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Syrian jihadist group HTS blocks civilians from reaching Turkish border

Hayat Tahrir al-Sham used violence to break up a caravan that was heading toward Syria's Bab al-Hawa border to cross into Turkey.
Syrians gather in front of the Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey on Sept. 12, 2022.

Security officers affiliated with Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) assaulted several journalists who were covering a gathering of civilians near Bab al-Hawa crossing with Turkey in the north. 

According to Idlib-based media sources who spoke to Al-Monitor, around 400 civilians from the Idlib area in northwest Syria marched Sept. 12 toward the Bab al-Hawa border crossing as part of a “peace caravan” to cross into Europe via Turkey, leaving behind the deteriorating living conditions in Idlib. 

Once they reached the crossing from the Syrian side, over 150 members of HTS’ General Security Agency dispersed the civilians by beating and threatening them.

The sources said that security forces physically attacked some photographers and journalists who were in the area covering the gathering. 

The Ministry of Interior of the HTS-affiliated Salvation Government issued on Sept. 12 a statement saying an investigation had been launched into the incidents that occurred near the crossing.

In another statement circulated on local media, the media relations office of the Salvation Government stressed that HTS is not carrying out any crackdown against freedoms of opinion and expression, saying “some abusive individuals have caused friction and quarrels against the security and police, which exacerbated the situation, leading to some unacceptable behavior by some members of the security forces.”

Journalist Ahmed Fellaha told Al-Monitor that while he was filming civilians participating in the gathering, an HTS officer asked him what he was filming and tried to take away his camera. 

“Three other officers then came over and started beating me while I tried my best to stop them from taking my camera, but they ended up confiscating it,” he said.

“After I was beaten, I tried to find my colleagues who were also covering the gathering a few meters away from me. HTS also prevented them from filming and pushed them away from the crowds,” he added.

Fellaha said, “HTS had always tried to control the work of journalists [in its areas of control] by giving them written permits or press cards that protected them from being attacked by its security forces. However, whenever we are covering major events, security officers always attack media professionals. I have been attacked and beaten twice.”

He continued, “HTS ought to deal with demonstrations differently. In this case, it should have coordinated with journalists to cover the peace caravan at the crossing. An HTS leader should address the people and explain to them the risks of their actions through a rational discourse to the youth, assuring them that HTS understands their suffering. Someone ought to explain to the people the consequences of what they are doing, and that the Turkish authorities reject these actions (crossing through their border). HTS needs to find a way to calm and reassure Idlib’s youth that it is trying to help them in these difficult times.”

Firas Faham, a researcher at the Jusoor Center for Studies who lives in Turkey, told Al-Monitor, “HTS is constantly seeking to impose its security control. It is trying to show [the international community] that it is in control [of its areas] and able to achieve stability in Idlib. It thus cannot ignore demonstrations trying to leave for Europe. This would harm its reputation as Turkey and the West would look at it differently.”

He added, “HTS is trying to show that it is contributing to curbing illegal immigration. Publicly, HTS opposes the departure of young people from Idlib to Europe, but it does not mind it secretly, as [it] allows smuggling to Turkey. The peace caravan was being covered by the media, and HTS had to step in and show that it is against it (the caravan).”

Faham continued, “HTS wants its name removed from the list of terrorist organizations. In this context, it is trying to show [the world] that it is curbing illegal immigration to perhaps gain international approval. It wants to achieve political gains by portraying itself as a state, not a jihadist faction as it was back when it was still known as ‘Jabhat al-Nusra’ [before it split from al-Qaeda]. HTS wants to pretend it understands the interests of the different countries, but unfortunately, the group’s [policy] is based on security control and it goes after anyone who objects to its policies.”

Faham stressed that HTS does not care about the migration of young people from Idlib. It is rather more interested in supporting those who are affiliated with it and are convinced of its approach, he said.

Mohammed al-Omar, an Idlib-based journalist who is close to HTS, told Al-Monitor, “Media professionals enjoy greater freedom in Idlib than any other area in Syria. Dozens of media professionals live in Idlib and speak against HTS. Instead of taking action against journalists, HTS welcomes them and allows them to live peacefully, despite the [media] attacks against it. For instance, Orient News is publicly against HTS, and its correspondents live in Idlib and work without any harassment.”

Omar said the calls to hold the peace caravan were suspicious and HTS did the right thing by preventing demonstrators from approaching the Turkish wall.

He added, “Over the past years, the Turkish army has killed many Syrians who were trying to cross the border; most of them were killed by a sniper's bullet to the head, while others were killed inside Syrian territory while working on their own land. I wonder what would have happened if HTS had allowed these civilians to reach the Turkish side. The Turks would have confronted them with live bullets. Turkey would have closed the Bab al-Hawa crossing, which is the only outlet for 4 million civilians in Idlib. Any mistake could endanger civilian lives, and HTS is only protecting them by doing everything it can to keep the crossing open.”

He continued, “HTS’ security officers were very clear; they told civilians they could say whatever they wanted but clearly instructed them not to attempt to cross over [the border]. Once the demonstrators tried to pass through the crossing, the security officers dispersed them.”

Several observers believe that HTS is seeking to portray itself as a protector of the border with Turkey, which could boost its relations with Turkish authorities. HTS is betting on Turkey to convince the international community of its moderate approach and to change its label of HTS as a terrorist organization.

It seems that HTS’ crackdown against the recent protests was a message to Turkey whereby the group is sort of a state that protects the Turkish border, and that it can, in the event relations deteriorate, allow many Syrians to flow into Turkey.

Thus it seems HTS is using the refugees’ card, for now, showing Turkey that it is preventing the flow of Syrians into its territories while stressing that it can still reverse this policy if Turkey’s approach toward HTS changes.  

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