Killings, abductions feed frustration in Idlib

Residents are falling victim to infighting between rival groups in Idlib. (FIle/AFP)
Updated 22 August 2018
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Killings, abductions feed frustration in Idlib

  • Activists and analysts blame most of the violence on two rival umbrella groups, also attributing some to the Daesh group and alleged regime collaborators
  • In June, doctors and pharmacists in Idlib city announced a three-day strike to protest against “chaos and a lack of security,” including the kidnapping of doctors for ransom

BEIRUT: Targeted killings and kidnappings for ransom have for months rattled Syria’s Idlib province, with angry residents blaming dominant opposition and terrorist forces for the chaos.
Even as the regime says it aims to retake the northwestern province on Turkey’s border, its inhabitants are falling victim to infighting between the rival groups controlling most of it.
Car bombings, roadside explosives and gunfire have targeted and killed more than 200 fighters, but have also cost the lives of dozens of civilians, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says.
These mostly unclaimed killings, as well as increasingly frequent abductions, have left inhabitants in constant fear of being caught up in the violence.
“Every time I want to take my car somewhere, I inspect it thoroughly... to make sure there’s no explosive device planted in it,” said a media activist in southern Idlib.
“Whenever I drive by a dustbin, I accelerate, afraid it’s going to blow up,” he said, asking to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals.
At the mosque on Fridays, he sits at the front of the congregation, as far away as possible from the entrance, in case a car or motorbike blows up outside.
Since April, 270 people — including 55 civilians — have been killed in assassinations of rebels and commanders from all sides in Idlib, and adjacent parts of Hama and Aleppo provinces, the Britain-based Observatory says.
Activists and analysts blame most of the violence on two rival umbrella groups, also attributing some to the Daesh group and alleged regime collaborators.
The Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) alliance, which is led by terrorists from Al-Qaeda’s former Syrian affiliate, controls more than 60 percent of Idlib. Part of the rest is held by the National Liberation Front, a rival umbrella group backed by Turkey, while Daesh also has sleeper cells in the area.
The regime holds the southeastern tip of the province that is home to some 2.5 million people — more than half displaced by Syria’s seven-year war or bussed into Idlib under surrender deals.
As the rampant insecurity in opposition areas reaches all walks of life, residents have grown increasingly angry.
The media activist from southern Idlib said he mostly blamed the dominant force of HTS for the chaos.
“As the most powerful force on the ground, it is responsible for guaranteeing security,” the activist said.
Medical staff in the HTS-held provincial capital have also had enough.
In June, doctors and pharmacists in Idlib city announced a three-day strike to protest against “chaos and a lack of security,” including the kidnapping of doctors for ransom.
In one of the latest incidents, on Aug. 7, masked men abducted Khalil Agha, a hospital director in the southwest of the province, said district spokesman Mahmud Al-Sheikh.
He was only released a week later after payment of a $100,000 ransom, Sheikh said.
A second activist said that, in the street, residents changed their route if they saw men with scarves wrapped around their faces, fearing an attack.
In recent weeks, HTS as well as other combatants have arrested not only alleged Daesh members, but also dozens of people accused of collusion with the regime.
Rebels fear loyalists could help broker a surrender deal, but HTS official Khaled Al-Ali also accused regime forces of helping to foment instability.
President Bashar Assad on July 26 said regaining control of Idlib was a priority. But analysts say any offensive is likely to be limited to Idlib’s peripheries, to allow Turkey and regime ally Russia to eke out a deal for the rest of the province.
A report for the Turkey-based Omran Center for Strategic Studies said the chaos was due to “competition between a flurry of local forces,” as well as IS and regime sleeper cells.
The instability was affecting the popularity of all rebels, the report’s author Nawar Oliver told AFP, especially HTS.
“Many areas in Idlib hate HTS and are ready to revolt against them at any time,” said the analyst.
Popular anger “could help the regime if it tried to take back the province,” Oliver said.
But discontent over the violence could also “make civilians more favorable to an alternative” put forward by Ankara and Moscow, he said.


After years of silence, music fills streets of Iraq’s Mosul

Renowned Iraqi maestro and cello player Karim Wasfi performs in Mosul’s war-ravaged Old City on November 10, 2018. (AFP)
Updated 11 min 33 sec ago
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After years of silence, music fills streets of Iraq’s Mosul

  • The city even has its own special genre of Arabic ballads, recognized across Iraq and beyond
  • Tahsin Haddad, who heads the local artists’ syndicate, said he is keen to support public arts across the province

MOSUL: For centuries, it was a magnet for artists across the region and churned out Iraq’s best musicians — but recent years saw Mosul suffer a devastating musical purge.
For three years until last summer, the sprawling northern city was under the brutal rule of the Daesh group.
In imposing a city-wide ban on playing or even listening to music, the jihadists smashed and torched instruments.
“It was impossible to bring my instrument with me whenever I left the house,” said city resident Fadel Al-Badri, who hid his precious violin from the rampaging fighters.
Foreshadowing IS’ repression, the 2000s saw Al-Qaeda and other groups impose an ultra-conservative interpretation of Islam in several districts of the city.
But with Mosul freed from the grip of IS in July 2017, Iraq’s second city is embarking on a musical comeback.
“After the liberation, songs are back where they truly belong in Mosul,” said Badri, welcoming the return of evening celebrations and festivals.
The 45-year old violinist now has the pleasure of playing in public once more to an audience that claps hands and sings along to traditional local tunes.

Mosul has a rich musical history.
It is the home city of Ziryab, a musician who introduced the oud — the oriental lute popular across the Arab world — to Europe in the 9th century.
One of its more recent musical prodigies is Kazem Al-Saher, the Iraqi crooner-turned-talent judge known around the region.
The city even has its own special genre of Arabic ballads, recognized across Iraq and beyond.
From folkloric shows and philharmonic concerts to weddings and other national holidays, song and dance have traditionally filled the streets and surrounding air.
But that meant nothing to IS, which ravaged Mosul’s heritage — musical and otherwise — when it took the city as part of a lightning offensive across Iraq in 2014.
The jihadists began by destroying the statue of celebrated ballad virtuoso Mulla Uthman Al-Mosuli, and then turned their attention to destroying instruments across the city.
IS also forced musicians in Mosul to sign a pledge that they would never play or sing again, which was then posted in public places like mosques.
Singer Ahmed Al-Saher, 33, said it was humiliating.
“I couldn’t leave Mosul after they made me sign because of my sick mother. I had to stay here under all that pressure and fear of the unknown,” he recalled.
Ordinary residents, as well as musicians, are keen to celebrate the return of artistic freedom.
“Terrorism failed in killing Mosulites’ love for art in all forms. It’s been born again, despite the destruction,” said Amneh Al-Hayyali.
The 38-year-old brought her husband, son, and daughter to watch a late-night concert in a cultural center in east Mosul.
“Today, after the dark era of beheadings, lashings, beards and veils being imposed on us... we sing,” she said.

But bringing Mosul’s artistic scene back to its former heyday will not be easy.
Tahsin Haddad, who heads the local artists’ syndicate, said he is keen to support public arts across the province.
“But we are in huge need of support from the central government in Baghdad, especially because Mosul currently has no stages, movie theaters, or art spaces,” he told AFP.
Without these venues, artists play in local cafes and public squares.
Celebrated Iraqi musician Karim Wasfi recently performed in a Mosul park where IS once infamously trained its child soldiers.
Earlier this month, Iraqi artists from around the country swarmed to the city for a cultural festival at Mosul University.
Performers stomped the dabkeh — a traditional Arabic line dance — and painters brought their works to display on the campus.
Glamorous Iraqi artist Adiba traveled from Baghdad with an entourage of peers.
“I am so happy to be in Mosul, singing here after it was freed from the grip” of IS, she said, moments before stepping on stage.
“Artists — Iraqi, Arab, foreign — should all come play festivals here.”