Factions affiliated to the Army of Conquest have yet to agree on a unified approach to manage the province of Idlib, months after taking over it. This [lack of agreement] was exploited by Jabhat al-Nusra to fulfill its ambition of establishing an emirate of its own, ruled and managed solely by it.
Jabhat al-Nusra knows that the only competitor that threatens its dream of building an emirate is the so-called “Sharia authority for managing the liberated areas in Idlib.” Therefore, it sought, from the outset, to target this authority, either by assassinating some of its leaders or by dismantling the institutional system governing its operations. The most important point in this respect giving this competition a deeper dimension is that the party dominating the Sharia authority is Ahrar al-Sham Islamic Movement, which is supposed to be one of Jabhat al-Nusra’s closest allies.
The last chapter of these attempts was the attack by Jabhat al-Nusra and its ally, Jund al-Aqsa, on three Free Police stations affiliated with the Sharia authority. A military force with SUVs and heavy machine guns affiliated to the two above mentioned factions stormed the Sharia Court building and Kafr Nabl police station in Jabal al-Zawiya on July 8, concurrently with a similar attack on two police stations in Khan Shaykhun city and the town of Kafr Sajna in the countryside of Idlib.
Activists from the town of Kafr Nabl said that the raid was a show of force, suggesting that the primary objective is to show off the power of Jabhat al-Nusra and its intransigence toward any defying party, regardless of its position and the authority with which it is affiliated.
According to these activists, the joint force [between Jabhat al-Nusra and its ally Jund al-Aqsa] raided the Kafr Nabl police station and the Sharia court affiliated with the authority and cordoned off the area after closing down all surrounding shops. They also stated that the force members arrested all those present in the building — including security members and judges — in a humiliating manner and confiscated the station and the court’s equipment, including cars and bikes. The force also arrested a number of people in the city and dispatched vehicles armed with machine guns in the streets. Abdel Nasser Salloum, a member of the local council in Kafr Nabl and judge Ayman al-Bayoush, president of the Sharia court were among those who were arrested. Moreover, some of the residents stated that the arrest campaign is still ongoing and the true number of those who were arrested cannot be determined.
This Jabhat al-Nusra campaign follows two prominent events that took place in the countryside of Idlib last week. The first is the protests denouncing Jabhat al-Nusra and its practices and demanding the evacuation of its headquarters and its ousting from the cities and towns that it had taken as its strongholds. Jabhat al-Nusra had faced these protests with heavy fire, causing a number of dead and injured among the protesters, prompting the residents to give it a deadline to leave the city. The second event is the suicide bombing attack in Salem mosque, killing dozens of Jabhat al-Nusra members, including some leaders. Sources close to Jabhat al-Nusra reported that the target was Jabhat al-Nusra’s emir, known as Abu Atiq, but the latter survived since he was not in the mosque at the time of the bombing. Remarkably, Abou Atiq was exerting efforts to form a military alliance with Ahrar al-Sham to fight cells affiliated to the Islamic State.
This is not the first time Jabhat al-Nusra targets figures or institutions affiliated with the Sharia authority. Early this year, Jabhat al-Nusra members killed the leader of the authority, Abu Asid al-Jazrawi, a Saudi national, following a dispute over one of the checkpoints. Jazrawi is also a Sharia emir in Ahrar al-Sham. Moreover, the Guard Office was subjected to a failed assassination attempt and several skirmishes took place between Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham, including an exchange of fire between some of the members or the storming of media offices of one of these factions. However, these incidents did not lead to an explicit escalation between the two parties, despite the fact that Jabhat al-Nusra was, in the majority of cases, the aggressor.
In general, the residents of Idlib complain about multiple decision-making authorities in the province, and the lack of a unified legal or Sharia system that can be resorted to [when there is need to] determine rights and duties. This led to the spread of chaos and to the management of cities and towns according to the logic of sharing the spoils between factions participating in the formation of the Army of Conquest. This reflected negatively on the standard of living of citizens, who, in addition to their difficult financial situation, are now requested to pay royalties or taxes under the pretext of zakat to each one of these factions separately.
According to Jabhat al-Nusra, any person in Idlib who does not pay zakat to its funds is not discharged from debt and must pay it again. Moreover, the conflict between the factions reached the minarets of mosques as some violated the adhan timings. Some activists noted that Jabhat al-Nusra mosques deliberately bring forward or postpone the adhan timing, so as not to coincide with that of other mosques. These practices raised a lot of confusion, especially as they demonstrated beyond any reasonable doubt that Jabhat al-Nusra does not recognize the legitimacy of other factions and believe it is the only faction qualified to operate under the Islamic Sharia.