Idlib city in state of lawlessness as hardline rebel coalition's police force fails to maintain order, residents say

AMMAN: Hundreds of residents of opposition-held Idlib city closed their businesses and took to the streets in a city-wide general strike this week, amid what residents and local business owners described to Syria Direct as lawlessness and ineffective rebel policing.

Idlib city residents protested on Tuesday against “the chaotic security situation [they] face every day,” Kareem al-Manjid, a 45-year-old business owner who participated in the strike, told Syria Direct on Wednesday.

The catalyst for Tuesday's general strike was the murder and robbery of Ayman Qawasra—a local jeweler—and his two sons at their Idlib city shop by masked assailants on Monday.

In response, hundreds of residents came out in demonstrations organized by relatives of the deceased and local civil society organizations the following day, marching through Idlib’s streets holding signs calling for the city's rebel-run police force to be reformed.

Jewelers and moneychangers shuttered their shops in protest, with other businesses following suit, sources in Idlib city told Syria Direct on Wednesday.

Protestors gather in front of the bodies of three men murdered in Idlib on Monday. Photo courtesy of Haroun al-Asoud.

Idlib city has been under total rebel control since March 2015, when fighters with the Jaish al-Fateh coalition ousted the Syrian army from the city. Until roughly three months ago, a civilian local council ran the city while a security force comprised of various rebel factions maintained law and order, said Mahmoud, a former employee of Idlib’s civil government who requested anonymity for security reasons.

In late July, Hay'at Tahrir a-Sham—a rebel alliance led by a former Al-Qaeda affiliate—took full control of Idlib city, disbanded the civil government and asserted authority over the city’s police force. Since then, HTS forces have been the de-facto civil authority in the city, Mahmoud told Syria Direct.

Some rebels not affiliated with HTS who had worked in the Idlib police resigned after the hardline alliance took control.

"After HTS grabbed power, the situation gradually worsened," said Mahmoud. "The past few weeks have been the worst; every day we hear about new crimes."

The presence of a now-HTS-run security force—armed men, sometimes plainclothes and masked, who drive cars indistinguishable from civilian vehicles—over the past three months, has done little to keep the peace in Idlib.

On Wednesday, Idlib businessman al-Manjid and three other residents Syria Direct spoke to all voiced similar complaints, alleging that theft, murder and kidnapping are near-daily occurrences in the city and that the security situation has worsened in recent weeks.

Protestors on Tuesday demanded that officials in the HTS-led civil authority in Idlib step down, and that the rebel coalition’s security forces remove the masks and hoods that conceal their identities, Haroun al-Asoud, an Idlib-based citizen journalist who attended Tuesday’s protests told Syria Direct.

“All policemen are masked, so there is no way for us to discern whether or not they’re actually police,” grocery store owner al-Manjid told Syria Direct on Wednesday. Al-Manjid and other demonstrators called for uniforms and marked police cars, he said.

“There is no authority to maintain order in the city,” al-Manjid said. “The security forces are just a façade."

A sign denouncing “The tools of crime”: tinted car windows, masks and weapons. Photo courtesy of Haroun al-Asoud.

Civilians are often unable to distinguish criminals, members of rebel brigades and police officers. The masked assailants who killed jeweler Abu Quwasra and two of his sons on Monday before fleeing with $10,000 and 5kg of gold reportedly did not look very different from the security forces meant to stop them.

With security forces not wearing regular uniforms, it is easy for criminals to impersonate them and take advantage of residents.

Two weeks ago, Samar Abdeljabbar, a mother of four living in Idlib city, says she answered a knock on her door by men who claimed to be part of the local police force. They said they arrived to search her home as part of a security patrol, so she opened the door and let them in.

“They never showed any ID proving they were police officers,” Abdeljabbar told Syria Direct on Wednesday. “All of them wore black masks.”

The men finished their search and left. When Abdeljabbar went to check on money she’d hidden in her home, she says she didn’t find it—she had been robbed.

The next day, she went to the nearest HTS-run police station to report that SP500,000 (approximately $1,000) had been stolen from her home in a supposed police search. An HTS official explained that no one had been dispatched to search her home, and it was likely she had been robbed. The official said he would contact Abdeljabbar if he found anything.

“In the past two weeks I haven’t received any response,” Abdeljabbar said.  “There’s nothing for me to do.”

Syria Direct reached out to an HTS spokesman for comment multiple times on Wednesday, but did not receive a reply at the time of publication.

*Correction: A previous version of this article stated that hospitals and schools were closed during Tuesday's strike, however only a large portion of local businesses participated.

Bahira al-Zarier

Bahira is from Damascus. She studied business and marketing before moving to Jordan in 2013. She did volunteer work in support of many refugee organizations before joining Syria Direct.

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.