The preacher climbed the pulpit, his head covered, with an air of prestige and dignity. But the worshippers quickly realized he was a member of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), an alliance dominated by former Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, and paid little attention to what he said. He took out a smartphone and recited his sermon from it. The contrast was stark: The preacher with the latest phone delivering a sermon to a crowd of impoverished residents in the border village of Khirbet al-Joz in Idlib governorate. The majority now lives in camps and can barely feed themselves, and came to the mosque to enjoy a little cool air and escape the 40-degree heat of midday outside. I asked some of the worshippers if they had listened to what the preacher said. They replied, “Allah bless him, a five-star sermon,” a bitter mockery of his wealth.
HTS is doing its best to control the mosques and present itself as God’s caretaker of the people, who cannot even hold protests against the group. Its rule is like that of the regime of President Bashar Assad but disguised in beards and Afghan dress. The group delivers its message to Idlib’s residents via many platforms, particularly the mosques. Those who prayed at Khirbet al-Joz are not an isolated example. Abdullah al-Muhaysini, the group’s spiritual leader, delivers Friday sermons that talk of the need to be patient and support the jihadis.
Rather than easing the suffering of those under its rule, HTS controls the share the poor receive of aid allocated to each area. In Biksariya village close to Khirbet al-Joz, an aid group did a survey of the displaced to work out who should benefit from direct cash assistance. Abu Abdullah, from the village council, said a HTS member called Abu Saleem visited the organization with a list of HTS fighters and their families, demanding that they be added to the list of beneficiaries. Seven of the HTS members received $90 each, including Mohannad Sheikh Hasan and his brother Najdat, two members of the Tamim family and four of the Qahwaji family, all of them HTS fighters. Abu Abdullah said such behavior was common in five villages: Khirbet al-Joz, Biksarya, Al-Hamboushiya, Armala and Al-Shatourya. Among those in need but deprived of aid are a young widow who was unable to access cash assistance because of the group’s behavior.
The problem goes beyond the plundering of aid intended for the poor. The group interferes with the judiciary and the Shariah courts it claims to protect. A court last month freed a drug dealer in Harem city in exchange for $50,000. Activists distributed pictures showing a receipt stamped by the HTS-run judiciary. Islamic law prohibits the shortening of sentences in exchange for money, but material greed took precedence.
A Syrian source who works with HTS to search for remains said the group “heads to any area where there is money and has its fatwas ready.” He said all arms and drug dealers in Syria work under the protection of extremist groups. It should be mentioned that there are Syrians who work with HTS simply to benefit from its protection and power, without having any loyalty to the group. Most Idlib residents believe HTS considers those joining its ranks are absolved of any previous sins, even if the new recruit is a shabih or member of the Assad regime’s security forces, and can pay a bribe and go free. The tale of the drug dealer is by no means unique. It is not the first case of its kind and will not be the last.
The residents of Idlib live in fear of HTS. Many believe that the walls have ears; whoever talks about “the brothers” – the group’s fighters – must do so in whispers. They are considered mujahedeen or holy warriors, according to the group’s judicial system. When Abu Abdullah tried to take members of the group to court for seizing aid intended for the displaced in his village, the court’s response was that HTS fighters are mujahedeen and therefore have a right to things others do not. Abu Abdullah and other residents wonder what kind of jihad they are talking about. HTS is not fighting the regime on a single front in northern Syria. Some residents claim that HTS fighters are only deployed on front lines with the Free Syrian Army and Ahrar al-Sham, but are not actually fighting.
Many Syrians feel they are living under occupation. They reacted positively when they heard of Turkey’s intervention in Idlib, counting down the hours and minutes. Resident Khaled said, “HTS and those close to it can only be described as evil,” pointing to the group’s mistreatment of those under its rule. HTS bans women from wearing trousers and there are daily arrests of young women for not adhering to the group’s religious dress code or for wearing makeup. Young men are banned from shaving or listening to music, and can be arrested for talking to women in the street. On one occasion, members of the group even deliberately blew up an electricity pylon near Khan Sheikhoun. As a result, many residents would be willing to see Ahrar al-Sham take the place of HTS: Despite its hard-line vision, it allows a certain amount of freedom.
Nobody will be able to stop HTS attacks on residents unless all the factions unite, and urgently. The group is taking over more elements of Idlib’s vital infrastructure each day – something to which Ahrar al-Sham and other factions have paid little attention. Impoverished and displaced people can only complain to God, say Abu Firas al-Masri and Khaldiya al-Mohammad. Mohammad’s house was seized by HTS courts under a ruling they issued in the border city of Harem on the accusation that her husband had lived in regime areas.
Idlib residents’ life under Islamist factions like HTS differs little from life under the oppressive Syrian regime. These factions are not interested in anything but the interests of their fighters, and care little for the rest of the people, who have run out of everything they need for a dignified life. Now they are waiting for a new hero to save them from the clutches of extremist Islamists, who have sent the revolution to the intensive care ward and are waiting for someone to finish it off completely. Neither Aleppo, nor Raqqa, nor Idlib has won its freedom. All these cities have gone from one occupation to another – whether that of a leftist secular state under the hereditary rule of the Assad clan, or by hard-line Islamist movements that wage war on democracy and civil life in the name of Shariah law.
Saleem al-Omar is a freelance journalist who has written for Al-Jazeera, Alquds Alarabi Newspaper, Arabi 21 and Syria Deeply. This commentary is published by permission from the Atlantic Council and can be accessed at: http://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/syriasource/idlib-waits-for-liberation-from-hay-at-tahrir-al-sham.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 27, 2017, on page 7.