IDLIB — When rebel forces overran Idlib this past April, residents welcomed the long-awaited end to President Bashar al-Assad's suffocating grip on the city. Now, more than three months later, they are protesting the military rule that the rebel groups have forced on the northwestern Syrian city.
Suhayb Abu Yahya, 32, has been active in organizing protests calling for civilian-led governance in Idlib. "We held many organizational meetings, launched a campaign on social media and mobililzed people to rally in the streets," he tells Syria Deeply. "We have a clear demand: civilian rule in the city and the full transfer of all military centers to outside of the city as soon as a civilian police force is ready to keep order."
Since evicting the Assad regime's forces, dozens of armed groups have ruled Idlib, including the Nusra Front (Jabhat al-Nusra), the Free Syrian Army (FSA), Ahrar al-Sham and others.
Locals say they have been stuck in the middle of the factions since the rebel takeover. In addition to shelling the city regularly, the Assad regime has cut off many basic municipal services in Idlib, such as water, electricity and sewage. Yet the regime's policy of collectively punishing Idlib's residents hasn't distracted them from voicing objections to the opposition's military rule.
Idlib has been deeply engaged in the uprising since its earliest days. Civil activism has flourished, and locals have established civil patrol units, new schools, women's centers and media centers to function as shadow institutions to the regime.
It was a small step from resisting the regime to protesting against another stripe of military rule, this time imposed by opposition forces. The idea that those who liberate land then get to own it didn't go over well in the city.
Members of the Nusra FrontScreen — Source: VICE News screenshot
Arrests and expropriations
Abu Hammam, a 44-year-old resident of Idlib who works at a local orphanage, says he and other activists were frightened when they saw that opposition forces established military rule in other parts of Syria. "We went out in the streets to demand civilian rule in order to avoid what happened in other liberated areas – they were all taken over by military forces," he says.
"We want Idlib to be a model for other liberated areas in Syria," he says. "It was already a model for uniting the military opposition to fight the regime."
Although there has been "some harassment" from armed factions in Idlib during the protests, Abu Hammam says it was isolated. "None of the factions have objected to our campaign. We are seeking support to end military control and to build a neutral, civilian judicial system to protect people's rights."
Others accuse some armed groups – especially the Nusra Front – of a crackdown that included arrests of outspoken activists, expropriations of private and public lands and raids on police stations in the towns of Kafr Nabl and Kafr Sajna, both in Idlib province.
Ayham Salamah, a 29-year-old aid worker, says these oppressive measures are a barrier to transitioning to civilian rule. "The Nusra Front's violations have significantly increased in Idlib's countryside areas," he says.
Desperate for outside help
Protests erupted in the Salqeen and Kafr Sajna as locals objected to the Nusra Front's confiscation of private property and harassment at the hands of the Hisba committee, the religious police. Salamah says the Hisba harass women who don't dress in accordance with the Nusra Front's interpretation of Islamic law and attack shopkeepers who don't close their stores during prayer time. Many activists, he says, are demanding the militant organization's full withdrawal from the area.
"Although our efforts are currently focused on ending military rule, we've also been working on many other issues, like preserving the city's antiquities, protecting museums and establishing education and municipal services," he says.
Elsewhere, Raqqa has been firmly under the control of ISIS since 2013. Following Idlib's takeover, the Assad regime continues to lose ground across the country, including in Daraa, Quneitra and al-Hasakah. Activists in Idlib hope to provide a blueprint for civil rule that other cities and districts can follow.
Abu Yahya says that civil groups have drafted a list of recommended names to potentially help organize a civilian government in the city. "We proposed the list to the Shura council [the coalition of rebel factions] … but we are still waiting for a response," he says. "We also have many ideas that can be implemented in the near future to put pressure on the militants and force them to leave the city, if necessary."
Abu Yahya says their struggle will not be easy without outside support. "We demand action from international humanitarian organizations to support our civilian-led, nonviolent movement," he says. "We need supplies and funds to ensure that the needs of the city's residents are met."