SYRIA – FRANCE 24’s jihadism expert Wassim Nasr recently travelled to Idlib, the northwestern Syrian province controlled by the armed Islamist rebel group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), and a desired target for President Bashar al-Assad and his regime. During his visit, Nasr became the first-ever French journalist to meet with Abou Mohammed al-Joulani – the former chief of al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch turned HTS leader and today a sworn enemy of jihadists. Travelling from the Turkish border through to Idlib via Harem, Atmeh, Ariha, Jisr al-Choughour and the Christian village of Yacubiyeh, Nasr shares his notes and observations.
1. Idlib, the rebel stronghold’s showcase city
The road leading from the Turkish border to Idlib, recently taken by UN delegations visiting the areas struck by February’s disastrous earthquakes, has been freshly paved and is lined with plants and palm trees. It is intended to showcase Idlib’s so-called “salvation government” – the administrative arm of HTS, the armed Islamist group controlling Syria’s last rebel stronghold.
Situated between two checkpoints, it is impossible to advance any further on this stretch of road without an HTS escort as well as a guide in charge of accompanying journalists. Visitors entering the province are greeted by a giant Syrian revolutionary flag and a large banner with the declaration of the Islamic faith written in black letters on a white background.
From the first months of the Syrian uprising against Assad’s regime in 2011, Idlib was the scene of brutal fighting that quickly ascended into civil war. The province also became a transit hub for many of the foreign fighters who travelled to Syria to wage jihad, and the stage for some of the most brutal abuses committed by jihadist groups against civilians, especially against the Druze and Christian minorities.
As you enter the city – which fell under control of a coalition of rebel, Islamist and jihadist groups in 2015 – there’s no sign of either jihadist black banners nor the HTS group’s logo. Apart from two roadblocks manned by masked men in khaki uniforms representing the city’s “roadblock services”, you’re almost astounded by the lack of armed men in the streets. No one can be seen wearing traditional Afghan outfits, and there are no signs of any fighters patrolling or even just circulating.
“We made sure people understood that the place for fighters is at the front, not among of the population,” my guide told me.
At first sight, the massive number of revolutionary flags fluttering in the city might seem insignificant, but it is actually a tell-tale sign: the HTS wants to distance itself from the jihadists, who denounce all kinds of national symbols. All that is left now are a few faded profanities written on the walls targeting Shiites and democracy, both detested by the jihadists.
Idlib teems with life. The Kitap Café, a bookstore-library located between the al-Tawhid mosque and the former Carlton hotel, has become a “haven of peace” for readers and students alike. Women and men are separated from each other in the cafe, just as they are in the city’s restaurants. In Idlib’s public spaces, however, such as its gardens or shopping centres, mingling between the genders is tolerated, as are cigarettes and the revolutionary songs which can be heard playing in the shops.
The war has displaced millions of people, and in the past few years Idlib has seen its population almost double. According to Doctors Without Borders (MSF), the number of people living in the province has now surpassed 4.5 million. For the past three years, a vulnerable truce with the Assad regime – occasionally broken through incursions and air strikes, but much less often than before – has rendered the city much safer.
2. Abou Mohammed al-Joulani, head of HTS and chief of Idlib
A day after my arrival in the city, I get a rare invitation to meet Abou Mohammed al-Joulani in a residential part of Idlib. Joulani has only granted two interviews with foreign journalists before – the first with Qatari broadcaster al-Jazeera in 2015, and the second with American CBS in 2021. I’m also granted interviews with one of Joulani’s most trusted companions, Iraqi national Abu Maria al-Qahtani, as well as several HTS and “salvation government” officials in the days that follow.
My meeting with Joulani takes place late at night and is framed by security measures, including an obligation to leave all means of communication in a vehicle parked in another neighbourhood.
The HTS, which is classified as a terrorist group by the United Nations, has somewhat of a peculiar backstory, much like its leader. Prior to heading HTS, Joulani was a high-ranking member of the Islamic State group of Iraq (from which the Islamic State (IS) group then splintered) and publicly broke with global jihadism. In 2012, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, then-leader of the Islamic State group of Iraq who would later head the IS group, assigned Joulani to Syria along with some of his men to benefit from the contacts and networks his group already had in the country and form a sub-branch called the al-Nusra Front.
Once in Syria, Joulani gradually began to break away from Baghdadi’s authority and began to refuse orders. In 2013, he went so far as to pledge allegiance to al-Qaeda and its then-leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri.
Three years later, Joulani severed his ties with al-Qaeda, turned against Zawahiri and purged the al-Nusra Front of its most radical elements.
Today the HTS, a fusion of several Islamist and rebel groups, has ensured its dominance in the last redoubt of Idlib and is actively fighting both al-Qaeda and the IS group present in the area.
The HTS says it is working to ensure that the areas under its control cannot be used as platforms to prepare attacks against the West. Many of the higher-ranking members of the group that I met with during my journey also said that the war waged by Russia in Ukraine is directly in line with Moscow’s involvement in the Syrian conflict since 2015.
3. Meeting Idlib’s last remaining Christians
On the third day, after being invited by the HTS to attend a meeting between some of their high-ranking members and representatives of three of Idlib’s Christian villages, we take the province’s infamous M4 road. This road, with its several Turkish army surveillance bases of a few thousand soldiers, was patrolled by Russia and Turkey between 2019 and 2020.
In recent years, several attacks have targeted both the patrols and the Turkish bases.
Since 2012, the Christian villages of Idlib province have been hit hard and their inhabitants subject to the true horrors of war: extortions, hostage-takings, rapes, property confiscations; their churches have been bombed, destroyed, burned, and in some cases, converted into mosques. The horrors forced some 90 percent of their inhabitants to flee.
But in the past two years, and in what might resemble an attempt at self-criticism, the HTS claims it has launched a process to return confiscated property to Christians who come forward “with the exception of those linked to the Syrian regime”. This is a long and complicated process whose framework is still being worked out.
During the meeting, the Christian representatives highlighted these challenges and discussed ways they could potentially be overcome. One such example is the use of filmed witness statements to prove ownership in cases where ownership documents no longer exist.
So far, several houses have been returned to their rightful owners, some by force. According to HTC, in the village of Qunaya, this concerns “56 empty houses, 42 houses returned to close relatives, (and) 41 houses in the process” of being returned. In the village of Yacubiyeh, the figures are “90 empty houses, 120 houses returned to close relatives, (and) 109 in the process” of being returned. Negotiations are still underway for the return of farmland – the villagers’ main source of income. Following the devastating earthquakes in February, however, these plans have been put on hold until August 1, 2023.
Properties have also been returned to people living in the city of Idlib, but the Christian community there has refused to take back their church due to a “lack of resources to maintain and guard it”.
In zones controlled by the rebels, Christians can practice their religion, but not without restrictions. Christians are allowed to hold daily masses and restore some of their churches, but they are banned from ringing church bells or putting crosses on buildings.
“The situation is certainly delicate for us Christians, but it’s been improving for the past two years,” a resident I meet confides. The fact that the situation has improved has prompted some to try to bring their family members back into the region. While some of those who fled sought refuge in other parts of the country, others now live abroad.
Some Christians are also campaigning for the opening of a direct crossing between Idlib and the areas controlled by the Assad regime to make it easier for them to travel and visit their relatives. Today, such journeys are not only complicated, but also carry exorbitant price tags, costing at least $700 – a huge sum for most Syrians. Those who can afford it must enlist a series of smugglers to first try to cross the areas controlled by pro-Turkish rebels and then those controlled by the Kurdish YPG militia before reaching regime-held territory.
4. The ‘dignity camps’ near the Turkish border
Before I leave for Turkey, the HTS agrees to a detour to visit the giant Atmeh camps (which many Syrians refer to as “dignity camps”) located on the edge of a buffer zone wedged between the areas controlled by the HTS and pro-Turkish armed groups.
One of the “salvation government’s” greatest challenges is to keep a census of and manage the refugees living there. “Some accommodations that were supposed to rehouse displaced people from illegal camps have been given to earthquake victims,” Minister Mohamed Bashir, in charge of the administration’s development and humanitarian aid services, said.
For Idlib residents, it is important that the relations between Turkey and the HTS – which essentially boil down to a permanent balance of power – stay functional. While Ankara must acknowledge the authority of the HTS (although it probably would have preferred to govern Idlib in the same way it governs other areas in northern Syria), the HTS must acknowledge Turkey’s influence in the region, since it is its only cordon to the outside world and still has a military presence in Idlib.
Both the Islamist and Syrian representatives I met on the ground said it would be difficult “for Ankara, Moscow and Damascus to impose an agreement that has been negotiated without the HTS”. If they did, it would be perceived as a diktat against not only their interests, but those of the revolution.
The HTS holds several strategic cards it can use if it needs to, and still considers itself in a position of strength in its commanding position. One of the most precious cards it holds is the threat of hostilities resuming, which would send a flood of refugees to Turkey – where they are less and less welcome – and in the longer term, potentially also to Europe. Such a surge of refugees would not only consist of civilians but also of local and foreign jihadists, who the HTS up until now has somehow managed to control and contain. Several dozen of the jihadists are French nationals.
The HTS may not have softened on its religious rigour, or the laws it has forcefully imposed on Idlib’s population, but it has taken a clear stance against global jihadism. Twelve years after the revolution began, the HTS’s “salvation government” is a last-ditch attempt at achieving independent governance of Idlib.
During my visit, I was repeatedly told by civilian representatives that “We are not rebuilding. Rather we’re building everything up from scratch, and we need the international community’s help to do that… If the HTS and Joulani are considered terrorists, does that mean that all of Idlib’s children are considered terrorists, too?”
This article was translated from the original in French.
This story originally appeared on France24