The living hell of Syrians under the jihadi ideology of HTS, al-Qaeda copycat

6 min read
09 July, 2021
In-depth: Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham currently controls swathes of northwest Syria, with the extremist group imposing their hardline doctrine on all aspects of life for the four million Syrians who live there.

After a decade of civil war, the situation in northwest Syria - under the control of Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) - is worsening as the organisation places suffocating restrictions on minute details of everyday life for the almost four million Syrian citizens living there.

HTS, the extremist group which originated in the merger of several militant jihadist groups, including previous Al-Qaeda Syria affiliate al-Nusra Front, has imposed their extremist vision, reminiscent of that held by the Islamic State (IS), on every aspect of life.

There is no freedom of expression or political opinion; people must follow strict rules regarding how they dress and cut their hair, and behaviour in public spaces is tightly restricted.

Marriage celebrations in wedding halls are banned, and men and women are not allowed to mix in public. Increasing numbers of activists who have taken to social media to criticise the organisation’s security forces or its governance have been imprisoned.

"HTS, the extremist group which originated in the merger of several militant jihadist groups, has imposed their extremist vision, reminiscent of that held by IS, on every aspect of life"

Suffocating restrictions

Mustafa Kamel S., a hairdresser from Al-Dana city in Idlib governorate which lies within HTS control, described the activities of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, one of HTS's security arms.

The group raids hairdressers and threatens to close them if they don't adhere to "lawful hairdressing", he told The New Arab.  They interfere with the hairstyles allowed and even with the way beards are trimmed, demanding that all the hair is cut to an equal length. Young men are forbidden from having hairstyles they see as "illegitimate" - where different sections of the hair are cut to different lengths.

They also demand "royalties" from hairdressers and other stores, claiming it is in return for "nightly patrols", however, it is common knowledge that HTS members do not truly guard these stores - regular thefts happen and nothing is done to prevent them.

Mays A., a teacher who lives in Idlib city, says that members of HTS are spread out throughout work sectors to monitor employees. She applied for a position in the Directorate of Education but was unsuccessful because her jilbab (a loose outer garment that covers the body) was not considered appropriate by one of their agents.

Syrians protesting Hayat Tahrir al-Sham's repressive rule are subject to harassment, threats and imprisonment [AFP via Getty Images]
Syrians protesting Hayat Tahrir al-Sham's repressive rule are subject to harassment, threats, and imprisonment. [AFP via Getty Images]

She says that the "Farmers' Committee", which is affiliated to HTS, interferes with how women (and girls from age nine and up) dress, insisting that girls wear a hijab and an abaya that reaches their feet.

They also segregate girls and boys beginning from year four in primary school. One of the most regressive decisions in this regard was issued a few days ago by Idlib University, which banned male and female students from mixing on social media sites.

Extensive taxation of civilians

Said W. from Binnish city says that smoking (both cigarettes and shisha) has been banned by HTS and multiple taxes have been imposed, for instance on aid vehicles, fuels, car owners, electricity generators, and oven owners.

Farmers are taxed on their crops as part of the religious "zakah" (alms) system. As well as this extensive tax system, HTS has set up a 'Spoils Committee' which seizes the property of people who fled the war and sells it for a profit.

"They turn a blind eye to actual criminals as long as they pay a bribe to HTS. I know someone who was arrested for spying for the regime, but after he paid a hefty fee he was released - then they claimed he was mentally ill," Said W. said. 

"HTS has adopted the maxim: 'you’re either with us or against us'"

Lack of political freedom

A media source familiar with the inner workings of HTS lamented the lack of political freedom in Syria, and that the organisation is similar to the other parties in the conflict, in that it has adopted the maxim: "you’re either with us or against us".

On the subject of those imprisoned for criticising HTS, they are interrogated about what they said and asked to provide evidence, "as making accusations without proof is grounds for punishment as far as they are concerned".

Recently, HTS has granted the right to a lawyer to those facing prosecution in its courts in an attempt to improve the image of its security forces as part of an attempt to convince the international community that it can play a role in a solution to the Syrian conflict.

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Ghazwan Qurunful, head of the Free Syrian Lawyers Association, says that HTS governs its "emirate" through security mechanisms. "All security-based ruling systems conflict with and violate civil liberties," he said.

"There is no judicial system governing the courts - instead, there are religious clerics whose perceived authority rests on their religious background. However, while some criminal cases are dealt with according to Islamic law, other cases are dealt with using Syrian laws, although this is not openly stated."

Qurunful adds that there is nothing in place to ensure trials are conducted in a fair way and that lawyers are sidelined. The result is that the area under HTS control is teeming with prisons.

"There is no judicial system governing the courts - instead, there are religious clerics whose perceived authority rests on their religious background"

No rule of law

However, his view is that the rule of law is absent in all of Syria, not just in HTS governed areas. The situation is the same in areas controlled by other opposition factions, the regime, and the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) who rule the northeast of the country.

Professor Orabi Abdel Hay Orabi, an expert specialising in Islamic groups, says that any new ruling authority formed in abnormal circumstances tends towards a dictatorial style of rule.

The instability of HTS's situation and its number of enemies means that the group views granting freedoms as threatening to its position. Additionally, the group's ideology contains a Salafist element, contributing to its intolerant outlook.

Fadel Abdul Ghany, head of the Syrian Network for Human Rights, says the human rights situation in areas under HTS control is abysmal.

"There is no division between the separate authorities, so the judiciary is controlled by the military and security forces, and it passes sentences in line with laws invented by HTS - meaning they reflect the organisation's ideology and this is disastrous for a community made up of multiple identities".

A street in HTS-controlled Idlib is destroyed after a Russian airstrike [AFP via Getty Images]
A decade of civil war has left Syria shattered. The aftermath of a Russian airstrike in HTS-controlled Idlib [AFP via Getty Images]

Security service brutality crushes criticism

"Arrests are arbitrarily carried out without warrants due to the lack of judicial authorities - a situation mirrored in regime-held Syria, where 14,300 Syrians have been tortured to death and no one has been held to account. In fact, direct orders were given to security services to kill prisoners," Fadel Abdul Ghany continued. 

"In the absence of a judicial authority, there is no protection for people against the brutality of the security services".

HTS governs in northwestern Syria, which includes part of the Idlib governorate and some surrounding areas, through their "Salvation Government". Meanwhile, the security apparatus of the organisation employs thousands of members and is directly connected to the group's leadership, headed by Abu Mohammed Al-Julani.

Abdul Ghany draws a parallel between the brutal suppression of free expression in northeast Syria under HTS and in regime-held areas: no one has the courage to openly criticise the authorities because they know that they will end up in prison, or harassed and threatened, therefore no critical views are aired. Whereas there is sect-based discrimination in regime-held areas, HTS discriminates according to religion.

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition. To read the original click here. 

Translated by Rose Chacko.