The formation of Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham ('Liberation of al-Sham Commission'- HTS) has understandably provoked fear of a total jihadist/al-Qa'ida takeover of Syria's rebel-held northwest, centred around Idlib province. HTS was announced on 28 January amid wider rebel infighting in Idlib that saw multiple groups merge under Ahrar al-Sham in a bid to protect themselves from Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS), the rebranded Jabhat al-Nusra that had ostensibly dropped links to al-Qa'ida in July 2016. The largest single component of HTS is undoubtedly JFS, whose leader Abu Muhammad al-Jowlani was recently confirmed in a video release to be the overall military commander of HTS, even as the overall leader Hashim al-Sheikh was originally in Ahrar al-Sham and had been pushing for his group to merge with JFS.
At present, there is still a substantial presence of Ahrar al-Sham in northwest Syria, but it is evident that the recent turns of events have severely diminished the influence of rebel factions in the area that are vetted and supported by the MOM operations room in Turkey. A merger with Ahrar al-Sham means an end to vetted status, while rebel factions more widely are being pressured by Turkey and other external backers to take a firmer line against HTS. Yet the prospect of a full-blown confrontation and all-out war with HTS could be fatal to the entire insurgency in the northwest as the regime and its allies would likely exploit the opportunity to secure major territorial gains.
Rebel factions (including Ahrar al-Sham) can of course opt for a closer relationship with Turkey, bolstering the Euphrates Shield operation in north Aleppo countryside that recently took al-Bab from the Islamic State. But this option means drawing more resources and manpower away from Idlib province and the wider northwest, which allows HTS to increase its influence. Whatever way one looks at it, the best that the rebel factions can hope for in the northwest is keeping HTS in check somehow: that is, maintaining some kind of stalemate in the balance of power. Even so, it is apparent that HTS is taking an ever more assertive line on the ground, not only in its drive to absorb more and more factions but also in its relations with civil society structures where non-HTS actors might hope to maintain some influence.
The area of Jabal al-Summaq in north Idlib province is a notable case-in-point. Of Druze origin, the area's original inhabitants have been forced to renounce their faith and convert to Sunni Islam twice. The first time was under pressure from what was then the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham as it expanded its influence across northwest Syria through 2013. The second time was under Jabhat al-Nusra, which gained control over the area in late 2014 after the expulsion of the Syrian Revolutionaries Front from Idlib province. Jabhat al-Nusra and its successors have remained in control of the area since that time.
The existence of a services wing established under Jabhat al-Nusra has long been known: the General Administration for Services (al-Idarat al-Aama lil-Khidimat). However, its presence and functioning have not always correlated with the existence of strongholds under Jabhat al-Nusra and its successors. In some areas, such as Khan Sheikhoun in south Idlib province but coming under the Hama division of the General Administration for Services, we find that this services department for what is now HTS has been competing alongside the local council. Local councils- which are supposed to be civilian bodies embodying local governance in 'liberated' areas-are considered to be among the main pillars of civil society in insurgent-held territory. In the case of Khan Sheikhoun, the local council is affiliated with the Idlib provincial council, which is in turn backed by the opposition-in-exile/the interim government.
In Jabal al-Summaq, despite the dominance of Jabhat al-Nusra and its successors since the end of 2014, there has not until now been a functioning branch for the General Administration for Services. Instead, services have been managed by local councils that share the same chain of affiliation and support as that of the Khan Sheikhoun local council. For example, in the village of Kaftin, one of the larger villages of Jabal al-Summaq in which a substantial proportion if not the majority of the original inhabitants has remained (also true for Ma'arat al-Ikhwan, whereas other villages like Duwair are completely depopulated of their original inhabitants). Displacement has occurred for a variety of reasons: some prefer to work in regime-held areas, others did not want to live under forced conversion to Sunni Islam, a combination of these factors etc.
The local council of Kaftin was set up three years ago and is led by an administrative office consisting of nine people.
Emblem of the local council for the village of Kaftin. On bottom: "We work for your sake."
Perhaps the most notable service the local council in Kaftin has undertaken is management of an oven that makes and distributes bread for locals. According to a post by the Idlib provincial council in December 2016, this oven in Kaftin serves around 5000 families, translating to approximately 25,000 individuals, in three localities. Based on other information, the other two localities besides Kaftin are Birat Kaftin and Ma'arat al-Ikhwan (both villages also in Jabal al-Summaq, the former having seen more displacement of its original inhabitants than the latter). This oven was opened in November 2016 and the Kaftin local council had announced a recruitment campaign for personnel to operate the oven at the time.
The Kaftin oven. Note the symbol of the Kaftin local council on the banner, which reads: "Our bread is among the treasures of our land."
Bread packs with the marking of the Kaftin local council.
The local council in Kaftin also plays a role in education for the youth. Kaftin has four schools, but they teach according to the education programs of the regime. These programs are considered better than those offered by the opposition, and so people from neighbouring villages have sought to have their youth study in the schools of Kaftin. That said, there are regulations in place regarding certain subjects, notably the removal of nationalist ideology, modification to the teaching of history and removal of art subjects (i.e. art and music). There is of course also religious education in line with HTS' rules (i.e. only teaching Sunni Islam). One should compare with regulations put in place in late 2014 by the Dar al-Qada– the judicial branch for what was then Jabhat al-Nusra- in the Idlib locality of Darkush, a stronghold for the group. Some specifications on education were also noted on the second imposition of Sunni Islam on the original inhabitants of Jabal al-Summaq, requiring Islamic teaching for the youth in designated places of prayer- which amounts to standard da'wa practice- and a prohibition on gender mixing in schools.
Many of the teachers and education personnel continue to receive salaries from the regime in Hama province: a key example of how the regime tries to maintain some leverage in rebel-held areas, ultimately seeking to regain them (another case-in-point is that the regime pays salaries of retired state employees in those areas). Yet there are also some teachers who are working on a voluntary basis or have defected from the regime. Their salaries are paid by the local council in Kaftin, which also provides for the needs of the schools (e.g. fuel).
Other services of note include public cleaning, agricultural land auction for the purposes of grazing, working with the Syria Immunization Group to implement vaccine programs, and working on land telephone lines.
Like many other local councils, the local council in Kaftin works with international aid programs and organizations to provide some services. For example, in May 2016, the council advertised distribution of emergency aid to displaced people. The aid was provided by the World Food Program and Human Appeal.
At the head of the Kaftin council is Abd al-Majid Sharif, an anti-regime political thinker and activist originally from Kaftin and presently residing there. Some readers may recall that the outlet Syria Direct interviewed him in March 2015 regarding the situation in Jabal al-Summaq, in which he outlined the reality of the forced conversions and the failure of Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt's supposed mediation. According to Sharif, the council does not have elections, whether internally done within the council or externally through popular elections for positions. Sharif clarified further: "I want to abandon [my position in the local council] to have time for theoretical work, but no one wants to undertake the job and the other members are threatening me with resignation if I resign."
The status-quo whereby the realm of services provision in Jabal al-Summaq has been in the hands of these local councils that are ultimately tied to the opposition-in-exile is now under threat from HTS. On his Facebook page late last month, Sharif wrote of a new initiative from HTS to subsume the local councils under its services wing:
"In the province of Idlib and the north of Aleppo, whereby HTS control has arisen without contests and the rest of the factions and formations have gone into seclusion, or even many of their members handed over their weapons to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham or joined it, the commission [HTS] is currently forming a civil administration in the name of the General Services Administration, and is directing for the previous administration represented in the local councils to become affiliated with this General Administration. The cadres of Fatah al-Sham say that the council that will not accept this affiliation to it will be dissolved and a replacement will be formed for it.
But the problem is also with the cadres of the councils who fear the commission's [HTS'] revenge if the cadre rejects working with it. The second problem concerns the possessions of the councils that will be automatically transferred to the new councils affiliated with the General Administration. The third is that this will annul the work of the provincial council and the interim government. The fourth and most important is that the commission is classified worldwide with terrorism legally speaking since Fatah al-Sham forms its main body, and so also the countries and organizations will reject working with it and we will be turned to a form of siege even if there are no bombing and destruction of the installations that these countries and organizations had previously offered to the local councils.
We are in a true dilemma, I do not know how we can get out from it. But it should be noted that the new General Administration has covered or deceived the entire area with aid, especially free bread and semi-free bread. This aid is being offered by Turkish organizations: it is as though Turkey is trying to pressure the international community through its support to obtain something in return. I do not believe this will last long if something must be sorted out with Turkey and this aid stops.
I asked one of the members of the provincial council: What is your opinion? And where are things headed? He replied: To the precipice."
Though Sharif told me on 27 February that he had only heard of this services branch for HTS twenty days ago, the reality is that it is not a new institution but reflects the General Administration for Services discussed earlier in this article. The difference now is that HTS is simply being more assertive in trying to ensure services provision comes under the affiliation of this services branch in areas of its control. In Jabal al-Summaq, though the idea of services oversight by what was then Jabhat al-Nusra had been mentioned in the second imposition of Sunni Islam, it does not seem to have been realized. As for what Sharif writes about aid of Turkish origin, it is slightly to make out his exact meaning, but one can only suppose that if the Turkish state is involved in mass aid provision here, the idea is actually to try to undermine HTS, considering that Turkey wants the broader opposition and insurgency to take a firmer stance against HTS. If the aid is being appropriated by HTS though, it only reflects the problem of supply lines into Idlib province being controlled by HTS.
So far in Jabal al-Summaq, according to Sharif, HTS has only set up its own local services administration in the village of Qalb Lawze, which has seen more than half of its original population displaced as well as settlement of Uyghurs, in addition to being the site of an infamous massacre in June 2015. In response, some members of the local council in Qalb Lawze withdrew, while others have remained and overhauled the local council, thus choosing to work under HTS' services administration. Sharif said that in Kaftin, the ultimatum had not yet come, but he indicated that he does not see an interest in working with an HTS services administration. As Sharif also put it, "I prefer that we administer our affairs ourselves."
In short, these developments reflect how the declaration of HTS represents an ever bolder assertion of jihadist influence and power, not only in terms of relations with the more 'mainstream' insurgency but also wider civil society. The options for these non-jihadist actors in Idlib province in particular in the face of HTS' ascendancy seem ever more constrained. Undoubtedly, a significant reason for this quagmire is that the growth of HTS' main predecessors in the northwest and Syria more generally was allowed to fester for too long. Now the broader insurgency and opposition must live with the consequences of that.
Update (4 April 2017): For more on the Kaftin bakery/oven and HTS' approach towards it, see here.