Al-Ghassaniyeh in Idlib: Christian Village Faces Exploitation by Jihadist Groups

In mid-2020, hard-line Islamist group Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) started pressuring the Hurras Al-Deen group to leave the Christian village of Al-Ghassaniyeh in the countryside west of Jisr Al-Shughour, in the Idlib governorate. This pressure came amid a campaign by HTS to secure the passage of joint Russian-Turkish military patrols on either side of the M4 Aleppo-Lattakia Highway.

HTS managed to force Hurras Al-Deen to withdraw from homes and properties in Al-Ghassaniyeh, including the St. George Orthodox Church. The village is now under the administrative control of the Syrian Salvation Government (SSG), which is affiliated with HTS. SSG control of the town has not resulted in the return of its residents, most of whom fled from 2012 onward.

The SSG has meanwhile seized local properties and real estate belonging to displaced residents. It has also followed in the footsteps of other jihadist groups in dealing with Idlib Christians, including placing taxes on those who remain, which has limited their ability to invest in agricultural lands, forcing them to lease the lands to Muslim residents of neighbouring villages.

Al-Ghassaniyeh was the largest Christian village in the Jisr Al-Shughour area before 2011, with around 10,000 mostly Orthodox residents. The village was also home to many monasteries and churches.

Rebel factions captured Al-Ghassaniyeh in 2012. Most residents fled towards regime-held areas of Idlib, leaving behind their homes and agricultural lands. They fled out of fear of the regime’s airstrikes, as well as the Islamist nature of some rebel factions. Regime aerial bombardment struck the village, including the St. George Church.

Since 2013, Al-Ghassaniyeh and other Christian villages in Idlib have attracted jihadist organisations due to the large number of empty houses, belonging to residents who have fled. These groups have worked to settle the families of fighters into the empty homes, as well as invest in agricultural lands and shops belonging to former residents.

The Islamic State (IS) seized control of the village in 2013. One IS leader, known by the nom de guerre “Abu Ayman Al-Iraqi,” converted St. George church into a mass detention centre. When rebel factions expelled IS from the village in early 2014, they discovered a mass grave in the church containing the bodies of around two dozen Free Syrian Army fighters.

Shortly after the expulsion of IS from Al-Ghassaniyeh, control of the village was contested between a handful of other jihadist groups, most notably Hurras Al-Deen, the Turkestan Islamic Party and HTS. The families of fighters from these groups took over the empty homes of displaced residents from the village.

With Hurras Al-Deen forced to withdraw from the village in mid-2020, The Turkestan Islamic Party still maintains a presence, albeit under HTS supervision. Meanwhile, HTS has taken over organising housing in the village, and now controls the properties and homes of displaced residents. Most likely, HTS will force out remaining jihadist groups from Al-Ghassaniyeh, including from the homes and properties of absent Christian and pro-regime residents, and then rent out the properties for the benefit of its treasury, as it has done in other areas it controls in Idlib governorate.