Syria Weekly: Idlib civilians demand no Assad, no Jolani

Syria Weekly: Idlib civilians demand no Assad, no Jolani
Syrian civilians are making a brave stand against the authoritarian control of the HTS militant group in Idlib.
5 min read
08 November, 2019
HTS has been accused of authoritarianism [Getty]
An Idlib town rose up against Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham's (HTS) unpopular political authority this week, resulting in a massacre of protesters that has sparked fears of a wider violent crackdown on activists in the opposition province.

Kafr Takharim, in northwestern Idlib, saw demonstrations break-out when the HTS-affiliated Salvation Government imposed a new "zakat" tax on olive oil production in the town with officials sent to monitor processing sites.

Many of the residents of the town rely on the olive harvest for their incomes, with homes already hit hard by western aid cuts and a siege by Russia and the Syrian regime.

The new austerity measures enforced by the Salvation Government in Idlib sparked anger in the town, where residents are also suffering from public service cuts by the HTS authority.

After Salvation Government officials were forced out of town by residents and their local offices taken over, HTS besieged Kafr Takharim. Militants fired on residents with machine guns and mortars, reportedly killing three people and injuring more.

Attempts were made by HTS to take the town but have only been able to retake one neighbourhood and a local police station.

The shocking killings led to popular demonstrations against HTS' growing authoritarianism in surrounding villages, with some protesters marching to Kafr Takharim in solidarity with the town, but being stopped at HTS roadblocks, according to activists.

An activist in Idlib said that the stand-off at Kafr Takharim continues, with HTS fighters currently surrounding the town.

Olive tax

"The uprising in Kfar Takharim started because the Salvation Government of HTS collected money for olive oil crops, under the name of Zakat Al-Zayt ("oil tax")," said Absi Smeisim, the Syria correspondent for The New Arab's Arabic-language service. "HTS responded to it with extreme violence to the protests against it."

The bloody siege on the town has seen HTS compared to the Syrian regime by some activists, and sparked widespread revulsion across the province, which has been subject to an uptick in regime and Russian bombing this week.

Read also: HTS bombs Idlib town following protests against its rule

HTS, which includes the previous Al-Qaeda Syria affiliate Al-Nusra Front, has shown its authoritarian tendencies numerous times in the war.

Earlier this year, the militant group launched an offensive to take full control of Idlib province, forcing out rebel groups and seeing the affiliated Salvation Government take over civilian affairs from democratically-elected councils.

Although rebel groups returned to Idlib later in the year to help HTS fighters defend the province from regime offensives, they did not come to the aid of residents in Kafr Takharim, activists say.

Towns across Idlib are now rising in support of Kafr Takharim and are calling for [HTS leader] Abu Mohammed Al-Jolani to leave Idlib

HTS' control of Idlib has seen many western aid groups reduce or end funding for vital projects in the province, resulting in jobs being cut and services ended.

Incomes are now being squeezed by a hike in taxes by the Salvation Government leading to even more hardships for the people of Idlib.

"HTS has been working hard to secure its own sources of funding through taxes and royalties," said Smeisim. "The civilians of Idlib province in general have rejected the practices of HTS and the Salvation Government. What kept them silent was the priority of fighting the regime."

Activist crackdown

HTS' takeover of Idlib has coincided with a crackdown on civil society groups in the province, with the militant group reportedly demanding Kafr Takharim residents hand over a number of activists wanted by the organisation.

Leila al-Shami, co-authored the book "Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War" with Robin Yassin Kassab, which looks at the civilian-run councils in opposition Syria.

Democratically-elected, they have proven to be resilient and popular with residents due to the efficient services they provide and, unlike the Salvation Government, general accountability to the local population.

"The Kafr Takharim protests come within a broader context of ongoing dissatisfaction with HTS and protests against them, partly in response to tax increases and a lack of service provisions. But it also following mass arrests of activists in recent weeks," Shami said.

"Towns across Idlib are now rising in support of Kafr Takharim and are calling for Abu Mohammed Al-Jolani to leave Idlib. What started as a localised protest is now spreading as a more popular uprising across the province."

Protests in other HTS-held towns in the past, such as Atarib, have forced militants to retreat with local councils taking over civilian matters.

Shami said that the reason why HTS have pursued a more confrontational approach this time around could be that they see the protests as a threat to their hold over Idlib, or that a lack of support by rebel groups in the area for the protesters means the militants' can further cement their power.

"For a long while HTS and its former incarnation Al-Nusra Front were tolerated because they were seen as a defensive force for local communities against the Assad regime," Shami added.

"Where local communities overwhelmingly turned against HTS is when they have tried to assert themselves, in terms of governance - taking over local councils, service provisions, and education."

Shami said that although Idlib residents have tolerated the presence of more extremist groups, such as HTS, when defending their towns and villages from the Syrian regime, they have rejected their attempts to impose control over civilian affairs.

"They reject their ideology and attempts to impose their form of governance. They have overwhelmingly come out said that they want their own civilian administration structures and councils, many of which have been democratically-elected. That has been the general message of these protests."

Unrest has been witnessed across Idlib in support of Kafr Takharim, reflecting a broader unease with HTS' latest power grab and what appears to be a desire by the organisation to impose their hardline ideology on the population.

Aid cuts will undoubtedly have a devastating impact on the hundreds of thousands of refugees living in camps across Idlib this winter, while an increase in regime and Russian bombing will further compound the suffering for civilians.

Hopes will be that HTS and other rebel groups can concentrate their efforts on holding off a potential regime offensive on Idlib rather than political matters.

As has been stated throughout the war, civilians want to be left alone by armed groups to run their own affairs.

Syria Weekly is a new, regular feature from The New Arab. To get Syria Weekly in your inbox each week, sign up here

Paul McLoughlin is a news editor at The New Arab. 

Follow him on Twitter: @PaullMcLoughlin