Civilians and media figures often compare Idlib, which is under control of the Syrian Salvation Government affiliated with Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) — a group designated as a terrorist organization in the United States — to areas governed by Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) factions.
Despite the hardships facing civilians, be it in Idlib or in the areas affected by operations Euphrates Shield, Olive Branch and Peace Spring, and despite the overpopulation in Idlib and its countryside as a result of the displacement of hundreds of thousands, Idlib remains relatively stable and secure with almost no explosions hitting markets, unlike the areas under control of the Turkish-backed factions.
Ehab Sherko Hass, an activist from the city of Saraqib currently residing in Idlib, told Al-Monitor, “The Idlib areas are different from the FSA areas in northern Aleppo in terms of security. The Idlib areas are subject to a stronger and more severe security grip than the areas in north Aleppo, and they are under the unified control of HTS, unlike the FSA areas, which are divided into several areas subject to the influence of military factions.”
Hass added, “Also, there is wider freedom of information in the Idlib areas compared to northern Aleppo, where permission is needed to practice media work and each area falls under the control of a different faction. Add to this the Turkish military presence, which imposes media restrictions. In Idlib, it is true that the Syria Salvation Government started to set media controls by issuing personal media cards and granting permits for people to engage in media work, but the security situation remains the most important aspect for civilians. As a resident of Idlib, I find that the security situation is more stable in Idlib than in northern Aleppo, where car bombs and explosions are frequent.”
“Idlib has, however, its own set of disadvantages, namely the taxes imposed by the Salvation Government and the fact that the region is heading toward being solely governed by HTS. It is an area that Russia bombards under the pretext that it harbors terrorist groups. This is unfortunately turning Idlib into an unstable region,” he added.
Meanwhile, Hass stressed that in areas under its control, Turkey is combating Kurdistan Workers Party cells while portraying itself as a service provider for propaganda purposes. However, the activist continued, some sensitive aspects affecting civilians’ lives are neglected, especially the proliferation of weapons among the military personnel close to Ankara. Add to this, he said, Turkey’s lack of control over the almost daily fighting taking place among pro-Turkey factions.
Mohammed Zaid, a pseudonym of an activist living in the city of al-Bab, which is under the control of pro-Turkish factions, told Al-Monitor, “Many civilians and media activists prefer to live in Idlib because it is stable and not witnessing bombings and assassinations. The advantage in Idlib is that it is controlled by one faction, and this faction has established some sort of stability compared to the rest of the areas controlled by multiple factions where internal fighting, bombings and assassinations are the name of the game. However, the problem with HTS lies in its absolute control over everything, its monopoly on trade and the economy, and its opening of crossings between the ‘liberated’ areas. HTS is also similar to other factions in terms of the limited margin of freedoms it allows.”
He added, “Turkey has been playing a negative role in all civil and military aspects because it has failed to create a stable environment. On the contrary, it created an environment dominated by chaos. There is a very slight margin of freedom, but I prefer to live in Idlib, and I am currently preparing to move to Idlib because of the relative stability there.”
Media activist Muhannad Darwish, who hails from the Idlib countryside and resides in the city of Idlib, told Al-Monitor, “The areas of the National Army (referring to the FSA) governing northern Aleppo and Idlib are very similar. The only difference is the management method, as the National Army areas are managed by separate institutions with different factional affiliations, while some areas are administered by multiple factions. But in Idlib, the administration is unified, and whatever the issue, the ultimate reference is HTS, the [sole] faction handling security and economic matters. Also, Turks have a clear role in managing the affairs of the National Army areas, while Turkey has no role in Idlib.”
In this context, Khalil al-Ahmad, a pseudonym of a media activist from the countryside of Hama now living in Afrin city, which is under the control of FSA factions, told Al-Monitor, “In the areas controlled by factions, chaos is the name of the game as there are no laws. Each group has its own decisions, and this is the main reason behind the spread of chaos. Thefts affecting civilians and their property abound, and victims of theft operations cannot even file a complaint for fear of revenge. Crimes are also on the rise amid the proliferation of arms, and markets are constantly hit by bombings. All of these things turn the areas under the control of factions into hell on earth in the absence of a minimum level of relative security. This does not infer that life in Idlib is prosperous, because even in Idlib, armed robberies, assassinations and media constrictions also exist, but when you compare these to the areas under the control of the FSA, Idlib and its regions remain undoubtedly [better] than areas governed by the FSA.”