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Are the Idlib civil war and HTS domination the end of the Syrian revolution?

Collapsed and damaged buildings after Russian warplanes hit residential areas in Idlib, Syria on 30 January 2020 [İzzeddin İdilbi/Anadolu Agency]
Collapsed and damaged buildings after Russian warplanes hit residential areas in Idlib, Syria on 30 January 2020 [İzzeddin İdilbi/Anadolu Agency]

The remainder of the rebel-held province of Idlib is proving to be the greatest experiment in nation-building that the modern world is witnessing, even if the world has largely neglected the Syrian revolution.

Consisting of displaced Syrians, refugee camps and an assortment of independent and Turkish-backed groups, the province has been relatively able to breathe over the past few months since the signing of the ceasefire agreement between Turkey and Russia, than it has for at least an entire year under the regime’s bombardment.

Despite the continued artillery fire and shelling between the regime forces and the opposition groups in some areas, the ceasefire deal itself has generally held together for longer than expected, surprising many.

This has given time, however, for the opposition forces to prepare for the revival of the regime’s offensive — a question not of if, but when — which led to the creation of the “Fathbatou” or “Firm Stand” operation room. This new initiative, consisting of a collection of rebel groups united in their common opposition of the Bashar Al-Assad regime, provided hope to many in the resistance that it would signal a revival of the Syrian revolution, and would finally unite the groups despite their disagreements.

One group that did not join, however, was Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS), which has over the past year become the most dominant and territorially significant group within Idlib and the free territories. This power has put the group at odds with other rebel forces, and with its often heavy-handed tactics and treatment of the surrounding population, has been compared to the Assad regime itself.

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The simmering inter-factional tension reached new heights when HTS arrested a number of major well-known figures in Idlib earlier this week, including British aid worker Tauqir Sharif, operations room commander Abu Malik Al-Talli and the famous foreign fighter Abu Salah Al-Uzbeki. Far from being a friendly arrest for simple interrogation or to project a message, it was a bloody and brutal one, with the aid worker Sharif’s wife revealing in an interview that the group severely beat him and drew his blood during the raid on his home.

Following the arrests of these figures and the targeting of the other opposition commanders, a rival group named Hurras Al-Din (HAD) — a key player in the operation room — took control of the central prison in Idlib city and the areas surrounding it, leading to clashes between the two. With reinforcements from the Turkish-backed National Liberation Front (NLF) coming to the aid of HTS, HAD was then pushed out until they remained in control of a village a short distance from Idlib city.

HTS then continued to force HAD into a retreat from town to town, until the two agreed to a peace initiative and agreement proposed by a group of Islamic scholars. HTS went on the offensive again, however, pushing its rival further back to the countryside of northern Idlib, until HAD quickly agreed to a ceasefire with HTS and even withdrew from the area, handing over its headquarters and checkpoints to the dominant group.

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After days of intense infighting, the various ceasefire agreements and the further arrests of more senior members and founders of the Firm Stand operations room, HTS finally released a statement on Friday forbidding the creation of any new military operations room, or even any new faction. It commanded instead that any military action undertaken by a group must be under its own “Fath Al-Mubeen” or “Great Conquest” operations room, in the name of enjoining unity among the opposition.

This week showed a rapid and crushing campaign launched by HTS, one that was sudden and quickly resolved due partly to the existing dominance of the group, and notably by the relenting of HAD and the Firm Stand operation room, “to avoid the spilling of blood” and prevent further infighting.

Apart from some key lessons from this series of infighting being the role of Islamic scholars in resolving inter-factional conflict, and the uncommon willingness of a group to withdraw for the sake of sparing further fighting, this does not mean that the fighting is definitively over between the factions in Idlib.

This move for dominance that HTS has just conducted only reinforces the concerns that many have had over the intentions of its leadership under Abu Mohammad Al-Jolani, with incidences ranging from alleged militant brutality of civilians, to the economic extortion within its territories, and the arrests and abductions of those who criticise it. The group has been looking more like the Assad regime that Syrians fled in the first place.

There is more to the group’s ambition for control than that, though, as the claims against it also extend to it having ties with the US in order to target the rival groups. The fact that a US drone strike conveniently killed the HAD logistics commander Abdul Rahman Al-Homsi on Wednesday night while HTS was attacking the group, is cited as proof of this claim.

Such claims can hardly be verified at this stage of the infighting, or of the Syrian civil war itself, but it may not be surprising for HTS to use such tactics. It was indeed HTS, after all, that attempted to open a trade route to regime-held territory earlier this year, and even went against the wishes of the Turkish military in trying to enforce that.

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HTS’ campaign for grabbing power in Idlib even drew the condemnation of Al-Qaeda — from which the two groups reportedly distantly stem — when it sided with HAD and called on HTS to cease its actions.

There are some who believe that the actions of HTS are wise and legitimate, and that for the opposition groups to unite under this dominant group is the most natural and best course of action to take. Regardless of whether this is the case or not, HTS is emerging as the strongest player within Idlib, and maybe not the most benevolent one. Assad must be looking on with glee at the opposition groups being their own worst enemy.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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