Two weeks after capturing one of Syria's significant rebel strongholds, former Al Qaeda affiliate HTS is trying to strike a moderate tone, but the people who fought and defeated them previously refuse to trust them.
ISTANBUL/GAZIANTEP —“Thank God we eliminated the Zonok [Zinki] ... They are corrupt and murtadeen,” one of the Hayat Tahrir al Sham (HTS) terrorists wrote to his comrades in a group chat on January 4 using Telegram, the most common messaging application in northern Syria.
“Brothers, don’t say murtadeen publicly,” Omar al Shami, another militant warned him against using the word for ‘apostates’ in Arabic. “The leadership has ordered that we shouldn’t say murtadeen publicly.”
The conversation somehow got leaked to Atarib-based social activists hours after the HTS militants, wearing balaclavas and wielding machine guns, boarded pick-up trucks to invade the city and take out the fighters affiliated with an armed group named Zinki.
Atarib is one of the initial bastions of rebellion against the Syrian regime leader Bashar al Assad. Seven years ago, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) fought a decisive battle against Assad's military, and drove them out of the city.
At the beginning of the Syrian civil war, the HTS' predecessor Al Nusra Front was not a relevant force in Atarib. It was the FSA that commanded popular support, and the HTS could not make inroads into the city, as people rightly perceived them as an extension of Al Qaeda, and did not approve of their radical mindset.
But things have changed now. It’s been almost two weeks since HTS declared victory in Atarib and several other towns of northern Syria, the last remaining rebel stronghold against the Assad regime.
For locals in Atarib, the leaked conversation on Telegram wasn't surprising at all. They are familiar with the extremist ideology that HTS espouses, and its men comparing the moderate Zinki fighters with apostates confirmed their fears.
After the takeover, HTS has been trying to gain some degree of legitimacy by avoiding confrontation with the local population. Besides guarding the checkpoints, the armed group occasionally drives around the town with its men brandishing pistols and guns.
Looking for local allies
Apart from winning the street battle, the HTS understands the importance of winning the hearts of Atarib residents.
But there's a serious trust deficit on the ground.
Sarout al Shamal is a young law student and activist who has equally opposed the HTS, the Syrian regime and Daesh. Shamal told TRT World that although the HTS is yet to commit any human rights abuses, they still cannot be trusted.
Shamal's next door neighbour happens to be an HTS supporter. After the opposition faced defeat, the neighbour asked Shamal if his thoughts about the HTS have changed since the group no longer 'intervenes' in people's lives.
“Yes, nothing has happened so far," Shamal responded. "But you know it very well that we are not going to support your organisation, even if you send us to paradise.”
During the HTS offensive on Atarib, the group fired at Shamal's house with heavy machine guns. The trauma of that shooting still haunts him. For him, its soft policy toward the people is nothing but a "new tactic" to gain some degree of legitimacy on the ground.
The armed group now controls the city's administrative units from the local council and courthouse to the police station.
Under an agreement with the HTS, the NLF leaders, including members of Zinki, agreed to leave the city to Turkish-controlled Afrin and exchange prisoners. This led to the HTS taking charge of the city, handing over the control of key institutions to what the armed group calls the ‘salvation government.’
City council members immediately refused to work under HTS rule, resigning en masse. In response, the salvation government formed an ‘alternative body’ to run the city affairs.
Prior to the HTS takeover, Atarib was preparing to hold elections for the city council. Shamal says that's highly unlikely now since the HTS is filling all the civic roles with its loyalists.
On the Aleppo campus of Free Aleppo University, the first institution for higher education which has a campus in Idlib as well, rumours are rife that HTS is planning to change coursework and introduce subjects that are more agenda-driven rather than academically or scientifically sound.
In other HTS-controlled areas that go beyond Atarib, hospitals issued statements confirming their affiliation to the opposition-run Idlib Health Directorate (IHD) and called upon all aid groups and foreign funders to stay neutral and continue supporting the medical sector no matter which stakeholder or fighting force controls the city.
Southwest of Atarib, the opposition-run Idlib Free Police suspended its work and handed over its police stations and equipment to the salvation government.
In west Aleppo’s Darret Ezzah, a town in the north of Atarib, HTS has reportedly warned those people who openly reject its rule to leave the city or face the consequences. The memory of Raed Fares is still fresh. A radio host from Idlib’s Kafranbel town, Fares was a fierce critic of both the Assad regime, Daesh and other extremist groups like the HTS. He was assassinated by masked men in Idlib after the HTS had asked him to stop playing music on air.
By 2015, the residents of Atarib, along with the FSA, defeated first the Assad regime and then Daesh, as well as pushing back HTS on multiple occasions. Life in the city slowly limped back toward normalcy. With the help of nonprofits and social welfare groups, Atarib hosted events to tackle issues from sanitation to employment to avoiding ideological polarisation. People were even willing to engage in programmes aimed at re-integrating former Daesh supporters into the community. Workshops on nursing, computer and language training were also held.
In search of peace
Unlike Idlib, Atarib had managed to keep HTS at bay. Because of that, people didn’t fear protesting or openly denouncing the group. As per local accounts, the majority of city dwellers were driven by the politics of inclusion and development. As a result, the city did well in enhancing its civil administration.
“There was a lot of altruism, flexibility and freedom in the activities of the city’s civil society groups,” Shamal said, describing the mood in the city before the HTS takeover.
After Daesh was defeated in Atarib in 2014, HTS members reached out to community leaders in the city, asking them to join the group's 'civil administration.' The aim of HTS was to strike a cordial tone and convince them they were better than Daesh, which had received a stiff resistance from both the opposition fighters and Atarib residents until the group was defeated.
Most of Atarib's community leaders rejected the proposal.
Local activists in Atarib told TRT World that soon after the failed talks, HTS not only harassed and jailed its critics but also gunned down several religious leaders and activists who denounced the group for its violent history.
Dirar Samer*, an Atarib-based activist told TRT World that locals are concerned that “arbitrary detentions are going to be widespread now, since they [HTS] are apprehending or kidnapping activists in Idlib everyday based on charges such as incitement against HTS.”
Peace was brokered between the NLF and locals in Atarib due to the armed group's moderate political outlook and its steadfast defence in guarding the city from HTS, Daesh and the Assad regime. However, the armed group also became part of the judicial process, helping people solve local disputes.
The residents, according to Samer, fear the HTS backlash if they engage in civic activities any longer. “We are still scared of doing such things especially after hearing that HTS asked activists and revolutionaries of Darret Ezzah to leave the city and to head towards Afrin,” he said.
The defiant ones
The walls of the city are a witness to Atarib's revolutionary spirit. “Atarib has eliminated two states” is one of the popular slogans written in Arabic all over the city, referring to the defeat of Daesh and the Assad regime.
Atarib's resistance against Daesh was remarkable since it was one of the first decisive victories against the terror group in Syria, which set the precedence for other cities. The following year they continued fighting HTS with the same spirit.
“HTS continued what ISIS [Daesh] and Assad tried to do,” Samer says. “It doesn’t like to see an independent [self-governing] city, especially those whose people refused to join its Salvation Government.”
Although HTS is penetrating deep into the administrative structure of Atarib, it remains to be seen whether the residents will fight back one more time and drive the armed group out.
Compared to 2014, the dynamics have changed dramatically. Back then the revolutionary forces in Atarib did not retreat or accept defeat when either Daesh or HTS briefly entered the city.
This time the residents not only feel claustrophobic from HTS's tightening grip on the city, but they also feel alone.
Both Shamal and Samer told TRT World that they fear the city would soon be labelled as a haven for terrorists, as most foreign aid organisations have ceased to work there, exposing them to attacks from the Assad regime and international forces.
After the HTS takeover, many European NGOs have already suspended their humanitarian activities in the region. To avoid any health crisis, the opposition-run health directorates in Idlib, Aleppo and Hama have already sent volunteers to the city.
The only civil defence group in opposition-held Syria, known as Syria Civil Defence, said in a statement that the decision to suspend aid work and funding leaves more than three million people without access to healthcare, a right guaranteed by the members of the United Nations.
“All this further punishes the vulnerable civilians who are already coping with the impact of eight years of aerial attacks, forced displacement, and difficult winter conditions,” the volunteer group known as the White Helmets said.
The HTS-controlled areas in Idlib are often subjected to air strikes launched by Russia and the Assad regime, causing civilian casualties. Turkey and Russia previously signed a ceasefire deal on two conditions: one, HTS would withdraw from designated buffer zones, and two, the Assad regime must scale back any major military offensive and avoid targeting civilians and forcing another exodus.
The Assad regime hasn't made any military move against Atarib yet, but internal migrations have already begun.
Mustafa Shami*, an activist from the countryside in Atarib, is one of them. He devoted a lot of time to documenting the crimes of HTS, which put his life at risk.
Shami recalls the day when the chairman of the opposition force Zinki told him they were leaving the city. It meant Zinki had lost the battle and HTS was capturing the city.
The next thing Shami did was contact his friends and say, “It’s over guys, Zinki has lost the battle.”
Outside, panic gripped the city with people coming out onto the streets with regret and frustration. Soon after, he found himself with a group of about 300 people – men, women, older people and children – making their way towards the mountain of Al Sheik Akeel near Aleppo. Following the unpaved roads, they were set to seek refuge in the Turkish-backed FSA-controlled Afrin.
The weather was extremely cold, and they knew the journey was full of dangers and obstacles. But they didn’t take the hail of gunfire from the Assad regime-held areas into account.
While several dozen of them were injured, many went into deep psychological shock.
“Please leave us and continue. We forgive you,” those with critical wounds said, insisting their travelling companions move on. Those who weren't hit shouldered the injured. One of the women from the group had a miscarriage right after reaching Afrin, and many left their families behind. Shami was one of the few lucky ones who made it to Afrin.
“I used to document HTS violations and publish their violations on social media,” he said. “If I had stayed, they would have arrested me on charge of incitement against them.”
He left his home in a hurry, without saying goodbye to his wife and child. He says he's certain he won't be able to see them anytime soon — until HTS is defeated.