Residents in northwest Syrian town caught in the latest crackdown by Al-Qaeda-linked rebel faction

AMMAN: Residents of one northwest Syrian town are in a "state of fear" on Monday following days of killings, arrests, protests and infighting between a hardline Islamist coalition and more moderate rebel brigades, sources in the town tell Syria Direct.

On Monday, residents of Idlib province’s Maarat a-Numan say they are avoiding checkpoints run by Hay'at Tahrir a-Sham (HTS) forces near the southern Idlib countryside town.

Residents are "afraid of being detained" after participating in recent protests against HTS, Ahmad al-Ibrish, a spokesman for the local Free Syrian Army-affiliated Division 13, told Syria Direct.

Maarat a-Numan, 30km south of Idlib city, is the latest flashpoint in a series of confrontations between HTS—a rebel coalition that includes Jabhat Fatah a-Sham, formerly known as Jabhat a-Nusra, Al-Qaeda's Syrian wing—and Free Syrian Army (FSA) brigades.

HTS fighters entered Maarat a-Numan on Thursday after three residents killed the father of one of the coalition’s commanders the previous night, the Ebaa News Agency, an HTS media outlet, reported on Thursday via messaging app Telegram.

 Maarat a-Numan residents protest on Sunday. Photo courtesy of Asaad Hanna.

On Thursday, the day after the alleged murder, HTS seized headquarters belonging to the local FSA brigade Division 13 and arrested fighters, accusing them of involvement.

During Thursday’s raid, HTS killed two civilians and the head of the local police force, a spokesman for FSA-affiliated Failaq a-Sham in the town, Ahmad Abadin, told Syria Direct on Sunday.

HTS forces killed the deceased police chief, Tayseer a-Samahi, during a raid on his home. He was the brother of Division 13 Commander Ali a-Samahi who was killed during clashes with HTS in April.

On Friday, HTS representatives and local council members met to resolve the the conflict. The hardline Islamist coalition agreed to withdraw to the outskirts of Maarat a-Numan, but the arrests of residents continued, sources in the town said.

In days since, HTS has made more than a dozen arrests between civilians and FSA-affiliated fighters at checkpoints near Maarat a-Numan, said Division 13 spokesman al-Ibrish.

In response to the detentions, hundreds of Maarat a-Numan's men, women and children took to the streets to protest HTS this past Friday and Sunday.

 Maarat a-Numan residents protest on Sunday. Photo courtesy of Ahmad Abazeid.

Over the past year, fighting in Idlib, the only province completely controlled by opposition forces, has spurred repeated protests by residents calling for rebel factions to put forth a united front against regime forces.

But for the residents of Maarat a-Numan, an FSA stronghold, they are not only demonstrating against infighting, but also rejecting HTS rule in their regions, one protestor told Syria Direct on Monday.

“The people of Maarat a-Numan are against extremism,” Abdulqadar, a citizen journalist who protested on Sunday, told Syria Direct. “A-Nusra only knows how to rule by fire and brimstone."

The demonstrations themselves are bringing about new arrests, however. HTS arrested six Maarat a-Numan residents after Sunday's protest, and issued several court summons to protesters on Monday, Abdulqadar said. 

Syria Direct contacted the HTS media office on Monday for a response to allegations surrounding the latest arrest campaign, but did not receive a reply.

Residents are in “a state of fear and panic” as the arrest campaign continues for the fifth straight day, Mohammed al-Maarawi, a 25-year-old resident who protested against HTS, told Syria Direct on Sunday.

“People are tired of this injustice.”

Noura Hourani

Noura Hourani is from Latakia province. She studied English Literature at Tishreen University and previously worked as a private English tutor in Syria. She has worked at Syria Direct since 2015 and was named the 2018 Middle East and North Africa Laureate for the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers' (WAN-IFRA) Women in News Editorial Leadership Award. Follow Noura on Twitter: @nanozain81

Yazan Torko

Yazan studied interior design at Damascus university. In 2012, Yazan moved to Jordan where he volunteered with Syrian refugees. He is passionate about theater and previously developed YouTube videos for NGOs and small news outlets.

Hasan al-Rhmoun

Hassan is from Outer Damascus. He previously studied to be a teacher in Syria but couldn’t complete his education due to the war. He moved to Jordan in 2012.

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.