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Factions Argue Over Future of Syrian City

In newly-liberated Idlib, rebels cannot agree on who should run services.
By Abdallah Kleido
  • Idlib province police headquarters after the opposition took control of it. (Photo: Obada al-Ansari)
    Idlib province police headquarters after the opposition took control of it. (Photo: Obada al-Ansari)

Syrian opposition forces and jihadi groups are squabbling over who will take responsibility for running the city of Idlib, captured from the regime two months ago.

The city was taken by a coalition of rebel fighters known as Jaish al-Fatah. The fighters belonged to Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar ash-Sham, Jund al-Aqsa, Faylak ash-Sham and Suqur ash-Sham as well as some Free Syrian Army units.

The Western-backed Syrian National Coalition (SNC) opposition group immediately announced it would take control of the day-to-day running of the city. Its claim was quickly disputed by other factions including Jabhat al-Nusra.

Locals fear that services will grind to a halt, and that the power vacuum could leave the city vulnerable to attack by Islamic State (IS).

Ahmad (not his real name) is a former police officer who joined the opposition in the town of Kfar Nabel in the south of Idlib province. Although delighted with the rebel victory, he now has some practical issues to deal with.

“I have a child who needs to be registered with the regime’s civil records office in this city,” he explained. “I began the process before the liberation – and now what? We’ve freed the records office in Idlib from regime control, so what now? Will Jaish al-Fatah take over the registration? And who will recognise these records? Can the interim government keep civil records when it can’t even issue passports for travel?”

In the immediate wake of the March 28 victory in Idlib, the SNC posted a statement on its official website announcing that it would “do its best to allow liberated Idlib to become an example for what all Syrians want the Syria of the future to look like. It will begin by directing its administration to work in Idlib, and getting the local council in Idlib to start coordinating with its partners, with the military factions and other authoritative bodies, so that Idlib becomes the new capital city of all liberated areas in Syria.”

This statement provoked an angry response from Sheikh Abdallah al-Muhaysini, a prominent cleric and leading supporter of Jabhat al-Nusra.

“There is no truth to the fact that the coalition [SNC] is going to enter Idlib and administrate the area,” he said via Twitter. “It is the men who shed their blood for the sake of its future who will govern it with God’s authority, and administer its affairs in a covenant with God.”

Jabhat al-Nusra later appeared to backtrack in an audio recording released by its head, Mohammad al-Julani, who denied that the group would seek to monopolise the city administration, although he did emphasise that the system “would be set up according to Sharia law.”

Julani invited all government employees and civil servants to return to their jobs.

Amid the ongoing uncertainty, different factions have begun to weigh in on administrative affairs.

Ahrar ash-Sham, one of the major Islamic rebel forces involved in capturing Idlib, took a unilateral decision to appoint a head of education, Mohammad Jamal al-Shahud.

Shahud previously coordinated ad hoc education services in Idlib under the auspices of the SNC. He told Damascus Bureau that although the SNC would be unable to cover all the costs of his department, he would pledge to pay all salaries, whether the money came out of coalition funding or from other donors.

Al-Shahud issued a call through his Facebook page for “all administrative staff to return to work, because they are part of our new educational initiative”.

Not everyone is convinced. Mohammad al-Ahmad, a teacher, does not believe he will continue to receive the monthly salary he used to get from the local education department when it came under the Damascus government before Idlib changed hands.

 “We know very well that the coalition [SNC] can barely afford the cost of running a single school in Kfar Nabel,” he said. “So how are we supposed to work? As volunteers?”

Ahmad thinks it possible that the government in Damascus will continue to pay Idlib’s 25,000 state employees.

Civil rights activist Hamdo al-Steif rejects this, saying, “If the administrative centres in Idlib continue working under the mantle of the government, what use was our revolution in the first place?”

Steif is among a group of local intellectuals who are calling for a chance to run the city themselves, as they are suspicious of the intentions of the SNC and its affiliates.

“The city needs to acquire an administration that is affiliated to the revolution and uses people from the province itself, and not hand it over to the opposition coalition, which is known for swooping in and reaping the benefits of the revolutionaries’ efforts.”

Others argue that allowing motley armed factions to run Idlib leaves the way open for extremists to take over, as happened in Raqqa, a city now controlled by Islamic State.

Khulud, a journalist working for the Enab Baladi newspaper, said she wanted to see “a civil administration run by Idlib’s residents”,

“The militants should confine themselves to establishing a sort of national army to defend the city, and stay out of its administration,” she said.

Meanwhile, the questions of residents like Ahmad, the former policeman, remain unanswered.

“If we hand over administrative affair to the revolutionaries inside, or to the coalition outside, am I and others going to be able to register our children in the centre of this ‘new state’?” he asked. “And will our children receive an education at one of Idlib’s schools, given that most of the teachers have left because they haven’t received a single month’s salary since the liberation?”

This story was produced by Syria Stories (previously Damascus Bureau), IWPR’s news platform for Syrian journalists. 

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