HTS-backed civil authority moves against rivals in latest power grab in northwest Syria

AMMAN: The rebel government of Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham in northwest Syria is positioning itself as the only opposition authority in the region after giving its main political rival—the Syrian Interim Government—a 72-hour deadline this week to cease all operations.

The Syrian Salvation Government (SSG) is a civil authority formed in in Idlib province in early November and backed by the hardline rebel coalition Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham (HTS). A leading faction in HTS is Jabhat Fatah a-Sham, formerly Al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate.

On Tuesday, the SGG warned all offices headed by the opposition-run Syrian Interim Government (SIG) across the country in a statement that they must close their doors by Friday or “be held responsible.”

Tuesday’s SGG statement follows weeks of conflict between the HTS-backed government and the Turkey-based SIG—an alternative to the Assad government in Damascus formed in 2013.

The ultimatum is the latest in a series of moves by HTS to monopolize authority in northwestern Syria by dismantling its political and military rivals—from armed factions to local opposition councils—in areas the rebel coalition controls.


Members of the Syrian Salvation Government in Idlib province on November 2. Photo courtesy of al-Buraq News Institute.

Syria Direct reached out to HTS for comment, but did not receive a reply.

Since the SSG was established nearly six weeks ago, the HTS-backed body has unilaterally disbanded several SIG-supported local councils across northwestern Syria, pro-opposition Al-Modon reported earlier this month.

SGG president Muhammad a-Sheikh called for a new wave of elections for all local councils in northwest Syria earlier this month, telling pro-opposition Smart News Agency, last week, that the time had come to choose new council members.

The Syrian Interim Government has yet to issue an official response to the SSG’s Tuesday statement, but a high-ranking official speaking on condition of anonymity  characterized the SSG as “illegitimate” in a conversation with Syria Direct.

“The SSG is completely and entirely part of HTS,” the official said.  “We don’t recognize it and 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 Syrian Salvation Government, 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 regime.

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 operate schools and hospitals while providing provide basic civil services on the ground.

Currently, the SIG presides over 12 provincial councils and more than 400 local councils in Syria, and has organized 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 $1 million in revenue for itself 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 recognized by the European Union and the United States, among others. In January 2015, the SIG received a $6 million grant from the US to promote civil society and provide relief to civilians, the SNC stated at the time.

For the Syrian Salvation Government—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, approximately 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 will 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 December 9 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 their 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 their offices by force.

“We won’t submit,” the official said.

This report is part of Syria Direct’s month-long coverage of northwestern Syria in partnership with the Konrad Adenauer Foundation and reporters on the ground in Syria. Read our primer here.

Alaa Nassar

Alaa was forced to flee Damascus with her family because of the pressure from the Syrian regime in 2013. She was a student of Arabic Language & Literature at the University of Damascus. She came to Syria Direct because she hopes to find a new direction in her life and to show the world what is happening in her country.

Ahmed Rahal

Ahmed, born in Homs in 1993, could not complete his degree in agricultural engineering due to the war in his country. In Jordan, he reports on refugee rights and issues for the news site Refugees without Borders. He decided to join Syria Direct in order to develop his journalism skills and find a new path in life.

Justin Clark

Justin studied Arabic at Western Michigan University. He continued his studies at Bethlehem University in the West Bank and the Qasid Institute in Jordan. Justin's work and studies have taken him to Jordan, the West Bank, Egypt and Greece.