The recent victory by Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) over Ahrar al-Sham has consolidated the al-Qaida-affiliated armed coalition’s military control over Idlib. But military control does not mean that it is in charge of all aspects of life in the governorate.
The reality is HTS has not managed to put down deep roots in areas under its control, despite taking over the provision of electricity and water in Idlib, which provides both a key source of income and a mechanism to control the population.
This hold on key resources is the main reason many acquiesce, rather than because they agree with the group’s ideology or methods. And, as the Syrian conflict becomes increasingly localized, residents are actually more inclined to trust their local armed groups than HTS.
Public lack of acceptance
When the group’s main component (then known as the Nusra Front) first made a comeback in Idlib in Spring 2015 after having been weakened by ISIS, it rallied support on the basis of offering people protection from the Syrian regime.
But its aggressive methods of imposing authority quickly put people off, who instead turned to local groups composed of their relatives and neighbours for protection.
HTS is fully aware of this public lack of acceptance, and has tried to combat it in different ways. First it attempted to take over local governance institutions such as local councils and the Governorate Council, but faced with strong resistance.
Then it tried to infiltrate those councils through putting up some of its own members as candidates in local elections - but again largely failed.
Now it is trying to set up a parallel governance structure (called the “civil administration”), but this initiative has also not received wide support.
Public protests and resistance against the group have been ongoing throughout this time, with civil society groups playing a key role - from holding courses to teach residents about the values of citizenship to initiatives to support women’s political empowerment to activities to support the running of free and fair local elections.
And foreign support to civil society groups in Idlib has been crucial to this work, even though many of them are under increased pressure from HTS because of these foreign connections.
But now this funding is under threat, with the argument being given by some donors that although the civil society groups are not linked to HTS, by providing services to the local population they are actually making it easier for HTS to rule.
It is true that HTS has found it difficult to both control Idlib militarily and take full control of administration in the governorate. So some donors believe that forcing HTS to provide services itself will cause a significant strain on its capacity, leading to a failure to deliver and widespread resentment which weakens its hold.
But this approach is highly problematic. If foreign aid is cut, HTS will rally people to its side by arguing the West cannot be trusted, and present itself to Idlib residents as the only option in the fight against the Syrian regime. HTS will also channel its available resources to supporting its key factions only rather than try to deliver services to all Idlib residents. Cutting off foreign aid will therefore cause a significant strain on the daily lives of most of the population of Idlib.
Before any drastic measures are taken by Western donors regarding civil society in Idlib, they must conduct a deeper investigation into the dynamics of operation of HTS as well as civil society in the area.
Otherwise, what is meant to be a method of countering HTS will end up achieving the exact opposite outcome.
Dr Lina Khatib, Head, Middle East and North Africa Programme.