Former al-Qaeda affiliate pushes to assert control in northwestern Syria
The rebel authority of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) in northwest Syria is positioning itself as the only opposition authority in the region after giving its main political rival - the Syrian Interim Government (SIG) - a 72-hour deadline this week to cease operations.
The Syrian Salvation Government (SSG) is a civil authority formed in Idlib province in early November and backed by hardline rebel coalition HTS, whose leading faction is Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, formerly al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate.
On Tuesday, the SSG warned all offices headed by the opposition-run SIG in a statement that they must close their doors by Friday or “be held responsible”.
Tuesday’s SSG statement follows weeks of conflict between the HTS-backed government and the Turkey-based SIG, an alternative to the government in Damascus that was formed in 2013.
The ultimatum is the latest in a series of moves by HTS to monopolise authority in northwestern Syria by dismantling its political and military rivals - from armed factions to local opposition councils - in areas the rebel coalition controls.
HTS did not respond to requests for comment.
Since the SSG was established nearly six weeks ago, it has unilaterally disbanded several SIG-supported local councils across northwestern Syria, pro-opposition Al-Modon reported earlier this month.
SGG president Muhammad al-Sheikh called for a new wave of elections for all local councils in northwest Syria earlier this month, telling the pro-opposition Smart News Agency that the time had come to choose new council members.
The SIG has yet to issue an official response to the SSG’s statement, but a high-ranking official speaking on condition of anonymity characterised the SSG as “illegitimate”.
“The SSG is completely and entirely part of HTS,” the official told Syria Direct. “We don’t recognise it and (we) condemn those who support it.”
Ideologically, the two competing civil authorities are deeply divided: The SIG - established by the Syrian National Council (SNC) in 2013 - says it espouses secular, moderate values and regularly participates in international peace talks.
The SIG, however, is comprised largely of ministers and officials close to HTS, which enforces a strict interpretation of Islamic law and vehemently rejects talks with the Syrian government.
Since its founding, the SIG has been the primary civilian authority throughout most of opposition-held Syria. A system of administrative local councils established by the SIG operates schools and hospitals while providing basic civil services on the ground.
Currently, the SIG presides over 12 provincial councils and more than 400 local councils in Syria. It has organised a number of local elections in Idlib province, War on the Rocks reported in October.
The SIG also runs a major border crossing between Syria and Turkey, which brings in an estimated $1m in revenue each month, Al-Monitor reported in October.
In northwestern Syria, the civilian SIG maintains diplomatic ties with some of HTS’s major military rivals - such as Ahrar a-Sham - and is internationally recognised by the European Union and the United States, among others. In January 2015, the SIG received a $6m grant from the US to promote civil society and provide relief to civilians, the SNC said at the time.
For the SSG - and by extension HTS - the closure of local councils and the removal of the SIG from areas it controls could be a decisive blow against its only major rival for civil authority in northwestern Syria.
With the ongoing disbanding of SIG-run local councils in northwestern Syria, the SSG’s power grab has already begun.
The latest town to lose its local council was Ariha, about 15km south of HTS-controlled Idlib city. Last Thursday, the SSG unilaterally formed a separate council to govern Ariha, as it has done in other towns across northwestern Syria over the past six weeks.
The SSG plans to replace each dissolved local council with an “alternative council,” Fadel Talib, the minister of local administration and services in the SSG, told Syria Direct.
Earlier this month, the head of the SIG’s public relations office, Yasser al-Haji, said in a statement that the Syrian Interim Government refuses to work with terrorists - referring to HTS - or any entity that deals with them.
Al-Haji sparked an angry response from the SSG, which released a statement on 9 December condemning the SIG, saying that “appropriate measures would be taken”.
“Anyone fighting on the front lines is in the right,” the SSG statement read. “He’s only a terrorist in the eyes of those who have sold out to the killers of the Syrian people.”
For now, the interim government is not planning to evacuate any of its offices, the anonymous official told Syria Direct on Wednesday. The civil body will resort to legal pathways and its international allies to resist in the event that the SSG or HTS attempt to close offices by force.
“We won’t submit,” the official said.