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Syrian jihadi group tightens noose on Arab, foreign fighters in Idlib

Hayat Tahrir al-Sham is pressuring foreign jihadis in Idlib and giving them two choices: Leave, or integrate into the local community.
Syrian fighters at the graduation of new Hayat Tahrir al-Sham members in Idlib province on Aug. 14, 2018.

ALEPPO, Syria — Since early February, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) has stepped up its crackdown against Arab and foreign jihadis opposed to it in its areas of control in Syria’s northwestern province of Idlib. The campaign comes as part of HTS’ efforts to restrict and monitor their movements and keep them under the surveillance of its security apparatus. 

The campaign against foreign fighters has angered many jihadis, who accuse HTS of being ungrateful.

In early February, HTS issued a warning to several foreign jihadis and relatives of jihadis detained in HTS prisons to vacate the houses where they live with their families in Idlib. According to its opponents, HTS is refusing to renew the lease for the residents of these houses in a bid to expel them from Idlib city toward smaller villages in the Idlib countryside. 

A jihadi source opposed to HTS in Idlib told Al-Monitor, “HTS has begun implementing a plan to expel Arab and foreign fighters opposed to it from their homes in Idlib, foiling all mediation efforts and ignoring the plight of Syrians.”

The source added, “In early February, one of the leaders of HTS’ security apparatus, Abu Muhjen al-Haskawi, sent warnings to several foreign fighters to vacate their houses in Idlib. Among these fighters was Abu Muadh al-Tunisi, a married man with a family, who was paralyzed during the battle against the Syrian regime forces in the city of Jisr al-Shughur in 2015.”

“Abu Laith al-Tunisi, who also has a family and children, cannot work either because he became paraplegic after he was injured in the battles against the regime forces in the northern countryside of Latakia in 2016. These two jihadis are unable to work and find new homes for their families,” the source said.

The source wondered if the families of foreign fighters who fought alongside HTS in previous battles would be expelled from Idlib, as he addressed HTS leader Abu Mohammed al-Golani, saying, “Is this how you repay us for our good deeds? With betrayal and infidelity?”

The source pointed out that “HTS and its affiliated Salvation Government in Idlib insist on expelling foreign fighters from their homes in Idlib, and they reject any offer to renew their housing contracts, although some of them offered to pay large sums to renew housing contracts.”

He added, “HTS officials claim that evacuating the houses aims at protecting civilians and keeping jihadis away from large residential areas and pushing them toward small villages so that their presence does not harm people. These are slanderous and flimsy justifications. HTS wants to tighten the noose on foreign fighters and push them to leave Idlib for good.”

Abu al-Alaa al-Shami, a jihadi who defected from HTS, said on Telegram, “Golani has indeed expelled the jihadi foreign fighters from Idlib. Golani has done it despite all the red lines. He has done it after the foreign fighters gave everything to support Syrians. These are not accusations, leaks or guesses. This is the reality in Idlib now. Golani is pushing for expelling the foreign fighters from Idlib, as their time is up, according to his men and himself. Orders were given to finish them gradually and calmly, step by step.”

Since the beginning of 2022, HTS’ Salvation Government has started preparing to issue personal cards to Idlib’s people, and it is planning to cooperate with the security apparatus to issue personal cards. Holding a personal card will be a necessary condition for completing any transaction or obtaining any public service, including crossing HTS’ security checkpoints.

If the Salvation Government succeeds in obliging the people in Idlib to obtain personal cards, it and the HTS will have a wide database about the people in Idlib, especially jihadis, such as their positions, their residences and other details. However, foreign fighters do not want personal cards because they simply do not want to reveal their real names and family names to avoid danger. But their refusal to obtain personal cards means depriving their children of education in schools, concluding a house rental contract, or filing a judicial complaint and other services that will require a personal card detailing all the data, the real name, and the name of the father and mother. The foreign fighters will then be in trouble.

A source close to the HTS told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “During the coming period, foreign fighters will not be able to move around without their personal identification card, which will include a personal photo and all their data. By refusing to have a card, they will be deprived of public services. They will be forced to avoid moving around, and they will resort to living in remote villages and the countryside with limited sources of income, out of HTS’ sight.”

The source added that “the plan to issue identity cards will not only include foreign fighters opposing the HTS but also those who work in its ranks. There is a plan to give the jihadi migrants in Idlib two options: either integrate into the local community and live in Idlib to the satisfaction of the HTS, or leave Idlib permanently.”

It seems that the HTS is planning to stifle foreign fighters through its strict security policies, as it almost shut down all their means of livelihood. Most of them will have two options: either ask for forgiveness from the HTS and work under its umbrella, or be homeless in Idlib. This is exactly what is happening since they are having trouble finding a house or job. Nobody in Idlib dares employ them.

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