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Idlib leaders reject al-Qaeda affiliate's attempt to seize control

Idlib city council says it was 'freely elected' and will not submit to Hayat Tahrir al-Sham demands to hand over public services
Syrian man casts his vote in January to elect Idlib's first civilian council (AFP)

Idlib's elected leaders have rejected attempts by the former al-Qaeda affiliate Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) to seize control of local services, in one of the strongest rebukes against the militant group since its takeover of the province.

In a statement on Tuesday, Idlib's city council said it would not be abiding by orders from HTS to turn over control of bakeries, water and transport to the "civil administration of services," a body controlled by the militants.

The council said it was "freely elected" by the people of Idlib and would not recognise the HTS order.

"Recently taken 'civil adminstration of services' decision and accelerated and successive steps, especially with regards to the departments of the Idlib city council are an attempt to make it submit to subordination, and the decisions were unilateral," read the statement.

"Our people in Idlib ... oh revolutionaries ... oh Syrians everywhere ... the Idlib city council will remain with you, it will not be dismissed and will not step down."

The council said it would be willing to subordinate services to a central body "provided there is an independent, recoginised civilian government".

HTS control over Idlib appears undisputed after they crushed their main rival in the province, the once-powerful Ahrar al-Sham.

Idlib fell to rebels in 2015 after a coalition composed of then-HTS incarnation the Nusra Front, Ahrar and others captured it from government forces.

Since then, however, tensions have emerged between Syrian opposition supporters and HTS, who are seen as having a transnational agenda at odds with the original aims of the Syrian uprising.

There have been repeated protests in recent months against HTS in Idlib, which have often been met with force.

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Despite this, after repeated clashes, HTS were last month able to capture the Bab al-Hawa crossing between Syria and Turkey, previously one of Ahrar's most important strategic locations and a major source of revenue through border trade.

They also drove the group out of Idlib city, leaving the stronghold in HTS hands.

"HTS was willing to expend more resources, they were better organised, they had more resources to spend, and slowly but surely they've been grinding down the LCCs [opposition council] in the area," Michael Stephens, a research fellow for Middle East studies at the Royal United Services Institute, recently told MEE.

He said they HTS was "pushing out other groups slowly but surely and then is able to absorb other groups pretty quickly who realised there was little point in resisting".

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Idlib's city council was elected in January in the first civilian poll in the city since it came under the control of the opposition.

Only those aged 25 and over and originally from Idlib could vote for the 25-member council.

The elections came after lobbying from activists for the Army of Conquest coalition to allow civilian leadership of local services.

According to Mohammad al-Aref, a member of Idlib province's executive office, there are about 160 civilian-run councils across the province.

These bodies manage "health and educational affairs, as well as public services" of towns and villages.

Idlib's population has swelled in the past year, with tens of thousands of people displaced there by fighting or after evacuating besieged areas in other parts of Syria, including Aleppo.

Much life-saving humanitarian aid has continued to enter the province through Bab al-Hawa despite HTS's power grab, a Western diplomat told AFP.