'From the gutter to the rain': Inside HTS' takeover of northwestern Syria

A street in Khan Sheikhoun during airstrikes on February 22. Photo Anas Al-Dyab/AFP

AMMAN: In a conference hall adorned with the flags of Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham, the Free Syrian Army and National Liberation Front, a banner read overhead, “Hand in hand, we win our revolution.”

Syria’s remaining rebel factions—diverse, and at odds with one another almost as often as they are with the Syrian government—came together at a General Conference of the Syrian Revolution in Bab al-Hawa in rural Idlib province at the beginning of this month.

Meant as a show of unity, the meeting produced a 12-point statement promising to “unify revolutionary efforts socially, economically, and militarily” through a new government for the rebel-held northwest, a joint military council and the creation of new civilian institutions purportedly aimed at improving the lives of civilians.

The last similar conference, more than a year ago, resulted in the formation of the Syrian Salvation Government (SSG)—a governance body largely considered a puppet of Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham (HTS), the hardline group spearheaded by Al-Qaeda’s former Syria affiliate.

Much has changed since then.

Through a combination of military force and negotiated settlements, HTS has asserted effective control over the majority of Syria’s rebel-held northwest following a lightning campaign against rival rebel factions launched at the beginning of this year. HTS now maintains control over Idlib and outlying opposition areas of neighboring Aleppo and Hama provinces.

Flags of Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham, the Free Syrian Army and Turkish-backed National Liberation Front line the stage at the General Conference of the Syrian Revolution on February 10. Photo courtesy of the General Conference of the Syrian Revolution.

In response, international organizations pulled funding for key healthcare infrastructure and opposition-era structures, including the Free Syrian Police, dissolved. Private universities have closed and residents have little choice but to navigate new taxes and checkpoint fees imposed by the hardline group.

And while international funders announced Monday that funding for health directorates would be reinstated according to “strict conditions,” the true impact of HTS’ takeover may not be known quite yet—with civilians increasingly fearful of what may come next.

HTS’ rapid military expansion has paved the way for the expansion of the SSG in step—and the hardline group’s leader Abu Mohammad al-Jolani insisted last month that the group intends to “hand over all our areas to a civilian government.”

However, local council members, civil society workers and aid workers tell Syria Direct that HTS is using civilian structures through the SSG to cement its control over the northwest.  

“The level of freedom is almost entirely gone after HTS took control,” Fadel Abdul Ghany, director of the Syrian Network for Human Rights monitoring group, tells Syria Direct. “HTS has sought to control all facets of life.”

How the northwest was won

Following an outbreak of infighting last month with longstanding rivals Harakat Nour a-Din a-Zinki, part of the Turkish-backed National Liberation Front (NLF) rebel coalition that was present across the northwest, HTS suddenly made its move.

Zinki all but collapsed within a matter of days, before HTS attacked other NLF factions.

A January 10 ceasefire agreement between HTS and the NLF saw factions from the Ankara-backed coalition agree to evacuate north to Turkish-controlled Afrin, in neighboring Aleppo province, while the SSG would take over administrative control of the region.

HTS had cemented its control within a matter of weeks.

The northwest, for the most part, was theirs.

In territories newly acquired by HTS, the hardline group is now absorbing local councils previously under the administration of the opposition-affiliated Syrian Interim Government (SIG), based out of the southeastern Turkish city of Gaziantep. Those councils are falling under the umbrella of the SSG, which is using the annual January 1 expiration of the tenure of all local councils as a pretense to recreate them in its image.

HTS has historically used the SSG to control civil society in the territories it holds—overseeing aid efforts and local councils while collecting taxes, policing local communities and controlling water and electricity stations. Its apparatus has embedded HTS into civilian life.

In the past, local councils that came under SSG control were mostly dissolved and reformed with HTS-approved cadres from the top down.

In Saraqib, a city in eastern Idlib province that HTS seized by force in July 2017, the local council was later dissolved and reformed without elections and now “completely abides by the specifications of the...SSG,” according to the city’s former local council head Muthanna Mohammad.

Last month’s military advances have allowed HTS to repeat the process across the northwest, by absorbing several new council bodies while using a semblance of bureaucratic procedure to do so.

Each year, on January 1, local councils in the northwest appoint new members for the coming year.

Diaa al-Bakour, head of the United Council for Local Councils in Maarat a-Numan, a body that coordinates between local councils in Maarat a-Numan as well as surrounding towns and villages, tells Syria Direct that HTS and the SSG took power over the area at the time when local councils were being dissolved and reformed.

And earlier this month, the SSG announced it would begin accepting nominations for new council staff—seemingly according to the ordinary council system, but with the SSG in a position to dictate or influence appointments in a way it couldn’t before.

“That’s all [the SSG] have done up until now,” al-Bakour says. “We still don’t know the good from the bad.”

Civilians ‘not benefiting’ from HTS taxes, rule

SSG officials talk up what they describe as an efficient, legitimate government infrastructure that comprises much more than local councils—with so-called ministries, and even a prime minister. Meanwhile, the SSG has developed seven directorates and other province-level institutions for running local infrastructure—water, electricity, transportation, sanitation and telecommunications—and administering services.

Observers and residents meanwhile question whether these SSG-affiliated authorities can even properly distribute basic services to the communities they purportedly now serve.

At the same time, taxation and royalties have become key to SSG’s strategy of control, but also its own stability.

“Most of the [SSG’s] resources come from taxes and royalties on citizens and organizations, as well as entry and exit fees at the Bab al-Hawa crossing,” an SSG employee, speaking on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to press, tells Syria Direct.

SSG Minister of Local Governance Muaed al-Hasan claims that taxes allow the SSG to provide key services across the northwest.

However, he admits, enforcing taxation and service fees remains a problem for the SSG—not least because of a “lack of compliance among some people with paying the duties, even though they are low.”

The SSG has reportedly not yet introduced taxation in areas acquired during recent advances—according to some observers, because of concerns over the response from local communities.

The SSG has also started imposing additional taxes in Idlib city—the epicenter of its civil control in the province—on car registrations, shops and street vendors.

There, residents describe a growing abundance of taxes and penalties, but with little visible return.

“You need a lot of money every month [to pay taxes],” says Amjad, a father of two previously displaced to Idlib from the Aleppo countryside, who requested that his full name be withheld for fear of reprisals.

“[HTS] takes taxes for sanitation, but the streets are filled with trash. They take taxes for water, but the water doesn’t come except for two hours a week,” he adds.

Abu Ahmad, meanwhile, who owns a perfume shop in Idlib city, describes strict regulations targeting shop owners for whom there are taxes and charges for “even the smallest violation of the law, as they see it.”

According to Abu Ahmad, HTS’ religious police charge shop owners for any pictures of women or men displayed in stores or on signs along the sidewalk.

At the same time, he says, weapons shops affiliated with HTS—selling everything from pistols to RPGs, anti-aircraft weaponry to mortars—operate relatively freely throughout the province and, without licensing or taxation.

“The owner could sell us a tank if he wanted to,” Abu Ahmad adds sarcastically. “Ninety-nine percent of [the weapons shops] are actually owned by HTS itself anyway.”

Ammar, who asked that his real name be withheld in this report, echoes concerns that taxes were bringing little actual improvements in daily life in Idlib city.

“There is nothing, there are no services,” he tells Syria Direct. “[HTS’] only aim...is to line their pockets.”

Risks that international aid will ‘stop’

Designated as an international terrorist organization by several states, HTS’ consolidation has also impacted humanitarian access and services available to Idlib residents, more than a million of whom are internally displaced from other areas of the country.

Aid workers watched nervously as HTS expanded its reach across the northwest in January.

In response to HTS’ recent expansion, German development agency GIZ pulled funding last month from over 50 health directorates across the northwest—although the GIZ reportedly reinstated support to health directorates in Aleppo, Hama and Idlib provinces albeit with strict conditions on where that money ends up.

Still, civilians and local aid organizations are bracing for more cuts in the future.

“It will definitely stop. I have no doubt about this,” Mohammad Halaj, director of the Response Coordination Group NGO that documents service provision in Syria’s northwest, tells Syria Direct.

“There is an international consensus that these areas are categorized as ‘terrorist,’ so funding will stop.”  

However, according to al-Bakour from Maarat a-Numan’s United Council for Local Councils, ongoing bombardments by pro-government forces across southern Idlib province—and not HTS advances—have led to NGO closures.

“Some NGOs are stopping their operations, but it’s because of regime [military] campaigns and not because of the entrance of the SSG,” he says.

David Swanson, an Amman-based spokesperson for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), tells Syria Direct that “despite a difficult operating environment, both the United Nations and [NGOs] continue to operate in the area,” by providing “critical life-saving assistance through cross-border operations out of Turkey.”

There is one possible scenario that could upturn all that—the looming threat of a possible pro-government offensive on the rebel-held northwest.

The threat of renewed widespread violence remains despite last September’s Russian-Turkish buffer zone agreement lauded for averting just that.

Tit-for-tat violence in and around the internationally brokered buffer zone surrounding Idlib province has escalated in recent weeks.

Marketed by HTS as a ploy to return “civilian” rule to Syria’s northwest, recent military advances and the growing influence of the SSG could threaten the long-term stability of the last remaining rebel-held enclave in Syria.

Caught in between, it's residents living under the hardline group’s control who are left with spare few prospects—a familiar feeling for Syrians who were living under HTS, and its administrative arm, before the recent advances.

“Of course, the situation for civilians [in Idlib] is changing now,” says a resident of one Idlib town, which has been under HTS rule since 2016.

But ultimately, he adds, the transition to SSG rule “was like we moved from under the gutter to under the rain.”

Alaa Nassar

Alaa was forced to flee Damascus with her family because of the pressure from the Syrian regime in 2013. She was a student of Arabic Language & Literature at the University of Damascus. She came to Syria Direct because she hopes to find a new direction in her life and to show the world what is happening in her country.

Jodi Brignola

Jodi Brignola is a journalism intern and past trainee in Syria Direct’s Media Training Program. Jodi is a Masters candidate in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and is in Amman on a Boren Fellowship.