Syria: People of Idlib resist Assad, Islamists

November 15, 2019
Demonstration in Maarat Al Nu’man in solidarity with Kafar Takharim and against HTS on November 7. Photo credit: MMC/leilashami.wordpress

A popular uprising has broken out in Idlib, a province in the north of Syria, against the reactionary Islamist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), according to Leila al-Shami, a well known Syrian activist and author.

The uprising began in the town of Kafar Takharim, when people refused to pay increased taxes imposed by HTS on goods and services, including bread, electricity and olive oil. They stormed HTS-controlled olive presses and police stations and evicted HTS from their community.

HTS responded violently. According to al-Shami: "HTS surrounded the town and demanded that locals hand over a number of individuals who participated in the protests, under threat of retaliation. The locals refused and determined to continue their resistance against the militants.

"On November 6, HTS forces besieged the town and began attacking it with mortar and machine gun fire killing at least three people and injuring others. But the locals continued resisting and all around Idlib towns and villages rose up in solidarity with Kafar Takharim, demanding that HTS and its leader Jolani leave the province.

“People took to the streets in Idlib city, Salqin, Maarat Al Nu’man, Darkush, Samarda, Ariha, Kurin, Armanaz and elsewhere. People from Armanaz and Idlib city began marching towards Kafar Takharim to try and break the siege but were blocked by HTS militants.

“On November 7, protesters from Salqin managed to break into the town from the north.

"Popular resistance to HTS has been a regular occurrence in Idlib province and chants against Jolani are regularly heard at the anti-regime protests which are held almost every Friday. Many see the group’s authoritarianism as no different from that of the [Bashar al-Assad] regime."

Idlib was an early centre of the 2011 revolt against the Assad dictatorship. However, the province increasingly came under the control of reactionary armed groups.

Turkey, which armed the rebels, favoured groups that were religiously sectarian and/or racist towards Syria's Kurdish minority.

In 2014, Jabhat al-Nusra (JN), the precursor of HTS, attacked and crushed the Syrian Revolutionaries Front (SRF), an alliance of non-sectarian rebel groups in Idlib. In the area they conquered, JN forcibly converted the Druze religious minority to JN's version of Sunni Islam.

After 2014, most of Idlib was controlled by various reactionary rebel groups, including JN/HTS and another Islamist group, Ahrar al-Sham. These groups were initially allies, but later fought each other, with HTS coming out on top.

Some of the surviving members of the SRF fled to Afrin, where they later joined with the Kurdish YPG (People’s Protection Units) and YPJ (Women’s Protection Units) and other groups to form an alliance known as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

Within Idlib province, the struggle for democracy continued in a different form. Local councils and community organisations resisted the dictates of HTS and other reactionary groups, risking arrest, torture and murder.

Meanwhile, Idlib has come under increasing attack from the Assad regime. Rebel-controlled towns have been bombed, with hospitals amongst the targets. Hundreds of thousands of people have fled their homes.

Idlib had previously received many refugees from other parts of Syria. There had been a series of deals between Russia, which has consistently backed the Assad regime, and Turkey, which has abandoned its previous goal of overthrowing Assad.

Under these deals, Turkey persuaded or pressured the rebel groups it supported to withdraw from other parts of Syria and move to Idlib. In return, Russia gave Turkey permission to move troops into parts of northern Syria to counter the SDF.

In August 2016, after the SDF had driven the so-called Islamic State out of Manbij, Turkey moved its troops into Jarablus and al-Bab to prevent further SDF advances.

Turkey invaded Afrin in January 2018. In October 2019, it began an invasion of north eastern Syria, which still continues.

Turkey also has troops in Idlib province, supposedly to monitor a ceasefire, but this has not prevented the Assad regime from bombing the area and capturing some territory. Turkey has recruited some former anti-Assad rebels to participate in its war against the SDF, thereby weakening the defence of Idlib against Assad.

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