Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) leader Abu Mohammad Al-Jolani attended the opening of a water well in the town of Qalb Lawzeh in the Jabal Al-Summaq area in the Idlib governorate. This visit, the first of its kind to majority-Druze Jabal Al-Summaq, appears to be an attempt by the hardline Islamist group in control of Idlib to reassure Druze residents about their safety and properties following previous major violations.
Historically, the Druze community has inhabited 18 towns and villages in Jabal Al-Summaq, most importantly Kaftein, Maarat Al-Ikhwan and Qalb Lawzeh. In 2015, the Jabhat Al-Nusra group, or Nusra Front, appointed a Tunisian jihadist to be “emir” of Jabal Al-Summaq. As a Salafi jihadist group, Jabhat Al-Nusra viewed the Druze as apostates of Islam who must either be killed or fought against in order to return them to Islam. Jabhat Al-Nusra gave the local Druze community a deadline of one year to convert to Islam or flee Jabal Al-Summaq. Before this deadline was reached, the Tunisian emir restricted the rights of Druze residents, killed and arrested a number of them and extorted many of their properties, real estate and agricultural lands by force.
In June 2015, following a dispute between residents and Jabhat Al-Nusra personnel at a checkpoint in the centre of Qalb Lawzeh, the jihadist emir oversaw a massacre of 30 Druze townspeople in Qalb Lawzeh. After the massacre almost half of the Druze fled Jabal Al-Summaq to regime-controlled areas. There were around 20,000 Druze residents in Jabal Al-Summaq in 2015, though only about 10,000 today remain, according to estimates by local councils.
Jabhat Al-Nusra brought the emir to trial and punished him with removal from office and only one month imprisonment.
After changing its name to Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) and establishing the Syrian Salvation Government (SSG) in Idlib in 2018, the organisation tried to win over the residents of Jabal Al-Summaq. It contributed to founding a unified local council to supervise the management of public services. This local council partly managed the properties of absentee Druze residents and used the revenue to improve municipal services. Still, HTS continued extorting Druze properties in order to house its members’ families as well as forcibly displaced people who had arrived from the Rural Damascus and Homs governorates. The current population of Jabal Al-Summaq is, in large part, made up of displaced people.
During his meeting with notables from the Jabal Al-Summaq villages, Al-Jolani focused on showing HTS as moderate, similar to the stance he took with Idlib’s Christians as part of a programme of pragmatism he has followed since 2018. Though Al-Jolani did not explicitly mention the 2015 Qalb Lawzeh massacre, he mentioned that the event was a matter of the past, avoiding holding Jabhat Al-Nusra responsible. He added: “The individual who committed the crime, you know what happened to him in the end.” The Tunisian emir who oversaw the killings remained in Idlib for several years afterward, later defecting in 2018. HTS subsequently accused him of being responsible for the assassination of the former SSG Minister of Education and killed him in a 2021 security raid. In the end, the Tunisian former official’s killing was unrelated to his violations against the Jabal Al-Summaq Druze community.
Al-Jolani also used the recent visit to promise greater services to Jabal Al-Summaq residents, such as drinking water, municipal administration and healthcare. The region has suffered marginalisation and a lack of basic services such as water and medicine. The new water well is now meant to provide water for around 6,000 people in the villages of Banabel, Qalb Lawzeh, Bashandalanti and others. The second stage of the water well project will additionally provide water to the town of Kafr Kila and the remaining villages of Jabal Al-Summaq. Notably, local residents had themselves collected monetary donations to pay for the water well and to extend the water network before Al-Jolani provided funds to compensate them.
There are no precise statistics on the properties and agricultural lands extorted by HTS in Jabal Al-Summaq, though the SSG has been working since early 2021 to return some of the properties to their owners and to owners’ first-degree relatives. Property extortion is the seizure of someone else’s property without their consent, or without the existence of a legal title deed or legitimate reason. In a video published by HTS after Al-Jolani’s visit, one Jabal Al-Summaq notable said that the situation had improved over the past year. The notable also demanded more improvement and for a response to the injustices that have occurred against residents.
Al-Jolani ruled out a response to the injustices committed by people he referred to as “shabiha,” no matter the sect, affirming that there would be no such discussion and no redress. “Shabiha” is a general term that usually refers to regime loyalists–especially state employees who have fled to regime-controlled areas of Syria and who serve within the regime forces or security services.
At the same time, it appears that many of the extorted properties remain in the hands of influential HTS leaders, who are not keen on giving them up. Sources who spoke with The Syria Report indicated that there are plans to invest in some of the extorted lands and use them as stone quarries. The Al-Raqi Construction Company, whose owner is the former HTS emir of Aleppo Ibrahim Salameh, is reportedly behind the plans.