Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham: Syria regime’s toughest foe in Idlib

HTS has consistently been excluded from cease-fires negotiated by the United Nations or Russia. (File/AFP)
Updated 01 September 2018

Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham: Syria regime’s toughest foe in Idlib

  • The extremist alliance, the core of which is formed by the former Al-Qaeda branch in Syria, is likely to be the regime’s toughest foe
  • HTS now controls nearly 60 percent of Idlib province

BEIRUT: The Syrian regime and its Russian ally are threatening an offensive to retake the northwestern province of Idlib, Syria’s last rebel bastion, where extremist group Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham holds sway.
The extremist alliance, the core of which is formed by the former Al-Qaeda branch in Syria, is likely to be the regime’s toughest foe.
Here is some background.
HTS first appeared in Syria in January 2012 as the Al-Nusra Front, and Syrian President Bashar Assad and his Russian ally still refer to the extremist group by that name.
Classified as a “terrorist” group by the United States, the European Union and the United Nations, it arrived in Syria as an extension of Al-Qaeda in Iraq.
The group’s current leader, a Syrian who uses the nom de guerre Abu Mohammad Al-Jolani, is a veteran of fighting in Iraq.
In 2013, the group swore allegiance to Al-Qaeda before splitting with the global extremist syndicate in July 2016 and renaming itself the Fatah Al-Sham Front.
In 2017, it dissolved that group to form the backbone of Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham.
The group mainly consists of Syrian extremists, estimated at about 30,000 fighters, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The extremists are “well organized and battle-hardened,” said Syria expert Fabrice Balanche.
“HTS definitely retains a sizeable foreign fighter component, perhaps comprising at least 20 percent of its total fighting force,” said Charles Lister, an analyst at the Middle East Institute.
The fighters are mostly from the Middle East, “but also from Russian-speaking areas, Europe and south Asia,” he added.
HTS now controls nearly 60 percent of Idlib province.
It has set up a civil administration that collects customs duties at the border with Turkey and imposes taxes on traders.
The group “derives so much of its power from being the authority over how trade flows into and out of Idlib, which helps fund the group and gives it power beyond its size,” said Nicholas Heras, a researcher at the Center for New American Security.
Previously, HTS had a presence in many of the country’s rebel-held areas, especially near Damascus and in the south. But it has lost that territory as its fighters were evacuated to Idlib in surrender deals.
HTS has consistently been excluded from cease-fires negotiated by the United Nations or Russia.
The extremist alliance has been the target of air raids from both Moscow and the US-led anti-extremist coalition, which have killed several of its senior commanders.
Formerly associated with influential Islamist rebel groups like Ahrar Al-Sham and Nureddine Al-Zinki, HTS underwent a bloody period of power struggles in 2017 that included battles with former allies, creating resentment that persists today.
In early 2018, Ahrar Al-Sham and Nureddine Al-Zinki announced their Turkey-backed merger to counter the growing power of HTS.
They joined four other rebel factions in early August to form a new coalition — the National Liberation Front.
Separately, HTS has increased raids in recent weeks against “sleeper cells” linked to the Daesh, which has claimed responsibility for assassinations and bombings targeting HTS’s leaders and fighters.
The two extremist heavyweights have also clashed in Syria’s northern city of Raqqa and in eastern Deir Ezzor province.
In July 2014, Nusra’s chief said the group’s goal was to set up an “Islamic emirate,” akin to the “caliphate” proclaimed by Daesh shortly beforehand.
On August 22 the reclusive Jolani broke a long silence to reiterate that the group was determined to repel any offensive by Damascus.
“Just thinking about surrendering to the enemy and handing over weapons is an act of treason,” he said.
Russia has called for the dissolution of HTS, but neighboring Turkey is trying to negotiate a solution with the extremists to avoid a large scale offensive that would destabilize the border area, the Britain-based Observatory said.
According to Heras, the extremist alliance’s “dissolution on the command of Turkey would rob it of much of its power, which would replace HTS rule with Turkish rule.”

IMF says preparing for first review of Egypt program, dates to be confirmed

Updated 23 March 2023

IMF says preparing for first review of Egypt program, dates to be confirmed

  • Disbursements under the 46-month program are subject to eight reviews

CAIRO: Preparations for the first review of Egypt’s economic reform program with the International Monetary Fund have begun and dates for the review mission will be announced when agreed with the authorities, an IMF spokesperson said on Thursday.
The IMF approved in December a $3 billion Extended Fund Facility loan for Egypt, which has been under acute financial pressure since long-standing problems were exposed by the economic fallout from the war in Ukraine.
Disbursements under the 46-month program are subject to eight reviews, the first of which was dated March 15, 2023 in an IMF staff report published in December.
Among the key commitments that Egypt made to secure the loan were a permanent shift to a flexible exchange rate regime and wide-ranging structural reforms to reduce the state’s footprint in the economy.
Egypt’s currency has lost nearly 50 percent of its value over the past year following three sharp devaluations. In the past two weeks it has traded in a narrow band between 30.75 and 30.95 pounds to the dollar, according to Eikon data, although the pound’s value on the black market has slipped.
Analysts say the pound has come under renewed pressure partly due to delays in expected sales of state assets.


Situation in Lebanon is ‘very dangerous,’ International Monetary Fund warns

Updated 12 min 47 sec ago

Situation in Lebanon is ‘very dangerous,’ International Monetary Fund warns

  • A year after Lebanese authorities committed to reforms ‘one would have expected more in terms of implementation and approval,’ says IMF mission chief

BEIRUT: “Lebanon is in a very dangerous situation,” the International Monetary Fund warned on Thursday, a year after authorities in the country committed to a program of reforms they have failed to implement.

The financial agency urged “the Lebanese government to halt borrowing from the central bank.” And the IMF’s mission chief to Lebanon, Ernesto Rigo, said during a news conference in Beirut that authorities must accelerate their efforts to meet the conditions required for a $3 billion bailout plan.

“One would have expected more in terms of implementation and approval of the legislation” relating to economic reforms, he said, noting that progress has been “very slow.”

Members of the IMF mission have spent nearly a month in Lebanon, during which they met many Lebanese officials and diplomats in an attempt to persuade them to step up efforts to introduce the reforms they had promised.

“We were expecting more in terms of adopting and implementing legislation aimed at reforming Lebanon’s financial system,” said Rigo. “The final draft of the Capital Control Law does not meet the objectives and needs to be amended.”

Lebanon signed an agreement with the IMF nearly a year ago but has yet to meet the conditions necessary to secure the full financial assistance program that is widely viewed as crucial to the country’s recovery from one of the worst economic crises the world has ever seen.

The economy has been crippled by the collapse of the nation’s currency, which has lost about 98 percent of its value against the US dollar since 2019, resulting in triple-digit inflation, soaring levels of poverty, and a massive wave of emigration.

Caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati was among the Lebanese officials who met the IMF team. “The mission presented the outcome of the consultations it carried out in Lebanon,” his office said.

During a meeting with Nabih Berri, the speaker of the Lebanese parliament, on Thursday, Mikati stressed the need for swift emergency action to save the country.

“The government cannot play its role amid a presidential vacuum and a dysfunctional parliament,” Mikati said. Politicians have been unable to agree on a replacement for President Michel Aoun, whose term ended on Oct. 31.

The Lebanese public took to the streets again on Wednesday to protest against the continuing deterioration in their finances and living conditions. Retired soldiers, who staged demonstrations this week because their pensions are no longer worth enough for them to live on, said they will resume their protests on Monday if their demands for assistance are not met.

On Thursday, employees of state-owned telecoms company Ogero decided to strike, raising fears that communications services and the internet could be crippled in the country.

After a meeting with Sheikh Abdel Latif Derian, Lebanon’s Grand Mufti, Prime Minister Mikati said: “We are fully aware of the difficult living situation that all of Lebanon is experiencing. We sent all draft laws to parliament for approval to initiate a practical workshop and major reforms in order to restore the active economic movement so that we can save what we can still save despite these difficult circumstances.”

However, the political squabbling continues over the election of a new president and other issues.

MP Ziad Hawat appeared on Thursday before First Investigative Judge Nicolas Mansour, after Mount Lebanon Public Prosecutor Judge Ghada Aoun accused Hawat of libeling, defaming and threatening a judge.

Hawat said he was waiving his parliamentary immunity to “challenge the politicized judiciary at its own game.”

In February, he accused Judge Aoun of violations he said could destroy the country’s banking institutions. “The entire banking system cannot be at the mercy of a judge’s mood,” Hawat said at the time, stressing his support for a fair and impartial judicial investigation into the operation of the country’s banks.

Ramadan starts in Mideast amid high costs, hopes for peace

Updated 23 March 2023

Ramadan starts in Mideast amid high costs, hopes for peace

  • During Ramadan, mosques and charities regularly provide meals for the poor at long tables that sprawl out onto the street
  • From the Gaza Strip to Sudan and Tunisia to Yemen, soaring prices are proving a further concern for observant Muslims

KHARTOUM: Hundreds of millions of Muslims began the first daily fast of Ramadan on Thursday, as parts of the Middle East approached crucial junctures in high-stakes peace negotiations during the holy month, traditionally a time of reconciliation
In Sudan, parties are wrangling over how the country will usher in a civilian government following 17 months of military rule. In Yemen, diplomats are pushing for a lasting truce, following the recent rapprochement between regional powerhouses Iran and Saudi Arabia which have been locked in a proxy war there for eight years.
During Ramadan, observant Muslims abstain from food and water from dawn to dusk, before gathering with family and friends for indulgent nighttime meals. According to Islam, fasting draws the faithful closer to God and reminds them of the suffering of the poor.
In Khartoum, Sudan’s capital, families prepare culinary delights weeks in advance to mark the break of the fast each evening, a meal known as iftar. For the feasts, Sudanese worshippers favor assida, a semolina-based flour dish, and a sugary fermented drink called, “sweet bitter” — both recipes that date back generations.
“Those who can’t afford don’t have to pay,” said Fatima Mohammed Hamid, who sells food items from her small home on Tuti island on the Nile River, just north of Khartoum.
In addition to fasting, charity giving is another of Islam’s five pillars. During Ramadan, mosques and charities regularly provide meals for the poor at long tables that sprawl out onto the street.
Sudan has been steeped in political chaos since a coup ousted a Western-brokered power-sharing government in October 2021. There are hopes for a transitional government before the four weeks of Ramadan end, as promised by the country’s ruling military and other political forces earlier this week. However, many prominent Sudanese factions reject the move.
Amid the uncertainty, most find common ground in complaining about the rising cost of living.
“Everything costs double what it did last year,” said Hamid.
At a meeting Egypt earlier this week, Israeli and Palestinian delegations pledged to lower tensions during the sensitive holiday season — Ramadan will coincide with the Jewish festival of Passover in April — but surging violence continues across the occupied West Bank. There are concerns about flare-ups with large numbers of Jewish and Muslim faithful expected to pour into Jerusalem’s Old City.
From the Gaza Strip to Sudan and Tunisia to Yemen, soaring prices are proving a further concern for observant Muslims. Arab countries are continuing to suffer from the economic fallout of the war in Ukraine, with many reliant on grain imports from eastern Europe.
At the once-bustling Bab Al-Fellah market in Tunis, the capital of Tunisia, rising costs have left shoppers unable to splurge on Ramadan delicacies as they might have in past years.
“I have almost used up the 40 dinars (roughly $13) that my husband gave me and I bought only vegetables, a chicken and some spices,’’ said Fatima B., embarrassed to give her full name out of her financial desperation.
In Pakistan, shoppers reported similar hardships, with inflation surging to nearly 40 percent. Many said they would consider breaking the daytime fast if free food were to be handed out.
In war-torn Yemeni capital of Sanaa, prospects for Ramadan are bleaker still, with residents struggling to buy even basic supplies. The country’s ruinous civil war, now in its ninth year, has killed more than 150,000 people and pushed millions to the brink of famine.
“I am not able to provide daily food for the children,” said Saleh Al-Omrani, an unemployed resident from Sanaa. “We had Ramadan in the good old days, but today there is no longer Ramadan.”
Diplomats and leaders had expressed new hope for peace efforts in the days leading up to Ramadan, amid signs of warming relations between two of the region’s rival superpowers, Iran and Saudi Arabia. The two are on opposing sides of the war in Yemen, and despite announcements of restoring ties, sporadic fighting continues across the country. Clashes in Yemen killed at least 16 people earlier this week.
In Afghanistan, people are observing their second Ramadan under Taliban rule. Since the Taliban seized power in the country in August 2021, foreign aid stopped almost overnight and the economy collapsed, driving millions into poverty and hunger.
In southern Turkiye and northwestern Syria, the destruction caused by last month’s earthquake, which killed over 52,000 people, poses perhaps the steepest challenge of all.
In the Turkish city of Kahramanmaras — near the quake’s epicenter — worshipers held the first Ramadan prayers inside a 1,000-person tent on the grounds of the city’s famed Abdulhamid Han Mosque. Turkiye’s fourth-largest mosque sustained slight damage in the temblor and has been closed to worshippers, Turkish media said.
Some 1,400 mosques have been destroyed or damaged by the quake, Turkish authorities say, leaving tens of thousands to pray in makeshift tents. More than 100 sound systems have been installed to recite the call to prayer.
In Syria’s northwestern Idlib province — the last rebel enclave — very few families still have the energy or resources to make the necessary preparations for Ramadan this year.
Abdul Qahar Zakou, a cafe owner from, said he will put up Ramadan decorations despite the prevailing misery and do his best to create a festive atmosphere.
“Despite all the odds, Ramadan will always have its own atmosphere, with a symbolism and spirituality that makes life easier,” said Zakou.
Fasting is required of all healthy adult Muslims, with exemptions for those who are sick, pregnant women and those breastfeeding.
Alongside eating and drinking, smoking and sexual intercourse are also prohibited during daylight hours in Ramadan.
Islam follows a lunar calendar, so Ramadan starts about a week and a half earlier each year. At the end of holy month, Muslims celebrate the Eid Al-Fitr holiday, when children often receive new clothes and gifts.


Israel spills Palestinian blood on first day of Ramadan

Updated 23 March 2023

Israel spills Palestinian blood on first day of Ramadan

  • Israeli military said Amir Abu Khadija was wanted for recent shooting attacks on Israeli settlements and security forces
  • Prisoners force Israeli jail authorities to back down on imposition of punitive measures

RAMALLAH: Undercover Israeli soldiers killed a Palestinian man during a raid in the occupied West Bank on Thursday, the first day of Ramadan, raising fears that there will be no letup in the Palestinian bloodshed during the month of fasting and reflection.

Israeli forces stormed the northern city of Tulkarem. The Palestinian Health Ministry said that 25-year-old Amir Abu Khadija was shot multiple times in the head and legs. The Tulkarem branch of Fatah’s Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades claimed Abu Khadija as its leader.

The Israeli military said Abu Khadija was wanted for recent shooting attacks on Israeli settlements and security forces. Troops raided his hideout apartment in Tulkarem and shot and killed Abu Khadija when he drew his gun, the military said, adding that the army confiscated an M-16 assault rifle and the car he allegedly used to carry out drive-by shooting attacks. Security forces said they also arrested another member of the militant group.

The militant group said Abu Khadija died in an “armed clash” with Israeli forces. Images of his blood-soaked body and his trashed apartment circulated online, as angry Palestinians mourned the first “martyr” of the holy month, which began Thursday in the Mideast.

The killing brought to 90 the number of Palestinians killed by the Israelis since the beginning of the year.

The Fatah movement and the Palestinian factions in Tulkarem announced a day of the commercial strike to mourn the killing.

Hamas said: "The occupation's targeting of our heroic resistance fighters will not stop the march of resistance, and our people will not be intimidated while we are in the blessed month of Ramadan, the month of holy wars and victories. We will continue our glorious revolution by targeting the fascist occupation forces.”

The Islamic Jihad movement said: "This heinous crime, on the morning of the first day of Ramadan, confirms the policy of the occupation and its fascist government to continue its aggression and desecration.

“The pure blood of this heroic fighter will fuel more flames of the uprising, which will spread in all arenas, despite the size of the sacrifices.”

Eleven Palestinians were arrested during Thursday's Israeli campaign of incursions and searches in the West Bank. Clashes occurred in some areas.

The Palestinian Prisoners Club reported that arrested Palestinians were transferred for interrogation about their participation in popular resistance.

Palestinian sources said that the Israeli escalation of killings, arrests, and incursions into cities during Ramadan contradicted what was agreed upon at the Sharm El-Sheikh summit on March 19.

Maj. Gen. Adnan Al-Damiri (retired), a former spokesman for the Palestinian security services, who is from Tulkarem, told Arab News that a state of sadness and pain prevailed in the city after the killing of Abu Khadija.

He accused the Israeli army of escalating the killings of Palestinians to achieve imaginary victories and achievements. "What other mission can the Israeli occupation army carry out other than killing the Palestinians?" he said.

In another development, the Palestinians expressed joy over the victory of Palestinian prisoners in their talks with the Israeli prison administration, which acquiesced to their demands and backed down from implementing the hawkish Israeli National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir's restrictive regulations against them.

The Supreme National Emergency Committee for prisoners said the prisoners forced the prison administration to stop the arbitrary measures against them, "thanks to their unity and the support of our people for them." It added that the Israeli occupation "must realize that the prisoners are not alone. They are not easy prey for every passerby on our land."

The Commission for the Affairs of Detainees and Ex-Prisoners and the Prisoner’s Club announced late on Wednesday that 2,000 prisoners had suspended their planned Ramadan hunger strike after the prison administration withdrew the arbitrary punitive measures against them.

Since Feb. 14, prisoners have been protesting after the prison administration announced the implementation of harsh measures — including rationing water, reducing shower times, keeping bathrooms locked and providing stale bread for prisoners to eat — at the behest of Ben-Gvir.

Qadoura Faris, head of the Palestinian Prisoners Club, told Arab News that what happened was an "outstanding achievement" for the Palestinian prisoners against Ben-Gvir and his "extremist racist behavior and threats."

Faris said he met US diplomats from the embassy in Jerusalem who pressured the Israeli side, pointing out that the Israeli security services and government officials were aware that Ben- Gvir's policies against Palestinian security prisoners were not an Israeli security need but rather "a reflection of Ben-Gvir's extremist racist ideology."

For his part, Ben-Gvir said on Thursday: "My policy is effective, and the loss that will befall the prisoners if the strike continues will be great."

Thousands of Israelis block streets in protest of judicial overhaul

Updated 23 March 2023

Thousands of Israelis block streets in protest of judicial overhaul

  • Thousands of people carrying flags and signs marched on a Tel Aviv thoroughfare stopping traffic
  • Benjamin Netanyahu’s plan has stirred concern for Israel’s democratic health at home and abroad

TEL AVIV/JERUSALEM: Israelis took to the streets en masse on Thursday in protest against the government’s overhaul of the court system, blocking roadways across the country and intensifying a months-long campaign decrying the move.
Thousands of people waving flags and blaring horns marched on a Tel Aviv thoroughfare stopping traffic in the middle of the workday. Police sprayed a water cannon and carried some away as they tried to clear the highway.
A small group burned tires in the street outside a seaport, briefly blocking trucks. Police forced demonstrators from the road in front of a conference center in central Israel.
Police detained dozens of protesters for public disturbance across the country.
The protests have escalated since the start of the year when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hard-right government introduced new legislation that would limit the authority of the Supreme Court.
The plan has stirred concern for Israel’s democratic health at home and abroad. Military reservists have joined the protests and senior officials in the Finance Ministry warned this week of an economic backlash.
In Jerusalem, crowds gathered along the walls of the Old City from which they hung a huge replica of the country’s declaration of independence.
“What we are doing here is we are fighting for our lives. We are fighting for our lives as a Jewish people together in the state that we have been building for 75 years,” said Avidan Friedman, who was wearing a Jewish prayer shawl over his head.
“We are fighting because we feel like what’s going on now is tearing us apart and we are calling on the government to stop.”
Netanyahu in the meantime pushed ahead with the legislation, which includes bills to give the government decisive sway in electing judges and to limit the court’s power to strike down laws. On Thursday a law was ratified limiting the circumstances in which a prime minister can be removed.
Netanyahu — on trial for corruption charges he denies — says the judicial overhaul is needed to restore balance between the branches of government. Critics say it will weaken Israel’s democracy and hand uncontrolled powers to the government of the day.