Idlib, Syria – A top armed opposition group operating in Syria’s last rebel stronghold says it will continue to carry out operations against the Syrian government as government forces and their ally Russia ramp up aerial attacks on the region.
A recent uptick in violence, particularly over the past week, has targeted Idlib governorate in northwestern Syria. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has documented the killings of 23 fighters from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a group once linked to al-Qaeda.
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According to Imadeddine al-Khatib, an HTS commander, the government escalation is directed against Idlib’s “stability and development”.
“The enemy tried several times to infiltrate or storm our positions, but they have failed,” al-Khatib told Al Jazeera. “This explains why they have continued the cowardly method of bombing people in the liberated north.”
‘Breaking the enemy’s morale’
The HTS has been targeted by government forces and the Russian air force in all the areas it controls, including swathes of Idlib and parts of the adjacent provinces of Aleppo, Hama and Latakia.
According to the Syrian Civil Defence, a group of volunteer emergency workers also known as the White Helmets, at least 52 civilians have been killed this year in Idlib governorate and 208 wounded.
The latest civilian casualties were a man and his teenage grandson killed last week when Russian warplanes targeted an abandoned water-pumping station in the village of Arri west of Idlib city.
According to the Syrian Ministry of Defence, however, dozens of HTS fighters were wounded or killed in the attack, which it claimed struck “terrorist headquarters” on Wednesday.
The HTS refused to comment on the number of its members killed. Al-Khatib dismissed the scale of the Syrian government’s escalation in Idlib, saying the group has succeeded in “breaking the enemy’s morale”.
“This month saw two operations in Ain al-Bayda and Nabi Yunus, both areas that are important strategic locations,” he said. “Our fighters were able to shoot down about 30 enemy soldiers and officers.”
Al-Khatib said the group’s defences are “better than ever” after learning from past mistakes, adopting new strategies and fortifying its front lines.
“We have many deterrent tools and weaponry that have proven their effectiveness, and our missiles and mortar shells can reach Syrian and Russian operations rooms and meeting sites,” he said.
The commander added that the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad are weak in the face of international economic and political upheavals.
“Russia has fallen into the quagmire of the war on Ukraine and cannot start new battles,” he said.
The rebel-held Idlib region is home to about three million people, about half of them displaced from other parts of the country.
The HTS has rebranded itself over the years, severing its ties to the transnational al-Qaeda group and portraying itself as a more moderate group with local aims. It has become the most powerful rebel group in northwest Syria.
In 2020, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, who back opposing sides in Syria’s war, brokered a ceasefire in the country’s northwest. The so-called de-escalation zone has largely held, but periodic clashes and Syrian and Russian air raids have continued.
Those clashes have escalated in recent weeks. The HTS’s recent increase in cross-front-line attacks against Syrian army targets has most likely been an attempt to express its opposition to a recent wave of regional reconciliation with al-Assad, analyst Dareen Khalifa said.
“The group retains the capacity to conduct … asymmetrical attacks against regime targets,” she said, explaining that the group is focused on pushing back against government advances in the northwest territory.
According to Abbas Shareefa, a Turkey-based Syrian political affairs analyst, the group has the most fighters among the armed opposition groups in the region.
“There have been developments on the military front, such as the use of unmanned drones and using advanced technology in operations,” he said.
While there are no official statistics about the number of HTS fighters, Shareefa said they are estimated at 7,000.
“Most of them are locals who were displaced from their towns and cities and villages in the regime-controlled areas,” he said. “Foreign fighters are few.”
The HTS’s influence is reflected in its position as the main actor in northwest Syria in terms of the economy, security and governance, Shareefa said.
“Regional and international coordination and communication goes through HTS, such as the movement of goods or the passage of humanitarian aid,” he said.
It also has a self-styled civilian authority, called the Salvation Government, that provides a variety of civil services, such as tax collection, internal security, and supervision of the health, education and agricultural sectors.
The Salvation Government is politically Islamist, but in contrast to the Taliban or ISIL (ISIS), it is not “draconian”, Khalifa said.
The HTS “has not enforced the harshest interpretations of Sharia law, nor has it compelled women to veil their faces or banned mixed-gender gatherings in restaurants”, she said.
In its approach to political Islamist governance, the HTS “emphasises the importance of remaining compatible with Syria’s mainstream religious traditions and mores”.
“The bar is very low,” Khalifa added, “and many Syrians in Idlib and beyond will rightly insist that HTS should be pressed to allow more room for personal freedoms.”
For al-Khatib, the civil services operate in tandem with the battles fought against the government.
“We have found great challenges in the liberated north due to poor infrastructure and a massive population pressure as a result of the forced displacement of the people to this territory,” he said. “So it was necessary to offer a decent life to the Syrians who have been deprived of that for decades.”
“Victory on the military front does not come out of nothing but requires stability and self-sufficiency,” he added.
“These services serve the battle of liberation and relief for our people.”