By Josko Baric (Twitter)
On the 15th May 2017, Jenan Moussa, a journalist with UAE based al-Aan TV, released a video on her twitter claiming to have sent three people undercover into Idlib province, where they filmed daily life with their cellphones. Idlib province is a governorate located in northern Syria and is fully controlled by armed opposition groups fighting against the government of President Bashar al-Assad. The video offers an unique - and possibly shocking to some - insight into life in opposition held areas in northern Syria.
It has been difficult for foreign journalists to enter opposition held-areas in northern Syria: Many have been abducted, kidnapped for ransom and even killed in the past by criminal gangs or extremist groups operating in these areas. Activists and reporters active in Idlib constantly have to fear for their life, in case they publish news which the extremist groups in control dont like - a harsh punishment will most likely follow.
Nonetheless, Jenan Moussa sent three of her sources undercover into northern Syria to film the areas and life there with their cellphones. They took a huge risk upon themselves, because as the video notes, armed groups, especially the al-Nusra front, can always ask you to show them your phone, where they check your pictures, videos and other stuff. The sources regularly moved towards the Turkish border, where they received Turkish cell phone signal, sent their clips to Moussa and then removed the clips from their phone.
The video shows that the name Jabhat al-Nusra, formerly the name for the official al-Qaeda wing in Syria, is still widely in use by officials and members of the organisation, despite them rebranding to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham in July 2016 and "officially severing all ties" to al-Qaeda central command. The video shows wide use of posters and other writings on walls advertising Jihad, al-Qaeda, quotes from al-Zawahiri and other pro-Jihad slogans. Even towns who have been considered "moderate" strongholds, like Kafranbel, are full of pro-al-Qaeda slogans. Only the town of Maarat al-Numan remains an anti-Nusra place and regularly organises protests against the organisation. Keep in mind most of the scenes in this video are from late 2016 and things have partly changed since then (see end of the article).
The video also shows that besides the only major border crossing under full control of opposition groups, the Bab al-Hawa crossing between Reyhanli and Atarib in northwestern Idlib province, a second, major crossing is open near the small Turkish town of Güvecci. The video notes that the crossing is mainly designated for fighters and families with Ahrar al-Sham, a salafist opposition group, and other Turkey-friendly groups. Satellite imagery shows that the camp and crossing has been built and expanded massively in late 2015, when opposition groups managed to capture the entirety of Idlib province from the Syrian government.
In the video, journalist Jenan Moussa also provides a map of various checkpoints her sources encountered travelling along the main roads in the province. The colour red, showing checkpoints manned by fighters of Jabhat al-Nusra, are clearly dominant. All in all, out of 38 checkpoints, 21 belong to al-Nusra themselves, six belong to al-Nusra allies or affiliates (the Turkistan Islamic Party, an al-Qaeda linked foreign fighter group composed mostly of Turkistanis and Chinese Uighurs; and Jaish al-Fateh, a joint military council composed of Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham and other Islamist groups), ten checkpoints are manned by Salafist group Ahrar al-Sham and only two by various Free Syrian Army factions.
The video mentions that not only is Jabhat al-Nusra the main military force in Idlib, but they also offer various public and social services to the inhabitants of northern Syria. They operate police units, prisons and sharia courts, as well as having guesthouses for their fighters travelling the province. The video provides an unique clip showing a group of Nusra fighters in a guesthouse. It is mentioned that while al-Nusra operates normal prisons for common criminals, they also have a highly secretive underground prison near Kafranbel, where ISIS collaborators, regime spies, coalition spies and members of the FSA are held. Former captives speak of torture and the leadership structure of the prison, which reports directly to al-Nusra general military leader Abo Muhammad al-Joulani, on whose head the US recently put a 10 million dollar reward for information about.
The video highlights how Hayat Tahrir al-Sham's ally, the al-Qaeda linked Turkistan Islamic Party, has been training Syrians and children in their military camps, according to several individuals which have undergone training there. The same individuals reaffirmed the notion about good relations existing between Ahrar al-Sham and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, as the former's literature was taught and studied by the recruits in these military camps.
What makes this controversial is that Ahrar al-Sham's literature was printed in Turkey and it contains gruesome sections about female slavery such as this excerpt from the video: "Whether the woman is from the People of the Book, a Magian or an Arab; it is permissible to enslave her."
The report continues by showing the expulsion, repression and crimes committed by Ahrar al-Sham and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham against moderate groups and religious minorities. Firstly, the footage shows Jabal al-Zawiya's area south of Idlib, from where Free Syrian Army factions have been expelled and its member's properties confiscated by the two groups. Secondly, the report continues by showing the villages of Jdaide, Yakubiyah and al-Qunaya, where Ahrar al-Sham and HTS numbered Christian homes and seized them, later giving them to their commanders and foreign fighters.
Even though border areas and villages near Turkey in Idlib have been mostly untouched by the war, life in those places isn't easy, as the economic crisis has hit all of Syria. The general population of Idlib is so poor, that a monthly salary of mere 30 dollars is considered a good one. Life in the city of Idlib and areas not so far from the front lines is even harder as those localities are regularly subjected to air raids by Syrian and Russian warplanes. Additionally, since most of the Idlib Governorate is controlled by the iron fist of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and its allies, Sharia law has been enforced upon the people of Idlib.
The most comprehensively destroyed city in Idlib Governorate is Jisr al-Shughur, the "capital" of foreign fighters in Syria, more precisely mostly Turkistanis. Jisr al-Shughur has been controlled by the Turkistan Islamic Party since its capture in April of 2015 by the Jaish al-Fateh (Army of Conquest) operations room, which consisted of several rebel factions, including Turkistan Islamic Party, Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham. The foreign fighters coming from Turkmenistan, China and nearby countries have seized houses of rival factions and ex-government loyalists and made them their own. China estimates about 5000 individuals from their country are fighting in Syria. The video estimates about 10000-20000 people, including family members, have settled down in the foreigner dominated areas between Jisr al-Shughur and the Turkish border. The town is currently being reconstructed by HTS-affiliated NGO's and volunteers, as shown in pictures released by the HTS-affiliated Ebnaa agency on the 17th May 2017.
In the end the report makes three true observations. Firstly, number of Turkistanis in Syria is significantly higher than what was widely believed with their numbers being at least 10,000. Secondly, moderate rebel groups maintain a presence in Idlib, but only in the form of a few checkpoints and military bases which occasionally get raided by Hayaat Tahrir al-Sham in an attempt to fully eliminate moderate factions and have complete control over Idlib. Thirdly, most of the Idlib Governorate is under the control of extremists, out of which a large chunk are foreign fighters.
Keep in mind that this report was filmed during the time that Jabhat al-Nusra called themselves Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, in late 2016, which was the first of Jabhat al-Nusra's rebranding attempts. They later rebranded again into Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a major coalition which absorbed several other groups active in opposition held areas. The sources which filmed the report returned later to see if things have changed, now that Hayaat Tahrir al-Sham had been formed. The only notable changes included the closure of several HTS-run public institutions out of fear of being targeted by Russian or American planes, checkpoints in Idlib are now mostly anonymous, pro-al Qaeda slogans are now less prevalent and banners advertising Sharia are now more colorful to appease the local population.
Overall, the video offers a very unique and interesting insight into normal daily life in opposition held areas in northern Syria.