- Rory O'Keeffe
The withdrawal of funds from Idlib will strengthen, not weaken, HTS
Having been working on the international humanitarian response to the Syrian Civil War – and its effects across the world – for several years, including at present with organisations on the ground in Idlib, it is with serious concern and no little dismay that we note the withdrawal of funding by donors to aid programmes in the north-west of Syria.
While we understand your concerns, we strongly advise that far from assisting – or even being stolen by – Hayat Tahrir ash-Sham (HTS), the cash donated by organisations across the world, and used by aid workers to work with and serve innocent men, women and children in the governorate is in fact not only a major source of sustenance, security and hope for those civilians, but is in fact also the major factor preventing them from being forced into the arms of HTS:
Your money is working. The only possible tangible effect its withdrawal can have is to hurt people, and strengthen HTS by making them the sole point of ‘service provision’ (including food, water and healthcare) and wages in Idlib.
To be clear on the situation in Idlib right now, there are currently at least 3.2 million people (a census taken in November last year suggests in fact more than four million) in the governorate - compared to 1.2 million before the Syrian Civil War began in 2011.
There are so many people - roughly two-thirds to three-quarters of whom are living in tents or unofficial and/or temporary accommodation of other kinds - because the Assad regime, once it has taken areas where its leader was resisted, has forced people from their homes to other parts of Syria: Idlib, as the final (large) outpost of resistance, is where the majority of those people have ended up.
This policy is very similar to that followed by Franco during the Spanish Civil War - herding opponents into ever smaller areas, where they can then be 'dealt with' and concerningly, both Assad and his Russian backers have continually referred to these people - the vast majority of whom are civilians - as 'terrorists'.
In January, for a variety of reasons (some of which are clear and based on disagreements between different factions in Idlib, others of which are perhaps less obvious, but not in any case material to the subject we address here) one militia group (plus a 'political wing' - we'll come to this briefly in a moment) Hayat Tahrir ash-Sham seized control of almost all of Idlib.
HTS is undeniably a terror organisation. It is not IS and nor is it affiliated with Al Qaeda, as some 'news' sources suggest (HTS is the fourth iteration of a group which declared itself part of Al Qaeda in Syria in 2013, but it publicly disassociated itself from AQiS in May 2016, which was the point at which the latter left Syria: it is simply incorrect to claim Al Qaeda currently operates in Syria), but it is certainly a 'religiously-motivated' armed terror group, and is accepted as such by almost all actors in the state.
HTS has set up the 'National Salvation Government' (a name which is interesting because it is far from 'national', the 'salvation' in question is at best questionable, and there are strong arguments that it is not - at least as yet - even a 'government') a group which is largely made up of political backers of HTS (people with some political experience who tend to prefer not to carry weapons) and local authorities which have 'signed up' to be part of it, to ‘run’ Idlib. At present, this ‘government’ appears to be serious about attempting to run the region, providing services to the people who live there.
HTS has also made increasingly 'liberal' and/or conciliatory statements about its intentions. Once again, there are a number of possible reasons why it is doing so, all of which are interesting in their own way. But this is not the point we are working on here.
HTS is certainly a violent organisation, which has killed and maimed opponents (as indeed has Assad and all other operatives in the war) and which has systematically arrested people with whom it disagrees (once again, as has Assad and all others. This is a war, and there are a limited number of ways in which any protagonist in an armed conflict can behave).
However, what it has almost no prior record of having done in Idlib or anywhere else - and in this it is unlike both IS and Assad, who have made this a clear policy - is 'divert aid': that is, steal food and cash meant for men, women and children in need of assistance including water, food and shelter.
We recognise, however, that there have been allegations made in the media in the past 12 months that money donated to fund civil society programmes in Idlib has ended up being seized by militia organisations (though we note with surprise that allegations that the Assad government in Damascus has skimmed roughly 75 per cent of donations made in other regions of Syria, receive less publicity).
But we do feel we should note that the most famous of these reports – by the BBC, which alleged in 2017 that cash donated to the Free Syrian Police (FSP) was ending up in the hands of terror groups (not HTS) - was described by Adam Smith International as ‘entirely inaccurate and misleading’.
An independent review found that of $20m donated to FSP, just $1,800 – less than 0.01 per cent – fell into the hands of officers with ‘links’ to militant groups.
That's still too much money, of course. But first of all, this allegation was not made against HTS, and neither are the amounts involved anything LIKE what the original reports suggested.
The reason this is most important, howwever, is that people urgently need this aid: this winter, men, women and children died in Idlib because of the weather. They are living in conditions which are absolutely unacceptable.
Equally - and maybe in this context, for these donors, crucially - withdrawing aid from humanitarisn organisations working in Idlib, far from weakening HTS, actually strengthens it: we have already seen a series of pledges by HTS to keep health centres - which people are relying on to stay alive and from which international funding has been withdrawn - open. They have pledged to make sure local 'community police' initiatives keep working.
By pulling funding we are making sure that innocent people in Idlib are forced to rely - for income and their lives - on a terror group.
Your money is what currently stands between Idlib as a state full of terrified but living people, provided with hope by international interest and assistance, and a state either of the dead, or those who owe their continued existence to HTS.
We strongly suggest that this is a poorly thought-through policy and request that you urgently reverse it.