Former Al-Qaeda affiliate confiscates flour at checkpoint: 'We won't give it up'

Two flatbed trucks carrying flour were seized by Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham (HTS) on Friday at one of the checkpoints controlled by the Islamist rebel coalition in Syria’s northwest Idlib province.

The trucks belonged to the Ihsan Relief and Development Organization, which runs a free bakery for residents in the eastern Idlib town of Saraqeb.

“The Ihsan Organization holds Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham responsible for cutting off 2,000 families in need from free bread,” the NGO said in a statement on Saturday condemning the flour seizure.

The confiscation of the organization’s aid trucks is the latest instance of perceived abuses by HTS in Idlib and western Aleppo province, areas under its control. Since the beginning of the year, Syria Direct has reported on HTS attacking Free Syrian Army factions, seizing equipment from a hospital construction site and making Idlib a target for coalition airstrikes.

“When battles erupt between factions, and rebel checkpoints are put in place, it impedes relief work,” Samir al-Hassan, spokesman for the Ihsan Organization, tells Syria Direct’s Adam a-Shami.

The Ihsan Organization has appealed to HTS for the return of the flour trucks, providing details about the aid delivery and the Saraqeb bakery. However, HTS said they will not return the trucks, citing issues with the Ihsan Organization’s Turkish donors as “an excuse to seize the flour,according to al-Hassan.

 The Ihsan Organization’s statement condemning the flour seizure. Photo courtesy of the Ihsan Organization.

Syria Direct asked Imad Mujahid, a Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham spokesman in Idlib, about the confiscation of the flour trucks.

“There was a complaint against the [Ihsan] organization, so the trucks were temporarily stopped, and the dispute was resolved within a short time,” said Mujahid, who did not comment on HTS keeping the confiscated flour.

“The cars were not attacked, and they were only stopped for a few hours,” he added.

Q: What happened on Friday when your organization’s flour trucks arrived at the Sarmada checkpoint?

After the trucks left the IHH warehouses near Bab al-Hawa [the Syrian-Turkish border crossing in northern Idlib], they were stopped at a checkpoint belonging to Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham [HTS] near the entrance of Sarmada.

[Ed.: The Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief (IHH) is an Istanbul-based NGO which provides relief to Syria, as well as other conflict zones worldwide.]

The trucks were diverted to a food storehouse in Sarmada that HTS previously seized from Jaish al-Mujahideen.

[Ed.: Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham is a coalition including Jabhat Fatah a-Sham (JFS) and other Islamist rebel groups. JFS seized Sarmada from control of FSA-affiliated Jaish al-Mujahideen in late January, local media reported at the time. JFS’s attacks on Jaish al-Mujahideen sparked a wave of intense infighting among rebel factions in Idlib.]

The administration of the Ihsan Relief and Development followed up on the matter and found that the trucks were placed under the control of the General Committee for Services belonging to Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham, the body responsible for dealing with relief organizations.

Q: What steps did the Ihsan Relief and Development take after learning about the flour confiscation?

We appealed to Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham. They requested, first off, very detailed information about the bakery’s operations—the number of consumers, the amount of bread and the names of the beneficiaries.

We provided them with the requested data the same day.

The next day, they told us: ‘Our problem is with IHH and not with you, but we will not give up the flour.’

Of course, IHH contacted HTS, who then said, ‘Our problem is not with you, it's with Ihsan Relief and Development.’

As we see it, what HTS is saying about IHH not cooperating with them is just an excuse to seize the flour.

 A flour truck. Photo courtesy of Shaam Network.

Q: Has anything like this happened before? Are you afraid that it could happen again?

We don’t have any idea as to why we’re having this problem now. There haven’t been any problems or friction between us and Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham, or Jabhat a-Nusra, in the past.

We don’t think this will happen again, particularly considering that the event has been written about on social media, and that many people have expressed their frustration with this sort of behavior.

Q: What is the status of the flour deliveries since the confiscation? 

Now, we’re waiting for the flour to be replaced. If the flour is not replaced or the IHH trucks are confiscated again, then the bakery will shut down.

[Ed.: In a statement released on Saturday, Ihsan Relief and Development said that HTS was responsible for blocking the delivery of supplies to its bakery in Saraqeb, which distributes free bread to 2,000 families in need.]

Q: Are there are other difficulties your organization faces in distributing assistance in Idlib province?

Our primary aim is to deliver aid to orphans, the displaced and the poor.

The greatest challenge to providing this support is rebel infighting. When battles erupt between factions, and rebel checkpoints are put in place, it impedes relief work.

Mohammad Abdulssattar Ibrahim

Mohammad is from Amouda in Hasakah province. He moved to Jordan in 2004. Mohammad started work with the Syrian Revolution LCC in Amman by doing reporting and coordinating protests. After that he did volunteer work for refugees in Amman.

Adam a-Shami

Adam is 26 years old and is from Damascus. He studied economics but could not complete his studies due to the war. He moved to Jordan in 2013. Adam joined Syria Direct to learn the principles of journalism.

Tariq Adely

Tariq Adely graduated from Brown University in 2014 with a bachelor's degree in comparative literature and translation. He continued his studies at the Qasid Institute and the Institute for Critical Thought in Amman, Jordan.