by Oliviero Reusser (Twitter)
It is nothing new that security in the areas controlled by the Syrian opposition groups in the Syrian provinces in Idlib, Latakia, Hama and Aleppo is lacking. Explosions by IED (Improvised Explosive Devices), kidnappings, murder and inter-faction fighting aswell as stealing and traffic accidents occur daily.
One of the main reasons for this is the rivalry between factions and no coordination on security, policing and administrative matters between the groups. Every village is under influence by another armed group or a local council, so it is very hard to coordinate one entity across the whole area. While there have been efforts by the factions to increase and improve social work, including police and adminstration, during the relative calm in the area due to the absence of airstrikes as part of the de-escalation zones of the Astana talks, it appears that the same cannot be said for the overall security situation.
During the period of June and May there have been several instances of inter-faction fighting, most notably during a major incident in Maarat al-Numan, a town considered an anti-al-Qaeda/HTS (Hayaat Tahrir al-Sham) stronghold. HTS is one of the biggest armed groups in Syria fighting against the government and was formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra (JAN), the official al-Qaeda wing in Syria before rebranding itself twice. During the incident, HTS raided the town in order to arrest several people allegedly involved in the murder of a family member of a HTS commander. HTS accused the people to be part of the 13th Division, a small rebel group which enjoyed heavy western backing and who was a thorn in the eye of HTS, who doesnt tolerate heavy foreign backing and agendas in Syria. This is their version of the story atleast, others accused them of trying to take control of Maarat al-Numan. The civilians did not welcome them, protesting their presence and calling them "Shabiha", a derogatory term used in the initial protests against the governments security forces, as can be seen in the video below.
Other smaller skirmishes happened in Salqin aswell as near Abu al-Duhur, almost all involving HTS. One of the main occurreces are IEDs and their succesful explosions in the area. There are IED attacks reported daily, sometimes even going to the dozens. They mostly target military commanders of factions aswell as prominent individuals, but sometimes civilians are also the victims. On the 16th of May, a suicide bomber blew himself up after Sheikh Abdullah al-Muhaysni, a prominent Saudi cleric in Syria, left the friday sermon in Idlib city. While one of his associates died, he survived the assassination attempt. Rumours indicate that he was targeted because he is a major advocate of inter-rebel cooperation and unity and pushes for greater unity among them, which some extremist elements within HTS oppose.
Just yesterday, an IED targeted the car of a FSA Central Division commander, another middle-sized opposition groups active in "greater Idlib", between Sarmin and Saraqib. According to the statement, only material damage happened. However such incidents are not rare; esp. Faylaq al-Sham, a major Turkey-backed rebel group, has lost dozens of fighters already just to IEDs planted under their cars or patrols.
While many IEDs actually explode without always doing damage, even more are defused and disarmed successfully: in the last 7 days, more than 20 IED's have been found and defused in the city of Idlib alone. It appears that these kind of weapons used by rival factions and potentially ISIS and government agents and sleeper cells will remain a major problem in the area.
However not only IED's, but weapon proliferation in general are starting to become a major issue; kids are often seen walking around with fake toy guns, sometimes even real ones. Accidental killings due to mishandling of weapons or a trigger-happy local during an argument are not unheard of.
While locals have been asking the civil administrations and the armed groups to increase their efforts to improve the security situation in the province in general and in Idlib especially, it remains to be seen how successful their policies will be, if any are implemented at all. Rivalry among factions, especially between Ahrar al-Sham, a major Turkey-backed group active in the area and HTS, will just make it increasingly harder to find an agreement and create solutions and security.