factions] the order to eliminate Huras al-Din, Ansar al-Din, and Ansar al-Tawhid. Because the jihadi factions are not abiding by the [orders] of the Turkish guarantor.”

The growing weakness of the opposition vis-à-vis Assad means that even ardent jihadis realize that the best outcome they can currently achieve is protecting Idlib—abandoning, for now, attempts to liberate the rest of Syria. The last month of fighting further weakened the opposition due to thousands of deaths and incapacitating injuries in the ranks of the rebels, and particularly among units adept at fighting under heavy airstrikes.

Abdullah al-Muhaysini, a Saudi cleric close to HTS’s leadership, has justified focusing on the protection of Idlib alone. The training for new recruits and ongoing instruction by clerics has also changed, according to HTS fighters and commanders. “The clerics always give the advice not to be strict … don’t argue with people … be nice with them,” said Abu Iman, the commander. All HTS members interviewed by Foreign Policy said that commanders and clerics from the organization tell them that the goal is to bring down the regime, but they said that no details are provided on what type of regime will come next. 

In the end, the stabilization of Idlib under HTS dominance and a greater Turkish role in the region would essentially create a new Gaza in Idlib: a besieged area, under a long-term cease-fire, dominated by an Islamist authoritarian organization that works to combat more extremist elements. This solution is hardly ideal for the region’s traumatized inhabitants. But given the prospect of mass murder that awaits them if the regime takes over, this appears to be the best option available.

Elizabeth Tsurkov is a research fellow at the Forum for Regional Thinking focusing on Syria and Iraq.  Twitter: @Elizrael

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