Syrian Resistance Stands Up Again—This Time Against Islamist Militia
by Leila Al Shami
Over the past few days a popular uprising has broken out across northern Syria's Idlib against the hardline Islamist group that is militarily dominant in much of the province—Hayaat Tahrir Al-Shaam or HTS, formerly the al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front. The uprising began when HTS increased zakaat (taxes) on a number of goods and services including bread, electricity and olive oil.
In Kafar Takharim, a town in north-estern Idlib, which is dependent on olive oil production for income, locals refused to pay increased taxes and attempts by HTS to control the olive oil presses. The local council in Kafar Takharim has long resisted attempts at take over by the HTS-linked Salvation Government. Locals staged protests and stormed HTS- controlled olive presses and police stations, successfully evicting HTS from their community.
HTS surrounded the town and demanded that locals hand over a number of individuals who participated in the protests under threat of retaliation. The locals refused and determined to continue their resistance against the militants.
On November 6, HTS forces besieged the town and began attacking it with mortar and machine-gun fire, killing at least three people and injuring others. But the locals continued resisting, and all around Idlib towns and villages rose up in solidarity with Kafar Takharim, demanding that HTS and its leader Jolani leave the province. People took to the streets in Idlib city , Salqin, Maarat Al Nu’man, Darkush, Samarda, Ariha, Kurin, Armanaz and elsewhere. People from Armanaz and Idlib city began marching towards Kafar Takharim to try and break the siege but were blocked by HTS militants. On November 7, protesters from Salqin managed to break into the town from the north.
Popular resistance to HTS has been a regular occurrence in Idlib province and chants against Jolani are regularly heard at the anti-Assad regime protests which are held almost every Friday. Many see the group's authoritarianism as no different from that of the regime.
HTS militants increased their control over the province in January following intense fighting with rebel groups. Since then HTS has attempted to impose control over civilian governance through the creation of the Salvation Government, which has taken over service provision, local councils and education—despite the widespread resistance of locals, who have courageously attempted to defend their autonomy and the democratic institutions they established following liberation from the regime.
People were further outraged by widespread arrests which have targeted civil society activists and media workers, some of whom are reported to have died under torture in HTS-run prisons. HTS is widely believed to have been behind the assassinations of Raed Fares and Hamoud Jneed in November 2018—key figures in revolutionary organizing in Idlib and involved in the popular independent radio station Radio Fresh.
In September, large-scale protests erupted against both HTS and the continuing aerial bombardment of the province by the regime and Russia. The regime intensified its assault on the province in April, conducting an aerial campaign against residential areas which has caused some half a million to flee, has killed over 1,000, and has directly targeted civilian infrastructure including over 50 hospitals and medical centres.
The dominant narrative promoted by the regime and supporters of Syrian fascism is that Idlib is a "terrorist enclave." The presence of a few thousand extremist militants is presented as justification for the campaign of extermination waged against Idlib's civilian population of some 3 million people, which includes 1 million children.
Today's uprising should challenge this narrative. Syrians have continually resisted all forms of authoritarianism and sought to defend their autonomy and exercise their desire for freedom and democracy since 2011.
Despite being trapped between the regime and extremists, Idlib remains home to many inspiring civil initiatives and outpourings of creative resistance. Just a few weeks ago, 20-year-old rapper Amir Al Muarri released the fierce track "On All Fronts," produced in Idlib. The video (which has subtitles in English, Spanish and Russian) provides a portrait of the province and the diversity of its residents who continue to survive and resist despite living under apocalyptic conditions. He spares no criticism for the brutality of the regime, the armed factions which have hijacked the revolution, and the foreign interventions of Russia, Iran and Turkey.
It's people like Amir and the civilians risking their lives to protest today who are Syria's future. Their experience defies lazy assumptions that the choice Syrians face is between a fascist regime and Al Qaeda. There's always been a third option.
Leila Al-Shami has worked with the human rights movement in Syria and across in the Middle East. She is the co-author of Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War (Pluto Press, 2016) and a founding member of Tahrir-ICN, a network that aimed to connect anti-authoritarian struggles across the Middle East, North Africa and Europe.
This story first appeared Nov. 9 on Leila's blog.
Photo of demonstration at Maarat Al Nu'man via MMC
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Reprinted by CounterVortex, Nov, 9, 2019