In Northern Idlib, HTS Property Confiscations Threaten Small Druze Community

Hardline Islamist group Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) has seized some Druze-owned properties in towns within the Jabal Al-Summaq, or Barisha, area in the northern part of the Idlib governorate.

Members of the Druze religious minority group historically live in 18 villages in Jabal Al-Summaq, the most important of which are Kaftein, Maarat Al-Ikhwan and Qalb Louzeh. Their villages are interspersed among majority Sunni Muslim villages in the rural northern Idlib province and neighbouring Aleppo province. Some 20,000 Druze people were estimated to be living in the area in 2015, although their numbers have now diminished to 10,000, according to estimates by local councils.

The oldest known mention of Druze people in the Jabal Al-Summaq region dates back 1,000 years. Since then, residents have left in droves, settling in present-day Lebanon and Suweida. Druze residents of northern Idlib have historically had peaceful relations with their Muslim neighbours, including after the start of the Syrian revolution in 2011. They rejected offers from regime forces to take up arms and fight on their side of the war. As the war progressed, local Druze villages saw an influx of displaced people from other parts of Idlib province. Meanwhile, regime and Russian warplanes repeatedly bombed the villages of Qalb Louzeh, Koko, Tal Dweir, Tal Teita and Kaftein. Some residents fled towards government-held territory in Idlib and Aleppo, as most of them are public sector employees.

When the Islamic State emerged in 2013 and 2014, Druze villages were subjected to killings, theft and kidnappings, pushing many residents to flee to government territory for safety. Since 2015, the various Islamist groups that were precursors to HTS have controlled much of the Idlib governorate, including Jabal Al-Summaq. June 2015 saw one such group, led by commander AbdulRahman Al-Tunisi, carry out a massacre in Qalb Louzeh, killing 30 civilians and causing yet more residents to flee the area.

Local councils in the Druze villages then took up management of the properties of those who had fled, using the proceeds to improve public services. But then in mid-2017, HTS began to seize the homes and farmlands of Druze villagers who had fled, using the captured homes to house the families of the group's fighters, as well as internally displaced people who had been forcibly driven from the Damascus Countryside and Homs. Displaced people now make up the majority of residents of Jabal Al-Summaq.

The local councils of the 18 Jabal Al-Summaq villages united in 2016 and came to represent remaining Druze residents in the area. Members of the council regularly meet with officials from the HTS-affiliated Syrian Salvation Government (SSG), as well as HTS military figures and administrators, to solve disputes, including over confiscated properties. Local sources told The Syria Report that a large number of violations against property in the area had been committed by influential HTS members without the knowledge of their superiors. Many times, the properties were returned after residents lodged complaints.

HTS officials have justified confiscations by saying that the targeted properties belong to employees in the Syrian government’s security and military institutions, and that such procedures are also in force in other areas of Idlib that have seen residents flee to government territory. The SSG’s official policy of confiscations began at the start of 2020. A large share of the confiscations has been carried out by SSG administrators and influential HTS members, directly aimed at properties of Idlib villagers seen as still loyal to the Syrian government.

Still, confiscation of Druze properties in Jabal Al-Summaq does not appear to be organised. The SSG has not formally interfered in confiscation of properties there, impeding the process of transferring and selling them off to buyers, and limiting real estate investment in the area. This is largely due to HTS’s cautious approach towards the Druze minority in Jabal Al-Summaq, partially because of the widespread criticism of the hardline Islamic group since the Qalb Louzeh massacre.