The Last Hours Move… What Does the World Hold for Idlib?

The Idlib Clock Square - January 2017 (Enab Baladi)

The Last Hours Move… What Does the World Hold for Idlib?



Al-Julani’s statement proved to be fake after the control of the city of Idlib, on March 28, 2015, that the “Al-Nusra Front” does not think of taking over the rule of the region, because ” Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham” he militarily leads by , has begun to put its hand on the civil and  service sectors of Idlib province in an attempt to manage, but with “the justice of God’s Shariaa, that preserves the religion of the people and their money, imposes the values of Shura and tries to be just with them,” according to a voice statement at that time.

It seems that the faction’s project aimed at forming an “Islamic emirate” is still on the table, but by changing the methods and names, although it does not openly show its full features or the perception of the body and its management mechanisms to the public.

Enab Baladi tries to understand the rapid steps that the province of Idlib went through after the full hegemony of the Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham” and the fate that awaits it, under the proposals that it is working to form a new “civilian body” to be managed, and maps drawn by regional countries seeking to intervene in the Region.

“Tahrir al-Sham” inhibits the Idlib Council Activity

Eight months passed after the formation of Idlib City Council, which received service and civil issues from the administration of ” Jaish al-Fatah “, after working in the city since the control of the opposition factions, and as the first circumventing of the old agreement, ” Tahrir al-Sham” stopped the work of the Council, after completely subordinating its administrative and civil bodies to its control and inhibiting its role.

The fears that  joined the  formation the Council on its restriction by the “Tahrir al-Sham”  started to re-emerge, and the hope of the people to rely on it in the transition to civil activity within the city diminished after the expansion of the “Tahrir al-Sham” control in the province, and attempts to impose influence on all sectors, amid calls from the Council to the factions to “non-interference in civil life and local councils in order to preserve the public interest.”

In the past, the Council has sponsored dozens of service projects, leading to the appointment of governors to districts and seeking to set up committees to run it. However, it has encountered attempts  of control and manipulation, especially after its call for forming a “Salvation Government” during a meeting attended by most civil society institutions in Idlib on August, 15.

The initiative “is still a project that needs to be completed by the discussions of the interested parties,” Ismail Andani, head of the council, told Enab Baladi. He pointed out that “it was brought up by consensus among all the revolutionary actors. It emanates from a comprehensive national conference that serves as a constituent assembly of an independent civil administration not subject to any military authority, and determines its responsibilities and powers in the light of a work system that controls its work, on the condition that it would be internally and externally open to achieve the public welfare of the country.

Following successive moves by the “Civil Administration of Services” run by the “Tahrir al-Sham”, the Council accused it of attempts of subjugation , through “consecutively accelerated” decisions.

Andani stressed that “The Central Administration of Services has begun to impose its control on the directorates and service departments of the Council, as water and transport directorates, through the decisions of the appointment of managers and changing designations.

He pointed out that the “Tahrir al-Sham” sought to attach local councils and impose its decisions on them and to cancel their independence,” expressing his dissatisfaction with the manner in which that the group proceeds.

The withdrawal of directorates from the council in this way stopped its activities, and Andani said that he is ready to discuss issues such as making directorates public and to hand it over, if necessary, but to a recognized civilian government, which is not controlled by factions, saying “in the event of the suspension of the work of the Council, we will have another attitude at the time.”

The Council will not be subordinate to any party, according to Andani, despite accusations that it was “ruled by the group” when formed. Its president considered that the preservation of the “liberated” areas and their protection against targeting, should be through the formation of a civilian Government, which takes control away from militarization, as well as forming a judiciary  and civilian police and one military body subject to political authority.

“We are not talking about finding an alternative to it. May be it’s the same with amendments or something else. People go and bodies stay,” said Idlib’s Council president, on the form of civil government under the work of the interim government currently.

An Initiative to form a “Civil Administration” in “El-Moharrar”

It seems that the projects of “neutralization of Idlib” began to intersect and show confusion caused by international pressure, to end the existence of “Tahrir al-Sham”, which is accused of its direct connection to the group of “Al Qaeda”. Ten days after the call for the formation of the “Salvation Government”, academics from the University of Idlib launched an initiative named “Civil Administration in liberated areas”.

On August 24, the initiative was attended by about 40 people representing organizations, bodies, actors and military organizations, most notably the founder of the Free Army, Colonel Riad al-Assaad, who was strongly criticized and accused by the Free Army factions of supporting al-Julani project.  However, he considered that those who did not support the revolution and the agents of the regime, are trying to distort the image of those who are working hard to save Idlib from destruction, as the only province that remained without signing. ”

“We took the initiative to form a free army, and today we took it to save Idlib from destruction,” Al-Assaad told Enab Baladi, explaining the nature of  efforts to form an administration. “We met the government, the people, the councils, the clans, the political bodies and all the components so as to find a vision to save the region.”

The initiative did not specify the nature of the government administration in Idlib, but was a meeting to form a “public authority” of Syrians from inside and outside Syria, to decide what will be in Idlib, according to al-Assaad, who explained that a second meeting will be held in the coming days under the name of “General Conference” including public figures, departments, and military factions.

“How to form an administration of the city and who will be governing will be determined by the participants,” said al-Assaad, who spoke about the proposals to form a judicial council, police and one military body, and departments elected by local councils, which are steps similar to the vision of the city council towards Idlib.

As to the presence of “Tahrir al-Sham” and its role in the initiative, the founder of the “Free Army” said that “things have been carefully studied and no one interferes, since we want success to the initiative, we consult everyone, but “Tahrir al-Sham” cannot be prevented from attending the conference or perhaps being represented by one person,” so that it won’t be said that al-Assaad or a certain person or entity is the initiator.”

“There is an internal and external demand to save Idlib and we must reach compromise and makes sacrifices”. Al-Assaad confirmed “We do not belong to al-Qaeda or any other part, but we sympathize with the people.”

As to the future of the province, he pointed out that “it cannot be determined at the moment, the cooperation of people with the initiative and silencing those who hate it ensure its success and this determines the fate of Idlib” hoping that “the initiative meets the ambitions of those at home and abroad, so that we can spare the region international intervention from any party and thus its destruction.”

Abu Mohammed al-Julani and Abu Saleh al-Tahan plan to fight the northern Hama countryside – (Ibaa News Agency)

Abu Mohammed al-Julani and Abu Saleh al-Tahan plan to fight the northern Hama countryside – (Ibaa News Agency)

The interim government continues its work and avoids the clash

The province has more than 2.9 million civilians, many of whom have been displaced from other areas, according to provisional government statistics.

In the middle of this, attention was placed on the Syrian Interim Government, since it has been responsible for managing most of the local councils in the province. However, the Civil Administration for Services has pre-empted any action by the government and considered itself as the sole authority to monitor the affairs of local councils in the liberated areas. The Ministry of Local Administration, Relief and Refugee Affairs, of the Interim Government, responded through a statement confirming the subordination of the administrative bodies.

The ministry did not refer, in particular to the city of Idlib in the statement, but stated that any new entity resulting from a “military change” in any city would have no authority or relationship with the civil status or the councils.

As to the government’s participation in the initiative of the “Salvation Government” in Idlib, Assistant Minister of Local Administration Ahmed Qusoum said in an interview with Enab Baladi that the the representatives were invited individually and they did not represent the government.

The government, ministries and districts have not stopped, or are “greatly affected”, according to Qusoum, who confirmed that they “continue their work under what is going on inside Idlib.”

When asked about the optimal direction, from the government’s point of view, to preserve Idlib, he said that all departments, directorates and ministries are  cooperating to better manage the “liberated” areas.

However, he did not answer a question about the possibility of carrying out the initiatives, in the presence of the government, and the possibility of cooperation with the “Tahrir al-Sham ” or any other entity, to coordinate work within one body “We have revolutionized to form fair institutions for all people and this is what we aspire to,” he said.

The attempts of Tahrir al-Sham were not limited to putting their hand on the political and service file in the region, but extended to reach files such as sport, which occupied a large part of the activities of the province under the direction of the Syrian Sports and Youth Organization.

Thilal al-Moallem, head of the “Syrian Sports Organization” said that with regard to arguments about actions to form an attached body, especially for the sports file, , “Tahrir al-Sham” has not intervened so far and did not issue any instructions.

However, he pointed to attempts which oppose with the political strife, to pull the rug from the Sports Authority, and the exploitation of some people through attempts to create new bodies, but he ruled out, since the Civil Service Administration, controlled by “Tahrir al-Sham”, prevented the formation of any sports authority, and kept the situation as it is at the moment.

The Ambiguous and Indirect Position of Tahrir al-Sham

Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham has not announced its position and official vision of the latest steps instigated by the group, regarding the new project. Enab Baladi communicated with the media relations director, Emad Eddin Mujahid, but received no response.

Several methods were followed by Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, through which it tried to offer its idea indirectly away from showing up or official statements, including an invitation from “Abu Mohammed Al-Julani” to meet with several revolutionary figures, including researcher Ahmed Abazid, Abu Zeid, a member of the former Astana delegation and Hassan al-Daghim, a researcher on the affairs of Islamic groups, in order to discuss the composition of the management project it is preparing to.

Just few days after the invitation, al-Daghim issued a statement in which he explained the details of the invitation he received, claiming that it revolves around “dialogue and the outcome of the revolution, and the reordering of priorities in the liberated areas, after receiving promises from Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham that it will deal with all revolutionary components within the interest of the revolution and the Syrian people, and delay or at least  will not deal with systematic differences.”

He added that conditions were raised before the meeting, including “completely stopping the aggression and abductions, and immediately  releasing the revolutionary abductees, such as Abi Abdullah al-Khouli and Abi Azzam Sarakib, in addition to compensating those affected and ensuring the right of peaceful civil demonstration in their areas of control.”

However, the “Tahrir al-Sham” missed the meeting agreed on last August, 24, according to al-Daghim, who explained that “a sharp disagreement occurred between different parties of the group on their meeting with us to negotiate along with fabricated false pretences.”

Al-Daghim added that “Tahrir al-Sham” accepted the communication again, but later rejected it, as a reaction against his participation  in a demonstration in the town of Anjara in western Aleppo countryside, with leaders of “Nur al-Din al-Zanki” movement; a participation “Tahrir al-Sham”  considered  as a kind of challenge.

Hashim al-Shaykh (Abu Jaber), Commander-in-chief of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham

Hashim al-Shaykh (Abu Jaber), Commander-in-chief of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham

“Hayat Tahrir al-Sham’s” leader, Hashim Sheikh (Abu Jaber), addressed a speech in mosque in Binnish city about  their strategy in the next phase, and the public reaction concerning the schemes drawn by the countries, which are interested in the region.

He said that al-Hayaa is ready to dissolve itself only in case all other factions operating in the north would do the same thing and be brought under one command.

He stated that “they told us that we have first to dissolve Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, and we said we are ready to dissolve the organization, which was built for a means, not an end, but on the condition that the factions themselves will be dissolved and that we will be under one command.”

Abu Jaber declared that “they are currently looking for one body, after the years of rupture and fragmentation the arena has witnessed.”

He pointed out that “the world, headed by Russia and America, is preparing to end the revolution, and to agree with one party on a political solution that would keep al-Assad and waste the revolution’s blood and martyrs.”

He considered that “political meetings and negotiations do not represent the people’s will and their revolution.”

He accused Moscow platform of being “Russia Production”,” along with Cairo platform, which is considered as “Egypt, Sisi and Syrian regime Production”. He also accused the “negotiating body created by Riyadh” which “representation of the Syrian people in reality is invalid.”

“The West is trying to personalize the conflict in Syria, as if it was linked to people who seek power,” al-Shaykh said, “there is no objection to the political solution, but with the inclusion of the principles and objectives of the Syrian revolution.”

He called for “a comprehensive project that includes a program based on a political party, which represents the people and a military party that would protect them.” He pointed out that “this is what we seek, away from any external or internal mediation.”

Civil Administration Initiative in Idlib City - August 2017 (Ebba Agency)

Civil Administration Initiative in Idlib City – August 2017 (Ebba Agency)

What are Countries hiding for Idlib?

Hayat Tahrir al-Sham control over Idlib has triggered scenarios of international intervention, because it is classified in “terrorism” lists in the countries of influence in the Syrian file.

In conjunction with the steps being taken on the ground, major regional states are reviewing their plans. The United States and its counterpart Russia are trying to take military action to end the influence of the faction in the province. The Turkish government is trying to neutralize it through a proposal presented on 22 August that includes three items to be studied with the opposition and factions.

Floundering Turkish Position

Yeni Shafak newspaper, a close associate of Ankara’s decision-making circles, stated that the Turkish proposal is based on three main points: the formation of a local civil administration body to manage the city’s humanitarian and life affairs, neutralizing armed groups from its administration, in addition to “transforming opposition fighters into an official police force responsible for ensuring security and the complete dissolution of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.”

The newspaper pointed out that “official Turkish authorities are currently communicating with Syrian opposition and the city’s active organizations in order to find a solution that eliminates the need for a military operation in the province.”

According to the newspaper the United States, Russia, Britain and France are at the forefront of this possible operation, under the pretext of the “war on terror, which is represented by the remnants of al-Qaeda and al-Nusra members, who are currently present in Syria under the name of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.”

The newspaper pointed out that “Turkey fears that eliminating the largest stronghold of Syrian armed opposition during this operation will strengthen the Syrian regime, in addition to worries about a potential human disaster that could happen on its borders.”

The Turkish-Syrian policy has been floundering for months in the midst of northern Syria “hurricane”, according to Turkish researcher Samir Salha who considered that “Turkey’s problem does not only lay in the groups’ rivalry over its southern boarders, but the constant accusation, the allies are pressing sometimes about the existence of a relationship between Turkey and some of these organizations. The same way Washington did, when it spoke at length about Turkish services that have been provided for ISIS.

In an article published on The New Arab newspaper “Ankara insists on the existence of a plan which aims at directly targeting its national security by trying to establish a Kurdish entity in northern Syria that combines Iraqi border areas with the northwestern frontier in Syria, and also includes the opening of a Kurdish window bordering the Mediterranean Sea.”

“It also considers that Washington succeeded in disrupting the latest agreement of Astana tripartite meeting, which called for the establishment of de-escalation zone in Idlib, opening the way for the construction of a new local force there under the supervision of al-Nusra Front and its local allies, and raising the slogan of the need to eliminate this terrorist organization, before suggesting any security plan in the city.”

United States’ Failing Plans

The American position concerning the present situation of Idlib is no less important than the Turkish position. In view of the delicate updates of the Syrian situation, there is a contradiction between the positions of the United States and Turkey, which firstly appeared in Turkish statements about the failure of a US plan in the province.

Enab Baladi translated extracts from a report published by Yeni Shafak newspaper on 27 August, about the United States’ use of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham as an excuse to “occupy” Idlib, saying that al Hayaa is “al-Qaeda’s arm”.

The report pointed out that Idlib, which is near the Turkish border, will be handed over to the “Free Syrian Army,” noting that “work has begun in order to form a local council and civil administration throughout the province.”

Yeni Shafak drew an analogy between the US pretexts in Idlib to “the democracy pretexts it gave during its occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq” the same way it is “granting the PKK legitimacy in Syria.”

After the full control of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham over on Idlib, the leader of the “Free Army”, Mustapha Sejari demonstrated a plan and stated that “America aims to enable the Syrian Democratic forces to take hold of the eastern region, in preparation for subsequent control of all border areas.”

He added that “the Americans plan (A) is to support the the Syrian Democratic forces to enter Idlib;  a fact rejected by Turkey, which considers it as a threat to national security and a contradiction to the Russian project and ambition. Russia could accept this project if the US did not reach any compromise with Turkey concerning Idlib. ”

According to the leader’s point of view, “the success of the American plan (A) depends on the rejection of the revolutionary factions of Idlib’s program of support and armament, which is similar to the Pentagon program after five months, and if they agreed on it the road will be cut off in the face of Syrian Democratic Forces (QSD).”

In case Americans were unable to implement Plan A, they will move on to Plan B. They have two options, either to support a Sunni Arab military formation or to make a bigger deal with the Russians.

Russian Attempts to “De-escalation”

Moving on to Russia, which is the second main party and the auctioneer in the    Syrian files. Moscow is trying to establish “de-escalation” zones, but it has encountered some difficulties in this process, according to what the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.

Lavrov said during his meeting with his US counterpart, Rex Tillerson, in the Philippines’ capital Manila last August, that “working to establish de-escalation zones in Idlib won’t be easy.”

Observers believe that an” extreme difficulty” lies in the identification of these areas, amid Hayat Tahrir al-Sham control over most of the province’s parts.

Russia announced that it was negotiating with the opposition in six provinces to join a ceasefire agreement in Aleppo, Idlib, Damascus, Hama, Homs and Quneitra.

Russia has previously sponsored a cease-fire agreement in southern Syria, with the partnership of the United States, and announced the agreements of the eastern Ghouta and northern Homs in July and August.

Russia perceives Hayat Tahrir al-Sham as a terrorist organization, as it has eliminated it from previous de-escalation zones.

The Russian Foreign Minister stressed that” they are maintaining contacts with the Americans about the crisis in Syria and they are hoping to carry them on.”

He pointed out that Moscow discussed de-escalation zones in Idlib, with Turkish Foreign Minister Çavuşoğlu.

How did al-Nusra Front hog Idlib Governorate?

November 2012

Al-Nusra Front was founded in November 2012 in order to “restore the authority of Allah to its land, avenge the violated honor, and bring back the smile to women and children,” according to a vocal statement, during which al-Nusra confirmed its dependence to al-Qaeda and its secession from ISIS.

December 2013

Abu Mohammed al-Julani appeared in an interview broadcasted on al-Jazeera channel with media professional Tayseer Allouni, and considered that the front’s first goal is to form an “Islamic mature government that will implement the law of God.”

March 2015

Al-Nusra front took complete control of Idlib city and its countryside, under the banner of the “operations room of the Army of Conquest”, which is composed of several factions.

July 2016

Al-Julani appeared and unlinked al-Nusra and al-Qaeda, changed its name into Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, and defined its objectives as to “close up the distances between the fighters factions in al-Sham, and to protect the Syrian revolution and jihad of the people of the Levant, and to meet the desire of the Syrian people to stop the international community pretexts.”

September 2016

A meeting of “Abu Mohammed al-Julani”, in which he called for an entity that would defend the Sunni people politically and militarily. In his speech, he made references to the transition to political action and used the word “Syrian revolution” for the first time in the organization’s history of jihad.

During these years, Fatah al-Sham ruled out a number of “Free Army” factions operating in northern Syria, including the Syrian Revolutionaries Front, the Hazzm Movement, the Mujahideen Army, and Fastaqim Kama Umirt Union.

January 2017

Fatah al-Sham, Nur al-Din al-Zengi, al-Haq, the Free Army, Liwa al-Haqq, Free Syrian Army, Jaysh al-Sunna and Ansar al-Din Front, formed Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and considered it as a political and military body.

Al-Julani was named the military commander of the faction, while the engineer Hashim Al-Shaykh (Abu Jaber), belonging to Ahrar al-Sham movement, was appointed commander-in-chief, amid news about Julani’s total control of the new composition.

May 2017

Hayat Tahrir al-Sham showed interest in reality service and the work of humanitarian organizations in liberated areas in northern Syria, and started paving roads and extending streets lighting of Idlib and its countryside.

June 2017

A dispute broke out between Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and Ahrar al-Sham Movement after al-Hayaa imposed control over some of Idlib’s economic joints, especially electricity, until the fighting started between the two parties at the end of June, culminating in Al Hayaa’s control over the governorate of Idlib.

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