Syrian protesters rise up against Hayat Tahrir al-Sham

Protesters waving flags and banners
Protesters in Idlib have for months been calling for change, despite heavy repression (image: Omar Albam/DW)

Opponents of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad seeking refuge in Idlib are now protesting against local Islamist hardliners Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. The group is accused of becoming increasingly dictatorial

By Diana Hodali

People in the Idlib region of northwestern Syria are taking to the streets again in protests triggered by the death of a prisoner in jail, apparently through torture at the hands of security forces of the Islamist militia Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS).

The prisoner's family long tried in vain to obtain information about his condition. "When we finally found out in February that he had been tortured to death, we had to take to the streets. We couldn't remain silent," Hamed T. explained.

Hamed T., whose name has been changed, has been protesting against the Assad regime since 2011, when he was 17.

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the death penalty has also been applied to 13 civilians and members of the military. 

Hamed T. originally comes from another Syrian city but has lived in the northwest of the country for several years. Like many people living here, he is displaced in his own country. Some have fled for a second, third or fourth time.

For freedom and reform

On most Fridays, men and women of all ages take to the streets in their dozens, hundreds and sometimes thousands in Idlib City, Binnish, Darat Izza, Jisr al-Shughour, Atareb, everywhere in northwestern Syria where the HTS militias hold sway. Teachers, police officers, and engineers have joined the protests to demand their rights.

Idlib is largely under control of the HTS, which emerged from the Islamist al-Nusra Front. Over the years, the HTS has crushed many of its opponents and become the strongest group in the region, controlled by rebels and Islamists.

The people's resentment is directed squarely against this group, especially its leader Abu Mohammad al-Julani. The protesters have several demands, according to Hamed T.: an end to torture in HTS prisons, the release of prisoners, as well as economic and political reforms. The loudest demand of all is for the resignation of al-Julani.

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Al-Julani: monopolies and patronage

His style of government has become increasingly "personalistic and dictatorial" in recent years, according to André Bank, Syria expert at the Hamburg-based Giga Institute, who says al-Julani now dominates both the economy and security in the region.

The earthquake in February 2023 hit Idlib particularly hard. "This has drastically worsened the already difficult supply situation for around 4.5 million people in the region," said Bank. In addition, there is international "donor fatigue", which means that much less external aid is arriving in the region.

According to Bank, al-Julani's authoritarian rule is heavily dependent on patronage politics and connections to the various HTS currents: "It's not just military status and money that play a role here, but also questions of origin, family and tribal affiliation."

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Two-pronged strategy to hold on to power

In order to contain the protests against his rule, al-Julani is currently pursuing a two-pronged strategy. In March, he agreed to a series of reforms. These included an amnesty for certain prisoners, a new Public Security Directorate, elections for the Shura Council and a kind of advisory body made up of representatives from various citizens' groups.

His critics, however, say that he has not implemented many of these concessions.

In the meantime, al-Julani is trying to suppress the demonstrations. His security forces use batons and tear gas, and have set up roadblocks against the protests and several new checkpoints. HTS fighters are increasing their presence in protest strongholds and arresting more and more people.

A few days ago, al-Julani threatened the protesters. "We will not tolerate any individuals, gatherings, parties or groups that want to harm the liberated region," he said, referring to the areas controlled by his HTS militias.

Islamists are also divided

But in addition to the growing street protests, there is considerable unease within the radical Islamist group. The authoritarian rule of the HTS is being "challenged from within," says Bank. There could be an internal split.

These tensions were triggered by al-Julani's decision to arrest leading members of the HTS, whom he accused of working with foreign institutions and exchanging information with other parties. This provoked so much resistance that the leader was eventually forced to release the detainees.

Bank fears that these internal struggles in the HTS could lead to the return of the radical Islamist Islamic State group, which was actually considered defeated, as well as the Hurras ad-Din group, a successor to al-Qaida.

"In the short term, Assad is benefiting from the clashes, without question," he said. "At the same time, the people in northwestern Syria also know who is responsible for a large part of their suffering – so a defection to the regime in Damascus is unlikely." At present, the Assad regime's airstrikes are continuing in the outskirts of the area controlled by the HTS, adding to the destabilisation of the region.

Civil society alive and well in Idlib

Despite the repression and the threats from the HTS leadership, the protests have not yet subsided. Compared to previous waves, the current ones are characterised by a wider reach, greater intensity and use of violence.

"The current protests in northwestern Syria show that a Syrian civil society continues to exist alongside HTS supporters who are critical of Al-Julani," said Bank. Despite the war, people are still pushing for the same demands made during the Syrian uprisings of 2011.

Hamed T. is among those who can remember that protest. His commitment and fearlessness symbolise the ongoing struggle of many Syrians for their basic rights, even in difficult times. They have had enough of the politics of violence. "I will continue to take to the streets and demonstrate for our rights," he said.

Diana Hodali

© Deutsche Welle 2024