Syria's HTS reforms security body after mounting protests over group's stifling rule

Syria's HTS reforms security body after mounting protests over group's stifling rule
Syria's Hayat Tahrir al-Sham announced reforms to its security directorate among escalating protests against its rule.
2 min read
22 March, 2024
On Friday, thousands of protesters took to the streets of northwest Syria to chant against HTS rule [Getty]

Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the former al-Qaeda affiliate that governs Idlib province in northwestern Syria, created a new policing department this week in the wake of widespread demonstrations against the group's rule.

The new body, the Public Security Department, is a restructuring of the already existing security services.

The Public Security Department is responsible for combating sleeper cells of the so-called Islamic State group (IS), agents of the Syrian regime, and criminals, the ministry of interior for the HTS-run Salvation Government told Syrian outlet Enab Baladi.

Interior Minister Mohamed Abdel Rahman explained that the decision to reform the organisation's security department stemmed from a need to centralise all policing and security functions.

The reform comes after nearly a month of protests across northwest Syria against HTS rule – a rarity due to the group's tight grip on dissent and local civil society.

On Friday, thousands took to the streets in multiple cities across northwest Syria chanting against HTS leader Mohammed al-Jolani.

Demonstrators protested against the group's autocratic rule, use of torture in detention centers, and accusations that HTS's leadership collaborates with the Syrian regime.

Prisoners' rights have been an issue of contention for years as dissidents and activists arrested by HTS have publicised their experiences of being tortured in detention centers.

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A group of activists has promoted what is called the "prisoners' covenant", a sort of bill of rights for prisoners in northwest Syria which would provide basic rights and protections in HTS detention centres.

In addition to popular discontent, HTS's strategy of stamping out rival jihadist groups and muzzling of influential individuals in the area has recently resulted in fractions within its leadership.

On 17 August, Abu Maria al-Qahtani, a figure previously close to HTS' leadership, was arrested on charges of collaborating with the Syrian regime – his arrest followed the displacement of several other figures from top positions.

In response to the protests, HTS has announced a series of reforms, including a call for elections for the General Shura Council, a ruling political body, a review of economic policies, and creating local councils and unions.

Al-Jolani has warned protesters, saying "there are red lines that everyone must be aware of, red lines that I hope no one will reach … if we intervene to protect [HTS], we will intervene severely".