The Regime Push Against HTS in Idlib Could Backfire
Haid Haid, January 2018
The rebel group has encountered sustained local resistance, but the number one enemy remains Bashar al-Assad and his allies.
Pro-regime forces— supported by Iran-backed militias and Russian air cover— have recently launched an offensive to recapture territory in Idlib, under the pretext of seeking to repel Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). But while it is true that HTS has significantly increased its territorial control of the area and become the strongest rebel group after its defeat of Ahrar al-Sham in July 2017, it is struggling to match its military gains with a similar level of community support.
Regime attacks are now likely to push a population that had been increasingly resisting HTS back into pragmatic cooperation with it.
HTS has faced a number of street demonstrations against it, notably in Kafranbel, Maarat al- Nu’man and Atarib. The nonviolent resistance strategies deployed against HTS are similar to the ones used against both the Syrian regime and ISIS. They involve a mixture of public events, a ‘passive war’ of logos and slogans, and even satire, which aims to undermine legitimacy.
For years, a standard HTS tactic has been to use the provision of public services to generate community support and recruit members. It also attempts to disband local governing institutions and replace them with its affiliate governing bodies. To counter such efforts, civil society organizations are focusing on increasing the efficiency and legitimacy of local institutions to make them hard to replace.
Instead of allowing local communities to continue to resist HTS, regime-led airstrikes have been systematically targeting areas that are known for resisting the group. On 13 November 2017, the Atarib market was targeted by three airstrikes resulting in the death of 69 civilians and significant damage to several buildings on the Atarib market street. Open source materials indicated that the attack was conducted by either the Russian or Syrian air force. Other towns were also hit such as Kafranbel ( on the 6th and 16th of January) and Maarat Al Noaman (on the 2nd of January). As a result, over 100,000 civilians have been displaced and an additional 400,000 are at risk of being displaced if the attacks against civilian centres continue.
Despite HTS’s territorial losses against the regime, the operation risks allowing the group to regain some of its lost local support. HTS has successfully presented itself as an indispensable armed force in the fight against the Syrian regime. Likewise, it has been using its military victories to increase its popularity and legitimacy. It has often made sure, after attacks against other rebel groups, to quickly launch military operations against regime forces to distract attention from its actions against rebels and maintain a level of local approval.
In a recent audio statement, HTS leader Abu Muhammad al-Jolani tried to use the regime attacks to rally locals around him and restore relationships between HTS and rebel groups who have been distancing themselves from it. The increased threat posed by the regime-led campaign will likely encourage some of them to take up the offer.
Despite resistance to HTS, it is the Syrian regime that is still considered the number one enemy for most of the local population in Idlib, as well as displaced people who live there. As such, though they harbour no love for HTS, they will likely be pushed in the direction of pragmatic cooperation to prevent Assad from ruling them again.
Haid Haid is a Consulting Research Fellow in the Middle East and North Africa programme at Chatham House and Syrian columnist who focuses on security policies, conflict resolution, Kurdish and Islamist movements.