Idlib at crossroads :Islamist Rule or Mass Murder

The U.S. Foreign Policy Magazine (FP) said that despite this week’s meeting of Putin, Erdogan, and Rouhani, there is no good news in the last redoubt of the Syrian revolt.

In an articles posted by FP, it said that the people walk near heavily damaged buildings in the rebel-held city of Idlib in northwestern Syria.

The FP added that 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. 

In the same context, the FP said that the 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. Idlib is 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.


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