AMMAN — On the eve of 2020, the Syrian Salvation Government (SSG), the de facto government in Idlib province, announced a government reshuffle for the third time since it was established by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the strongest military faction in the region.

Among the new government ministers sworn in on December 16, 2019, was the new Prime Minister, Ali Keddah. His predecessor, Fawaz Helal, had overseen a turbulent period of office that witnessed demonstrations in several areas in recent months. Some speculated that the purpose of the change in government was to contain popular discontent with life under HTS rule.

The most significant of these demonstrations took place following the siege of Kfar Takharim in northwest Idlib in November, 2019. HTS fighters attempted to storm the town after its residents refused to comply with a decision by the SGG’s Zakat committees to tax basic necessities such as olive oil and bread.

According to Ahmad al-Bakoor, a resident of Idlib, the renewed public outrage in Idlib comes as a result of the SSG “raising funds without providing services or improving living conditions.” 

Al-Bakoor accused the SSG of being “far away from the real living conditions and needs of the residents of Idlib.” In his view, the de facto government has continuously exploited  civilian issues and humanitarian organizations for its benefit and excluded other local institutions and councils since its establishment two years ago. 

“Leading institutions in Idlib [are] under the authority of and for the benefit of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham,” Al-Bakoor told Syria Direct.

The new government is nothing more than “changing figures,” Mustafa al-Ahmad, a resident of Sarmada city in northern Idlib, told Syria Direct. He believes the simmering resentment toward the government will continue so long as it upholds “its policy of imposing upon instead of negotiating with civilians” which has “stolen our livelihood from us.”

Independent, technocratic facade

With the establishment of the SSG, HTS sought to achieve two connected goals: to present itself as a civilian government tending toward moderation in matters of governance, and to select technocratic ministers with academic and scientific backgrounds. 

But according to the Syrian activist and researcher Ahmad Abazaid, this “[government] facade is exposed to its citizens.” 

Abazaid noted that HTS consolidated its influence through “using an institutional and economic network, security apparatus, and relationships with merchants and residents forced to work with them or engage with some of their arms.”

As for the ministers, some are willing proponents of HTS, while others agreed to assume their positions to improve the situation in Idlib province, according to one former minister in the SSG, who spoke to Syria Direct on the condition of anonymity. 

“I agreed to assume my position hoping to benefit the people of my country, but I found myself between a rock and a hard place,” he said.

HTS pressured the former minister— who identified himself as independent— and “all independent members of the government to carry out the group’s agenda.” 

The SSG includes “ministers with no professional background, but, nonetheless, have the power to control and implement agendas with narrow and utilitarian interests,” the former minister said. This has caused “the independent members to be at odds with everyone; the [international relief and development] organizations see the independent figures as being proponents of HTS, while the latter considers us far from them.” 

Nonetheless, the SSG does not use independent members in all ministries. The Ministry of Economy, for example, “is controlled by HTS, despite what it claims publicly,” another former minister told Syria Direct. 

A vicious circle

Two years after the SSG was formed as an alternative to the Syrian Interim Government, affiliated with the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, its rule has come to impact the lives of those living in Idlib province. According to recent statistics by the Response Coordination Group, a Syrian humanitarian organization, 4,352,165 people live in Idlib - approximately half of them are internally displaced Syrians, in addition to 9,000 refugees from Iraq and Palestine.

Because of its affiliation with HTS, which is designated internationally as a terrorist organization, the SSG has reduced international assistance to Idlib and paralyzed the development of the region’s service sector. 

The education sector is “continuously deteriorating,” according to Ahmed al-Jabi, a teacher from Sarmada. Because of the SSG’s control over Idlib, the American development consulting firm Chemonics, for example, stopped its support, al-Jabi told Syria Direct. Thousands of teachers lost their salaries as a result and had to continue their work as volunteers, as al-Jabi did, or look for another job. 

A source familiar with the developments in the education sector in Idlib, who spoke to Syria Direct on the condition of anonymity, estimated that 20% of the province’s 7,000 teachers left the profession after international organizations ended their support.

Although other organizations continue to support schools in Idlib, the hiring process benefits HTS, al-Jabi said. He cited an incident in which a previously fired teacher was rehired after the school was threatened by an HTS-affiliated armed group.

The health sector has also been affected by HTS’ control via the SSG in Idlib. In addition to the systematic targeting of health facilities in the province by government forces and their allied militias, the suspension of international aid to the province has caused some hospitals to close their doors, as is the case of Maarat Masreen Hospital and al-Dakheliya Hospital in Idlib, Muhammad Idlibi (pseudonym), a doctor from the city of Idlib, told Syria Direct, speaking on the condition of anonymity for security reasons. 

“The health directorates were among the best-functioning institutions [in northwest Syria] during the administration of the Syrian Interim Government,” he said. “They had the ability to cover the province medically despite the [harsh] conditions.”

Apart from its failure in developing the medical sector and expanding urgent related services, Idlibi alleged that the SSG’s “goal is to dominate and impose taxes on the supporting organizations in this sector, and monitor the details of the projects they submit, including funding.”

Even the SSG’s public services, such as the restoration and reconstruction of infrastructure, roads, and water networks, “are done through donors and not with the resources of the government,” Idlibi said. This is in spite HTS’ “monopoly on trade in oil and imposition of taxes,” Ahmed al-Haj, from the city of Binnish in northwest Idlib, told Syria Direct. HTS collects large tolls from the border crossings under its control, especially Bab al-Hawa, al-Ees, and Atama.

If not for the daily airstrikes by government forces, people would be mobilizing and protesting HTS and the SSG, Mustafa al-Ahmad said. 

No services, no freedom

In addition to the shortage of services, the government imposes stringent policies on freedom of expression. The Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) documented HTS' detention of about 182 people from January to August of 2019, 267 people in 2018, and 183 people in 2017. 

Among those detained in HTS prisons are prisoners of conscience and media activists. Activists or citizen journalists cannot report in Idlib without approval from the Public Information Foundation of the SSG. 

The SSG, however, facilitates the work of international media outlets, such as the BBC and CNN, in addition to various Turkish news networks who report in Idlib under the protection of HTS, Idlib resident and activist, Munther al-Halabi (pseudonym) told Syria Direct.

Al-Halabi was among a group of activists arrested two months ago while participating in demonstrations against HTS' practices. He was released and threatened to be arrested again if "we publish photos of the demonstrations." He pointed out that "suspicious journalists who are not loyal to the group are monitored by civilians."

Military and humanitarian failures 

Most of the heavy weapons carried by Syrian opposition factions in Idlib province were confiscated by HTS. Nonetheless, the group has not had an active role in repelling the assault by government forces in northwestern Syria that started last April. As a result, government forces controlled the entire area of northern Hama countryside and large swathes of Idlib, causing a large exodus of civilians towards the north. 

The number of people displaced by the Russian-backed government military operations in 2019 was “over 1,300,000 people, equal to 28% of inhabitants [of Idlib province],” according to Muhammad al-Hallaj, director of the Response Coordination Group. “120,000 of these displaced people live in the open, meaning 90% of them are unable to secure shelter.  

One of the most prominent reasons for this shortage is that many organizations have ceased operations in northwestern Syria because of international funding restrictions and the policies of the SSG. 

According to al-Hallaj, there are “178 organizations working in several areas in northwestern Syrian under 10 coordinating bodies.” Although these organizations are still present, “some of their projects have moved to areas of the Euphrates Shield area [in the northern countryside of Aleppo] because they are unable to operate in Idlib according to the conditions of SSG.”

Al-Hallaj compared the SSG’s supervision of the thousands of displaced Syrians in northwestern Syria to “Bashar al-Assad’s supervision of Syria. After each displacement campaign, the government declares the formation of an emergency response committee. However, the excitement and commotion are wasted.” 

“While the SSG was supposed to build residential apartments on publicly-owned communal lands over the last year, nothing was implemented on the ground. The process of counting the displaced people undertaken by the Salvation Government was confined to border camps under its control,” al-Hallaj said. 

The future of the SSG in Idlib 

It is obvious that the fate of the SSG is linked to that of HTS. Despite the increase in popular resentment toward both groups, Abbas Sharifa, a researcher specializing in armed Islamist groups, believes neither group will disappear anytime soon. 

Sharifa argued that “the Russian campaign in the liberated areas [outside of government control] in northwestern Syria, the aversion of regional states to confront HTS, and lack of international will to replace the group make any drastic changes unlikely.”

Abazaid also argued that “the future of the region [northwestern Syria] is more closely linked to the Turkish-Russian agreements than the will of the dominant party [HTS] there.” He added that, “HTS is an excuse for Russia to achieve its goal of [achieving] Syrian government control over northwestern Syria.”

He added that Turkey may weaken the power of the SSG and HTS’ influence in Idlib within the framework of its agreements with Russia. 

“However, Turkey fears retaliation from jihadists against its military posts [in northern Syria], as well as a collapse in the region that would benefit the [Syrian] regime,” he said. 

This report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Calvin Wilder, Megan Pierce, and Seth Thomas.