The village of Arab Sa'id in west Idlib countryside came to wider attention because of the tensions and clashes between Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and the al-Qa'ida-loyalist group Hurras al-Din. Despite HTS' general hegemony over Idlib and its environs, the village of Arab Sa'id appears to have been an exceptional case of a village under the de facto control of Hurras al-Din and it seems that the group cultivated a genuine local support base there.
However, given HTS' far superior military capabilities, HTS was able to subdue Hurras al-Din in clashes that came in the wider context of HTS' campaign against the 'So Be Steadfast' operations room in late June 2020. Since striking an agreement with Hurras al-Din that saw the group effectively cede its de facto control of Arab Sa'id, HTS has imposed its authority over the village in multiple ways. But this assertion of HTS authority has not gone unchallenged. There have been demonstrations in Arab Sa'id against the actions of HTS. To talk more about Arab Sa'id, below is an interview I conducted with a local source on 24 August 2020. It is slightly edited and condensed for clarity. Any parenthetical insertions in square brackets are my own.
From a demonstration in Arab Sa'id. August 2020.
Q: What is the number of inhabitants in the village and can we say that the village was under the control of Hurras al-Din before the recent events with the Hay'a [HTS]?
A: The number of its inhabitants is around 4000 people. No, it is like any area in Idlib. But Hurras' treatment [of the village] was very good, and especially Abu Omar Manhaj [a Hurras al-Din figure arrested by HTS]. Therefore we have come out in demonstrations.
Q: Yes, so how did Hurras serve the people of the village? Did they provide the people with general services for example?
A: Firstly it protected the village. Second it protected the mosque during Friday prayer. [Also there were] division of mountainous lands for the village with fairness, the formation of a local council to administer the affairs of the village and the opening of roads for the civilians in the mountainous lands affiliated with the village.
Q: How did the Hay'a attack the village and were civilians martyred in the attack? And what has happened after the Hurras left the village?
A: It attacked through its assault with tanks and its bombardment with missiles. Then there occurred an agreement to prevent bloodshed and harm to the village. And one civilian was martyred in Martin [village next to Arab Sa'id] and there occurred wounds in the village. A checkpoint for the Hay'a has been placed inside the village, and [there are] harassments against the village: the arrest of one of the notables of the village because of the demonstrations.
Q: I see. Right. In addition to arresting one of the notables of the locality, what are the other harassments that the people of the village have faced?
A: The placing of the checkpoint in the middle of the village because the al-Assad gang has bombed the checkpoint multiple times. And the movement in the village has diminished in fear of the arrests.
Q: Have they replaced the local council?
Q: I see, but have they not compelled the local council to subject itself to the authority of the Salvation Government?
A: They arrested the head of the council and seized the place of the council and have sat in it to replace the checkpoint. And they have sent a new mosque imam affiliated with the Salvation Government. And yes [they have subjected the local council to the authority of the Salvation Government].
Q: I see. And the head of the local council remains arrested? And why did the Hay'a arrest Abu Omar Manhaj?
A: No, they released him [the head of the local council] after pressure from the demonstrations and the tribes. And they arrested [Abu Omar Manhaj] on accusation of ihtitab [lit. 'firewood gathering,' but often generalised to extortion/looting] and nothing was proven against him. So they have accused him of having revolted against the authority. Of course by the admission of the general Shari'i official for the Hay'a and some of the commanders with the Hay'a he is innocent of all the accusations and they have found no proof against him.
Q: And he was affiliated with Hurras? And was he responsible for the village of Arab Sa'id? Is he still arrested by the Hay'a?
A: Yes [affiliated with Hurras], no [not responsible for the village but] he is one of the sons of the village and he has a group from the sons of the village. Yes [still arrested], it's been two months.
Q: Are the demonstrations continuing until now?
A: Currently no, because of the pressure of the Hay'a on the notables of the village and threatening them with arrest if they go out on demonstrations. But if God wills, in two days we will return in demonstrations.
Q: And do you have a message for the Islamic Ummah?
A: We the people of Arab Sa'id call on the Islamic Ummah in its 'ulama and mashayakh and thinks and we clarify to them that our cause that is not a personal or regional cause but a general cause is embodied in removing the oppression befalling us and others besides us at the hands of the Hay'a leadership and its amnis. For we did not revolt against Bashar the oppressive disbeliever for us to be ruled by another oppressor whoever it may be, even if he is Muslim. So we call on the 'ulama, the thinkers, the media guys and the politicians to exert their influence on the Hay'a leadership to stop the practice of arrests without trial and to give the arrested his right in public defence of himself to prove his innocence in the event any accusation is directed against him.