The process of editing a piece often leads to oversimplification for the sake of word limits and the like. Here is some original content that did not make it into the final piece I co-wrote with Daveed Gartenstein-Ross for Foreign Affairs on the issue of the Druze of Jabal al-Summaq in Idlib province and jihadist interactions with them, both historically and following the Qalb Lawze massacre:
1. The Druze of Idlib have issued two statements renouncing their original faith. The first came in November 2013 as a result of pressure from ISIS, which had expanded across northern Syria in that year and, despite being thinly spread, seems to have had sufficient strength in the Jabal al-Summaq area to pressure the Druze to announce conversion to Sunni Islam. Below is the full statement translated for the first time:
"In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful
Praise be to God who sent His Messenger with guidance and the religion of Truth to be over all religion even if the mushrikeen [idolators] hate it, and prayers and peace be upon the Sayyid al-Mursaleen [Master of Those Sent] and the seal of the Prophets Muhammad bin Abdullah, all his family and companions, and whoso has followed them with ihsan to the Day of Judgment. Praise be to God, we are Muslims to God- Almighty and Exalted is He- the One, the Eternal- and we are those who believe that they [i.e. the Muslims] are the most abundant in 'Ilm [Islamic knowledge], most preferred in mind, and most abundant in guidance from the sons of our tribe in the villages of the province of Idlib whose names are as follows: Kaftin, Ma'arat al-Ikhwan, Birat Kaftin, Kafr Bani, Arshin, al-Duwair, Alata, Aberita, Jid'ain, Halla, Talatiya, Kuku, Kafr Maris, Bashanad-Laya, Bashanad-Lati, Kafr Kayla, Qalb Lawze, Banabel.
We affirm and testify that there is no deity but God alone, with no partner for Him, in absoluteness and unity. And we testify that Muhammad is His Servant and Messenger, the Seal of the Prophets whom He sent as a guider and warner for all mankind. We disavow those who affiliate us falsely and in slander with the cursed, reprehensible Muhammad bin Ismail al-Darazi [early figure in the Druze sect], and we disavow him, his batini [derogatory term for esoteric] doctrine, responsible for the Druze creed which we declare to be kufr [disbelief] and disavow. And we declare to be disbelievers all who are on the path of his religion. And in fiqh we emulate the madhhab of Imam Muhammad bin Idris al-Shafi'i al-Qurashi [founder of the Shafi'i school of jurisprudence]- may God have mercy on him- without taqlid [slavish imitation] or ta'assub [extremism]: and it is belief in God, His angels, His Books, His Messengers, and resurrection after death, as well as belief in destiny, for better or worse. And from belief in God is belief in how He described himself in His book [Qur'an] and how His Messenger Muhammad (SAWS) was described, without distortion, obstruction, modality or analogy.
Rather, we believe that God is Exalted (there is nothing like Him, and He is the Hearer, the Seer), so there is no refrainment for the Ahl al-Sunna wa al-Jama'at from what the Mursaleen brought, for it is the Straight Path, the path of those who have been blessed from the Prophets, the Truthful, the Martyrs and the Just. And we believe in God, His Books and that the Qur'an is the Word of God, revealed and not created, beginning from Him and returning to Him, and we believe that He spoke in it truth and that this Qur'an which he revealed to our Sayyid Muhammad (SAWS) is the word of God in truth, and there is no word besides it and it is not permissible to say that it is a mere narration from the word of God or expression from it. Rather, if people read it or write it with that on pages, it would not be possible to disagree that it is the word of truth.
And we believe in the Last Day, and belief in all that the Prophet (SAWS) told about what would be after death, the arising and resurrection. And we believe that the doctrine of transmigration is a Hindu doctrine contrary to the doctrine of belief in the Last Day, Arising and the Resurrection at the Judgement. Further, we believe that faith is increased through obedience and diminished by rebellion, and we do not declare to be kuffar the people of qibla on the basis of disobefience and great sins as the Khawarij do. And we affirm the peace of our hearts and tongues towards the Companions of the Messenger of God (SAWS), just as God described them for him in the Almighty's words: "And those who came after them, saying: 'Our Lord, forgive us and our brothers who preceded us in faith and do not place any resentment in our hearts towards those who have believed. Our Lord, indeed you are kind, merciful'" [Qur'an 59:10]. And we do so out of obedience to the Prophet in his words: "And do not abuse my Companions, for by the One in whose hand my soul is, if one of you were to spend gold equal to Mount Uhud, it would not be worth one of them or even half that person." And we believe that God said to the people of Badr and they were some 310 in number- "Know that what sins you have committed, I have forgiven you"- and [the words of the Prophet]: "No one who has given the pledge under the tree will enter Hellfire."
And we testify that Paradise is for whomsoever of the ten for whom the Messenger of God (SAWS) has borne witness for Paradise [the tradition of the ten promised Paradise]. And we affirm what has been transmitted on the authority of the Amir al-Mu'mineen Ali bin Abi Talib (may God be pleased with him): that the best of this Ummah after its Prophet is Abu Bakr, then Omar, followed third by Othman and fourth by Ali, may God be pleased with them all. And we love the people of the House of the Messenger of God (SAWS) and we are loyal to them and affirm over then the testament of the Messenger of od (SAWS) when he said on the Day of Ghadeer Khumm: "I remind you for God of the people of my House....I remind you for God of the people of my House." And he also said that God chose the children of Ismail, and from the children of Ismail He chose a quiver, and from the quiver Quraysh, and from Quraysh the children of Hashim [Bani Hashim] and then a prophet from Bani Hashim.
And we are loyal to the wives of the Messenger of God, the mothers of the believers. And we believe that they are his wives in the Hereafter especially Khadija- may God be pleased with her- the mother of most of his children and the first who believed in him and supported him over his affairs, and there has been for her from it the highest rank, and al-Sadiqa bint al-Sadiq [A'isha daughter of Abu Bakr], may God be pleased with them both, about whom the Prophet (SAWS) said: "The rank of A'isha over other women is as the rank of porridge" and whosoever curses one of the Prophet's wives has committed kufr. And we follow the footsteps of the Messenger of God (SAWS) internally and externally and the following of the path of the first precedents from the muhajireen and ansar and the following of the testament of the Prophet (SAWS) when he said: "Upon you be my Sunna and the Sunna of the rightly-guided Caliphs (successors) after me so stick to them and bite upon them with your molar teeth. And beware of new developments of matters, for they constitute innovation and all innovation is misguidance."
And we know that the truest words are those of God, and the best guidance is the guidance of Muhammad (SAWS) and we hold the words of God over the words of those besides Him from the talk of the classes of people, and we present the guidance of Muhammad over the guidance of everyone else because al-Jama'at is the gathering on the guidance of Muhammad, and its opposite is division, so upon us is what was upon the just predecessors from testifying that there is no deity but God and that Muhammad is the Messenger of God, establishing prayer, giving zakat, fasting in Ramadan, and performing pilgrimage to the House as far as one can, jihad, coming together and the feasts. And we owe the Ummah for advice and believe the meaning of SAWS' words- "The believer is to the believer as the edifice, strengthening each other," and he said that clasping his hands and interlacing his fingers- and the words of SAWS: "The believers are like one body in love, mercy and compassion for one another. If one part of it is distressed, the rest of the body responds to it with wakefulness and fever."
And our path is the religion of Islam with which God sent Muhammad, so those adhering to Islam, clean and pure of dilution, are the Ahl al-Sunna wa al-Jama'at, among whom are the truthful, the martyrs, the just, and from them are the banners of guidance, the lamps for the darkness that have applied the transmitted virtues and mentioned good qualities, and among them are the replacements and the victorious sect about which the Prophet said: "A sect will remain openly on the path of Truth, and no one who abandons them shall harm them, nor shall anyone who contravenes them, until the Hour arises." So we ask God the Great to place us among them and not to avert our hearts after He has guided us and grant us what mercy He has. Indeed He is the Granter. And may God's blessings and peace be upon Muhammad, his family and companions, great deliverance."
2. ISIS sought to phase out gradually traditional Druze religious and cultural practices following on from this statement under the guidance of an allied Saudi cleric, but the ISIS presence in Jabal al-Summaq proved to be short-lived with the outbreak of infighting between ISIS and the rebels in January 2014. This culminated in ISIS' withdrawal from Idlib province. Officially, the November 2013 statement of renunciation of the Druze faith was never cancelled, but the presence of the Syrian Revolutionaries Front (SRF) in Jabal al-Summaq allowed for the inhabitants to retain some of their customs, including the maintenance of some shrines, as SRF leader Jamal Ma'arouf pledged to guarantee rights for the Druze of Jabal al-Summaq.
However, SRF was in turn expelled from Idlib province by Jabhat al-Nusra in November 2014, giving the latter primary control over Jabal al-Summaq. Jabhat al-Nusra's amir for the area- Abu Abd al-Rahman al-Tunisi- doubted the sincerity of the official profession of Sunni Islam, noticing, for example, that some of the shrines still remained. Accordingly, in January 2015, he had representatives of the villages issue a second statement of renunciation of the Druze faith, with an explicit commitment to destroying shrines, teaching Islam with a particular focus on the youth, and adhering to Shari'i regulations on women's dress and gender-mixing etc. This led to the destruction of remaining shrines, such as the Sheikh Izz al-Din and Sheikh Abu Salah shrines in Kaftin. Meanwhile, the al-Omari mosque in Kaftin, which had been previously closed by the regime's antiquities division, had been reopened and renovated for religious use (that process already begun under ISIS).
Ruins from the shrines of Kaftin destroyed by Jabhat al-Nusra following the second statement of renunciation of the Druze faith in January 2015 (photo from a local sent to me).
The al-Omari mosque in Kaftin renovated for religious use (photo from a local sent to me).
Religious instruction includes books such as Kitab al-Tawheed by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (the founder of Wahhabism), "Al-Aqidat al-Wasatiya" by Ibn Taymiyya, and even books from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, as per photos I obtained below.
A book from the Qatari Ministry of Endowments and Islamic Affairs used by Jabhat al-Nusra as part of Islamic re-education: "The Hijab and Adornment: Between Truth and Delusion."
"The Creed of the Ahl al-Sunna wa al-Jama'at"- another book used by Jabhat al-Nusra for re-education, by Muhammad bin Saleh al-Uthaymeen, who was a key Saudi establishment cleric.
3. In the aftermath of the massacre in Qalb Lawze (which, it must be emphasized, was rooted in land disputes as Jabhat al-Nusra had been confiscating land it said belonged to people from Jabal al-Summaq working with the regime forces and had been awarding the confiscated land to its own members or refugees***), Abu Abd al-Rahman al-Tunisi was removed from his position, though no local evidence points to a trial as promised by Jabhat al-Nusra and execution of the perpetrators of the massacre. Indeed, had a trial taken place, surely Jabhat al-Nusra would have publicised it? In any case, an interim amir was appointed from Aleppo- Abu Faysal al-Souri- and then in August, Abu Qatada al-Iraqi arrived on the scene. In theory, he is supposed to be subordinate to an Abu Abdullah from Hawiqa of Deir az-Zor, but he seems to be managing policy in practice. In this context, he delivered the speech of which I obtained a recording with the announcement in it that he is amir for the area.
4. Other rebel groups have generally ignored the issue of forced conversion even as they condemned the Qalb Lawze massacre, though Ahrar al-Sham has checked some actions on the local level, being able to dissuade Abu Qatada al-Iraqi from establishing an additional base in Kaftin beyond his one in Qalb Lawze (renamed Qalb al-Islam by Jabhat al-Nusra).
Update (12 December 2015): It turns out Abu Qatada al-Iraqi was eventually removed from his position in Jabal al-Summaq (more than a month ago in fact), as that speech he made in Kaftin was deemed too threatening. He was then reportedly sent on assignment to Latakia province, while Abu Abdullah from Hawiqa remained in his own position as chief official.
Besides Abu Abdullah, there is another Jabhat al-Nusra Shari'i official currently of note in the area: Abu Ikrimah al-Hawrani (a name suggesting he is from the Hawran region of southern Syria). He has had a long-standing presence in Jabal al-Summaq and appears to have had some involvement in the first Islamization process in November-December 2013 brought about by pressure from the ISIS presence in Jabal al-Summaq. This is so despite his affiliation with Jabhat al-Nusra, which, though a rival of ISIS, still had a policy of avoiding outright warfare with ISIS at that point and as a jihadi group shares ISIS' belief that the Druze are not proper Muslims. In late December 2013, he wrote the following celebrating the Islamization process as it was also gaining traction in the news:
"A great conquest from God- Almighty and Exalted is He- joining the conquests that have been accomplished at the hands of the mujahideen in Syria. And this time it is a conquest and there has been nothing like it since 300 years according to my knowledge: it is that 18 of the Druze villages in Idlib al-Izz in Syria have converted to the creed of the Ahl al-Sunna wa al-Jama'at, have declared disbelief in the doctrine of the Druze and have disavowed it and whoso is affiliated with it. And by God's permission we will provide you with the details when God facilitates this matter at our hands and the hands of our brother Abu Hamdo, the leader of Liwa Ahbab Allah."
Judicially, the Jabhat al-Nusra-affiliated Dar al-Qada in Sarmada is the nearest judicial body for the group that can deal with the affairs of Jabal al-Summaq. The head of this Dar al-Qada, a Syrian from the town of Hass in Idlib province, visits the area regularly.
Update (3 January 2016): Around a week ago, Abu Abdullah from Hawiqa was also removed from his position, to be replaced by one Abu Muhammad al-Shami (though his origins as of yet are unclear). Jabhat al-Nusra has further made a decision to pay blood money to victims of the Qalb Lawze massacre.
Update (15 January 2016): It turns out Abu Abdullah from Hawiqa has been referred for trial pertaining to corruption charges, which were the original reason for his removal.
Update (13 February 2016): On 4 February, airstrikes hit the villages of Kaftin and Jid'ain. No confirmed fatalities resulted from these raids although they did result in damage to some buildings, as per the photo below from Kaftin.
One may ask why these airstrikes should occur in what is otherwise known as a safe zone that is tacitly understood not to be bombed by the regime while rebel factions- including Jabhat al-Nusra- are expected to refrain from using the area to set up military bases. In the case of Kaftin, a possible explanation is that Faylaq al-Sham seized a home in the village that belonged to someone who had moved to Damascus (migration away from Jabal al-Summaq has occurred for a variety of reasons. The foremost are being cut off from the regime that has provided state employment, refusal to accept outwardly the impositions of Sunni Islam, and the Qalb Lawze massacre). The house was then turned into a base for making IEDs. The raids may have thus been intended as a warning for the home to be cleared, as if the home itself has been targeted it may have caused damage throughout the village.
***[24 February 2016: for additional clarification, it should be noted that Abu Abd al-Rahman al-Tunisi's approach in the Qalb Lawze massacre is alleged to have been influenced by his suspicions about the sincerity of the conversions to Sunni Islam. If he still considered the inhabitants to be Druze and therefore kuffar, so the reasoning goes, he would have regarded it as permissible to kill them, which is supposedly a reason why the land disputes culminated in a massacre. However, in apologizing for the massacre, Jabhat al-Nusra did not endorse or lend credence to the idea that the inhabitants were still Druze].
Update (6 March 2016): The new amir is originally from Tabqa and also goes by the name of Abu Muhammad Shura. In addition, with regards to the influx of Turkic peoples into Qalb Lawze, at least some of these appear to have been foreigners rather than Syrian Turkmen. For a broader context on Turkic peoples coming into Syria, see this recent article on Uighurs, some of whom have reportedly settled in parts of Idlib province, especially the Jisr al-Shughur area in places once inhabited by Alawites.
Update (27 March 2016): In relation to confiscations of properties in the Jabal al-Summaq area, it should be emphasized that until now the official Jabhat al-Nusra policy has been to confiscate those properties belonging to people Jabhat al-Nusra has said are working in the ranks of regime forces. Now, however, the group has issued a decision to confiscate all empty and shut properties, conducting patrols in at least some of the villages and marking out such properties with the Jabhat al-Nusra name. Below are sample photos of such marked out properties in the village of Kuku.
However, in another village known as Kafr Bani, a patrol from Ahrar al-Sham subsequently arrived and removed the markings made by Jabhat al-Nusra on empty properties. It would appear that Ahrar al-Sham is now being more assertive in trying to interfere in Jabhat al-Nusra control of 4 villages on the plain of the Jabal al-Summaq area- Kaftin, al-Bira, Ma'arat al-Ikhwan and Kafr Bani- on the grounds that these villages are actually in areas controlled by Ahrar al-Sham and host refugees for whom Ahrar al-Sham is responsible. Compare with Ahrar al-Sham's prior interference to prevent Abu Qatada al-Iraqi from setting up a base in Kaftin. This should be contrasted with the situation further up in Jabal al-Summaq where Jabhat al-Nusra control is very clearly uncontested (e.g. Qalb Lawze)- when it came to the Qalb Lawze massacre, Ahrar al-Sham was not in fact able to stop the killing but only sent a delegation as a good-will gesture and downplayed the situation in conveying news to residents of Kaftin, for example.
Update (6 June 2016): In relation to Ahrar al-Sham's removal of markings for confiscation in Kafr Bani, it should be noted that Jabhat al-Nusra ultimately backed down. In Kuku, however, some properties were confiscated while the owners of others returned to re-open their homes. In other developments, in light of airstrikes, a number of refugees have come from Idlib and Ma'arat Misrin to Kaftin.
Update (6 September 2016): A number of events of note have taken place since the last update:
- On 14 August 2016, an air-raid hit the village of Qalb Lawze, killing two people: Ghaliya Sarhan Sa'ad and a child called Marwa Azzam (al-)Shabli. A photo of the child can be seen below:
A number of casualties also occurred, including a youth with a fractured leg.
- On 17 August 2016, air-raids hit the villages of Taltita, Kuku and al-Duwair (no ascertained casualties). These raids mostly appear to have been targeting bases set up by Jabhat al-Nusra (now rebranded as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham) despite the tacit understanding that bases should not be established as Jabal al-Summaq is to be considered a safe zone. Jabhat Fatah al-Sham was also venturing to establish a base in the village of Kaftin, arousing local opposition in fear of airstrikes (a concern aggravated by influx of IDPs) and prompting discussions with Jabhat Fatah al-Sham. As of the time of writing the matter has more or less been settled, in that Jabhat Fatah al-Sham has become convinced of the need to keep Kaftin a safe area.
- Around two weeks ago, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham appointed a new amir for the Jabal al-Summaq area: al-Hajj Baha' al-Sharm. Originally from the Idlib town of Hizano that is near Kaftin, he is 37 years old. Undoubtedly this reflects a Jabhat Fatah al-Sham strategy of appointing a more 'local' and seemingly reasonable amir. He thus succeeds Abu Muhammad al-Shami (aka Abu Muhammad Shura), who was removed a while ago (exact date uncertain) for reasons that are unclear. Between the time of Abu Muhammad al-Shami's removal and al-Hajj Baha' al-Sharm's appointment, the Jabal al-Summaq area had no amir.
- On 4 September 2016, an air-raid hit the village of Ma'arat al-Ikhwan (no deaths, but one person from Ma'arat Misrin suffered mild injury). This followed on from an air-raid that hit the vegetable market in Ma'arat Misrin on 30 August 2016, killing a number of people and leading the produce owners/sellers to move their cargoes to Ma'arat al-Ikhwan and Kaftin as these two villages are supposed to be part of the Jabal al-Summaq safe zone.
- Finally, a photo here of Abu Abd al-Rahman al-Tunisi (big guy on the left) from the winter of this year. The exact location is uncertain but clearly he was never executed or really held accountable for his actions in the Qalb Lawze affair.
Rumour has it he is currently fighting in Hama province in the ranks of Jund al-Aqsa (it should be emphasized that this is unconfirmed).
Update (28 September 2016):
- Around a week ago, al-Hajj Baha' al-Sharm issued a decision requesting a list of names of those renting property in Jabal al-Summaq, along with the name of the owner of the property, the monthly rent for the house and who receives the sum paid for the rent. Anyone living in regime-held areas and not returning to Jabal al-Summaq will not be allowed to benefit from renting of their homes, while those in the army and security apparatus will be barred from their homes entirely unless they abandon their affiliation and return. The decision will be applied next week to agricultural lands. According to al-Hajj Baha' al-Sham, the decision is justified by the fact that those who have gone to Damascus and other regime-held areas have migrated to the lands of kuffar (infidels), and so cannot be entitled to benefits from renting out homes in Jabal al-Summaq. Note that this decision does not order for confiscation of homes. Any empty home is at risk of confiscation, but for those renting out their homes and living in Damascus, for example, the idea is not to confiscate their property. Supposedly, the wealth generated from renting out of property is to be kept within Jabal al-Summaq and for people living there.
- On 16 September, a group of Turkestani [Uighur] jihadis came to the Omari mosque in Kaftin, attended the Friday sermon and afterwards spoke with the Imam of the mosque (about whom more here). They were apparently seeking homes- something rejected by the inhabitants of Kaftin as they fear such a development will expose the village to bombing. The phenomenon of a Turkestani and Turkic demographic influx into the village of Qalb Lawze has already been noted previously, such that they are apparently the majority now of the population of Qalb Lawze, only a few of whose original inhabitants remain in the village at this point. Four of the other villages- al-Duwair, Alata, Bashanad-Laya and Banashad-Lati- are by now now devoid of their original inhabitants, though to be sure they were very small in size to begin with. The original inhabitants have been replaced by a mixture of internally displaced Syrians and muhajireen.
- Internally displaced persons dwelling in schools are being removed and placed in camps, so that the year of study can begin.
Update (21 November 2016):
- Local opposition to settlement of Turkestanis in Kaftin has meant that the issue has not been raised again.
- al-Hajj Baha' al-Sharm has placed a Jabhat Fatah al-Sham checkpoint between Kaftin and Birat Kaftin to stop and inspect vehicles, much to local discontent. For example, a coach for Kaftin coming from Damascus was stopped for two hours at the checkpoint.
Update (25 December 2016):
- al-Hajj Baha' al-Sharm has recommended the formation of a Majlis Shura in every village of Jabal al-Summaq. Each Majlis Shura should consist of people from that village. For example, in the village of Kaftin, the Majlis Shura consists of 10 people. The idea is to facilitate the managing of administrative affairs. However, the exact extent of the competencies of the Majalis Shura has not been defined yet.
Update (24 January 2017):
- On 14 January, Uzbek and Uyghur muhajireen (not said to be affiliated with Jabhat Fatah al-Sham: the Uyghur muhajireen at least would be from the Turkestan Islamic Party) came to the village of Kuku and assaulted homes with the intention of taking them over, apparently having come to Jabal al-Summaq after being exposed to coalition airstrikes in Jabal al-Arba'een. In one case, they even broke the windows of a house and came into the interior of the house, but finding women there, they pulled back while allowing their wives to occupy the house. In another case they assaulted a home in which there was a widow and her children, besides assailing other homes. Much local fear has been aroused that a repeat of an incident like the Qalb Lawze massacre could happen.
The policy of al-Hajj Baha' al-Sharm and Jabhat Fatah al-Sham has been to prevent new arrivals of muhajireen into Jabal al-Summaq. This is partly based on an understanding with the locals to keep the area as safe zones and prevent airstrikes on the area. The local official for Jabhat Fatah al-Sham in Kuku- a man named Abu Abdullah (Syrian and apparently from Harem)- appears to have tried initially to stop the assailants but could not do so. al-Hajj Baha' al-Sharm also intervened, but could not order these Uzbek and Uyghur muhajireen to leave (cf. Qalb Lawze, where muhajireen have long since settled and Jabhat Fatah al-Sham cannot force them out). In Kaftin, the Majlis Shura held a meeting with the local Jabhat Fatah al-Sham admin official (a man named Abu Shaham, originally from Aleppo and responsible for Kaftin and Birat Kaftin since summer 2016) and raised their concerns about preventing muhajireen from being settled in the area. Abu Shaham agreed to raise the matters with al-Hajj Baha' al-Sharm.
- With the Kuku issue unresolved, the matter was raised to a higher Jabhat Fatah al-Sham judicial authority. The judge then declared the actions of these muhajireen to have been criminal and ordered them to be expelled from the village and for the seized homes to be returned to their owners. The judge's name is apparently Abu Azzam and he is said to deal with Shari'i matters in the border areas (recall that Jabal al-Summaq is near the border with Turkey). As of 24 January 2017, these muhajireen had not yet left the homes they had seized.
Update (25 January 2017):
- The checkpoint placed by al-Hajj Baha' al-Sharm between Kaftin and Birat Kaftin (referenced in the update above from 21 November 2016) was destroyed yesterday by Ahrar al-Sham. Otherwise, no major clashes have taken place so far in the Jabal al-Summaq area amid the infighting between Jabhat Fatah al-Sham and other rebel factions in Idlib.
- Today it was decided that the ruling to remove the muhajireen from Kuku will be implemented. However their removal is currently being delayed by the wider rebel infighting in Idlib province. The situation has been de facto resolved.
Update (24 February 2017):
- A new amir has been appointed for Jabal al-Summaq under Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham: Osama al-Homsi. As his name suggests, he is originally from Homs. Meanwhile, al-Hajj Baha' al-Sharm has been transferred to Latakia. The rumour (unconfirmed veracity) is that he came under pressure from people in his hometown of Hazano (where as I understand, Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham is not so influential) either to leave his group and stay or go somewhere else.
It is interesting to note that al-Hajj Baha' al-Sharm was not always involved with Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham and its predecessors. In earlier years he appeared more than once on al-Jazeera's Arabic news channel. For example, below is a screenshot of an interview from February 2013, where he is identified as the spokesman for "al-Jabhat al-Shamaliya" (The Northern Front: part of the earlier FSA group brandings) and talks about a car bombing near the Bab al-Hawa border crossing in north Idlib province.
In another al-Jazeera Arabic video, al-Hajj Baha' al-Sharm appears alongside Abd al-Qadir al-Saleh (the renowned Liwa al-Tawheed leader who was killed in 2013) as part of a discussion about the Syrian revolution two years since its inception. While speaking, he appears to deny any real problem of irhab (terrorism) in Syria (stating that the only terrorism is that of Assad) though affirms the need for factions to issue statements as safeguards against future internal conflict. It is clear at this time he was not a member of Jabhat al-Nusra, and though he seems to value them as a fighting force, it is evident he regards himself as distinct ideologically from any fikr mutatarraf (extremist thought), a concept he mentions by name.
al-Hajj Baha' al-Sharm, discussing the "Syrian revolution after two years" on al-Jazeera Arabic.
Abd al-Qadir Saleh on the same program.
It turns out that al-Hajj Baha' al-Sharm is from a family that had become wealthy through smuggling and was more of a 'moderate' rebel media activist in the early years of the rebellion.
al-Hajj Baha' al-Sharm in Atarib in 2012. In this video he speaks in glowing terms about 'al-Jaysh al-Hur' ('The Free Army'- i.e. FSA) as he notes the complete capture of Atarib at the time.
He appears to have run a Youtube channel called 'Idlib North', which had posted some Jabhat al-Nusra material from time to time. Ty early 2014 (see below) the orientation was much more apparent in posting a clip of a speech by the "Sheikh of the Mujahideen and amir of the al-Qa'ida organization, Osama bin Laden (may God have mercy on him)." Though the excerpts quoted are intended to be a warning against infighting and excessive partisanship, the way in which he describes Osama bin Laden can hardly go unnoticed.
In terms of formal affiliation, it is not clear when exactly al-Hajj Baha' al-Sharm joined Jabhat al-Nusra.
Update (6 March 2017):
A clarification has been issued. Osama al-Homsi is not the direct amir for Jabal al-Summaq, but rather a military commander whose authority encompasses a greater area. The amir now responsible for administration of the villages of Jabal al-Summaq is a man from Killi (a village just to the northeast of Kaftin) called Talal Talib, a military official rather than a Shari'i by occupation. He is around 28 years old. The Talib family is a known local family in Killi. Somewhat comparable is the clarification that came about regarding Abu Qatada al-Iraqi.
Update (30 March 2017):
- An incident arose recently in the village of Banabel between an amir from Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham and some of the locals after the amir opened fire on their dog, leading to an altercation and exchange of gunfire that did not result in any deaths. The incident has been resolved.
- In Kaftin, Uzbeks affiliated with Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham- together with their families- are now being settled by Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham in some of the houses, not with the intention of displacing the original inhabitants but rather those renting homes in Kaftin (i.e. mostly Sunni Arabs from the nearby villages). Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham has been pressuring them to leave on the grounds that the original homes of those renting are not at risk of bombing and so they must return to them. So far only a small number have been settled, but Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham wants to bring many such Uzbeks, whereas the original inhabitants want to help those from the nearby villages who are renting. In at least one house in Kaftin, multiple Uzbek families have been settled. It is expected that more Uzbek families will arrive in the future.
Update (4 April 2017):
- Talal Talib has been removed. In his place has come an individual from Hazano called Muhammad Fadhil al-Hussein (not as the new amir per se but rather an admin official put in place by Osama al-Homsi, whose authority- it should be recalled- extends over a wider area). On 2 April, he was in Kaftin and had discussions with locals about multiple issues. Included in the discussions was the problem of homes being confiscated for the interest of muhajireen and pressure on those renting to leave. al-Hussein however said that there are displaced Syrians coming and they have no other refuge, so those renting in Kaftin should either rent out their original homes to those new Syrian arrivals or return to their original homes and abandon the ones they are renting in Kaftin. It should be noted that those from Ma'arat al-Misreen renting in Kaftin say that the Uzbeks are coming accompanied by Syrians. These people from Ma'arat al-Misreen complained to the court in the village of Kourkania about the problem but the raising of the complaint seems to have been in vain.
- Also discussed was the issue of the bakery in Kaftin. The bakery had been opened in November 2016 as an initiative of the opposition-in-exile-backed local council but has stopped operating on account of Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham's attempt to seize control of the bakery, prompting disagreements over management and the like (complaints were even raised to the group by some displaced persons that the workers from the people of Kaftin supposedly did not adhere to prayer). In addition, fear of association with Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham means aid organizations cannot provide flour to the bakery. al-Hussein affirmed that the bakery would return to operation, though no commitment was made for total relinquishment of Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham control of the bakery.
- Finally, an air-raid hit Kaftin today. Some photos below.
Update (16 April 2017):
- As of now, at least one house in Kaftin contains Uzbek families. Another has been settled by Syrians brought in by Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham. At least two homes have tenants who are being threatened with being forced to leave. Meanwhile, the bakery's operations remain suspended.
Update (1 May 2017):
- Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham has demanded that the local council in Kaftin become affiliated with its services administration. This has been rejected by the local council. Accordingly Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham is looking for people to work with it to set up a replacement for the local council. So far this planned alternative services body in Kaftin for Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham has not materialised. In the meantime, the local council continues to provide some limited services, recently purchasing pesticides at a cost of $700 to deal with locusts and sunn pests that threaten the wheat crop. Preparations are also being made to water the lands. However, the bakery remains closed, with Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham retaining the keys to the bakery.
- A new Shari'i has been appointed for the area: Omar Latuf from the Idlib locality of al-Dana.
Update (8 May 2017):
- Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham is continuing to act against the local council in Kaftin, briefly detaining local council head Abd al-Majid Sharif on suspicion of corruption, questioning the financial accounts. Though he has been released for now, it is possible that he will be referred for further legal proceedings in the Dar al-Qada court in Sarmada. Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham has also seized a building that used to belong to the Ba'ath Party but- having long since been emptied of the Ba'ath Party presence- was serving as a place to store flour for the bakery. The building has now been converted into a base for the group's legal implementation force (al-quwwa al-tanfidhiya, as is known in Arabic). Further a warning has been given by Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham for the municipal building base and the storehouse to be evacuated.
- Meanwhile, the alternative services council affiliated with Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham is still being formed. In fact the group asked one of my best friends in Kaftin to join the council, but he refused. This council is supposed to be named the Revolutionary Council.
Update (25 May 2017):
- Around two weeks ago, Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham gave an order for internally displaced people from the neighbouring villages and localities living in homes in Kaftin (and other Jabal al-Summaq villages, it appears) to leave those homes. These people ordered to evacuate these dwellings have apparently not renewed contracts for the homes through Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham (cf. here). The original owners of these homes must therefore return and prove their presence to Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham by the end of Eid al-Fitr, otherwise the properties risk being confiscated and given to Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham fighters and their families to dwell in (both natives and foreigners). Agricultural land holdings are also at risk of confiscation.
Update (26 May 2017):
- Abu Muhammad (real name: Ahmad Izz al-Din, originally from Ma'arat Misrin) has been removed from his position as the imam at the Kaftin mosque on account of his rejection of Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham's new admin decisions referenced above. He told some locals that he believes the group is trying to put pressure on the people of Jabal al-Summaq in order to displace them.
Update (3 June 2017):
- Three more houses in Kaftin, in which people from neighbouring villages had been residing, have now been confiscated by Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham for the interest of Uzbek settlers. The people who had been residing in these houses were renting those dwellings but have now been expelled by force.
Update (29 June 2017):
- On Laylat al-Qadr (c. 21 June), a meeting was held in Kaftin with Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham leaders in which promises were made to ease matters relating to confiscation of homes, though so far no new administrative decisions have been clarified. So far in Kaftin alone, 6 houses have been confiscated, with more confiscated in the other Jabal al-Summaq villages. Meanwhile, people from neighbouring villages renting homes and property in Jabal al-Summaq are renewing contracts through Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham, which now takes anywhere between a third to half of the monthly rental sums (i.e. around $10, with the average rental price in the range of $20-$30 per home/property).
Update (16 July 2017):
- A new preacher/imam for the mosque in Kaftin was appointed around the end of Ramadan to replace Abu Muhammad: Abu Adnan, from the displaced people of Aleppo. Married to two wives, he has been settled in Kaftin following the seizure of one of the homes in the village by Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham. Meanwhile, no new admin decisions have been made regarding properties despite the earlier meeting with promises to ease matters.
Update (19 July 2017):
- A home in Kaftin was confiscated today for the interest of Uzbeks, with the tenants from Ma'arat Misreen forced out of the home. The house was confiscated on the grounds that the original owners did not come to renew the rent contract through Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham.
- Additionally, a checkpoint between Kaftin and Birat Kaftin belonging to Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham was attacked today, most likely by members of Ahrar al-Sham amid wider tensions between the two groups in Idlib.
Update (1 August 2017):
- Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham has set up a da'wa office in Kaftin, as can be observed from the photo I have obtained below:
Update (8 August 2017):
- In the Jabal al-Summaq village of Kafr Kayla [/Kafr Kila], Abu Bashr (a Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham Shari'i official from al-Dana) expelled muhajireen (either Uzbeks or Turkistanis) from houses in which they had settled. These muhajireen had come within the context of the Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham policy to confiscate houses of the original inhabitants who did not return to claim their properties or renew rent contracts through the organization. With the muhajireen expelled, Abu Bashr has given the empty houses to people from the Qarmo family, which has origins in Kafr Takharim and is Sunni by origin. However, members of the Qarmo family came to Jabal al-Summaq a long time ago and have been living in Kafr Kayla. The issue though is that there have been problems between the Qarmo family and the original people of Jabal al-Summaq. Around three years ago, a person from the Qarmo family was killed by a young man from Kafr Kayla, leading to the payment of a large sum of blood money. A complaint has been submitted to Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham regarding the expulsion of the muhajireen and grants to members of the Qarmo family. The muhajireen in Kafr Kayla appear to have been broadly tolerated.
Update (11 August 2017):
- It turns out members of the Qarmo family have also been living in Bashanad-Laya (a village neighbouring Kafr Kayla), where expulsions of muhajireen have also taken place recently. Most of the original inhabitants (i.e. Druze by origin) of these two villages have left. The number of remaining original inhabitants in these two villages does not exceed 15 households/families. People from Bashanad-Laya came to Kaftin and complained of actions of members of the Qarmo family against them, claiming that the Qarmo family are preventing them from using the only well in the village and transgressing against their property. It should be noted that some of the antagonism between the Qarmo family and original inhabitants of Jabal al-Summaq can also be traced back to the differences of origin by sect.