Reshuffle of HTS-linked government fails to bring hope in Idlib

It appears that the new cabinet of an Idlib-based opposition government connected to Hayat Tahrir al-Sham will not earn the trust of the public, which continues to suffer under tough economic and humanitarian conditions.

al-monitor Road direction signs are seen at an entrance to Khan Sheikhoun, Idlib, Syria, Aug. 24, 2019.  Photo by REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki.

Dec 29, 2019

ALEPPO, Syria — The spokesman for the Ministry of Development and Humanitarian Affairs in the opposition’s Syrian Salvation Government said Dec. 21 that shelters were being provided to deal with the recent displacement crisis in Idlib’s southern countryside that resulted from government forces’ shelling of civilian cities and towns.

On Dec. 12, it was announced that the opposition government was being reshuffled, with Ali Keda as prime minister and 10 ministerial portfolios.

The General Shura Council, a legislative body that includes prominent tribal figures and is close to Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, had given its vote of confidence to Keda to form a new government Nov. 18 following the resignation of the cabinet headed by Fawaz Hilal and formed in November 2018. 

Born in 1973, Keda is an engineer who hails from Harbanoosh village in Idlib and has five children. In his ministerial statement, he pledged that work on solving the displacement and camp crisis would eventually mean that no tent or camp would remain. 

The opposition government in Idlib is close to Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and constitutes its civilian arm to manage the areas of the Idlib countryside and its surroundings, including the opposition-held Aleppo, Hama and Latakia countrysides. The Syrian National Conference held at the Bab al-Hawa crossing on the Syrian-Turkish border on Sept. 16, 2017, under Hayat Tahrir al-Sham's auspices announced the formation of the Syrian Salvation Government on Nov. 2, 2017. Ever since, there has been controversy in opposition circles, and many people have been dissatisfied with the government's performance, with some criticizing the government’s affiliation with and closeness to Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.

An opposition government official told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “The new third lineup of the Syrian Salvation Government includes various opposition affiliations and figures. Some ministers are affiliated with Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, while others are independent. We hope to improve governmental and administrative performance in the new lineup and to offer better services and work seriously on developing government-affiliated institutions.”

Idlib has witnessed protests against Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and the practices and administrative performance of the opposition government, with calls for it to be toppled. The latest protests took place at the end of November as a result of a hike in fuel and foodstuff prices, monopolistic practices by the government and its introduction of new taxes and royalties. Hilal’s cabinet resigned as a result, to temper the public anger.

Abdul Karim Okeidi, a civil activist who hails from west Aleppo, told Al-Monitor, “The Syrian Salvation Government has been imposing taxes on civilians since it took control of the area, despite the bad economic and living situation. The new government lineup will offer nothing new, and I do not think it will enjoy public support. People are poor and cannot handle taxes. They want basic, low-cost services and affordable communication, water and electricity.”

“I personally have no faith in the Syrian Salvation Government, whose sole concern is taxes when thousands of families are being shelled by Syrian government forces and Russian aircraft and are facing tough humanitarian conditions in camps. The Syrian Salvation Government cannot possibly fix its image, and it cannot serve civilians as long as it represents Hayat Tahrir al-Sham,” he added.

Media activist Mohammad al-Hussein of the Idlib countryside told Al-Monitor, “Civilians lost faith in the Syrian Salvation Government for several reasons, including the deteriorating security situation. The Syrian Salvation Government is not serious about taking the necessary measures to protect people and their properties, and it cannot control security in Idlib.”

He said the opposition government “follows Hayat Tahrir al-Sham orders, and its policies halted the operation of many humanitarian organizations in Idlib. People’s lives were negatively affected due to aid cuts.”

The opposition government is monopolizing trade in Idlib and controlling the import and marketing of a large quantity of foodstuffs, through traders and companies owned by people close to it and to Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. The opposition government is also monopolizing some services, and some of the monopolized trade goods include fuel derivatives through the Watad Petroleum Co. established by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham in early 2018.

Sultan al-Baligh, a media activist living in the Idlib countryside, told Al-Monitor, “Civilians no longer trust the Syrian Salvation Government because it did not offer them even the least services that any government should provide. Since its formation, civilians have considered it a pawn in the hands of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.”

Yahya Mayo, the media coordinator of the opposition National Army — affiliated with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) — told Al-Monitor, “The new government lineup is just for show. It will not improve the performance of the Syrian Salvation Government, nor will it make it closer to the people of Idlib. Besides, the FSA factions are not represented in the Syrian Salvation Government, which will doom it to failure and a short life.”

Media activist Abdul Fattah al-Hussein, who moves between the Aleppo and Idlib countrysides, told Al-Monitor that the opposition government makes money by imposing taxes on people on the crossings it controls. These include Bab al-Hawa as well as internal crossings connecting Idlib to other areas such as al-Ais in Aleppo’s southern countryside, al-Mansoura in Aleppo’s western countryside and al-Ghazawiya in Aleppo’s northern countryside, a connector to Afrin.

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