HTS leaves north Homs town following civilian protests

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Rastan residents protest HTS presence on Tuesday. Image via Homs AlRastn.

AMMAN: Members of the hardline Islamist coalition Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham withdrew from an opposition-held city in northern Homs this week following civilian protests against the alleged murder of a resident at the hands of the group, local sources told Syria Direct.

The north Homs city of Rastan was “calm” on Wednesday, one day after dozens of local men staged demonstrations calling for Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham (HTS) to leave, a commander from the Free Syrian Army (FSA)-affiliated Liwa Rijal Allah faction told Syria Direct. His faction is among a handful of FSA groups that control Rastan.

HTS personnel vacated their sole headquarters in Rastan city on Tuesday due to the demonstrations, citizen journalists and the commander told Syria Direct.

Before leaving Rastan this week, HTS reportedly had only a small presence in the town—residents and citizen journalists who spoke with Syria Direct estimated a few dozen fighters operated within the city. However, the hardline group faced tensions with a local population supportive of the more moderate FSA.

Those tensions reached a tipping point on Monday when an unknown number of HTS fighters allegedly killed a resident who served on a local committee negotiating with the Syrian government.

“Rastan is free—HTS get out,” two signs read on Tuesday. Image courtesy of Homs AlRastn.

The murdered resident, a jeweler named Fayez al-Madani, was “shot” in broad daylight on Monday, the Liwa Rijal Allah commander told Syria Direct. “Our members then arrested [the men responsible for the crime], and they are currently under investigation,” the commander said. He requested anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the press.

Al-Madani was part of a team of five pro-opposition negotiators from Rastan tasked with formulating plans for an electrical line to run from surrounding government territory through the opposition-held, encircled northern Homs pocket where Rastan is located.

Three local citizen journalists who spoke to Syria Direct from Rastan on Wednesday confirmed al-Madani was a member of the electricity negotiations committee. All three blamed HTS for the killing.

HTS officials did not respond to requests for comment by the time of publication. The group did not release any statements on Wednesday about the alleged killing or its reported exit from Rastan.

After news of the killing spread, people demonstrated in the city’s streets by the dozens, with signs and chants calling for HTS to leave. In one chant, residents denounced HTS leader Abu Mohammad al-Jolani. Homemade signs proclaimed Rastan a “free” city.

The encircled Homs countryside, a collection of cities, towns, villages and rural areas north of the provincial capital with an estimated population of 260,000 residents, is one of four regions in Syria where Russian representatives are trying to negotiate a permanent end to fighting on the ground.

The electricity negotiations team that al-Madani was a member of was separate from the de-escalation negotiations process.