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Syrian jihadist group mandates apologies, or imprisonment, for criticism

Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which controls most of Idlib, enforces zero tolerance for critics.
A member of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham holds the group's flag as others parade with their flags and those of the Taliban's declared "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan" through the rebel-held city of Idlib, Syria, Aug. 20, 2021.

ALEPPO, Syria — Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) has tightened its security grip on the population in Idlib, which is under its control in northwestern Syria. It has begun to pursue those who oppose the policies of its Syrian Salvation Government in the area, which is witnessing popular upheaval due to HTS violations, tough living conditions and high prices of basic commodities, such as fuel and bread.

HTS has also been pursuing its fighters and Syrian Salvation Government employees, leaving no room for criticism, even on social media. If fighters and employees do not abide by the HTS directives, they are either dismissed or arrested, and in some cases forced to retract their statements and apologize.

Syrians in Idlib are always saying “the walls have ears,” as they fear members of the security apparatus affiliated with HTS or informants cooperating with it could hear them if they express their opinion or criticize the high cost of gas, bread, public transportation and taxes, for instance. Many would try to remain anonymous and not appear in front of cameras when they want to criticize HTS and convey their message.

HTS forced civilians to publish videos of themselves apologizing to HTS leader Abu Mohammed al-Golani after they criticized HTS and chanted slogans against Golani in late October.

In one of the videos, Abu Abdo Laban, an elderly man who was displaced from Hama governorate in central Syria and currently lives in Idlib, said, “I apologize to the honorable men in HTS.”

Activists criticized these videos saying that Laban was forced into apologizing by the HTS security apparatus.

Laban had appeared in a video during a sit-in Oct. 27 in which dozens participated near the Bab al-Hawa crossing in northern Idlib, to demand the release of detainees in HTS prisons, and call on HTS to end its military campaign against the Jundallah group in Jabal al-Turkman in the northern countryside of Latakia, near Idlib.

On Oct. 27, HTS arrested Laban but released him a few hours later, while other protesters remained in detention. It seemed that Laban was pressured during his arrest and forced to apologize for protesting against HTS and its leader.

Another elderly man named Abu Ziad al-Homsi appeared in a video praising Golani after having criticized him in previous ones. Homsi had said that he is 61 years old and cannot afford to feed himself, regretting the harsh living conditions in Idlib. “They brought us this unknown Golani guy, and for what?” he said.

Homsi had further criticized Golani, saying, “He leads a normal, comfortable life in a nice home and gets paid in US dollars. Meanwhile, everyone else is struggling to survive due to the deteriorating living conditions, amid unemployment and poverty.”

In another video, a man apologized to the HTS-affiliated fuel company Watad after accusing it of manipulating the weight of gas cylinders.

A lecturer at Idlib University told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “HTS has recently escalated its repressive security practices against the population, as it does not want anyone to criticize it. Consequently, only a few people now dare take to the streets, as many fear being arrested. But I do not believe this ‘victory’ will last long. Soon enough the people will rebel against the de facto authority because the population cannot take the harsh living conditions anymore.”

He added, “Forcing protesters to change their words and apologize publicly is very similar to what the Bashar al-Assad regime did at the beginning of the Syrian revolution. Syrians in Idlib are now afraid of criticizing HTS, and today they are forced to praise Golani, just as they were forced to glorify and praise Assad in the past.”

In late October, protesters took to the streets in HTS-controlled areas in Idlib, the western countryside of Aleppo and the camps near the Turkish border, calling for the release of detainees from HTS prisons. On Oct. 29, protesters gathered after the Friday prayer in the city of Atarib in Aleppo’s western countryside, chanting, “Out with the Salvation Government. Atarib is free. We Don’t Want Golani.”

People from al-Baraka camp, near the town of Deir Hassan in northern Idlib, also protested demanding the release of detainees and calling on HTS to loosen its security grip.

Former HTS member Ali al-Arjani tweeted Nov. 5, “Truth is a piercing arrow from which the oppressor cannot escape. This is why they are doing all it takes to silence the people because the truth scares them.”

Ajani had also tweeted Nov. 4, “I asked one of the immigrant sheikhs why they don't talk about the injustice and tyranny taking place in Idlib. He said our brothers are being pursued and arrested without us saying anything, so we fear the worst if we do speak up."

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