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Hayat Tahrir al-Sham Attempting to Consolidate Power Ahead of Idlib Offensive

August 22, 2018

By Noor Nahas

Translations: Русский

The Syrian regime continues to indicate that an offensive on rebel-held Idlib in coming, publishing videos of ammunition and soldiers being moved to borders of the region and dropping leaflets calling for reconciliation. Opposition forces have also begun preparations: digging trenches, merging organizations and groups into their umbrella, and asking civilians to begin moving from possible areas of conflict.

August also saw a surge in Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS, which has previously been associated with al-Qaeda) operations to arrest those allegedly attempting to reconcile with the regime, as well as alleged Islamic State and regime cells in Idlib. Operations have mostly been run by HTS on areas in the north and south of Idlib, with Jaish al-Iza arresting a regime cell in the town of Khan Sheikhoun.

Hayat Tahrir al-Sham also appears to have stepped up efforts to recruit soldiers and has asked civilians to assist in efforts to set up defenses in the region.

HTS initially announced the arrest of more than 30 people accused of attempting to reconcile with the regime in southern Idlib on August 8th. They also announced the capture of Islamic State cells in the same area. That week, it was also reported that 115 people who were involved in reconciliation efforts were arrested by the National Liberation front and HTS, with the names of 200 people collected after “investigations with those who were arrested”.

HTS reported that it had captured Islamic State bomb makers involved in IED production and executed six members of an Islamic State Cell. While HTS has mainly focused on arresting those accused of trying to reconcile with the regime and IS cells, it has also arrested leadership of other groups. On August 12th, the leader of Firqat al-Ghuraba, a Francophone Jihadist group, was arrested by HTS with a variety of different reasons reported during the time he was held. On August 18th he was reportedly released.

HTS was accused of arresting Ahmed Khaled Al-Qanatri at a checkpoint between Kafr Nabl and Hazirin. Al-Qanatri is one of the founders of a group named the Popular Revolutionary Resistance, a small group present in Eastern Idlib. HTS has also released prisoners like the leader of Jaish al-Nukhba on the August 15th, an FSA-aligned group, after nearly one year in prison. This was followed by a general amnesty by the group for low-level offenders in prison on occasion of Eid al-Adha, although it did not affect any arrests of group leaders or those involved with reconciliation efforts.

While little information has been posted or provided about whether or not these arrests really are connected to reconciliation efforts or otherwise, these kinds of arrests aren’t without precedent.

During the 2018 regime offensive on Daraa, rebels lost significant amounts of territory in a matter of weeks. This was due, at least in part, to a large number of groups surrendering to the regime in deals where they disarmed, or negotiating with local mediators to reconcile and join regime forces.

Idlib stands as the last major stronghold of Rebel power in Idlib. Groups like HTS appear to be committed to maintaining control, or at least maintaining their influence, on the remaining Syrian opposition. Clearing out people who are viewed as threats to the consolidation of power and influence by HTS, whether real or imagined, will increasingly become a priority leading up to the offensive.

Special thanks to Nick Waters, @syrianomark2 and @Gazelle45F for their assistance in collection of resources. Some images were first shared by the @jorgechav29 Twitter account.

Noor Nahas

Independent researcher following the Syrian Civil War using open source research.

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  1. Francesca

    You say Idlib is rebel-held
    But it seems HTS is the strongest faction there
    Are you now saying that HTS are rebels?
    Please define “rebel”

    • moist_towel

      Where do they say Idlib is rebel-held?
      Currently around 60% of Idlib is controlled by HTS.
      But the remaining 40% constitutes the larges rebel stronghold in the area.
      HTS being the “strongest faction” there by area does not mean it is the only faction.

      • miran

        “The Syrian regime continues to indicate that an offensive on rebel-held Idlib in coming,”

        Where do day say Idlib is rebel-held???
        At the very first sentence of the article…

  2. Persse

    I know that this is purely a propaganda site, but still am astonished at the wilful persistence of the use of the terms “regime” and “rebels” for Syrian Government and terrorists.

    • miran

      connect now all the topics published on the bellingcat, including blaming Russia for mh17 etc etc…and…ladieeees and gentlemeeeeeeen, Eureka!!!

  3. Sean Lamb

    “Opposition forces have also begun preparations: digging trenches, merging organizations and groups into their umbrella, and asking civilians to begin moving from possible areas of conflict….”

    … and stocking up on the sarin.

    I mean it is pretty well inevitable isn’t it? John Bolton has clearly stated America will launch further attacks on Syria if any more sarin is released.

    And when sarin is released Bellingcaters will be on hand to chant in unison “It was the butcher Assad, it was definitely Assad.”

    I wonder if I can get any bookies to offer odds?

  4. Chunga

    Thanks Bellingcat – good coverage of HTS’s ongoing consolidation campaign ahead of the likely offensive. Just wanted you to know all your readers aren’t exclusively Russian trolls. 😉

  5. Mark S

    Why does anyone believe there will be an Idlib offensive at all? The question has everything to do with Putin and Erdogan, and nothing at all to do with Assad – same as in Afrin and ES. Russia keeps denying anything is happening, but no one bothers to listen. As in Afrin and ES, the obvious prognosis is: permanent Turkish control.

    • Mad Dog

      The Syrian Gov is not a legitimate government, it was imposed by violence and maintained by violence. The so-called terrorists did not start this war on civility, the Syrian thug Assad did by ordering his forces to fire on unarmed demonstrators. In fact, the actions of Assad and his minions surely qualify for the mantle ‘terrorist’, more so than many of the opposition groups. As for Sean Lamb and his continuous rant about Sarin in the hands of the opposition, he continues to overlook the difficulty of producing any significant quantities of Sarin in those ramshackle labs that might be available, leading me to think he just has some agenda to follow.

      • Concerned Citizen

        The Syrian government is the recognised government of Syria. Nobody cares what you think about its ‘legitimacy’.

        The ‘peaceful demonstrators’ were from the first days doing things like murdering government employees by throwing them off buildings. They were terrorists.

        Victory to Assad.

        • Mad Dog

          recognized is not legitimate and I really don’t care if you don’t like that. Hitler was legit, so the Assad family is basically a step below him. As for your funny business about how unpeaceful the demonstrators were, please provide some evidence to back that up as it sounds like typical Syrian propaganda from a source that adores thuggish dictators. Have you ever wondered why so many people were out there demonstrating. Have you ever considered that they had legitimate grievances as evidenced by several legitimate human rights groups and testimonies from torture victims. Assad is in it for his own aggrandizement and nothing else. Your little mantra about death to the terrorists would seem to include innocent women and children as we have seen over the years, the regime excusing its excesses with such mantras….they are all terrorists! The several refugee families I have spoken to tell a different story.

          • Rob Heusdens

            The Syrian government is not controlled by just one family, like the despotic gulf nations – which are abolute monarchies with no democracy or human rights whatsoever – but (used to be) dominated by one party – the al Ba’ath party. In 2012/2013 there were multi-candidate presidential elections.

            The protestors and their demands in 2011 were aboutL
            1. Seperarion of state and al Ba’ath party (multi – party system)
            2. Freedom of press
            3. End of martial law.

            Some or all of these demans were met during negotiations between opposition members and the government. Demonstrations were allowed -provided no violence was used, martial law was withdrawn, multi candidate presential elections were held.

            Of course the ‘rebels’ (which are terrorists), did not have democratic reform demands, just wanted Assad to step down unconditionally – no demand for electins! – so all hey wanr was regime change! And they favour Sharia law, opression of women and other medieval stuff,,,,

            Very democratic and humanitarian indeed, and THESE groups get all the support from western governments! Not other opposition groups, that want democratic reforms through (like the Syrian communist party) dialogue and political action, but abstain from violence, and who protect the sovereignity of Syria,,, In fact the MSM does not even mention them, since they did not want ‘regime change’ but want an independent Syria.

            The Syrian war is not a fight for democracy or human rights (why would Saudi barbaria finance a struggle for democy and human rights? Anyone protesting for that in Saudi barbaria gets beheaded!) as he MSM claim, but about who controls Syria – the Syrian people or foreign actors that want to promote Sharia law, want to built the Qatar-Turkey-Europe gaspipeline, etc!

            So, why is the wesr still supporting Saudi barbaria, does tolerate the undemocratic system and lack of human rights and the war Saudi barbaria ffights against Yemen with weapos delivered by the US/UK, and what position does that give them then to criticize Syria? None whatsoever!
            Pure hypocricy!

            Assad wins the war, if the ‘rebels’ would have won, Syria would become the next Libya….. no democracy or human right seen in Libya since 2011, just chaos, ongoing fights and misery/insecurity!

      • Smokey

        Name 3 Arab governments in modern history that weren’t ‘imposed by violence and maintained by violence’.

        • Concerned Citizen

          The US government was imposed by violence and maintained by violence.

          Just ask the native Americans and Black Lives Matter.

          • Mad Dog

            Very silly retort, but hell, why not go back to 1776. Perhaps you forget that the Indians were also imposing themselves on others by violence long before then, but I guess that kind of history doesn’t fit into your agenda. Perhaps you can give us a rundown of why the Assad government resembles anything legitimate.

  6. Concerned Citizen

    Mad Dog – August 29, 2018
    “Perhaps you forget that the Indians were also imposing themselves on others by violence long before then…”

    You’re justifying genocide and the theft of Native American land? And using a racist term for Native Americans, to boot.

    Lovely stuff. Between you and DDTea’s homophobic comments, Bellingcat attracts a nice bunch of fans.


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