AMMAN-During the first week of September, protesters across Idlib province expressed their opposition to Hayat Tahrir al-Sham’s (HTS) leader, Abu Muhammad al-Jolani, and the Syrian government’s ongoing military campaign in northwest Syria.

Since the government took control of the northern countryside of Hama and large swathes of southern Idlib countryside last month, there have been widespread protests against HTS, the dominant armed group in the region. Demonstrations are spread throughout Idlib province, from the town of Saraqib in the north, to the city of Ma’arat al-Num’an in the south and the city of Kafr Takharim to the northwest.

Protesters used slogans previously used against Bashar al-Assad, replacing Assad’s name with al-Jolani, chanting: “Jolani … We don’t want you,” and “Syria is free, free … Jolani get out!”

According to the director of the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR), Fadel Abdul Ghani, HTS has borrowed “the worst authoritarian behaviors from the regime in addition to having an extremist Islamic tint, thus emerging in a very distorted form.”

HTS; originally known as Jabhat al-Nusra before it broke off ties with Al-Qaeda in July 2016, later rebranding itself in February 2017 under the name Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, was among the factions that controlled Idlib province back in March 2015. It was later able to consolidate its control over the area and expand into other parts of northwest Syria in January 2019, after waging a military campaign against its most prominent rival: the Turkish-backed National Front for Liberation (NFL). 

Following its military victory, HTS imposed civilian control over the conquered areas through the creation of the “Syrian Salvation Government,” which assumed responsibility for the day-to-day affairs in Idlib. The newly established government served as a rival to the Syria Interim Government, which was created by the “National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces.”

Though HTS claims to be a part of the revolution which broke out eight years ago in defiance of Damascus’s despotism, the group’s policies have restricted freedoms and closely resembles the very autocracy Syrians initially rose against. HTS has engaged in arbitrary arrests and torture which has led to deaths, according to legal documentation, in addition to kidnapping and forced displacement.

Between the beginning of 2019 and end of August, HTS has arrested approximately 182 people, among them political and media activists, according to SNHR figures obtained by Syria Direct. The group also arrested 183 and 257 people in 2017 and 2018, respectively, according to Abdul Ghani. 

The group’s harsh rule has led some to believe in the need for “another revolution against the oppression we live in,” according to Fatima, a woman from the town of Kafr Nabl, in the southern countryside of Idlib. She expressed worry at the possibility “of the arrest of my sons at any moment.”

“Inciting sedition”

HTS has launched security campaigns that have resulted in numerous arrests, which the group says only target members of IS cells, those working for the Syrian government and Kurdish agents. However, several sources who talked to Syria Direct stressed that “some of the charges are fabricated and baseless.” 

Even those prominent figures who have been staunch in their opposition to the regime have been subject to arbitrary detainment, oftentimes under the broad charge of “inciting sedition,” as was the case of Yasser al-Deddo. 

Al-Deddo, a political activist and English language teacher from the town of Kafr Owayed, in Jabal al-Zawiya in Idlib, has participated in peaceful protests in his town against the regime. He previously lost his wife and four children to government shelling in his hometown.

He had also become one of the most prominent critics of HTS, according to one of his relatives, until his arrest by HTS four months ago and detainment in al-Oqab prison.

Residents have dubbed HTS-run al-Oqab prison as the “Sednaya of Idlib,” referring to the infamous Sednaya prison in Damascus countryside, known as being one of the cruelest Syrian government prisons. The prison has traditionally hosted political prisoners, among others. 

Al-Deddo was arrested because of a post on Facebook in which he said that he wanted to sell his car so that he could buy bullets and ammunition to fight Syrian government forces. The post had been understood as mocking HTS, which previously seized weapons, mostly the heavy weaponry, of the opposition militant groups and left them unable to stop the government advance. He was officially charged with “inciting sedition.”

This was not the first time that he had shared such a post, according to his relative who said that “he criticized HTS and its leader, al-Jolani, on more than one occasion.”

 

Videotaped confessions

In August, Muhammad al-Saloom, an activist from the city of Kafr Nabl, announced the death of his brother, Samir, along with 45 other persons held by HTS.

Samir’s death came after a year and a half of arrest in al-Oqab prison. Samir “was tortured to death. He died in the middle of April, without his relatives and children ever being allowed to visit him,” Muhammad told Syria Direct. 

Samir was an activist in peaceful demonstrations against the regime, responsible for the printing and distribution of the political magazine, al-Gherbal, and the children’s magazine, Zawraq, both of which he worked on with his brother. 

As news of his death spread, the official HTS news outlet, Ebaa, quickly released a video entitled “Samir al-Saloom: Innocent or Implicated?” In the video, Samir is seen confessing to working with the Turkish Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and coordinating with the Northern Brigade to arrange kidnapping and killing of HTS fighters. In addition, he admits to working with Omar al-Rahmon, a member of the Reconciliation Committee, which works under the auspices of the Syrian government. 

Muhammad rejected what his brother said in the Ebaa video, emphasizing that: “Samir was arrested from his house in Kafr Nabl due to Facebook posts criticizing HTS and the restrictions it has placed on journalists.”

HTS did not deny its responsibility in Samir’s death; instead, it said that his death was deliberate, rather than a result of torture, according to the director of the group’s media relations office. In a statement to Syria Direct, the media official said that Samir died as a result of “the implementation of a penal ruling, because he was working for several parties, in addition to his involvement in an assassination and kidnapping cell in Sahel al-Ghab which delivered its victims to the regime in exchange for a large amount of money per each person.” 

Commenting on the case of Samir, the director of SNHR said that: “The execution of detainees in prisons without informing their relatives, in addition to the implementation of rulings without transparent legal proceedings for the detainees, is behavior that the Syrian regime follows.” 

“HTS is continuing a policy of repression against civil society, as it wants to profit off its share of Idlib by imposing itself on the ground. It considers itself part of the current political settlement,” al-Ghani added, referring to the ongoing political negotiations taking place in Astana, with Turkey and Russia acting as its guarantors. 

HTS’s media crackdown

HTS has invited international media to visit Idlib on several occasions, with the goal of documenting the Syrian government’s crimes against civilians. However, at the same time, HTS has been conducting a security campaign against activists and journalists in the territory it governs.

Most recently, HTS arrested two media activists, Muhammad Da’bool, who is a reporter in Idlib Media Center, and Fateh Raslan, who used to work with Step news agency. While the exact charges against the two remain unknown, detained media activists are usually “charged with photographing military areas that are forbidden to approach or photograph,” according to the activist Muath al-Halabi. 

Al-Halabi, who spoke to Syria Direct under a pseudonym due to security reasons, had also been arrested by HTS at the beginning of 2019 under the charge of photographing military areas, after he had photographed the plight of refugees in a camp. He was released from prison after two months, under the condition that he “pledged not to do it again.”

Since his release, al-Halabi has decreased his media activity, working “secretly, far from what I suspect are military areas.” He also increased the security measures he took, such as “deleting conversations on social media, especially those that talk about HTS’s misdeeds.”

Contrary to al-Halabi, other journalists and activists have preferred to leave Idlib altogether, after years of refusing to do so amidst shelling and destruction. Ali Dundoosh, who is a video journalist, fled to Turkey via smugglers after HTS security forces stormed his home in Kafr Nabl.  

Dundoosh’s home was raided after he accused HTS of being behind the killing of his boss, Ra’ed al-Faris, and his colleague, Hamood Janeed, both of whom he worked with at “Fresh” radio station. HTS accused him of inciting protests against them, Dundoosh told Syria Direct.

Al-Faris and Janeed were both assassinated by unknown individuals in November 2018 in Kafr Nabl. Dundoosh was present during the assassination, but managed to escape alive.

 

The report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Will Christou