Escalation of Violence in Northwest Syria

WASHINGTON, DC – Citizens for a Secure and Safe America (C4SSA) is deeply alarmed by the recent escalation of violence by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) in Northwest Syria. HTS was designated as a terrorist organization by the United States, Turkey, and other countries in 2018 due to the group’s affiliation to Al-Qaeda. Following a series of attacks on media activists in Idlib governorate, HTS has recently executed an incursion into the northern Aleppo governorate, an area that is home to millions of civilians.

This incursion comes after a series of clashes with factions of the SNA (Syrian National Army) in Aleppo province. Most recently, HTS and the Third Legion, SNA’s largest faction, exchanged fire in Kafr Jannah, a town that is north of Afrin in north Aleppo province. HTS has taken control of Afrin following the Third Legion’s withdrawal from the city in an effort allegedly to minimize civilian casualties. Violent clashes between the two armed groups have continued since then on a daily basis.

Citizens in north Aleppo have taken to the streets to protest HTS’ ongoing efforts to besiege Azaz, a city in north Aleppo that is central to the Third Legion.

While tensions between HTS and the Third Legion have been ongoing since 2018 and have primarily centered around issues of governance, we believe this recent intensification of clashes and turnover of control will result in the loss of civilian lives and property, and will only strengthen HTS’ claim for control of the entire northwestern region of Syria. HTS is vying for control of the Northwest region without concern for the impact on the civilian population. HTS has formed a coalition with  the Hamza and Sulaiman Shah factions of SNA, who are known to have committed repeated human rights violations, including targeting of media outlets and activists.

On October 7th, Syrian media activist Muhammad Abu Ghanoum and his pregnant wife were assassinated in the city of al-Bab in northern Aleppo. CCTV footage of the assassination show two men associated with the Hamza Division, backed by HTS, at the scene of the crime. Abu Ghanoum was an outspoken advocate of the Free Syria cause and reported on the realities within the northwestern region. Abu Ghanoum’s assassination came just days after HTS’ Directorate of Information and Press Affairs completely suspended Orient TV from working in Idlib governorate. Suppressing the media is not uncommon in Syria; the Autonomous Administration of Northeast Syria (AANES) has also banned media outlets from operating in the Northeast region.

George Stifo, C4SSA’s spokesperson, said, “We are extremely concerned about the attacks on media, and the increasing hostilities in the northwest region of Syria originated by the coalition of HTS and other militant factions. These factions are known for criminality and for targeting  media activists to undermine the fundamentals of freedom of speech.”

At least 4.5 million Syrians live in the affected Northwestern region and have suffered under the unstable governance of the region. Should the violent clashes and attacks on media activists continue, many will suffer from a deterioration in security and risk losing their right to speak out against the realities they are facing.