Over the past four years, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) has tried to transform itself from a faction of the Global Jihad movement into the de facto local military and governing power in north-west (NW) Syria. This shift requires the group to seek sources of funding other than al-Qaeda and its donors; consequently, HTS has undertaken a slow but steady takeover of the economy in NW Syria, from financial services and oil and gas to internet and telecommunications. This paper lays out how that process has taken place and provides a detailed look at the economics of HTS.
HTS Takes Over Idlib’s Economy: Timeline
The formation of HTS in Idlib.
HTS forms the General Monetary Agency for Cash Management and Consumer Protection, with the announced aim of "regulating exchange operations and preventing monopoly and manipulation of currency rates in Idlib Governorate."
HTS takes over the Bab al-Hawa crossing with Turkey
HTS forms the Syrian Salvation Government (SSG), with ten ministries: Interior, Justice, Endowments, Education, Health, Local Administration and Services, Economy and Resources, Development and Humanitarian Affairs, Higher Education, and Agriculture.
Watad Petroleum is formed and is granted exclusive rights to import oil derivatives and gas from Turkey into north-west (NW) Syria.
HTS turns al-Waseet (its own hawala company in Idlib City) into Sham Bank, primarily to facilitate the transactions of Watad Petroleum.
The SSG forms the Telecommunications Department.
- The SSG forms the Zakat ("Alms") Department.
- The Zakat Department issues a decree ordering farmers, under threat of imprisonment, to pay 5% of their total crop value as zakat collected by the department.
- The Zakat Department issues a decree ordering olive farmers to pay either 10% of their olive crop or 10% of the olive oil they produce.
- The SSG lays fiber-optic cables in the Syrian border area and builds communications towers in western Aleppo and Idlib.
- The SSG issues an administrative order prohibiting internet service providers in Idlib from working without a license from SYR Connect, a company set up by HTS affiliates with a monopoly over the sector.
- The SSG’s Telecommunications Regulatory Department (TRD) issues the Telecommunications Law, to regulate and govern the telecommunications sector.
HTS confiscates land and property in Salqin whose owners are currently living abroad.
Media and human rights reports indicate that HTS has seized all properties owned by Christians in Idlib City and in all other large cities in the governorate.
- The SSG decides to replace the Syrian pound (SYP) with the Turkish lira (TL), arguably to stabilize markets damaged by the severe depreciation of the SYP.
- The SSG indexes the prices of goods to the TL.
- Watad Petroleum indexes oil derivatives and gas prices to the TL.
- HTS’s Monetary Agency issues several decrees criminalizing the buying of SYP within NW Syria, banning cash transfers between regime areas and NW Syria, and demanding that all cash exchange and hawala companies in NW Syria obtain proper licensing from the Agency.
- The Agency issues a list of all licensed and approved cash transfer and exchange businesses in NW Syria.
The SSG creates the Real Estate and Property Registry Office.
- The SSG issues new tariffs in TL for the internet and telecommunications services provided by the TRD.
- The SSG prohibits any construction work in Idlib without a license from the Local Administration and Services Ministry.
- The SSG raises the annual rent of internally displaced persons' (IDPs) informal camps on state-owned land from 13 TL to 50 TL per tent.
- HTS seizes approximately 500 properties across Idlib Governorate, owned by recruits in the Arab Syrian Army, employees of the Syrian government, and members of the Ba’ath party.
- The SSG orders farmers who own olive farms on the frontline to obtain a letter from their local council proving their ownership of the land, in order to obtain a letter from the Directorate of Agriculture authorizing them to harvest their crops.
- The SSG prohibits citizens — especially IDPs — from purchasing or selling state-owned land or property, under threat of three years’ imprisonment.
- The SSG orders IDP camps that were built on state-owned agricultural land to pay rent to the SSG’s Agricultural Department.
HTS announces a plan to open a new crossing with the regime in Saraqib. The attempt is derailed by Turkey and public backlash.
Kaf and al-Shahba companies (based in Idlib and western Aleppo respectively) enter the oil derivatives trade market. The companies are believed to be owned by HTS, and were created to counter rising resentment about Watad’s monopoly over the fuel trade in NW Syria.
Over the past four years, HTS has witnessed several changes and shifts in its ideological and military structures as its leadership works to transform the organization from a faction of the Global Jihad movement into the de facto local military and governing power in NW Syria, with aims to have a seat at the political negotiations table as an internationally recognized political and military actor. This shift necessitates that the group seek sources of funding other than al-Qaeda and its donors; consequently, HTS began its slow but steady takeover of the economy in NW Syria.
HTS’s earliest attempts to generate revenues and income from NW Syria were mainly limited to spoils captured from the regime and opposition factions, estimated to be at least $149 million U.S. dollars (USD) by early 2018. HTS has also received at least $94 million USD in a number of prisoner-exchange deals with several entities, including the regime, Iran, the Lebanese government, and the Italian government. In addition, unknown sums have been received from the families of detainees in regime prisons, paid in return for including demands for these detainees’ release in the aforementioned deals. Along with kidnap ransoms, HTS demanded payments from Iran and Hezbollah in exchange for the bodies of their fighters who were killed in action.
As HTS established itself in Syria, particularly in the north-west, its commanders sought a variety of revenue and income sources. In 2013, HTS, known then as Jabhat al-Nusra, began ransacking historical sites, creating large networks in order to smuggle and trade in artifacts.
Around the same time, HTS started seizing the homes and property of what they described as "apostates and Shabeeha," a vague accusation encompassing Christians and civilians with ties to the regime. Investigations into the matter uncovered that HTS seized hundreds of properties belonging to the city’s displaced Christian population, including at least 550 houses and shops in Idlib City, between late 2018 and late 2019. In fact, reports indicate that since 2015, HTS has seized all properties owned by Christians in Idlib City and all the other large cities in the governorate.1 In September 2020, HTS expanded this practice and seized around 500 properties across Idlib Governorate owned by recruits in the Arab Syrian Army, employees of the Syrian government, and members of the Ba’ath party. The seized properties are usually allocated as "bonuses" for the group commanders.
HTS levies have been enforced at checkpoints for civilians, vehicles, and goods. HTS has also forced farmers and business owners to pay annual zakat ("alms") amounts that vary from one community to the other. These zakat amounts were originally imposed and collected by HTS’s Hisbah (religious police), known as Sawaed al-Khair; this responsibility was later allocated to the SSG’s Zakat Department.
The most significant shift in HTS economic policy occurred in July 2017, when the group took over the Bab al-Hawa crossing, one of the biggest sources of revenue in NW Syria and a particularly strategic acquisition in terms of the relationship with Turkey. In November of the same year, HTS formed the SSG under the guise of creating an efficient technocratic body to govern the enclave. However, more than three years into its existence, the SSG is no more than a tool to provide the "legal" and administrative frameworks for HTS’s takeover of the region’s economy and resources. It also provides a scapegoat for the group’s transgressions and greed — as it did in November 2019 when the SSG’s executive body submitted its resignation following a wave of protests by residents and activists across Idlib over the deteriorating living conditions and the rise in taxes and levies.
The SSG’s efforts to regulate services and sectors have been, rather than attentive to the needs of the local population ravaged by the humanitarian and economic crises, mainly focused on ensuring the control and monopoly of HTS and its associates over every aspect of life and the economy in NW Syria.
The Mastermind Behind the Takeover
According to several sources from Idlib and experts on the group and its dynamics, the HTS takeover of NW Syria’s economy was engineered and is being managed by Mustafa Qadid.
In interviews with local journalists and activists across Idlib, Qadid was mentioned repeatedly as the "mastermind" behind most (and by some accounts, all) of the financial and economic decisions and ventures made by HTS in the past few years. Some made him out to be an agent for the Syrian regime, while others’ accounts of his reach and power portray him as a cunning, cruel, mythical figure capable of anything and everything. Like the majority of HTS’s high-ranking and controversial commanders, there are no pictures of or interviews with Qadid, but he is nonetheless a ubiquitous figure in this particular domain.
Despite the mystery and mythology surrounding him, we do know some concrete facts.
Mustafa Qadid, known as Abu Abd al-Rahman al-Zirbeh, is an HTS commander and a close associate of its leader, Abu Mohamad al-Julani. Qadid, who started as a baker with an elementary education, is from Darkoush, a town located in NW Idlib along the Syrian-Turkish border. He is believed to have joined pre-HTS Jabhat al-Nusra in 2012, as a driver to Abdul Rahim Attoun, one of the al-Qaeda group’s leading clerics. He rose through the ranks to become one of the most prominent commanders within Jaish al-Fatah, a military alliance between Jabhat al-Nusra and a number of Islamist, Jihadist, and opposition factions — mainly Ahrar al-Sham and Jund al-Aqsa — that seized Idlib City from the regime and controlled parts of Idlib between March 2015 and January 2017.
Local activists who lived through Qadid’s reign as one of the commanders in control of Idlib City told many stories demonstrating how he became known as a despotic figure who would not hesitate to kill, imprison, or torture anyone standing in his way or objecting to any of his decisions. In fact, Qadid orchestrated several campaigns to arrest and intimidate media activists in an effort to silence any form of opposition.
Qadid was then appointed head of the "Economic Department" within HTS. This agency is independent from the SSG’s Ministry of Economy and Resources, which is mostly limited to consumer protection; the Economic Department is the most influential economic body in the area. As department head, Qadid established a cash and exchange company called al-Waseet, reportedly with a capital of more than $30 million USD collected mainly from royalties imposed on everyone working in the money exchange sector in Idlib, and seized a number of official buildings and public properties. To formalize the group’s control over the financial sector, HTS formed the General Monetary Agency for Cash Management and Consumer Protection in 2017, under the guidance of Qadid, and then turned al-Waseet into Sham Bank in 2018.
Qadid was selected by al-Julani as the commander in charge of the Crossing Management Body, formed in 2017, to manage Bab al-Hawa and the subsequent regime and Turkish crossings that would come to be controlled by HTS in NW Syria. Based on interviews with local experts and journalists, Qadid is believed to have used this control to develop a wide network of connections within the military, intelligence, and economic sectors throughout regime areas, National Army areas, and Turkey, including key commanders and businessmen associated with Maher Assad’s Fourth Division. He is also believed to be in charge of the negotiations with the Fourth Division in regard to opening new crossings with regime-controlled areas in Idlib.
Following Operation Olive Branch in January 2018 — which resulted in Turkey and the National Army taking over Afrin, prompted the withdrawal of the Kurdish forces from the area, and interrupted the importation of fuel from areas under the control of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) — Qadid created Watad Petroleum, allowing HTS to monopolize the oil derivatives trade across NW Syria.
In the process of taking over and expanding on economic outlets across NW Syria, according to activists and civilians in Idlib Governorate, Qadid, who has used force and threats of vandalism, kidnapping, and murder to force other investors in the region to grant him a significant share of their businesses, formed a network of loyal "beneficiaries." This network is believed to be in charge of smuggling operations through the informal Dorriyeh crossing with Turkey.
His network of associates has allowed Qadid to create an entire economic system for the benefit of al-Julani and a small circle of his close associates, encompassing all aspects of investment and trade in NW Syria — taking over bakeries, appropriating financial services, importing food items from Turkey, and opening restaurants, internet cafes, and other small and mid-sized investments across NW Syria.
Despite rumors that Qadid has been replaced by al-Mughira, an HTS commander alleged to be al-Julani’s in-law, recent evidence suggests that Qadid is still in charge of HTS’s economy, as he remains the HTS representative in the recent talks with the regime and Russia regarding the reopening of commercial crossings with the Syrian regime in Idlib.
Crossings: Controlling the Lifelines of NW Syria's Economy
Crossings with the regime and with Turkey are considered the most important and foundational aspects of HTS’s financial empire in NW Syria, in terms of both strategic significance and revenues.
In June 2017, HTS took over the Bab al-Hawa crossing — the most significant civilian, humanitarian, and commercial crossing with Turkey — following armed clashes with Ahrar al-Sham; eventually Ahrar al-Sham withdrew from the area. Once HTS took over the border crossing, Turkey announced that it would restrict the movement of non-humanitarian goods, as the crossing had come under the control of a "terrorist organization." Since then, the Turkish side of the crossing conducts thorough inspections of non-food items, searching for banned items such as non-military drones.
To circumvent the Turkish decision, HTS kept the previous civilian authority over the crossing, but appointed one of its commanders to informally "manage" it through its General Administration of Crossings — established and overseen by Mustafa Qadid. In March 2019, HTS sacked the civilian director of the crossing, Khaled al-Barrad, known as Sajid Abu Firas, and appointed Firas’ deputy Muhammad Zainuddin as director; in addition, a new internal official was appointed within the General Administration of Crossings to informally supervise the crossing. The HTS official known as al-Mughira, appointed by Qadid, became responsible for setting customs tariffs on commercial goods and collecting the proceeds from fees imposed on trucks moving through the crossing. Revenues from Bab al-Hawa are estimated to be $10-15 million USD per month.
In addition to Bab al-Hawa, HTS currently controls the Ghazawiyah crossing with Afrin/National Army areas, and the Dorriyeh crossing with Turkey, an informal crossing through which HTS runs smuggling operations of people and goods.
It should be noted here that HTS does not have any presence in the other two official crossings with Turkey: the military crossing at Kafr Lucin and the humanitarian crossing at Atmeh, both of which are controlled and managed by Turkey and its main Syrian ally, Faylaq al-Sham.
Crossings with the Syrian Regime
Prior to regime advances during the December 2019 offensive, HTS controlled a number of crossings with regime areas including Morek, Abu Dali, and Qalaat al-Madiq in Hama (which were closed by the regime in August 2019), and Mansoura and al-Eis in Aleppo (which were closed by the regime in February 2020). Since then, HTS has been trying to reopen other crossings with the regime. In April 2020, HTS announced the opening of a crossing in Ma'arat Na'asan with the regime to revitalize Idlib's economy. The decision prompted angry protests, which were met with severe and brutal force. Eventually Turkish forces in the area erected dirt mounds to prevent the passage of trucks, forcing HTS to announce the decision to postpone opening the crossing to an unspecified date.
In November 2020, HTS’s Crossings Management confirmed through its Telegram channel that "a commercial crossing will be opened between the opposition areas and the areas controlled by Assad's forces between the cities of Sarmin and Saraqib." The announcement of the opening of Saraqib crossing came after several rounds of negotiations between HTS, regime representatives, and Russian commanders. Although Turkey was not part of the negotiations, sources close to HTS reported that there have been lengthy and ongoing consultations between HTS and Turkey throughout the process.
The Crossings Management indicated, via statements disseminated through its Telegram channel, that the aim behind the opening is to invigorate economic activity and markets in order to improve living conditions across NW Syria. They assert that opening the crossing will help to increase farmers' profits, which in turn will enable the acquisition of more resources to cultivate their lands next season. Alluding to the severe medicine shortage across Idlib, they further emphasize that the crossing would allow imports of urgently needed medicines and medical supplies. The statements included calls to traders and owners of small, medium, and large enterprises to increase their commercial activity and import goods in order to reduce illegal smuggling operations, which are described as opportunities allowing "traitors and regime agents" to infiltrate NW Syria.
The Crossings Management called on traders and merchants who plan to import goods from regime areas to coordinate with the Saraqib Crossing Economic Office, to obtain needed clearances and permits, insisting that Saraqib crossing is strictly commercial, and they "will never allow civilians to pass to and from Assad's areas." This contradicts claims in regime media that the crossing is both commercial and humanitarian, alleviating the economic pressure on Idlib and allowing civilians "to move back to their villages and towns to live and cultivate their lands, in addition to giving students access to their schools and universities."
Despite the lack of transparency and information on the revenues collected from each crossing, it is estimated to be millions of dollars every month. HTS's Crossings Management has imposed fees on everything coming through these crossings, except for fruits and vegetables going to Turkey, and recently flour and wheat coming into NW Syria. The fees range from $3 to $7 USD for each ton of goods, according to the type of goods. After finishing the transit process, truck drivers receive a receipt showing the amount they paid to allow them to pass through checkpoints within NW Syria, which in turn charge them additional, albeit smaller fees, paid directly to the checkpoint personnel. The Crossings Management even imposed a $500 USD fee on each piece of agricultural harvest machinery taken out of Idlib Governorate during the huge wave of displacement resulting from the regime offensive earlier this year.
Crossings with the regime in particular are a vital source of income and opportunity for strategic collaboration for HTS, and in particular for Mustafa Qadid, who has developed a network of trade relations with Maher Assad’s Fourth Division and with associates of Khodr Abu Ali, Asma Assad’s partner in Emma Tel. HTS is eager to regain the steady stream of cash, estimated to be hundreds of thousands of USD monthly per crossing. According to a former HTS commander,2 HTS’s income from Morek crossing alone was around $800,000 USD per month, while their income from Abu Dali, Qalaat al-Madiq, and al-Eis was about $1.5 million USD per month combined.
The delays in opening crossings between HTS and the regime may well be due to Turkey’s interference. Although Turkey appears to have given HTS the green light to pursue an understanding with the regime with regard to opening the Saraqib crossing, they also seem to be trying to use it as a pressure card to leverage their negotiating position with Russia.
In May 2017, HTS announced the establishment of the General Monetary Agency for Cash Management and Consumer Protection, with the aim of "regulating exchange operations and preventing monopoly and manipulation of currency rates in Idlib Governorate." Like the vast majority of the SSG's institutions, there is no available information on the Agency's structure, membership, or governing laws. (This ambiguity is standard with HTS and the SSG, in order to adapt laws and decrees to benefit them and their affiliates at any given moment.) However, those clauses of the agency's law which have so far been made public through its Telegram channel show they are taken almost verbatim from Saudi monetary law.
As for the Agency's leadership, nothing is known so far other than that it is under the control of Mustafa Qadid. Since its establishment in 2017, the Agency's role has been limited to forcing hawala and exchange companies to pay unspecified levies. It should be noted here that, except for those working in the cash exchange and hawala business sector, very few of the people from Idlib Governorate interviewed for this report are aware of the Agency and its work.
In June 2020, the SSG announced it would replace the SYP with the TL in order to stabilize markets damaged by the severe depreciation of the Syrian currency. Within days of the announcement, large quantities of Turkish currency began entering the province, mainly through the Turkish Post and Telegraph Organization (PTT) branch in Afrin, and the SSG started setting prices and paying salaries in TL. Unknown sums of Turkish currency entering NW Syria ended up in HTS's Sham Bank in Idlib City.
Sham Bank was established in June 2018, when HTS turned al-Waseet, its own hawala company in Idlib City, into a bank primarily to receive the money transfers of Watad Petroleum, another one of HTS’s affiliated businesses. During 2018-19, Sham Bank bought US dollars and SYP and sold only SYP and TL.
Both Sham Bank and the Monetary Agency took on a more active role after the transition to the TL. During June-July 2020, the agency issued several decrees:
- Banning cash transfers between regime areas and NW Syria
- Banning cash exchange and hawala companies from providing cash to clients in any currency that differs from the currency of the sending office
- Demanding all cash exchange and hawala companies in NW Syria obtain proper licensing from the Agency
- Criminalizing the buying of SYP within NW Syria
The Agency issued a list of all licensed and approved cash transfer and exchange businesses in NW Syria, divided into three categories:
- Category A, currently comprised of 20 companies licensed to provide shipping, hawala, and currency exchange services
- Category B, currently comprised of 28 companies licensed to provide only hawala and currency exchange services
- Category C, currently comprised of 33 companies licensed to provide only currency exchange services.
Sources working in cash exchange and hawala businesses complained that the Agency's licensing conditions reveal the exploitative intents behind them. These conditions include forcing businesses seeking licenses to deposit 25% of their business capital in Sham Bank for the entirety of the licensing period, which must be renewed every six months. Sources explained that these measures are set by the Agency to limit the cash movement market to a small group of traders and businessmen affiliated or working with HTS.
Sham Bank became the main source of Turkish currency in Idlib, especially for smaller denominations. Through the Monetary Agency’s process of regulating Idlib’s financial services, Sham Bank became a key player in setting the conditions for cash exchange and hawala businesses — including setting the USD exchange rates by which these businesses are ordered to abide.
Currently, the bank is the main source of Turkish currency in NW Syria for hawala and currency exchange businesses. Citizens in HTS areas outside Idlib City can obtain Turkish currency, up to 5,000 TL, through currency exchange businesses. Few Idlib residents make the trip to Afrin to obtain Turkish currency through the PTT; some may obtain it through cash transfers from Afrin to a hawala company in Idlib, including people employed in organizations based in Turkey.
Monopoly Over Oil Derivatives and Gas
There is little information available on the origins, structure, and inner workings of the Watad Petroleum Company. It is believed to have been established by Mustafa Qadid in January 2018 following Operation Olive Branch. The vagueness surrounding Watad’s origins and owners is believed to be one of Qadid’s tactics to circumvent anti-terrorism regulations and ensure Turkey's consent to Watad's monopoly. The company began importing oil derivatives through a Turkish company called MT immediately after its formation; the first shipment entered NW Syria on Feb. 7, 2018.
The fast rise of the company, which was promptly granted exclusive rights to import oil derivatives and gas from Turkey into NW Syria, affirms the view that it has close ties to HTS and its commanders. Further confirming this association is the fact that HTS Security Services arrested one of the HTS commanders, Khairat Abu Abd al-Azim, after he took the side of local oil refinery owners in Ma’arat Na'asan who refused Watad's attempts to take over their businesses. In addition, contracts signed between Watad and smaller traders who sell its imports include clauses threatening fines and the revoking of their licenses to trade in NW Syria if they break the terms of their agreements with Watad; this implies that the company has some form of executive power.
According to information obtained by OPC field researchers, HTS has also denied dozens of licensing applications from local and Turkey-based traders seeking to import and distribute oil derivatives in NW Syria. We could not verify the claims independently.
In addition to the rights to import European refined petroleum products, Watad has also obtained from the SSG exclusive rights to regulate prices and every other aspect of the sale and distribution of gas and oil derivatives in the region, in addition to processing rights for most of the crude oil produced in north-east Syria. According to traders dealing with Watad, the company mandates that all funds from the purchase of its products are deposited in Sham Bank.
Watad consists of four divisions:
- The main division, Watad Fuels, is responsible for importing and selling oil derivatives
- The second division is responsible for buying and converting crude oil into diesel and gasoline
- The third division receives gas cylinders and then distributes them to three company-contracted centers
- The fourth division manages company-owned al-Salam petrol stations across NW Syria.
An invoice leaked from Watad in June 2019 shows that the monthly net profit of the company was $1.67 million USD.
Watad’s monopoly, along with the depreciation and volatility of the SYP and its successor the TL, have caused fuel and gas prices to soar beyond the means of the vast majority of the population, reaching 5.10 TL per litre of gasoline, 5 TL per litre of diesel, and 73 TL per canister of gas in November 2020. This is along with the fact that Watad’s monopoly has closed hundreds of small businesses of oil derivatives traders across NW Syria, causing families to lose their source of income.
To circumvent rising popular discontent, and to undermine accusations of market monopoly and greed, two other oil derivatives companies were created in December 2020, in Idlib (Kaf Company) and in the western countryside of Aleppo (al-Shahba). Both are selling their products at only 2-5 Turkish kuruş (1 Turkish lira = 100 kuruş) less than Watad, despite the fact that prices in Syrian National Army areas are 25-35 kuruş less than Watad’s prices, making HTS areas the most expensive for oil derivatives in the country.
Though Kaf Company states on its website that it was established in 2019, reports indicate that it was registered in 2018. However, prior to Dec. 1, 2020, when the company opened its first fuel station in Sarmada, there have been no indications of any commercial activities.
Despite claims that both Kaf and al-Shahba are independent and privately-owned (Kaf by a trader from Hazanu and al-Shahba by a trader from Daret Izza), reports from Idlib maintain that they are in fact ultimately owned and managed by Mustafa Qadid and another commander in charge of Watad.
On Nov. 23, 2019, the SSG issued an administrative order demanding that internet service providers in Idlib enclave halt their activities and services until they "coordinated" with SYR Connect offices in Sarmada.
SYR Connect was another company set up in Idlib by unknown parties, believed to be HTS affiliates, which was then granted a monopoly over a vital sector by the SSG. The company had the exclusive rights to act as the sole supplier and distributor of internet packages and services in NW Syria. SYR Connect then expanded the network of fiber-optic cables, installing its own servers and equipment.
The administrative order demanded that "coordination" between the suppliers and SYR Connect had to be achieved by Nov. 28, 2019, just five days after the order was issued, and that those who failed to do so would risk legal liability. But the order did not specify what "coordination" or "legal liability" entailed, nor was it published on the SSG website. This has become the SSG/HTS modus operandi with regard to controversial regulations; they issue the decree, wait and see how people react, then either go on with the decree or — if faced with an angry backlash — deny they ever issued anything.
The majority of internet service providers in NW Syria ignored the November decree. However, in January 2020, they were again ordered to coordinate with SYR Connect. This second decree apparently had more teeth than the first; as a result of the second order, internet sub-contractors in Idlib ended their contracts with Turkish companies and started working through SYR Connect.
According to an engineer who worked closely with the company, SYR Connect was unable to sustain itself due to financial, technical, and administrative issues, and the company was integrated into the SSG’s Telecommunications Regulatory Department (TRD) in 2020.
The TRD, formed in March 2019 but not publicly disclosed until November 2019, is governed by the Telecommunications Law. According to the law, the TRD consists of an administration and executive body affiliated with the Technical Affairs Department, a licensing office, a legal office, and a judicial office to identify violations and regulate legal liabilities.
The Telecommunications Law also provides for the establishment of an affiliated "General Telecommunications Corporation," whose mandate includes:
- Establishing, operating, and managing public communication networks
- Providing communication services to beneficiaries
- Regulating and determining prices and fares of telecommunications services provided to beneficiaries
It prohibits the establishment, operation, management, or provision of public or private communication networks and services unless the provider has obtained a license from the TRD. It grants the TRD the right to issue instructions determining the types, guidelines, and technical conditions for the establishment and operation of private networks. It prohibits the linking of private communication networks with each other — as is the case in northern Syria, through understandings between internet service providers (sub-contractors from Turkish companies) — without obtaining written approval from the TRD, and after entering into contracts between service providers in accordance with its instructions.
The law requires applicants wishing to provide internet service in NW Syria to obtain licenses and to provide data about their financial capabilities, including: financing sources, their basis for pricing and calculation of the proposed services, the types of services proposed and the geographical area they cover, the technology used by the service, and the specific locations of service provision equipment. The law also grants the TRD the right to deny licensees if it is determined a new licensee may lead to a change in the market balance. The law is not limited to regulating service providers, but also the equipment imported to operate the service. The law includes a set of penalties and fines for those who fail to abide by it. The fines range from $200-15,000 USD, with additional penalties including threats of incarceration.
In mid-September 2020, the fiber-optic internet service was blocked by the Turkish government for unknown reasons. The TRD then expanded its network to provide wireless internet, allowing providers to install new wireless internet transmitters and receivers near the Turkish borders and to operate within the Department’s network.
According to experts in the field, there are an estimated 22,000 network gateways in NW Syria, of which nearly 14,000 are owned by the TRD.
In addition to internet provision, the TRD operates and maintains the telephone exchanges in NW Syria, especially those providing digital subscriber line (DSL) services.
According to a sector expert who has worked closely with the TRD, the sector’s monthly operational costs are around $50,000 USD, while the monthly net profit is $15,000–20,000 USD and is expected to reach $50,000 USD in the coming months.
The current economic crisis remains the main reason behind the low profit; however, the TRD continues to invest in and expand the sector, which remains one of the most vital types of infrastructure in NW Syria.
The transformation of HTS beginning in July 2016, from the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda into the supposedly independent military and political de facto power controlling most of Idlib and western Aleppo shifted the focus of the group and its leaders to generating sustainable streams of revenue beyond donations, looting, war spoils, ransoms, and enforcing zakat on the public. Although this shift coincided with the formation of the SSG, its strategies and tools for economic takeover were and remain largely independent from it. Instead of leading the charge of HTS’s economy, the SSG is rather a tool to give it "legal" and administrative cover.
The "takeover" effectively started in June 2017 when HTS took over the Bab al-Hawa crossing with Turkey, which would later lead to the formation of HTS’s Crossings Management and control over most of NW Syria’s crossings with Turkey, the Syrian National Army, and the Syrian regime. But the seeds and origins of HTS’s economic vision truly began in 2015 with Mustafa Qadid, one of HTS leader Abu Mohamad al-Julani’s close associates, when Qadid served as the Jabhat al-Nusra representative of Jaish al-Fatah in Idlib City. Through this role, Qadid succeeded in taking over vital infrastructure in the biggest and most significant city in Idlib, in addition to utilizing several pretexts to seize hundreds of properties in the city and across Idlib Governorate belonging to Syrians displaced by the conflict. Qadid, through his associates, then proceeded to form a number of businesses, the most significant of which was al-Waseet hawala company.
These actions formed the core of HTS’s economic infrastructure; in a few years, al-Waseet would become Sham Bank, which along with HTS’s General Monetary Agency for Cash Management and Consumer Protection would allow the group to control much of NW Syria’s financial services, as well as facilitate the transition from the SYP to the TL in June 2020.
HTS took over another vital sector with Watad Petroleum Company, which upon its formation in January 2018 was granted the exclusive rights to import oil derivatives and gas from Turkey into NW Syria, along with the right to control every aspect of the sale and distribution of gas and oil derivatives in the region as well as the processing rights for most of the crude oil produced in north-east Syria.
Attempting to replicate the Watad model in order to take over the telecommunications sector, HTS established SYR Connect, which upon its formation in November 2019 was granted exclusive rights to act as the sole supplier and distributor of internet packages and services in NW Syria. However, due to financial, technical, and administrative issues, SYR Connect failed and was forced to hand control over to the SSG’s TRD.
It is important to emphasise that HTS control over NW Syria’s economy is still a work in progress and is not restricted to certain sectors or areas; it is an extensive network of partners and associates controlling most aspects of trade and economic activity in Idlib and western Aleppo. The extent to which this network will continue to evolve is governed by political and military developments in NW Syria, particularly Turkey’s tolerance of the group and its activities.
The paper authors would like to thank Orwa Ajoub, an expert on Jihadi groups and the Syrian conflict, for his invaluable comments and suggestions.
- Currently, there are three Christian villages left in Idlib (Ya’aqoubiyah, Qanyyia, and Jadidah in the western countryside of Jisr al-Shughour). However, there are no Christians left in major cities, in particular Idlib city, which used to be home to more than 3000 Christians, mostly civil servants. In fact, according to testimonies from local activists and experts on Idlib, out of a total of 10,000 Christians in the governorate prior to 2011, only 200 are left. The targeting of Christian properties might not be completely a case of religious prejudice, especially as HTS continues to change its ideological stance on several issues. However, we would argue that the seizure of property is not about ideology; rather it is about "low-hanging fruit" — easy targets for easily justifiable (for the group's followers and large swathes of the population) acts of pillaging. There have been discussions recently about "tolerance" in HTS areas, especially HTS’s tolerance of Christians which is believed to be more of a pragmatic marketing ploy for the "new and improved moderate HTS" rather than an actual indicator of the emergence of a truly tolerant ideology.
- The commander cited here is Saleh al-Hamwi, one of the six founders of Jabhat al-Nusra, who was pushed out by al-Julani in 2015. Thus, despite his insider knowledge of the group and its mechanisms, his claims and assessments have rarely been objective.