By Oliviero Reusser
As anticipated by many, the now rebranded former al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the biggest armed faction operating in opposition-held areas in the northwest of the country, carried out large-scale raids on suspected ISIS members in greater Idlib. Following the increase in assassinations and IED attacks all over the province since the relative calm in fighting that came with the Astana De-Escalation zones, locals and fighters alike often became targets of the violence. Much of the attacks have been blamed on ISIS, government agents, local criminals and inter-factional violence.
Today, HTS has begun cracking down on claimed ISIS cells active in greater Idlib. In recent months, there has been a reported influx of ISIS fighters with their families into greater Idlib, coming from eastern Syria. It is unclear how exactly they got there, since they would've had to cross government-held areas to reach the opposition-held areas; but it is likely that they crossed the porous Salamiyah-Ithriya-Khanasir highway. There were also unconfirmed reports that al-Joulani, the military head of HTS and ex-leader of Jabhat al-Nusra, personally accepted the return of several ex-Jund al Aqsa fighters, a now defunct rebel brigade whose members defected to HTS or joined ISIS in the February of 2017, after they were on the brink of defeat after infighting with other armed factions.
According to the statement published above by al-Ebnaa agency, a HTS linked news channel, HTS decided to carry out this major security operation after consultations with local leaders which raised complaints with them. The dire security arose due to the lack of cooperation between groups and the lack of competent and trained personnel to take the matter into their hands. They point out how the security situation in areas controlled by armed factions in western Aleppo is a lot better, due to an established joint security committee.
Further pictures released by the agency showed HTS personnel, masked with a balaclava, mobilised and moving out in big numbers. They raided suspected houses, arrested several individuals and set up makeshift checkpoints to control passerbys.
According to the media agency, HTS managed to arrest several high profile individuals during today's raids. Abu Ibrahim al-Iraqi, reportedly an official within the ISIS cell, was apprehended along with seven accomplices in the village of al-Dana. Another security official, Abu Suleiman al-Russi, was also captured in the city of Idlib. They also claim to have captured the "Wali" of ISIS in greater Idlib, aka the overall leader and emir for the region, and its top Sharia official; respectively called Abu al-Qaqaa al-Janoub and Abu al-Suida al-Masri, both captured along with other elements on al-Dana village, which appears to have been a stronghold for the organisation. Other raids focused on the town of Sarmin, Idlib city and al-Dana. They finally claim to have arrested more than 100 people allegedly involved with ISIS in greater Idlib, aswell as suicide belts, weapons and cash.
In another statement released during the evening hours of July 9th, HTS denies any sort of coordination between them and members of ISIS. They try to prevent the transfer of fighters, weapons and monitor smuggling in general, but they admit that its almost impossible to do it perfectly. The official who made the statement says that the rumours of cooperation between HTS and ISIS elements were spread intentionally in order to faciliate their security work.
It is reported that the main targets of the operation were ex-Jund al-Aqsa members, who, as mentioned above, left greater Idlib in February 2017 towards ISIS held Aleppo and Raqqa. Some of the returning fighters retained their links to ISIS and planned to carry out attacks in their name. Another target of the operation was "Liwa Davoud", a small rebel brigade, formerly part of the Islamic Front coalition, which defected to ISIS in 2014 with more than 1500 fighters. It was located in Sarmin town and several inhabitants there reportedly had links and sympathies with ISIS.
It remains unverifiable whether all the arrested individuals were actually connected to ISIS in one way or another or whether HTS just wanted to crack down on dissidents. The pro al-Qaeda part of HTS, which opposes its official split from the central organisation and wishes a change in ideology and methodology, aswell as supporters of an even stricter line against "Moderate and US-backed factions" still cause internal strife within the ranks of HTS. It remains to be seen whether these latest actions will result in a decrease of general violence and an improvement of the security situation in Idlib.