Thursday, 25 April 2019

HTS attempts state-building as survival strategy in Idlib

 'While the world is looking to Russia and Turkey to determine the fate of greater Idlib,  Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS), is attempting to shape the future of the region. Following military gains earlier this year against rival opposition groups in the last rebel-held pocket in the country, HTS is establishing new civilian and military administrations to consolidate power.

 In so doing, the group is trying to increase its legitimacy and popularity by consulting with local communities and encouraging their participation through local elections. This strategy is seen as essential — to prevent a possible battle of annihilation, to embed the group in society and to permanently reshape the balance of power in the region.

 HTS leader Abu Mohammed Al-Julani first introduced the new project during an appearance on a talk show broadcast by the group’s Amjad media channel in mid-January. Al-Julani argued that there needed to be new administrations that separated civil and military affairs, but he did not elaborate on how that would be achieved.

 Then, on Feb. 10, the HTS-affiliated Salvation Government, which governs most of the region, organized a conference to discuss how to encourage the participation of regional residents. During the event, dozens of civilians and fighters discussed the establishment of a new consultative shura council for Idlib, which in theory will lead to the formation of a new administration.

 Following approval of the proposal, 10 conference attendees were selected to form an electoral commission to oversee the process and determine the number and distribution of shura council seats. Instead of conducting direct elections, however, HTS organized a poll involving only a small number of representatives from local communities, who nominated and elected people to the council. The process allowed HTS to participate in the selection of representatives and candidates, giving it influence over both the process and the results.

 The limited elections took place on March 27, with the selection of 107 representatives from 55 local communities, 23 from internally displaced communities in Idlib, and 29 from civilian bodies such as the tribes and the professional associations of doctors, businessmen and lawyers. An official announcement heralding the new council and the next steps is expected soon. The council is also expected to meet later to form a new government that could, in theory, replace the current Salvation Government, although the structure of the new administration is still highly speculative.

 In parallel with the work to establish new governance institutions, HTS military commanders are leading consultations with rebel commanders in greater Idlib to create a unified structure that would include all armed factions. At this point, however, it is not clear whether HTS will be able to create something resembling a unified force, although it should at least be able to expand joint operations by encouraging larger groups, such as the National Front, to join, while using force to co-opt smaller groups. As with the proposed civilian administration, HTS seems willing to cede formal leadership of a proposed military entity, as long as it can still pull the strings from behind the scenes.

 On both governance and the military front, HTS is making pragmatic attempts to keep up with changing circumstances and ensure the group’s long-term survival, clearly understanding that fully controlling greater Idlib is beyond its current financial and structural capabilities.

 As a result, HTS is fashioning the new administrative structures to put local residents center stage, while the group retains control, or at least a veto, over strategic decisions. Doing so allows the group to share the burden of governance and to deflect responsibility for its failures — both military and administrative. HTS is trying to lead from behind the scenes to increase its popularity, which seems to be plan B to ensure the survival of its project and ideology even after a potential territorial defeat.

 The Idlib residents’ reactions to the new administrative structures have been varied, but there seems to be a general sense of resentment. A sizeable number of local councils and communities in greater Idlib have publicly rejected the consultative council because of HTS’ extensive influence. This defiance is driven by the failure of the Salvation Government to provide basic services, as well as the rejection of HTS ideology and fears about the consequences of its dominance, which could result in the termination of Western aid or cause further military conflicts.

 There is also a shadow over the legitimacy of the council and its members because of HTS’ extensive involvement in a process that many consider to have been staged. Similarly, most armed groups remain hesitant to participate in the proposed military administration, especially the majority of groups that are affiliated with Turkey. Although HTS has won significant battlefield victories recently, the power struggle among opposition groups continues and many are hesitant to become affiliated with a designated terrorist group.

 Despite these significant challenges, HTS seems determined to establish administrations to resist future efforts to erase its influence in the northwest. This approach relies on co-opting the local communities.'

“For Sama” Director Waad al-Kateab: ‘This film is the only weapon I have against the régime’

 Waad al-Kateab:

 "I always dreamed of becoming a journalist. My parents supported me in whatever decision I would make, but with this one, they would say, ‘Don’t do this. You can’t do this.’ My parents — my father especially — would tell me that it is impossible to be a journalist in Syria, and that I would get sent to prison.

 Suddenly, in 2011, the revolution started. I wanted to be a part of this change. So, I started filming the protests at Aleppo University with my phone.

 From the early days of the revolution, all of the official news channels were saying that nothing was happening, that Syria was a very good country with democracy and freedom. The régime was not allowing any foreign journalists inside the country in the first year to cover the protests. We hadn’t seen anything like this before, so I felt like it was our role to show the world what was happening. I wanted evidence, and I felt that film is a way to really transfer the reality of what was happening to others.

 I was always at the hospital with my camera turned on, filming my friends fighting or laughing or just whatever was happening. Suddenly, we lost one of our friends from this group. I felt that the fact I recorded all of these moments with people I could lose at any time was one of the most amazing things I could do in my life. Since then, I decided to record everything, because one day I may be the one who is killed.

 It was also really important to me to record the reality of life under the régime — what our dreams were and how we ended up in all this violence. It is a record for the future that is outside the régime propaganda and misinformation.

 The camera became a part of me. It was something that supported me and helped me feel strong even when I felt scared.

 People in Syria had to deal with these things whether we had the strength or not. There was no choice. I wanted the film to be delivered to people just like the war came to us, while being respectful of the dead and their families.

 People around the world — even us sometimes — start to see the dead as just numbers. It is different when you see death up close. The solution isn’t to not watch, but in how we react to it.

 The régime is trying to kill our hope. I really believe that we would not be able to survive without hope.

 There was one guy who would deliver flowers — he helped set up the garden on our porch in Aleppo. I filmed him because I wanted to record the hope and beauty of how he continued to do his job despite the siege. He ended up getting killed. When you are really desperate and can’t see anything good, something beautiful comes your way, and that gives you hope.

 Tthe chronology of the film jumping around shows how any human being can live his life after having these experiences. In each moment — no matter how dark — I always remember the good things. And from the good things, I always come back to some really difficult moments. So, it is exactly how my mind would work.

 Some journalists come for one or two months or one year and then leave. I grew up with these people, and we lived together through the siege for five years. My neighbors were used to seeing me with my camera, and I was also living in the hospital. We faced the same threats together and shared all the good and bad things as a family. This made people feel comfortable around me with a camera.

 My daughter Sama has of course seen the film. It has been two years of me working on the film on my laptop. She gets very excited when she sees herself on the screen and shouts her name. We are trying to make sure she remembers where she comes from. When we ask her where she is from, she will say, ‘Syria, Aleppo.’

 Home will always be Aleppo and Syria. We are trying to lead a normal life in London, but at any moment we could return to Syria. People always ask me why I stayed in Syria even though there was so much suffering and war. Even though we could have been killed, we were happy to stay because we were fighting for our land, our freedom. When we lost Aleppo, we thought we lost everything. But we do find new hope.

 This morning my father called me early because he wasn’t aware of the time difference. When I told him the time, he asked me why I was checking my phone so early. I laughed and said I am always checking the news to see if the régime has fallen. Then my mom shouted from the other side of the room, ‘don’t worry, if the régime falls, we will call you.’ "