AMMAN: An armed force affiliated with Islamist faction Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham (HTS) stormed the city council building in rebel stronghold Idlib on Monday, seizing control of the city’s independently administered civil institutions one week after the council refused to hand them over.
The move comes as the hardline group—led by former Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat Fatah a-Sham—seeks to expand its influence over civil services in areas under its control, which extend across northern Idlib province and into Aleppo.
HTS fighters entered the Idlib City Council building by force late Monday and “expelled all employees,” according to Saleem al-Khadr, a member of Idlib’s Provincial Council, which oversees the city council and nearly 160 other local councils administering public services in the province.
“HTS fighters came in and demanded that we surrender the office to them,” an employee at one of the city council’s executive offices told Syria Direct on Tuesday, asking that his name not be published.
“They told us that any employee wishing to work with them can remain,” he said. “I left and no one stopped me.”
HTS initially called on the Idlib City Council to turn over control of a number of public utilities early last week in a unilateral announcement acquired by Syria Direct.
Idlib City Council members meet with constituents on July 13. Photo courtesy of the Idlib City Council.
“You are requested to turn over the following departments to the Civil Administration of Services,” the August 20 decision reads. A list of entities for the council to surrender follows, and includes the city’s bread ovens and water and transportation administrations.
HTS established the Civil Administration of Services earlier this summer, purportedly as a civil arm tasked with managing local councils and public services in areas under the faction’s control.
But public services in rebel-held areas are already administered by an array of independently run local councils funded by the opposition Syrian National Coalition’s interim government.
The Idlib City Council responded to HTS demands in a statement released on its official Facebook page last Tuesday.
“Rapid and successive decisions related to departments affiliated with the Idlib City Council are an attempt to subject them to its subordination,” the city council statement reads.
“To the people of Idlib, to the revolutionaries and to Syrians everywhere: The Idlib City Council will remain with you. It will not be dismissed and it will not resign,” according to the statement.
Provincial capital Idlib city in July. Photo courtesy of Idlib City Council.
The Idlib City Council was elected to manage the city in a civilian poll held last January, the first of its kind since the provincial capital was wrested from government forces in 2015.
City Council Vice President Ayman Aswad told Syria Direct in an interview last week, before HTS stormed their building, that the council was continuing to “implement all projects as agreed upon.”
“Our work has not been impacted,” he said, noting that his organization is an independent body and had had no direct contact with the HTS-affiliated Civil Administration of Services, to which it was asked to hand over public institutions.
“As for the future,” Aswad added, “I can’t say how things will look.”
Syria Direct reached out to Aswad for comment on Tuesday, but had not received a reply at the time of publishing.
HTS, and its past iteration, Jabhat a-Nusra, have made previous attempts to encroach on civilian life in Idlib province.
Earlier this month, the coalition began barring entry of tobacco products into Idlib city, Syria Direct reported.
Now, as HTS seizes control of civil institutions and public services, Provincial Council representative al-Khadr says he fears HTS “may carry out similar actions” in the coming days, attempting to control additional local councils.
But his council lacks a force capable of staving off HTS fighters.
“The only weapon we possess—and work on behalf of—is our legitimacy. We are elected [officials] and are recognized by nations abroad,” al-Khadr said.
“We are currently trying to recover the city council,” he added, but did not elaborate on how.