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Standing up to HTS: Protestors in Idlib Confront al-Jolani

Protesters in northwestern Syria are chanting against Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and their leader Abu Mohammad al-Julani. 

This is not a "rare" occurrence as some commentators have claimed, but it is wider and more intense in terms of momentum compared to previous protests–they also differ in terms of timing and context. 

The protesters first took it to the streets on February 27th, and gradually the demonstrations began to spread until they reached the center of the densely populated city of Idlib. They chant slogans demanding the "toppling of al-Julani", the clearing of the prisons controlled by his militias, and breaking the monopoly he has imposed on the economic, political, and security landscape. They also carry banners calling to uncover information about the missing people, many of whom disappeared after criticizing al-Julani and HTS.

For years, Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra) has controlled large areas in northwestern Syria which are distributed between Idlib governorate and areas in the countryside of Latakia and Aleppo.

This came after its leader al-Julani worked to eliminate all of his competitors in the arena, from small and large military factions (jihadist and moderate), until he took over the administrative and military leadership, as well as the management of services, of Idlib. However, a series of sudden developments during the past few months have threatened al-Julani's command of the region.

The first spark that opened the door to this threat was the detention of first-line leaders in HTS on charges of "working for foreign countries and communicating with external parties."

The most prominent among those arrested was Abu Maria al-Qahtani and other leaders from their military wing, while Issa al-Sheikh (Abu Zakkour) managed to escape and fled to areas in the northern countryside of Aleppo under the control of the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA) factions.

The arrest did not last long due to some pressures on al-Julani, which pushed him and his security apparatus to gradually release them and apologize on his behalf, which appeared in several video recordings.

While the circles of some of the released leaders fired shots in the air to celebrate their release, the family of a fighter from the Jaysh al-Ahrar faction (not affiliated with al-Julani's faction) confirmed his death under torture in the Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham prisons.

The fighter's name is Abdul Qader Al-Hakim, also known as "Abu Obeida Tel Hadiyya". HTS arrested him about ten months ago on charges of "betrayal". They buried him in a graveyard in the Sheikh Bahr area in Aleppo countryside after torturing him to death.

His family returned to transfer his body to Taftanaz, their town in east Idlib amid a wide atmosphere of anger.

The disclosure of the fighter’s killing in custody opened the door to the anti-Julani protests in the city of Sarmada, but it is clear that what is happening now is the result of anger that has been accumulating for years. The protesters' demands were clear: to overthrow al-Julani, to stop the practices of his General Security Service against civilians, to release the detainees in prisons, and to disclose the fate of forcibly disappeared people.

The popular movement against Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham and al-Julani lacks any overt leadership, but a group of people calling themselves the Revolutionaries of 2011 appear to be organizing protests and coordinating efforts across HTS-held territory. Their name refers to the young people who participated in the early days of the Syrian Revolution against the regime of Bashar al-Assad in 2011, using social media to assemble demonstrations.

However, it is clear that three distinct groups are simultaneously involved in the current protests. The first are supporters of rebel commanders and fighters who were arrested for “betrayal,” and have now been released with their charges dropped. The second group are linked to organizations known to oppose HTS while the third is made up of civilians who have been harmed by al-Julani’s faction and their police force in various ways.

The government of the United States of America classifies Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham as a foreign terrorist organization and offers a financial reward for anyone who provides information about Abu Mohammed al Julani, especially his whereabouts in northwestern Syria.

The ongoing protests against al-Julani have brought him to a turning point: either make concessions to the protestors or confront them with repression. Either choice indicates an overall state of weakness for HTS. 

At least 505 civilians were killed by Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham between the establishment of its al-Qaeda affiliated predecessor Jabhat al-Nusra in January 2012 until the end of 2021, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights. Meanwhile at least 2,327 people remain arbitrarily detained in HTS prisons or have been forcibly disappeared. 

We, in turn, endorse the efforts of the people in northwestern Syria and we ask all Syrians to support the demands of the Syrian people there. Our revolution, which we started in 2011 and are now commemorating its 13th anniversary, was against injustice, oppression, and the brutality of the security grip of the Assad regime. The Syrian people did not rise up to accept de facto authorities that behave in the same way as Assad.

The people in northwestern Syria are commemorating this blessed anniversary in the most beautiful and elegant ways, adhering to the goals and principles of the Syrian revolution.


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