Tensions rise in Idlib, HTS’ prisons file causes disorder

Protesters demand the overthrow of the leader of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and disclosure of the fate of detainees in the faction's prisons in Idlib - March 1, 2024 (Enab Baladi/Anas al-Khouli)

Protesters demand the overthrow of the leader of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and disclosure of the fate of detainees in the faction's prisons in Idlib - March 1, 2024 (Enab Baladi/Anas al-Khouli)


Enab Baladi – Hassan Ibrahim

The issue of “Collaboration with internal and external entities” has settled down after wreaking havoc in the ranks of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which militarily controls Idlib, despite its significant size and the freezing of the powers of the second man, Abu Maria al-Qahtani, and the defection of the third man, Jihad Issa al-Sheikh (Abu Ahmad Zakour). However, it has brought the prisons issue to the forefront, creating a state of anger among civilians, military, and legal authorities.

“No to Jolani and his theft, we don’t want you,” and “We want the detainees,” were chants that reverberated through Idlib’s streets and social media platforms. Demonstrators raised the bar of demands to reach the head of the faction’s pyramid and raised their voices to save those faint voices behind the bars of Tahrir al-Sham and inside its prisons, amid an environment witnessing a tight security grip.

The issue of prisons and torture in the detention facilities of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham has opened the door to criticism and demonstrations wide open, a file that has long disturbed Tahrir al-Sham and its leader, who faced a campaign of criticism in 2021, when he denied the existence of torture in the faction’s prisons. Despite his apology to those released a month earlier, this did not suffice or lessen the magnitude of the demands to overthrow the leader of Tahrir al-Sham and reject its policies.

Protests against the HTS

Days ago, the city of Idlib witnessed a state of anger against the policy of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. Sporadic demonstrations emerged, the most prominent of which was at the Clock Tower roundabout in the heart of the city on February 27, and after Friday prayers on March 1.

Demonstrators expressed their rejection of HTS’ policies, which hold the military control in the area, amid demands to overthrow its leader Abu Mohammad al-Jolani, release the detainees, cleanse the prisons, and hold the aggressors against detainees accountable.

The demonstrators vowed to continue their movement until the demands are fulfilled, condemning the policy of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which they described as reminiscent of the Syrian regime and its security branches.

Demonstrators who met with Enab Baladi stated that they demand an end to the monopoly and individualization of decision-making, to stop despotism and injustice, and to hold accountable everyone who commits a violation. They reject the criminal behavior practiced over the region, highlighting that their movement is distinct from the disagreements among the factions and parties.

The case of torture in HTS prisons

Signs of exhaustion and torture were apparent on most of those released from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham prisons after being detained for varying periods on charges of “collaboration with outside parties,” renewing residents’ memories of torture scenes in Syrian regime prisons. The case of a Jaysh al-Ahrar faction member’s death in one of HTS’ prisons was enough to trigger demonstrations.

Enab Baladi learned from relatives of the deceased, Abdul Qader al-Hakim, known as Abu Ubaidah Tal Hadya, and sources within his faction, that they learned of his execution in HTS’ prisons about five months ago, and confirmed this on February 24, after pressuring Tahrir al-Sham to reveal his fate following his arrest about ten months ago.

After the mass release campaign by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham at the end of January, his family demanded to know his fate, only to be informed that he had died and was buried at a cemetery in Sheikh Bahr area, in western Idlib countryside, five months ago.

Upon learning of his death, a military convoy from Jaysh al-Ahrar went to the Sheikh Bahr area, transported the body, and held a funeral procession through several regions in the Idlib countryside, finally burying him in Taftanaz town, east of Idlib, amid a state of outrage, especially after it was revealed that Tahrir al-Sham had prepared a grave and a headstone with the young man’s name and a recent death date, i.e., after his fate was exposed.

Demands to stop injustice

With the release of some detainees, clerics and preachers called for an independent judicial committee to investigate the “collaboration” file. But, following the spread of accounts of torture and unethical behavior inside prisons, they requested the release of all detainees, including the preacher and legal authority Abdul Razzaq al-Mahdi, whose posts and Friday sermons continue to mention torture, calling to stop oppression, tyranny, and domination. He declared, “It has become crystal clear that one man’s control over the Sham’s landscape (referring to al-Jolani) has led to despotism, injustice, and hardship.”

He added that this allowed security officials “to wildly punish anyone who contradicted the Emir by torturing them, sometimes to death, and occasionally by insulting honor,” calling upon scholars, people of wisdom, and notables to gather and have the decisive say, and work on radical change, as he put it.

Atoun comments and promises a general amnesty

As the intensity of the demonstrations continued to rise, the Supreme Fatwa Council head in Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, Abdul Rahim Atoun, promised to issue a general amnesty for detainees, visit the prisons, and correct mistakes, detailing the steps the faction has taken amid the “collaboration” issue.

Atoun stated that Tahrir al-Sham had released those proven innocent, suspended investigators, and everyone the judicial committee called to be detained later; a “judicial committee” was formed to look into the rights of the detained who were released, and to hold accountable anyone proven involved and overstepping.

He added that Tahrir al-Sham held a series of meetings and sessions with various civil and military entities to update them on the latest developments, listen to their advice, opinions, and viewpoints, and also held sessions with the Public Security Service to review security procedures, and work on improving the conditions of detention, investigation, and sentencing, among other things.

Atoun promised to visit the security prisons to review their reality and consider issuing a general amnesty, with the approach of Ramadan, noting that the amnesty is in its final touches.

Denial of torture followed by an admission

In 2021, al-Jolani said during an interview with American journalist Martin Smith, in response to a question about reports of journalists and activists being arrested and sometimes tortured, that all the individuals arrested by Tahrir al-Sham are “agents of the Syrian regime or Russian agents coming to plant explosives, or members of the Islamic State organization.”

Al-Jolani described the arrests as targeting thieves and extortionists, refusing to acknowledge that Tahrir al-Sham persecutes its critics. He firmly denied the existence of torture in the faction’s prisons, stating, “I completely reject this,” considering the arrest of opposition from other factions or critics of his faction as “rumor,” adding that he would grant international human rights organizations access to the prisons.

Al-Jolani’s denial of the torture in Tahrir al-Sham prisons was not convincing at the time, and was met with accusations of “lying” by civil and human rights circles and by detainees who were released and spoke about their experiences behind bars.

Following a series of releases from HTS prisons about a month ago, clear signs of torture were evident on those released. In response, al-Jolani issued an apology, acknowledging the occurrence of torture inside the prisons, characterizing what happened during investigations as a “crime,” and promised to take necessary actions to restore their rights. He noted that Tahrir al-Sham had detained some of the individuals responsible for these transgressions.

Enab Baladi learned from military sources within Tahrir al-Sham that the leadership of Tahrir al-Sham provided sums ranging from $2,000 to $5,000 to leaders released from its prisons, varying according to the length of imprisonment and the nature of the leader’s position, without precise information as to whether HTS provided amounts to all the detainees they released, in connection with the “collaboration” investigation.

Aaron Y. Zelin, a researcher at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy who specializes in North African and Syrian jihadist groups, told Enab Baladi that Tahrir al-Sham represents an autocratic ruling body, hence the occurrence of torture is not surprising. In addition, it began as part of the Islamic State and al-Qaeda organizations, and from a historical perspective, the presence of torture should be expected.

Zelin believes that Tahrir al-Sham should not be seen as a liberal democratic entity that prioritizes human rights as defined by human rights law, despite the changes that have occurred in it.

Zelin does not believe the prison file poses a risk to the stability of the HTS.

Meanwhile, Abbas Sharifeh, a researcher in jihadist groups, considered that Tahrir al-Sham is at a critical turning point after its model of tight security and centralized leadership failed.

Sharifeh added that the security work of Tahrir al-Sham turned out to be mere human slaughterhouses run by a “mafia gang,” and that the central command was just a media halo that fell from grace and lost trust at its first test during this internal crisis.

Dr. Haid Haid, the First Advisor at the British research center Chatham House, suggested that the division and hostility among the different blocks inside Tahrir al-Sham may escalate, posing a threat to its unity and future after the arrest campaign, noting that what complicated the “plot” was a “shocking” admission by al-Jolani that the released leaders were falsely accused due to mistakes made during the investigations.

Hayat Tahrir al-Sham first appeared in Syria in early 2012 under the name “al-Nusra Front for the People of the Levant,” a faction distinguished by departing from al-Qaeda, one of the most prominent “jihadist” factions on the global stage. It later announced its separation from any organization and deemed itself a local Syrian force, striving under the leadership of Abu Mohammad al-Jolani to remove its name from “terrorism” lists.

In May 2013, the United States listed al-Jolani as a “Specially Designated Global Terrorist,” and in May 2017, the FBI offered a reward of $10 million for information leading to the identification or location of al-Jolani.


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