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Syria: A purge in the northwest cracks open discontent with HTS' grip on power

Rebel fighters and commanders have been rounded up and tortured by the militant group. Now Syrians are saying enough is enough
Fighters from the jihadist group Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham in Idlib province on 16 August, 2023 (AFP/Omar Haj Kadour)
Fighters from the jihadist group Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham in Idlib province on 16 August, 2023 (AFP/Omar Haj Kadour)

Though Syria's frontlines are largely quiet, a simmering discontent is boiling over in the rebel-held northwest.

Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a powerful militant group that grew out of Syria's al-Qaeda branch, has held Idlib province and parts on the Aleppo countryside in a firm grip since becoming the dominant power in rebel-held territory in 2019.

Despite its domination, the faction has waged a "security" campaign on its own ranks and fighters in other armed groups, detaining dozens of people accusing them of treason and espionage.

The campaign has swept the enclave for more than six months, with the militant group silencing its own senior leaders and low-ranking members, as well as members of other well-established groups in the region.

Those affected by the crackdown have reported merciless methods of torture in HTS prisons.

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A popular rebel fighter, Abdul-Qader al-Hakim, even died in custody, news of which spread shockwaves across northwest Syria.

Crowds of frustrated Syrians, exhausted and paranoid after months of the HTS purge, even gathered in a series of protests - the most open challenge to the militant group in years.

The protests, which took place in HTS-held towns and villages, including Binnish, Marea, Killi, and al-Atarib, saw people chanting against the group's policies and calling for the overthrow of HTS leader Abu Mohamed al-Jolani, the freedom of prisoners, and an end to the group's grip on people.

Hakim, a 28-year-old married father of three children, was a member of rebel group Jaish al-Ahrar. He was arrested eight months ago after having had disagreements with HTS, according to media reports.

After learning of his death, Hakim's family refused to hold a funeral until his body was returned to them. The family was then directed by HTS to a mass grave where his body was exhumed.

The family told Middle East Eye that the state of the body decomposition indicated that Hakim was killed months ago.

Protesters rally in the town of Idlib in Syria's northwestern Idlib province on 1 March 2024 against Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (AFP)
Protesters rally in the town of Idlib in Syria's northwestern Idlib province on 1 March 2024 against Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (AFP)

Jaish al-Ahrar issued a statement of mourning and reburied Hakim after a military parade passed through several areas in the Idlib countryside.

"We heard from sources that he was given what was thought to be a lethal injection when he fell ill due to torture and terrible prison conditions," Yasen al-Mostafe, Hakim’s cousin, told MEE.

"On his last night alive, Hakim was suffering from agonising pain, but when the inmates begged for a doctor, the guards claimed that there weren't any. He was then taken out of his cell and given an injection. Hours later, he began foaming at the mouth and passed away."

Mostafe said the sources told the family that Hakim died weeks after he was arrested, alongside 26 people, mid-last year over accusations of espionage for the US-led coalition operating in Syria and Iraq.

"He was a beloved and brave man. He told us that he will turn himself in to prove his innocence. They killed him," Mostafe said.

Mysterious lists

While Jolani has been on the US terrorist list for a decade, he has freely operated in the areas under his control and been seen in public several times in recent years.

HTS controls half of Idlib province and parts of Hama, Aleppo and Latakia, commanding an area that hosts around three million people, many of whom had fled other parts of the country during Syria's 13-year civil war.

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The group has thrived in northwestern Syria through reforming local government, and building malls and markets. In addition to financing local media, and training journalists and activists, the group has detained and abused media workers who criticise its practices.

HTS frequently uses allegations of espionage to detain civilians, activists, fighters and leaders, and to dissolve rival groups, including well-established rebel factions. 

Jolani has his own most wanted list and last year assembled a team to apprehend senior leaders accused of disloyalty and of being defectors.

Rumours abound about why HTS is targeting the people it is. Some say the names on its list have been provided by Turkey, while others believe they were offered by French intelligence in exchange for information about foreign militants. 

There is no evidence to back up those claims, however. Others suspect more domestic concerns lie at the heart of the campaign.

According to one Idlib-based activist, a series of arrests were made when an activist at an HTS media outlet confessed to being an informant and offered the names of several other people he claimed were as well. Some of those suspects, too, then gave up names when subjected to interrogation and torture.

A rebel source told MEE that the arrest of the media activist in question was random. He said the activist was detained after suspicious payments into his account were uncovered as HTS was auditing the Hawala system, an informal method of transferring money.

Detention campaign

Days after the detention campaign began in August, Abu Maria al-Qahtani, HTS's Iraqi second-in-command, was arrested. 

HTS said in a statement that Qahtani had improperly used social media and external communications. Affiliated media outlets, meanwhile, published alleged parts of Qahtani's interrogation, during which he admitted his cooperation with an Iraqi official who had contact with the intelligence services of the US, UK, France and Israel.

Four months later, the third senior figure in the militant group, Abu Ahmed Zakour, who headed the economic wing, was preparing to defect and flee instead of fight.

When Zakour arrived in the Turkish-controlled city of Azaz in late December, the situation took a dramatic turn. Under the cover of the night, a group of HTS members surrounded Zakour's guards and clashes ensued.

'They have killed a freedom fighter and they are arresting anyone who criticises them'

- Mohammed Assaf, activist

The two sides were soon surrounded by the Turkish army and were all detained and taken to a military base in the Turkish city of Kilis on the Turkish-Syrian border. 

It remains unclear whether Zakour, who appears to have a relationship with Turkey, was taken to the military base, however, after that night, he began actively sharing information via voice notes on WhatsApp groups. 

In his messages, Zakour said that the leader of HTS had held meetings with the CIA and the British military intelligence agency MI6 near the Syrian-Turkish border.

In exchange for huge sums of money, Zakour said, Jolani handed to the US around 40 foreign militants holding British, American, Chechen, Albanian, and French nationalities. Jolani, he added, also provided MI6 with information on foreign militants held in HTS prisons. 

He also said that HTS was responsible for many explosive attacks that hit the rebel-held area, including the Atme blast that killed more than 50 fighters and civilians in 2016.

Zakour told a Turkey-based Syrian media outlet that HTS had the false perception that Qahtani had plans to share control of the group with him by collaborating with the US-led coalition to kill Jolani if Donald Trump wins the US presidential election in November.

Zakour has released and published photos of himself with Turkey-backed rebel leaders. He also released a photo of two of his brothers, who were also former HTS members, posing with Turkey-backed Syrian rebels to demonstrate their defection from the group.

Two brothers (middle) of former HTS leader Abu Ahmed Zakour stand between Turkish-backed Syrian rebels (provided)
Two brothers (middle) of former HTS leader Abu Ahmed Zakour stand between Turkish-backed Syrian rebels (provided)

Local sources estimate that HTS has so far arrested more than 300 people during its campaign, many of whom have been released. 

"They have killed a freedom fighter and they are arresting anyone who criticises them on social media," Mohammed Assaf, a Idlib-based activist who participated in the protests against HTS, told MEE.

"Our reasons to protest are clear: We demand the formation of an independent committee to solve the issue and ease the HTS’ security grip on civilians in Idlib."

The UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria and various human rights groups have accused HTS of rights abuses including torture, sexual violence and enforced disappearances.

According to the France-based Syrian Network for Human Rights, the HTS is responsible for the killing of more than 500 civilians and the enforced disappearance of 3,000 people from 2011 to date.

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