Shadow war between HTS, suspected IS sleeper cells leaves civilians in Idlib city living in fear

The remains of cars after a twin bombing in Idlib city on February 18. Photo by Muhammad Haj Kadour/AFP.

AMMAN: In rebel-held Idlib province, Islamist coalition Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham has launched a crackdown on suspected hardline rivals in Syria’s northwest, following a wave of bombings and assassinations largely blamed on Islamic State sleeper cells.   

Civilians in areas controlled by Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham (HTS), meanwhile, say they are trying to cope with security lockdowns and the looming risk of violence, as uncertainty and fear once again descend over daily life in Syria’s last rebel-held enclave.

On March 5, local activists reported an outbreak of armed clashes in one area of Idlib city following a HTS operation against a suspected Islamic State (IS) cell.

Several HTS fighters were injured in the clashes, which ended with a suspected IS fighter detonating himself after a drawn-out gun battle.   

And last week, a suspected IS suicide bomber detonated themself inside the crowded Fusion restaurant in downtown Idlib city, reportedly killing several members of HTS as well as a number of civilians.

According to reports, senior HTS leadership were meeting in the restaurant at the time of the attack.

Syria Direct could not independently verify the claims.

In retaliation, HTS publicly executed 10 suspected IS members already held in custody, before launching crackdowns against cells within Idlib city and around the rural western Aleppo town of Atarib.

During a raid on March 5, HTS forces reportedly captured IS commander Abu Khattab Kafr-Nabudah and seized significant storehouses of weapons that had been hidden by the group.

Muhammad Rasheed, spokesperson for Turkish-backed rebel faction Jaish al-Nusr, a former HTS rival that clashed with the hardline Islamists in January, claimed that the aggressive campaign had begun to weaken IS’ ability to operate in certain areas.

Nevertheless, targeted hit-and-run attacks have continued to escalate in recent weeks—indiscriminately hitting civilian areas including public squares and a restaurant.

“We see that [IS cells] do not differentiate between civilian and military targets,” Rasheed told Syria Direct. “The bombings have hurt civilians first and foremost.”

Um Osama, a resident of Idlib city, said that the ongoing struggle between feuding hardline Islamist rivals has left civilians with a deepening sense of insecurity, with many terrified to leave their homes.

“What’s happening is a campaign of elimination between the two sides, between the leadership of Daesh [IS] and [HTS],” she said. “There’s vengeance between the two sides, but it’s always civilians who get caught in the middle.”

“Anybody could die in any explosion, because the explosions are happening in areas with lots of civilians.”

[Ed.: To read Syria Direct’s full interview with Idlib city resident Um Osama about the impact on civilian life amid HTS’ anti-IS crackdown in and around Idlib city, click here.]

Many of the attacks in Idlib have gone without claims of responsibility.

According to Chris Kozak, senior analyst with the Institute for the Study of War think-tank based in Washington DC, attacks by IS cells have intensified since HTS seized vast swathes of territory from rival rebel factions at the beginning of the year.

“We’ve seen an uptick in IS attacks, which coincides with a government shakeup in the northwest,” Kozak told Syria Direct in late January.

“What we are seeing is a campaign by IS to re-establish a foothold in [Syria’s northwest].”

In the largest attack in recent months, on February 18, a coordinated double car bomb in the al-Qosor district of Idlib city killed at least 24 people and wounded around 70 others.  

The second explosion detonated as rescue workers and civilians rushed to the blast site.

And on January 29, a suicide bomb ripped through the administrative headquarters of the HTS-affiliated Syrian Salvation Government (SSG) in Idlib city, injuring several people.

According to reports from Ebaa News Agency, an HTS-linked Telegram channel, a fully veiled woman approached the main entrance of the SSG building before engaging in a shootout with guards.

No group claimed responsibility for the attack, although a statement posted by Ebaa appeared to blame IS.

Civilians in Idlib city who spoke with Syria Direct said the indiscriminate nature of the attacks was a major driver of fear among residents—with recent bombings targeting a restaurant, public spaces and offices belonging to the SSG.

“Of course, people are terrified,” said Muhammad Maari, a media activist in the area.

“Many of the victims in these bombing attacks have been civilians. As a result, many families have even stopped sending their children to school.”

A hardline Islamist coalition spearheaded by Syria’s former Al-Qaeda affiliate, HTS seized control of the majority of opposition-held northwestern Syria in January in a series of rapid advances against rival Turkish-backed rebel groups.

HTS now controls around 80 percent of the northwest, including rebel-held areas of Idlib, Aleppo, Hama and Latakia provinces.

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

Barrett Limoges

Barrett Limoges is an investigative journalist who has reported from across the MENA region, his work appearing previously in Al Jazeera, Middle East Eye, PBS Newshour, Al-Monitor, Huffington Post and other publications. He studied journalism at the University of King's College and is currently pursuing a MA in Political Science at the American University of Beirut. Follow Barrett on Twitter: @barrett_limoges.