5 min read  | Idlib, Interviews, Politics

Civilians ‘caught in the middle’ as HTS roots out suspected IS sleeper cells in Idlib

March 7, 2019

Last week, a suspected Islamic State (IS) suicide bomber detonated themself inside a crowded restaurant in downtown Idlib city, killing several members of hardline faction Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham (HTS), which controls most of Syria’s rebel-held northwest.

HTS, in retaliation, executed suspected IS fighters in the streets, before going after sleeper cells around Idlib city.

A Russian-Turkish ceasefire agreement last September may have staved off the danger of a bloody pro-government invasion against Syria’s northwestfor now, at leastbut ordinary people have found themselves squarely in the crossfire of another power struggle.

While the world watches the slow, drawn-out collapse of IS in the farmland and ragged tent remains of the hardline group’s self-proclaimed “caliphate,” another shadowy power struggle has been developing for months in and around rebel-held Idlib, in Syria’s northwest.

A campaign of targeted assassinations, suicide attacks and bombingsmany of them unclaimedhas targeted areas under the control of HTS, with attacks largely blamed on IS sleeper cells in the northwest. According to one analyst, IS sleeper cells comprise anywhere between 500 and 1,000 fighters. In response, HTS has launched a crackdown against IS sleeper cells, leading to scattered armed clashes and even public executions within the heart of Idlib city.

Civilians have, time and again, been caught up in the violence.

“What’s happening is a campaign of elimination between the two sides,” says Um Osama, a native of Idlib city who lives there with five family members. “But it’s always civilians who get caught in the middle.”

In an interview with Syria Direct’s Noura Hourani, she says that she and other civilians have watched Idlib’s security situation steadily deteriorate around them, as violence and reprisals have intensified in recent months.

“If I want to go to any place outside of my house, I have to take this into account,” Um Osama says, “and bear in mind that I may never come back.”

Q: We’ve been hearing more and more in recent weeks about an increase in bombings in Idlib city, as well as clashes with alleged IS sleeper cells. But what’s the situation for ordinary people in Idlib at the moment?

HTS’ campaign against Daesh cells is not new. It started months ago and since then there have been tightening security restrictions. When the campaign started, it started in the southern and eastern Idlib countryside—I saw how they would go out of the city [to carry out] raids every day and they would cut off the roads and go raiding the cells, and there would always be fighting. We [would] hear about it.

People have started talking about the fighting as soon as it happens. 

So it’s become something normal that there are Daesh cells [in Idlib]. People are used to this situation.

[Ed.: To read Syria Direct’s full report about the HTS crackdown on alleged IS sleeper cells in and around Idlib city, click here.]

Of course, there’s a lot of resentment among civilians because it’s us, ordinary people, who are being affected. What’s happening is a campaign of elimination between the two sides, between the leadership of Daesh and [HTS]. That’s how they describe what’s going on between them. There’s vengeance between the two sides, but it’s always civilians who get caught in the middle.

Every bombing that happens is in an area where there are generally going to be groups of civilians present. For example, recently there was a bombing in a restaurant, and sometimes bombings happen in the souq. Once, there was a bombing in Clock Tower Square in Idlib—and there was a demonstration happening in the square at the time that the explosion happened.  

Most of these attacks are blamed on IS sleeper cells. After the last two car bombings  claimed around 17 victims, there were those who said it was IS sleeper cells, and others who said it was regime sleeper cells. People are expecting more bombings in the future.

The day of the restaurant explosion, HTS immediately arrested 10 [alleged IS] members. It was HTS who said that they were IS. People were very afraid, worried that there was going to be an uptick in explosions, and that anybody could die in any explosion because the explosions are happening in areas with lots of civilians.

Q: How do the raids and arrests take place? What does HTS do exactly?

During the raids, HTS surrounds the neighborhood and starts laying out flying checkpoints. As soon as people see the checkpoints and roads closed off, they stop going near the area and don’t pass through it.

When HTS suspects somebody, or there is an anti-IS sleeper cell operation, they close off the area.

As for those at home, they are stuck. It lasts for hours.

Q: How are the explosions and clashes affecting people there?

Because of all the activity, of course people are scared—it’s happening in all the places where ordinary people come and go. When the explosion happened in Fusion [Restaurant], there were people in the mall right next to it.

We’ve grown used to these things despite the fear, because in the end people still need to live and move around. It is impossible to just put life on hold. There are explosions, and if I want to go to any place outside of my house, I have to take this into account and bear in mind that I may never come back.

About two weeks ago, my mother went to the souq to buy some things for the house. I was at home surfing the internet and chatting with my friends. And suddenly I saw online that people were talking about a patrol by security forces in Idlib, that two car bombs were supposedly about to explode in the market in the city center.

I don’t know what happened to me—I was terrified for my mother and started calling my friends who live close to the souq to get any update on what was happening. I was beside myself with panic for my mother. Thoughts started spinning around my head, ‘Where is she? Is she stuck in the souq?’

I was in a state of panic for about an hour, until my mother eventually got back home safely—thank God.

But I felt so powerless.

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