As fierce rebel clashes rage, residents say: ‘This is not the Idlib we know’

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“This is not the Idlib we have known like it was during the Sochi agreement,” said some residents of the province in northwestern Syria, referring to the calm that had prevailed, but now broken, throughout the areas since Sept. 17 of last year.

Since the Sochi agreement between Russia and Turkey on the establishment of a demilitarized zone in Idlib, the city and its countryside have not witnessed military confrontations since the beginning of the year between fighters from the National Front for Liberation and Nusra Front fighters, now also known as the Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) group.

During previous clashes, which heavy and medium weapons were used in, the HTS group managed to impose control over areas under the control of the National Front for Liberation, one of the most prominent factions of the Syrian armed opposition in Idlib, backed by Turkey, which includes more than 15 military factions after four new factions joined them in August last year.

For the first time since the outbreak of the fighting, HTS imposed control over areas beyond the control of the National Front for Liberation, which included the town of Deir Samaan and its stronghold controlled by pro-Kurdish factions.

According to National Front for Liberation sources, “the confrontations between them and the HTS will not stop at the moment”.

The sources confirmed that “the movement of Noureddine Zanki is a faction of the National Front for Liberation, and therefore the battle is between them and HTS, not his alone”.

Those armed confrontations, however, between the two sides do not appear to be “routine” this time. In the past, such clashes would end with a truce between the two sides.

Several fighters from the National Front for Liberation told Al Arabiya English that “the battles will continue, so that we regain control of the areas we lost to HTS”.

Despite the support previously received by the National Front for Liberation from Ankara, military sources note that “Turkey has not yet supported it in its battle against HTS”.

In parallel with the ongoing clashes, which resulted in dozens of dead and wounded on both sides, residents of Idlib and its neighbors complain of “lack of security”, and justify this as “mutual reprisals” between the parties, which are the bombings that cause physical damage in their ranks.

“After every battle between the two sides, repression increases and the taxes imposed by the HTS rise on us,” one Idlib resident told Al Arabiya English in a telephone call.

The HTS works to impose additional taxes on the city’s traders through its customs barriers in the area.

Al Arabiya English sources have revealed the existence of effective coordination between officials of HTS and forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, near Aleppo, on this issue.

The city of Idlib and its countryside live in an economic situation described by its residents as that of being “frightening”. Some emphasize “high electricity and water utility tariffs and low employment opportunities”.

Residents have linked that “taxes and high prices which HTS imposes” with the group’s attempts at “raising a huge financial fortune”.

Another person recounted the “theft of his motorbike”, saying that “after the robbery, HTS members asked me for 5,000 Syrian pounds (about $20) as a tax for the security record”.

“As a result of not having this amount, I could not accept an investigation into the theft of my bike,” he added.

For its part, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that “at least 61 members of HTS have died, compared to 58 fighters loyal to the movement of Noureddine Zanki” five days ago, stressing at the same time that “eight civilians were killed, including a nurse and three children”.

“The situation is not reassuring and there is popular dissatisfaction with what is happening,” said Syrian journalist Hazem Dakl, who is closely monitoring the situation.

“What is happening in the recent fighting is aimed at unifying HTS,” he said in an interview with Al Arabiya English. “It may be a message from HTS to the international community that they will not be able to exclude them”.

“They are imposing control over large areas, especially in Idlib and Aleppo, while the moderate factions of the armed opposition no longer have any impact on the ground,” he added.

The journalist went on to accuse HTS of imposing control over various aspects of daily life, such as education and administrative institutions, through the “SyrianSG government” formed by the HTS earlier in Idlib and its countryside.

Idlib is the last stronghold of the armed opposition in Syria, where other armed groups are active along with HTS and the National Front for Liberation, including the organization of the “Guardians of Religion Organization”, which residents have described as “the most radical” compared to the other groups active in the countryside of the province.

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