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Hayat Tahrir al-Sham driving out activists from areas it controls in Syria

Since defeating its military opponents in parts of Syria, extremist organization Hayat Tahrir al-Sham has been forcing influential individuals to leave as well.
Islamist rebels from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham are seen outside the villages of al-Foua and Kefraya, Syria July 18, 2018. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi - RC194E7A7120

ALEPPO, Syria — Islamist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS, formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra) is expelling its opponents from parts of Idlib and western Aleppo to areas controlled by Turkey in north and northeast Aleppo.

HTS tightened its military and administrative grip on wide areas in Idlib governorate, western Aleppo, northern Hama and Sahl al-Ghab in early January, forcing out troops following battles against the National Front for the Liberation of Syria, which is affiliated with the moderate rebel group the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

On Jan. 17, HTS targeted individuals. HTS-affiliated security officials in Darat Izza, in western Aleppo, notified more than 30 influential citizens there that they had to leave within 24 hours. The outcasts included academics, media activists, civil servants and some people who worked with the FSA-affiliated Free Syrian Police. These citizens headed to Afrin, which is under Turkey-affiliated FSA control.

Media activist Yahya Mayo told Al-Monitor the people HTS expelled are rebels — opponents of the Bashar al-Assad regime — whom the inhabitants loved and considered honorable. But those rebels are moderates compared with HTS followers.

“These people opposed the policy of HTS. They worked in the services sector like the local council, and in the Free Aleppo University, police department and other vital service sectors. HTS does not want to share influence with these people who might disrupt its control, after it expanded at the expense of the FSA factions in early January," Mayo said.

He added, “The HTS exclusion and expulsion policy against its opponents applied not only to Aleppo’s western countryside. HTS had many opponents in Idlib, and they were forced and pressured to leave. Most of them headed to Afrin. These people threatened HTS’ expansion and influence, and obstructed its control of local councils, services and other facilities.”

There are no official figures on the total number of people who were expelled.

Mohammad Amer al-Debliz, who was the police chief in Darat Izza and who now lives in Afrin, told Al-Monitor, “They [HTS leaders] have no legal grounds to expel me from my city. I did not commit any crime that deserves such punishment. They are punishing me for previous stances against them, maybe. I think they took this measure against me because I objected to an HTS proposition to affiliate the local council in Darat Izza with the Syrian Salvation Government, which is affiliated with HTS. But many prominent figures in the city had the same opinion as me.”

He added, “Each person was expelled for different reasons, but mostly due to their role in Aleppo’s western countryside. HTS security men told us the reason we were expelled stemmed from our attempts to obstruct stability, mobilize supportive opinions and represent the area as [being] oppressed after HTS controlled it. They said they didn't arrest us when they seized the city because they had promised prominent figures they would not launch attacks."

When HTS took over the cities and towns that FSA controlled, it met with prominent figures and promised they would not expel or pursue anyone from these towns. But HTS reneged on its promises and reached a deal with FSA factions, such as Nureddin Zengi Brigade. As per that deal, the movement withdrew from Aleppo’s western countryside toward Afrin, after it almost lost the battle.

On Jan. 5, hundreds of Nureddin Zengi Brigade fighters retreated from western Aleppo to Afrin. On Jan. 6, around 1,000 fighters with their families left Atarib city in western Aleppo and headed to Afrin after HTS took over. Hundreds of fighters from Sahl al-Ghab departed Jan. 13 toward Afrin after HTS forced them to hand over their heavy weapons.

Mohammad Adeeb, a member of Nureddin Zengi Brigade's media bureau, told Al-Monitor, “After HTS controlled wide stretches and expelled thousands of fighters … the only people threatening the organization were influential groups with power in Idlib and the recently controlled areas. For that, HTS pressured them to leave their areas.”

Sahel Abo Abdul Rahman, an activist who worked as a media correspondent with the local Medad Press in Idlib and western Aleppo before HTS controlled the area, told Al-Monitor, “As local activists, we are being pursued, and I had to leave because I oppose HTS. I am now in Afrin, where HTS has no presence. But I cannot return to Idlib or western Aleppo. There are many activists like me who were afraid of remaining in those areas and preferred to leave.”

Among the 30 people expelled Jan. 17 from Darat Izza were: Marwan al-Helou, who worked on Darat Izza’s local council; Ali Raji al-Helou, who was employed at Free Aleppo University; Abdullah Raji al-Helou, who was director of the exams’ unit at Free Aleppo University; Omar Raji al-Helou, of the city's water unit; media activists Ayman Sami and Ahmed Rashid; and Sadiq and Yasser Lola, who worked with the FSA-affiliated Free Syrian Police.

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