IDLIB, Syria — The General Security Service affiliated with Hayat Tahrir al-Sham — which is designated as a terrorist group by the United States — announced in a May 30 tweet that the service’s Executive Force launched a security campaign May 29 against what it described as “the collaborators and supporters of the criminal [Syrian] regime” and several suspects in the cities of Salqin and Jisr al-Shughur in their respective countrysides.
Hayat Tahrir al-Sham's security apparatus distributed photos in the area showing “the members of the Executive Force deployed as part of the crackdown on wanted people and suspects in the city of Jisr al-Shughur and its countryside.”
The security campaign was launched in the wake of a video published May 28 by a person in Idlib, which Hayat Tahrir al-Sham controls, who is seen congratulating President Bashar al-Assad after his reelection in last week's recent presidential vote.
On May 29, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said several cities and towns in the Idlib countryside were on high-security alert as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham operatives carried out a spate of arrests against individuals accused of supporting the Syrian government.
In al-Dana, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham reinforced its security checkpoints at the entrance to the city and the agricultural road, where operatives searched and investigated citizens backed up in long lines of vehicles.
The observatory said the border areas with Turkey in the cities of Harem, Salqin and Darkush, up to the countryside of Jisr al-Shughur in the northwestern Idlib countryside, witnessed arrest campaigns in which dozens of people were said to be apprehended.
Sources from within Hayat Tahrir al-Sham told Al-Monitor that the group’s General Security Service cracked down on people working for the Syrian government and promoting the presidential elections that took place May 26.
The sources added that Hayat Tahrir al-Sham security operatives scouted the city of Idlib and its countryside and apprehended several pro-government people, and other individuals believed to be affiliated with the Islamic State (IS) in Idlib.
According to the same sources, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham’s General Security Service set up new checkpoints on the roads leading to the targeted areas and sent military convoys, including armored vehicles equipped with heavy machine guns, to the cities of Salqin, Jisr al-Shughur, Harem and Darkush.
The sources said at least 40 people have been detained since the start of the campaign and were accused of supporting the Syrian government or being affiliated with IS.
Majd Kilany, an Idlib-based researcher at the Jusoor Center for Studies, told Al-Monitor that Hayat Tahrir al-Sham “continues to tighten its grip over the Idlib area, starting from the city of Idlib, which is now fully controlled by the group." Kilany added that Hayat Tahrir al-Sham "is always on the lookout for any individual that might pose a security threat to its interests, whether they are affiliated with the regime or IS or any opponent faction. This security campaign was a pretext to get rid of all those opposing" Hayat Tahrir al-Sham or threatening its interests.
He also said some revolutionary and jihadi factions in Idlib are dissatisfied with Hayat Tahrir al-Sham’s monopoly over security decision-making.
“The campaign was launched against some regime cells, but the arrests included members of opponent factions, notably Hurras al-Din. Hayat Tahrir al-Sham took advantage of the situation to carry out large-scale arrests against Hurras al-Din members,” Kilany said.
“These arrest campaigns are not a direct concern to the rest of the factions in Idlib, namely the National Liberation Front affiliated with the Free Syrian Army [FSA]. These campaigns are especially directed against the jihadi groups such as Hurras al-Din and other jihadi independent groups, which previously posed a direct threat to Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. The areas of western Idlib and the northern countryside of Latakia are mostly where Hurras al-Din is present,” he added.
However, a leader within Hayat Tahrir al-Sham known as Abu Khaled al-Homsi told Al-Monitor, “The arrest campaign does not target the revolutionary or jihadi factions, but the saboteurs who work for the regime and pose a threat to civilians through possible bombing or assassinations. Therefore, it was necessary to take preemptive actions against them.”
“The arrests also included IS cells fighting against Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and the rest of the factions. These cells have previously carried out assassinations in Idlib targeting both civilians and soldiers. All claims that Hayat Tahrir al-Sham has been arresting activists from moderate factions are baseless. We did not apprehend one activist or any leader belonging to opposing factions,” he said.
Kilany also said Hayat Tahrir al-Sham is seeking to present itself as the group holding the upper hand in controlling the security situation in Idlib in a bid to win over the support of those who are still somehow leaning toward FSA factions in northern Aleppo.
He said Hayat Tahrir al-Sham is also trying to send a message to the international community that it is tracking down IS and al-Qaeda cells and some foreign figures. Kilani said Hayat Tahrir al-Sham “wants to convey a message that it is fighting against extremism, a move aimed at a rapprochement with the international community and a show of willingness and readiness to negotiate.”
He added that it is unlikely that Idlib will witness complete stability in the near future, especially amid the presence of several cells, which Hayat Tahrir al-Sham cannot bring into line, that bring about chaos.