Idlib was among the first provinces in Syria to rise up against President Bashar Al-Assad in 2011, and today is the site of the country’s last major rebel stronghold. As Idlib’s residents continue to resist the Assad regime’s incursions, they are also struggling against another enemy in their midst—the Al-Qaeda led alliance known as Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS).
Since the fall of east Aleppo last December, and in the past year more generally, HTS has cemented its foothold in Idlib and spread across the province’s various towns. Many of Idlib’s residents are, however, extremely agitated by HTS’s presence, and are rising up to protest the group’s authoritarian tendencies. For example, as recently as last weekend in the town of Maarat Al-Numan, Syrians organized sizable demonstrations against HTS.
Syria Deeply’s Hashem Osseiran examined the importance of these protests in a recent article, highlighting how they are arguably the strongest means of mitigating HTS’s sway and power in Idlib. As Osseiran notes, these protests were sparked by a recent incursion by HTS on the Free Syrian Army’s Division 13 Brigade, the most popular rebel force in the province:
Demonstrations broke out on Friday after hundreds of militants stormed the Division 13 headquarters and arrested fighters whom the HTS accused of killing members of their alliance. A local security official was also killed by jihadists who had stormed his home.
Enraged by the incursion into the town, residents of Maarat al-Numan flooded the streets, carrying Syrian revolution flags and signs, including one that read: “Your end begins in Maarat al-Naaman. You can not humiliate those who could not be defeated by [President] Bashar [al-Assad.]”
They amassed around the town’s mosque and near the brigade headquarters, where they hurled themselves toward armed Tahrir al-Sham fighters, shouting the same slogans they had used in the past to address thugs sponsored by the Syrian government: “Shabiha, Shabiha” (in reference to plain-clothes security forces hired to attack protesters).
Protesters were met with brutal repression from HTS militants, who opened fire to disperse the crowd, according to activists. A video posted on social media networks by the activist-run Smart News Agency on Friday showed a number of demonstrators inside Maarat al-Numan rapidly dispersing at the sound of heavy gunfire.
Residents of nearby villages and towns seeking to join the protests said they were also shot at on checkpoints erected around the area. Al-Hamid said that he and a number of other activists heading to the protests from a village to the east of Maarat al-Numan were stopped near a checkpoint roughly 1.8 miles (3km) northeast of the town.
Read the full story here.