Readers may remember that last year I covered events in the village of Arab Sa'id and its wider area (the al-Roj Plain) in west Idlib countryside. Previously under the de facto control of the al-Qa'ida-loyalist group Hurras al-Din, Arab Sa'id and its environs saw the imposition of the authority of Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) amid the infighting between HTS and the jihadist factions of the 'So Be Steadfast' operations room in which the latter was subdued. The reason for the infighting was that HTS saw the formation of the 'So Be Steadfast' operations room as an unacceptable challenge to its authority in Idlib and its environs. A controversy also arose in Arab Sa'id and the al-Roj Plain over HTS' arrest of a prominent local leader of Hurras al-Din called 'Abu Omar Manhaj,' who was eventually released by HTS.
So what is the current situation? In this interview conducted on 30 January 2021, the local source I previously interviewed returns to discuss the current situation.
Q: How is the general situation in the al-Roj Plain? Are the problems still present between the inhabitants of the area and HTS? Is there any open presence for the mujahideen of Hurras al-Din?
A: The situation in the al-Roj Plain is fine. There are no problems in the area. The youth of Hurras al-Din are present as they are the people of the region.
Q: The previous months saw the release of Abu Omar Manhaj. Was anything proven against against him? What was the reason for his release? Are there any legal cases with regards to detainees from the al-Roj Plain currently?
A: No, nothing was proven against him by the acknowledgement of the leadership of Tahrir al-Sham like Atoun and Abu Mariya al-Qahtani. The reason Abu Omar was released was because of the pressure by the tribes and people of the al-Roj Plain and the notables of the region and the people of Arab Sa'id and the popular mobilisation like the demonstrations. There is no legal case involving the youth of the al-Roj Plain affiliated with Hurras al-Din.
Q: How are the matters of the local councils and the mosques in the al-Roj Plain? What is the opinion of the people about the services that the Salvation Government offers? How are the matters of services like electricity and water in the region?
A: The matters of the local councils are affiliated with the Salvation Government. And the matters of the mosques in the al-Roj Plain: there was the Friday sermon in which they spoke about jihad, and now ordinary sermons. The Salvation Government does not offer any help to the people of the al-Roj Plain: no water, electricity, or aid, or anything. It has even prevented some of the agricultural NGOs [from operating] because of the al-Roj Plain's dealing with Abu Omar Manhaj. And some of the NGOs used to support the agricultural lands like olives and agricultural crops like vegetables. Because of the Salvation Government, this year there is no support for the people of al-Roj.
Q: In short what are the most important grievances currently?
A: That this year there is no help for the people of the al-Roj Plain. And now there is no safety in the al-Roj Plain because of theft of cars, bikes and shops.
(Update 12 February 2021): An individual calling himself 'Ahmad al-Abdallah' who is an IDP and says he resides in al-Roj Plain writes the following in response to this interview (I have not edited the spellings used by the writer though I have made capitalisation consistent):
'I live in a village that is considered in the centre of the Rouge plain, this interview paints a very wrong image. Firstly, the Rouge plain has several dozens of villages, Arabsaeed is not the only one. Secondly, the Salvation Government does not freeze any aid.
In general, the electricity has been cut off in the Rouge plain since the beginning of the revolution, nearly all people here rely on solar power for electricity.
As for water, there are only a number of water stations. Most stopped working after the electricity cut off. At the moment local councils try to get them working in cooperation with the SSG, as before the SSG there was a lot of mismanagement.
Most farmers likewise rely on solar power for their water-pumps.
As for agricultural aid, I myself have witnessed (consistent) agricultural aid flowing to these villages including Arabsaeed. The SSG does not block aid from being received by the people.
Conclusion, Arabsaeed is not being blacklisted or punished collectively, that's an outlandish thought. and Aymen needs to find better sources.'
The response of the original interviewee to this is as follows:
'First Arab Sa'id is the well-known gate of al-Roj on the Idlib-Salqin road: it is the entrance of the al-Roj Plain. Secondly, the Salvation Government has stopped support for Arab Sa'id and the villages of the al-Roj plain that were controlled by Hurras al-Din after the councils in the al-Roj Plain rejected working with the Salvation Government and imposition of taxes on the farmers in the al-Roj Plain.
As for the water station, it is 200m away from Arab Sa'id and Idlib city is 8km from Arab Sa'id. Because it is controlled by the Salvation Government, the water reaches Idlib.
Arab Sa'id and some of the villages are rejected by the Salvation Government like the lands of al-Ghab and the proof and evidence have been the change of some of the local councils because of the rejection of dealing with the Salvation Government. And this is the first year no agricultural aid has entered Arab Sa'id and some of the villages.
And the support that is coming is only for the IDPs and not the residents in Arab Sa'id and the al-Roj Plain: only before the people nothing is coming at all. And this has been going on for three years for the people of Arab Sa'id alone regarding aid because of joining Hurras.'