Syrians resist extremists and military offensive against Idlib

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After weeks of mass demonstrations that swept opposition-controlled areas in northern Syria — denouncing a foreseeable pro-regime military offensive against Idlib province — Turkey and Russia reached an agreement on Sept. 17.

Averting a potential humanitarian crisis in Idlib, the two countries agreed to establish a nearly 10-mile-wide “demilitarized zone” by Oct. 15 that would separate the opposition from Syrian government-controlled territories. According to the agreement, Turkish forces and Russian military police will patrol the zone, and heavy weapons will be removed by Oct. 10.

“It is still unclear if Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and other al-Qaeda groups present within the zone will retreat,” said Sakhr Baath, a Syrian lawyer and researcher on security reform. “While the agreement is a significant step toward ending the conflict, the actual implementation and a complete resolution would take more time.”

For the past five weeks, thousands of people have been demonstrating every Friday in communities across Idlib province, northern Hama and Aleppo provinces. “We will stay in the streets until we bring the revolution back on track — a call for rights and freedom,” said Ahmed, one of the participants in Marat al-Numan demonstrations. He asked to remain anonymous fearing retaliation from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, or HTS, an armed group formed by the former al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra Front and the most powerful jihadist alliance in Idlib. “We will kick the terrorists out, so the regime cannot use their presence as a pretext for an attack.”

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After pro-government forces took full control of Daraa province in early August, there has been heightened fear of a pro-government offensive against Idlib province and areas of adjacent provinces, the last major rebel-controlled enclave.

HTS has allowed people to rally, thinking that mass demonstrations against a pro-government offensive would protect it, Ahmed said. After the people assembled in huge numbers across the province holding the revolution’s flag, HTS sent its members to infiltrate the demonstrations and raise their Islamic flag. “When we took their flags, they [HTS members] started shooting in the air,” Ahmed recounted. “But people pushed them, took their weapons, and expelled them from the demonstrations.”

In places like Kafranbel, people were chanting “Idlib Hura Hura, Hay’a Titlaa Bara,” which translates to “Idlib free free, HTS must leave.” On Sept. 22, a day after a major demonstration in Kafranbel, HTS arrested activists Abd al-Hameed Bayoush and Samer al-Saloum and lawyer Yaser al-Saleem. The arrest was due to their participation in the demonstrations and al-Saleem’s Facebook post calling on people from Faoua and Kafriya to return to their homes in Idlib. The two towns in Idlib were besieged by rebel forces and evacuated last July to government-controlled areas.

The mass demonstrations came in response to calls by revolutionary activists, local councils, civil assemblies and committees across the province. HTS also organized its own demonstrations, where people raised al-Qaeda’s flag. This was mostly noticed in HTS-strongholds, such as al-Dana, Salqin, Tilmmins and Harem.

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“They wanted to send the message that they have public support too,” said Amr, a field officer who works for a relief organization in the town of Marat Hurma. He asked that his real name not be used to protect his safety. HTS commanders were warning their members not to interfere in demonstrations. According to Amr, they feared that media would capture scenes of activists clashing with HTS or burning their flag in public.

For the past year, almost all international support to civil activities and programing in Idlib have ceased due to HTS’s strong presence in the province and its control of public services. Donor governments were cautious as they did not want funds to end up in the hand of terrorists. “When the funding stopped, most communities had a strong reason to protest against HTS presence,” Amr said. Most local councils and civil organizations were releasing statements declaring their independence from HTS and the influence of armed factions. “People were able to force HTS to move its headquarters outside of their communities as they did not want to be associated with terrorists,” Amr added.

On Aug. 6, HTS members surrounded the local council in Khan Shaykhun to confiscate its buildings, but people took to the streets rejecting HTS control of the council. HTS members were shooting in the air to disperse the demonstration. “While HTS has some sympathizers, most people are hateful of their armed dominance, injustice and their application of strict Sharia rules,” Amr said.

The security situation in Idlib has been deteriorating since the beginning of the armed conflict in 2012, with the presence of dozens of rival armed factions, including terrorist groups. The National Liberation Front, a merger of armed factions that was finalized in northwest Syria on August 1, has approximately 30,000 armed members in Idlib. With the support of Turkey, the merger was established to counter HTS’s increased aggression and influence in Idlib. According to U.N. Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura, there are also approximately 10,000 terrorists in the province, including members of HTS and other al-Qaeda affiliated groups.

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The new agreement would spare the 3.5 million people living in Idlib. The province also has approximately 1.5 million internally-displaced people, who refused to reconcile with the Syrian government in their hometowns. They fled to Idlib, which was established as a “de-escalation zone” guaranteed by Turkey, Iran and Russia in May 2017. Some came to Idlib with their arms and declared their determination to fight until the end. “A war in Idlib would be bloody with the presence of hundreds of thousands of fighters and civilians who are ready to die,” said Baath, the Syrian lawyer and researcher.

People continue to demonstrate every Friday fearing that Idlib will be handed over to the Syrian government. Fighters are reluctant to hand over their arms without reassurances from Turkey and the Russia over their future.

Post-agreement efforts should be focused not only on demilitarizing the zone bordering Syrian government-controlled territories, but the whole province. Last month, Turkey listed HTS as a terrorist organization in an effort to pressure it and other radical groups to quit the fight. With its influence over armed factions in northern Syria, Turkey can work on neutralizing and reforming these groups to be part of the future security apparatus in opposition-controlled areas.

While the implementation of the agreement would take time, Turkey and international powers can continue to pressure HTS to dissolve itself and foreign jihadists to leave the country. Meanwhile, people should be given more time to push HTS and other terrorist groups out of their communities. “Many people have been defecting from HTS and foreign fighters have been selling their homes and leaving,” Amr said. “We are fighting for our survival and we will not quit unless we get our freedom.”

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