Syrians in Idlib protest jihadist presence
DAMASCUS - Demonstrators took to the streets in Syria's Idlib province on Friday to protest a jihadist group's offensive against a rival rebel group, which left at least 8 civilians dead in the town of Kafr Takharim.
Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) is an alliance of Salafist militant groups, including the former Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, which seized control of the northern province from rival rebel groups in January.
HTS now dominates much of Idlib province as well as parts of neighbouring Hama, Aleppo and Latakia. The group has sworn its allegiance to Syria's "National Salvation Government", an alternative government based in the jihadist-held Syrian territories which has been rejected by the wider Syrian opposition - although both these strains of the opposition are receiving support from Turkey.
At least 8 civilians were killed and a dozen wounded Thursday when the militant group stormed the town of Kafr Takharim in Idlib, attempting to seize control from the town's rival faction. Opposition activists had reported that the fighting began on Wednesday, when HTS began shelling Kafr Takharim and encircled the town with its military convoys.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitor, fighters from Faylaq al Sham - said to be a Muslim Brotherhood affiliated military alliance - held off the assault, while widespread civilian protests in the town have so far held up further attempts by HTS to seize control.
The protesters chanted slogans against Islamist rule while raising the flag of the Syrian opposition, which Hayat Tahrir al-Sham is known not to affiliate itself with. One of the common rallying cries was "damn your soul, Jolani" in reference to HTS' commander-in-chief, Abu Mohammed al-Jolani.
The dispute reportedly began after HTS said it would begin collecting taxes on the making of olive oil, one of the region's main products. This prompted calls for protests from the Syrian Revolution Coordinators Union, an opposition group that seeks to coordinate protests by Syrian revolutionaries and supporters of the Syrian opposition.
Residents across Idlib and the neighboring jihadist-held territories have regularly protested against HTS and the National Salvation Government, which has imposed taxes and levies on civilian populations throughout the territory while also attempting to actively suppress political activity.
HTS’ security forces have detained Syrian political and media activists on a regular basis, forcing many into exile. The group has frequently been accused of seeking to impose a puritanical vision of Islam on the Syrian people under its control, with some claiming its vision for Syria is akin to the Islamic State's idea of a caliphate.
The greater Idlib area was supposed to be protected by a buffer zone under a September 2018 agreement between Russia and Turkey.
But backed by its ally Moscow, Damascus has since late April ramped up its bombardment of the region, home to some three million people, nearly half of whom have been displaced from other parts of Syria that have come under brutal assault by the Assad regime and its allies Russia and Iran.