Testimony of a France 24 journalist from Idlib, the last stronghold of the armed Islamist opposition in Syria

Testimony of a France 24 journalist from Idlib, the last stronghold of the armed Islamist opposition in Syria
Testimony of a France 24 journalist from Idlib, the last stronghold of the armed Islamist opposition in Syria

managed Wassim NasrFrance 24 journalist specializing in jihadist movements Idlib Governorate Northern Syria, which remains under the control of the faction’s fighters.Hayat Tahrir al-ShamDespite the Syrian regime’s attempts to restore it, whether through negotiations or force.

On a unique occasion for a French journalist working for a French channel, a lengthy interview took place with Abu Muhammad al-Julani, the leader of “Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham”, and former leader ofJabhat al-Nusra branch organization aFor al-Qaeda in Syria, who is fighting today its jihadists and Islamic State fighters alike. From the Turkish border to Idlib, Sarmada and Al-Dana, passing by Harem and Atmeh, to Ariha, Jisr Al-Shughour and its Christian villages, Al-Yaqubiyyah and Al-Qunya… Testimony of a France 24 journalist

Idlib city front

The road between the Turkish border and the city of Idlib is paved, expanded and planted with imported palm trees. She was UN and humanitarian delegations cross it regularly after the earthquake that struck the border area with Turkey last February.

Itinerary of France 24’s special envoy to Syria, Wassim Nasr, in Idlib province. © Studio Graphic France Media Monde

This road, which is intended to be the interface for the projects of the “Salvation Government”, i.e. the civil administration of “Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham”, That govern Idlib and its regionthe last stronghold of the armed Islamic opposition in Syria.

The road lies between two checkpoints, before reaching the crossing to Turkey, which makes crossing it… impossible without an escort in charge of the foreign press, whether Arab or foreign, in addition to members of the “Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham”. Once entering Idlib governorate, the visitor is greeted with a flag. Great for the Syrian revolution, followed by a white flag with the Islamic certificate written on it in black.

Idlib governorate witnessed a large number of battles since the beginning of the revolution against the Syrian regime, which soon turned into a civil war. It became one of the passages for foreign jihadists who came to Syria to fight from all over the world, and it also became one of the first places where grave violations were committed against religious minorities such as the Druze and Christians.

At the entrance to the city, which Islamist and jihadist opposition factions took control of in 2015, there is no sign of any black flag (symbolizing the jihadists), not even the flag of “Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham”. There are only two checkpoints, which are guarded by masked men in green clothes belonging to the “Management of Barriers”.

What is striking is the absence of armed men. There is no sign of young men in Afghani dress, nor patrols of fighters. When asked, my escort told me, “We wanted people to understand that the fighters’ place is on the fronts, not among civilians, in cities and villages.”

The Clock Roundabout in Idlib, May 2023. © Wassim Nasr, France 24

At first sight, it may not be surprising that the flags of the Syrian revolution are everywhere, but whoever is familiar with the ideology of jihadist movements knows that this is unfamiliar and generally undesirable by the Islamic movement, as it represents the national opposition. This is considered one of the crucial issues about the development of “Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham” and its exit from the tunnel of jihadist movements, despite the persistence of some old jihadist writings on the walls targeting, for example, Shiites and democracy alike.

The city of Idlib is teeming with life and construction, as in the “Kitab Café”, intended to be a place for reading and studying, for students and readers. The place is located between the Tawheed Mosque and the former building of the Carlton Hotel. There is a separation between women and men, as is the case in restaurants and cafes, unlike public parks and shops where mixing is permitted, as are cigarettes and revolutionary music that rises from some shops and alleys.

The population of Idlib has doubled due to displacement, part of which was forced over the years of the war, and according to Doctors Without Borders, the population of the province today exceeds four and a half million, after more than three years of relative calm on the fronts, despite skirmishes and some operations or intermittent shelling.

Abu Muhammad al-Julani, the strongman in Idlib

A day after entering the area, coordination was made for a meeting with Abu Muhammad al-Julani, who heads Hayat Tahrir al-Sham in one of Idlib’s residential neighborhoods.pThe American BBS in 2021. The meeting took place at night and after strict security measures imposed by the group, as mobile phones had to be left in another neighborhood.

From left to right: Abu Maria al-Qahtani, Abu Muhammad al-Julani, Abu Ahmad Zakour. © Photo from a propaganda agency of the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham

The story of “Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham”, classified as a terrorist organization by the United Nations, which took control of the Idlib region by force of arms, as well as its leader and a number of its leaders, is unique.

After growing up at the behest of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, head of the “Islamic State in Iraq” at the time, and after joining al-Qaeda, the group abandoned what is known as global jihad to fight both organizations today.

Al-Dana Police Station, formerly used by the Islamic State as a Sharia court, May 2023. © Wassim Nasr, France 24

We also met Abu Maria al-Qahtani, an Iraqi and one of al-Julani’s first companions, and a number of officials and representatives of the group in the days that followed. Al-Julani’s interview was not intended for publication, nor was Al-Qahtani’s interview, but the latter assured me that “Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham does not have a problem with the West, but rather its problem is with Russia and the Syrian regime… We are fighting ‘ISIS’ (a common name that denotes the ‘Islamic State’ organization) We are fighting al-Qaeda. Indeed, I called several times for the dissolution of al-Qaeda, and with our efforts, we prevented the youth of Idlib from entering these organizations… We are the ones who lived through and were inside the jihadist movement.

Visiting the Christian villages of Idlib

On the third day of our visit, we were invited to attend a discussion session between representatives of the Christian villages and a number of representatives of “Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham” about recovering Christian homes and agricultural lands, which were previously confiscated by the same authority or the jihadist factions that were present in those areas. To reach these villages, we took what is known as the M4 road, on which there are a number of fixed points belonging to the Turkish army, which was conducting joint patrols with the Russian army on them. Note that both of them were targeted on that road by the “Islamic State” and “Al-Qaeda” organizations.

Since the arrival of foreign fighters to those villages, including those who were with the “al-Nusra Front”, there have been several transgressions against civilians of the Christian religion, such as killing, kidnapping, rape, expulsion and burning of churches. From about twenty thousand people, their number decreased to a few hundred, most of whom are elderly. A number of homes out of hundreds were returned to them, and the debate is still going on over the largest part of the agricultural land and the way to invest it. Even ways have been devised for a representative of Christians to give testimonies through recordings that dispense with property contracts that some do not have and are impossible to obtain from official circles. A number of homes owned by Christians in Idlib City were also returned, but their representatives, according to them, refused to restore the church in Idlib because they “do not have the energy to maintain or guard it.” According to “Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham”, the number of houses that were returned to their owners in the village of al-Quniyah is “56 empty houses, 42 houses were handed over to relatives and 41 houses are under delivery.” As for the village of Yaqubiyyah, “90 houses are empty, 120 houses were handed over to relatives and 109 houses are under delivery,” as well as “14 plots.” land and 3 churches. Note that the village of Al-Jadida has a more difficult situation, as it is within the scope of the “Jaysh Al-Ahrar” faction’s operations.

Latin Church in Yaqubiyeh, Idlib Governorate, May 2023. © Wassim Nasr, France 24

The situation of Christians, who have experienced two things since the beginning of the war in Syria, including killing, abuse, rape, displacement, and kidnapping, is improving, but with restrictions. As we have seen churches and monasteries under restoration, we have also seen that crosses and statues will not be re-raised outside, and that the apparent ones will continue to be hidden, and that bells will not return to ring in the distance. perspective. This was confirmed to us by the Christians of the villages we visited, expressing their hope that the Idlib crossing and the areas controlled by the regime would be opened in order to relieve them of the burden of traveling through areas controlled by several revolutionary or Kurdish factions, which cost about $700 per person.

Karama camps

On the last day, before leaving the area, we were able, with the group’s approval, to visit the Karama camps in Atma, which borders the Turkish wall on the one hand, and the areas of the factions supported directly by Ankara. The “Syrian Salvation Government” considers the file of the displaced and refugees to be one of the most important files that must be resolved, at least by counting the numbers and families accurately and scientifically. Muhammad Bashir, Minister of Development and Humanitarian Affairs, assured me that they “tried to build camps with better sanitary conditions, in order to empty the illegal camps as a start, but the earthquake that hit the area stopped everything and forced us to house the affected people in what we built.”

The residents of the Idlib region are greatly affected by the nature of the relationship between Turkey and “Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham”, which is a continuous barter between the two parties. Ankara is forced to recognize the fait accompli imposed by the “Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham” and its civil administration represented by the Salvation Government, knowing that it would have preferred to manage the Idlib region in the same manner as it manages what is known as the “Northern Shield” border areas, which are under direct Turkish administration. While Hayat Tahrir al-Sham is forced to accept the Turkish military presence in Idlib and to emulate Ankara as the only lifeline for Idlib to the outside world.

Al-Karama camps in the Atmeh district of Idlib governorate, northwestern Syria, May 2023. © Wassim Nasr, France 24

However, despite this, a number of officials whom we met considered that “it would be difficult to impose any external settlement between Ankara, Moscow and Damascus on them.” Note that there are a number of files that are actually pressure cards in the hands of “Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham”, such as the file of the displaced who will try to flee towards Turkey or even Europe in the event that battles flare up again, as well as the file of local and foreign jihadists and their families who may take the same path if that happens. that. Note that there are about 200 Frenchmen in Idlib today, including men, women and children.

It is clear and certain that “Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham” did not deny its religious extremism nor its control over the Idlib region, but today it denies its affiliation with the global jihadist movement represented by the “Islamic State” and al-Qaeda organizations. 12 years after the beginning of the Syrian revolution, and after it turned into a civil war, the “Salvation Government” which is actually affiliated with “Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham” comes as the last independent attempt to rule in Syria. Rebuilding, not even in the midst of building from scratch… And if “Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham” and al-Julani are classified as terrorists, are all the children of Idlib terrorists?