Residents rally against hardline Islamists: ‘We’re not afraid because we’ve got nothing to lose’

Residents in the western Aleppo countryside town of Atareb took to the streets on Tuesday to protest against the Islamist rebel coalition Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham (HTS).

The protest was a response to an HTS attack on the headquarters of local FSA faction Thuwar a-Sham in February.

HTS, which includes Jabhat Fatah a-Sham, formed on January 28 after a wave of rebel infighting in Idlib and west Aleppo province.

“Tahrir a-Sham said they’d protect the revolution and the Syrian people, but all they’ve done is kidnap people, put up checkpoints and terrorize residents,” Mohammad Shakurdi, a demonstrator and Atareb Local Council member who participated in the protest, tells Syria Direct’s Noura al-Hourani.

Since its formation, HTS has attacked local FSA factions and spread fear among residents, according to the 28-year-old Atareb resident.

“They stand in the way of efforts to alleviate the suffering of the people,” he says.

 Atareb residents protesting on Tuesday. Photo courtesy of Atareb24.

In early February, the hardline Islamist coalition attempted to seize the bakery in Atareb which supplies bread to the town’s 10,000 residents. HTS also captured an excavator from the construction site for a planned hospital in Atareb. Construction ground to a halt, and the project’s backer withdrew the funding.

“Residents are frustrated, and they’re speaking out against what’s happening,” says Shakurdi.

Mohammad Shakurdi, 28, is a member of the civilian-run local council in Atareb. He attended Tuesday’s protest against Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham in the western Aleppo countryside town.

Q: Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham (HTS) doesn’t control the town of Atareb. What pushed residents to protest against HTS? Was there a particular event that sparked the demonstration?

We launched this demonstration because of the continued HTS attacks on the headquarters and warehouses of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in the western Aleppo countryside. Most recently, they attacked a canning factory serving as the headquarters of Thuwar a-Sham.

We took to the streets against HTS because they said they’d come to protect the revolution and the Syrian people. They said they’d fight the regime, but that’s not what we’ve seen. So far, they haven’t fought a single battle against the regime. All they’ve done is kidnap people, put up checkpoints and terrorize residents. They arrest members of the Free Syrian Army and attack FSA military headquarters. It’s not ‘Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham’—it’s ‘Hay’at Tahrir al-Muharrar.’

[Ed.: Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham’s name translates to “Committee for the Liberation of the Levant.” The sarcastic moniker “Hay’at Tahrir al-Muharrar” means “Committee for the Liberation of the Liberated.”]

The protest was organized by a group of residents and activists who still hold onto the idea of the revolution, the idea of freedom. Their hearts are still with the revolution and its success.

Q: You mentioned that the demonstration stemmed from the continual HTS attacks. When did they start? What do you want this demonstration to accomplish?

The attacks began almost a month and a half ago, when [HTS] assaulted Jaish al-Mujahideen, seizing their headquarters and their weapons. After that, it was Jaish al-Islam’s headquarters.

[Ed.: Jabhat Fatah a-Sham (JFS), the main faction in HTS, attacked the headquarters of FSA faction Jaish al-Mujahideen on January 23. Within days, clashes erupted between JFS and rebel brigades—including Jaish al-Islam—across opposition-held Idlib province, Syria Direct reported at the time.]

The most recent attack was on the headquarters of Thuwar a-Sham, based in a canning factory.

[Ed.: Local pro-opposition outlets reported that Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham attacked Thuwar a-Sham’s headquarters in the western Aleppo countryside on February 9.] 

With this demonstration, we want to emphasize that the Free Syrian Army has a right to defend itself, its headquarters, its warehouses and its weapons. We’re stressing that the Free Syrian Army has led the revolution from its beginnings. They were the ones who brought us true safety, not Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham, despite whatever HTS claims.

Residents are frustrated, and they’re speaking out against what’s happening. They had a lot of hope that Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham would carry the banner of the revolution and its demands. One million Syrians have died and 300,000 people have been detained in this revolution started by the Syrian people. Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham has let down the people. They stand in the way of efforts to alleviate the suffering of the people.

 “Thuwar a-Sham hasn’t let us down for a day. We won’t let you down.” Photo courtesy of Atareb24.

Q: Do you feel that Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham’s fighting with FSA factions has had any effect on Atareb and its residents? Are you afraid of HTS arrests or reprisals because of this demonstration?

With regard to [Atareb’s] residents, we’ve been negatively affected. [The local council] was digging the foundation for a civilian hospital in Atareb that would serve 350,000 people in the region. HTS seized the excavator on the pretext that it belongs to Jaish al-Mujahideen. As a result, we had to halt the project, and the organization funding the initiative pulled out.

[Ed.: The Atareb Local Council issued a statement following the theft of the excavator from the hospital dig site. The statement claimed that the excavator was seized on February 26 by “armed members of the group known as Hayat Tahrir a-Sham.]

HTS does more harm than good for the residents of rebel-held territories. They’re not liberating the people.

Regarding the safety of the people [after the demonstration], the suffering will not relent even if Jabhat a-Nusra [now Jabhat Fatah a-Sham] arrests us. We’re not afraid because we’ve got nothing to lose.

Q: One sign at the demonstration read: “Atareb’s oven didn’t participate in the Astana talks.” Could you speak about what that sign referred to? Do you think a peaceful demonstration like this can do anything to change Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham?

[Ed.: The day after the attack on Jaish al-Mujahideen's headquarters, Jabhat Fatah a-Sham issued a statement online accusing opposition groups that attended ceasefire talks in Astana, Kazakhstan of conspiring against them.]

The banner was a message to Hay’at  Tahrir a-Sham. They previously tried to seize Atareb’s bread oven by force. Through demonstrations, we let them know that the local council is the only party in charge. The council is entitled to oversee the city’s administration, civilian affairs and civilian organizations.

The civilian movement against Jabhat a-Nusra and Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham has not stopped, and we will not stop these demonstrations until everyone sees the damage that HTS is causing for Syrians.

Noura Hourani

Noura Hourani studied English Literature at Tishreen University and previously worked as a private English tutor. She left Syria at the beginning of the conflict.

Tariq Adely

Tariq Adely graduated from Brown University in 2014 with a bachelor's degree in comparative literature and translation. He continued his studies at the Qasid Institute and the Institute for Critical Thought in Amman, Jordan.