Iraq News

Idlib residents fearful as Tahrir al-Sham takes control

By Waleed Abu al-Khair in Cairo


Idlib city residents inspect the damage caused by a car bomb that exploded, killing a number of Tahrir al-Sham fighters, near al-Ziraa roundabout on July 23rd. Residents fear there will be similar incidents in the days ahead. [Photo courtesy of Musab Assaf]

Idlib residents are fearful after Tahrir al-Sham -- an extremist alliance that includes the former al-Nusra Front (ANF) -- seized control of the city and most of the rural areas around it, local activists told Diyaruna.

Their fears stem from regional news reports that the city might become the target of coalition airstrikes or a ground offensive to drive out the extremists, as was the case in the Iraqi city of Mosul and the Syrian city of al-Raqa.

Tahrir al-Sham seized control of Idlib on Sunday (July 23rd) following the withdrawal of rival alliance Ahrar al-Sham.

Ahrar al-Sham elements left the city, heading for the south of the province, following a Friday ceasefire agreement struck after days of violent battles between the two groups that killed and wounded dozens.

Tahrir al-Sham also tightened its grip on the Bab al-Hawa and Khirbet al-Jawz border crossings with Turkey and seized all civil and military facilities within the city of Idlib.

"The entire region is now under the control of Tahrir al-Sham and dozens of small factions have pledged allegiance to it in the past few days," said Idlib media activist Musab Assaf, who is using a pseudonym out of fear for his safety.

Fears were heightened further after news spread of the possibility that the city might be subjected to coalition airstrikes, a ground offensive and a siege, he told Diyaruna, noting that Idlib residents tried without success to keep the city neutral.

Some towns in the outlying areas struck deals with Tahrir al-Sham to keep its fighters out, he said, in exchange for the departure of all militants in those towns for agreed-upon areas, particularly Jarablus, al-Ghab and Jabal al-Zawiyah.

Replacing flags in Idlib

Inside Idlib city, Assaf said, Tahrir al-Sham has replaced the flag of the Syrian revolution with its own, and has issued a ban on raising that flag.

The alliance immediately set about rounding up activists and figures who oppose it, he added, and imposed a ban on all media or social activity except its own.

Hundreds of allied fighters were brought in to fortify the city against potential usurpers, he said, adding that "the alliance set up checkpoints inside the city and at its entrances, inspecting the documents of all those entering or leaving".

Residents also expressed concern about the possibility of renewed fighting and the use of improvised explosive devices, after a number of Tahrir al-Sham elements were killed in a Sunday suicide bombing at al-Ziraa roundabout.

In addition to fears for their security, residents of Idlib and the surrounding rural area are facing a dire economic situation.

Many humanitarian organisations suspended their operations in the region after the extremist alliance expanded, which affected hundreds of families, activist and media professional Sumer Agha of the Salamiyah co-ordination committee told Diyaruna.

"After the closure of the Bab al-Hawa crossing -- a vital artery through which food, supplies, medicine and other necessities pass -- the price of food and other commodities rose astronomically," Agha said.

Tahrir al-Sham and Ahrar al-Sham struck an agreement between themselves to have a group of civilians administer the crossing and split the proceeds between the two groups, after it was pocketed entirely by Ahrar al-Sham in the past, he said.

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