Looking beyond humanitarian work, a broad range of civil society groups remain active in Idlib, aiming to achieve pluralistic, participatory communities. These include governance-based bodies, such as Local Councils, as well as civil society groups that focus on issues, such as women’s rights, local development and media projects. Those interviewed for this report repeatedly emphasise how their vision of a peaceful, democratic Syria continues to motivate their work.
From around 2013, these civil society groups increasingly faced threats of intimidation and violence as extremist groups strengthened their position amongst the range of opposition groups in the area. Mostly notably, HTS began to dominate, seeking to seize control of Local Councils and services, and the resources they control.10
Although the presence of HTS remains an issue of critical importance, the group’s domination of Idlib is not uniform; Atareb, Ehsam, and Armanaz have managed to keep HTS out altogether. Badama, Heish, Junudiyeh, Kafr Takharim, and the rest of the west Aleppo countryside, have managed to keep HTS influence to a minimum.
Beyond this immediate threat that HTS presents to civil society as it seeks to seize control and resources, the rise of HTS also damages the hopes of civil society for peace and stability – their presence alone provides a justification for regime and Russian assaults.
All sources in Idlib have outlined that the population does not like the presence of HTS in the area. Many in Idlib believe the presence of HTS provides an excuse for military strikes against them and they are painfully aware it impacts their aid. A study conducted in July 2017, found that 77% of those surveyed disagreed with HTS and other Salafist groups in Idlib, 73% rejected HTS-affiliated councils in Idlib. Nearly all of them believed HTS was against the aims of the revolution.11
An analysis of the number of Syrian civil society groups by sub-district across Idlib shows a correlation between the number of civil society organisations operating in an area and the number of anti-HTS protests in the locality. The greater the number of civil society activities, the more likely they will be able to counter HTS.
The ability of communities to push back against HTS influence has to a large degree, been dependent on the capacity of civil society groups to arrange street protests and acts of resistance against the group12, often at great risk to themselves. Indeed on 2 March 2018, HTS was driven back from entering Atarib by dozens of civilians protesting on the streets. Afterwards, the Head of the Local Council reported they have an agreement that the group will not try and enter again.
If the people of Idlib are to remove HTS, they will need help. Councils need funding so they can continue to run essential services, community organisations need support to challenge HTS influence, protesters need media coverage of their campaigns and there needs to be recognition of the fact that civil society alone can only do so much against a military actor. ISIS carefully and quickly closed down external aid organisations and media in their areas of control, allowing them to wield absolute control over the areas they managed within their caliphate. Should HTS be able to reduce the number of external influencers and media workers operating in Idlib province, they will be better able to exert their control in the area as extremism breeds in darkness. Maintaining a stake in the community allows ‘the light to get in’.
In Idlib, many of these civil society groups have received international funding, often under donor ‘stabilisation’ programmes. Funding has been mainly bilateral, with Western donors, such as Germany, the US, and EU, funding different strands of work. Implementing partners, including Adam Smith International, Creative, GIZ and others.
However, stabilisation funding is under threat, as many local communities report that funders are withdrawing due to fears of HTS influence. Local Councils and communities are using the threat of cuts in funding, or actual cuts in funding, to try to push back against HTS control, though they report it difficult to maintain power when they are unable to provide services due to lack of funds.
The reluctance of donors to provide funding that may end up benefiting HTS, even indirectly, is understandable. However, cutting funds to civil society risks increasing HTS influence, rather than stemming it. By starving civil society of funds, the international community will reduce their capacity to resist HTS.
Unlike the extensive anti-ISIS campaigns from Western governments and foreign donors, HTS have not been faced with counter-messaging campaigns in the same way. Idlib’s communities need resources to push back against HTS control, by maintaining the resources that give them power in the face of the group’s threats, and with political back up when they raise their voices against them. Promoting and fostering civil society is empowering them to push back. There needs to be more, not less, of this work in the region.