Journey to Idlib: An Interview with Wassim Nasr, Journalist, France24.

AuthorCruickshank, Paul

Editor's Note: Between April 29 and May 2, 2023, Wassim Nasr traveled to the Idlib Province of Syria on a reporting assignment for French public broadcaster France24. During his time there, he spoke to senior figures within Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), including the group's leader Abu Muhammad al-Julani and senior ideologue Abu Mariya al-Qahtani. His reporting from Idlib was broadcast and published by France24 on May 11. [1]

CTC: How did this trip come together?

Nasr: I started working on this [visit] in 2020. And it could have happened then, but there was the murder of a French teacher who was beheaded in October 2020, Samuel Paty. His killer, a Frenchman of Chechen origin, had some contacts with a Tajik fighter in the ranks of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) at the time. [2] As you can imagine, things were halted from our side because France24 didn't want to send me there because of this issue. The group told me at the time that it had nothing to do with the attack. And this is when [in early 2021] PBS got the interview of al-Julani. [3]

So, by the autumn of 2020, contacts were already seriously established in order to make a trip to Idlib. We kept talking, and then there was an opportunity to go there. So I had to, as you can imagine, organize things with the Turkish side and organize things with HTS, and such preparations always take a long time. But then the 'go' comes fast, and you have to be fast. And so I grabbed the chance to go there.

I did not request to meet al-Julani ahead of time. What interested me intellectually and as someone following these issues for 10 years was the shift that I was seeing from afar and through pieces that were written by Aaron Zelin in CTC Sentinel [4] and by the International Crisis Group on the evolving situation in Idlib, by contacts I have with people there. I wanted to see for myself what was happening. Not the military effort or foreign fighters, but the administration of the territory, justice, education, hospitals, prisons. At the same time, we were witnessing a shift in al-Julani's speech, a shift in Abu Maria al-Qahtani's speech--with a new emphasis put on fighting the Islamic State, fighting al-Qa'ida, etc., etc.

At first, the idea was to bring a camera, but HTS were very wary. They preferred that I talk with them off camera, as it was a first visit.

CTC: How did you get into Idlib from Turkey?

Nasr: I went through the Bab al-Hawa border crossing, which is held actually by the Turks on both sides. There is a military road for Turkish military, etc. Going through this was easy because they knew I was coming. I didn't just show up on the border with my French passport and say, 'Let me in.' So it was quite smooth.

Turkish humanitarian relief workers drove me by van to the HTS side. I was the only one crossing the border. The HTS border people said, 'What are you doing here?' I explained in Arabic, and within a minute, the media guys from the Salvation Government that governs HTS-controlled areas of Idlib greeted me and escorted me to their media office. They did not have guns and were dressed in civilian attire. I think that was done on purpose. During my entire stay, I didn't see people with Afghani outfits. I hardly even saw people with military outfits. After spending time in the media office, we went to lunch at a restaurant called Disneyland. We were joined by a personality from the media office of HTS, and the talk became more in-depth.

Then we drove through a couple of checkpoints to get into the city of Idlib, and one thing that really struck me was the flags of the Syrian revolution were fluttering everywhere and that no one was dressed in jihadi attire. Fighters were not present. Entering the city, there was only one classic white Islamic flag with the Shahada written in black. This is different to how you might imagine things looking given HTS' predecessor organization Jabhat al-Nusra was affiliated with al-Qa'ida and jihadi groups have tended to view nationalist symbols as unacceptable. My first thought was 'it's the Potemkin thing.' They're showing me what they want me to see. But as I toured the city and its various neighborhoods, it became clear to me that this display was not just for my benefit. At the end of the day, I was just a journalist, without a television camera. The same spectacle greeted us in all the towns we visited: Sarmada, Dana, Jisr al-Chughur, Ariha, Atmeh, Harem, all over the place. Other than at checkpoints, I saw only one guy on a bike with a Kalashnikov.

I saw men smoking. Women wore either the niqab or just a hijab. There's mixing between men and women in shops and Idlib's many malls and markets. There was separation of men and women in all the restaurants and cafes I went to. I talked to students there that were preparing for their exams. I saw women. I didn't talk to them, but I saw female students as well. Those are interesting indicators.

I asked my escorts about the absence of fighters. They told me, 'We convinced people that there shouldn't be any armed presence in the streets. Those who want to fight, go to the frontlines rather than remaining among civilians in the streets and the shops.' A lot of them told me, 'We don't understand why in the West the army is in the streets. It scares people. Our way to reassure people is not to have military presence in towns and on the streets and in the markets.'

CTC: What freedom of movement and access did you have while you were there?

Nasr: I was always with the representative from the media of the Salvation Government. He didn't tell me, 'You can do this. You can't do that' or tell people what to tell me. But I'm in an atmosphere where you have to be aware of your environment, especially not to put in difficulty the people you talk to. I talked to people in the streets. I talked to people in the camps. I talked to people in restaurants and shops.

CTC: How did you end up meeting al-Julani?

Nasr: We quickly decided to go to Harem on the border with Turkey, from where you can see a very old beautiful medieval citadel, and I guess that all the way there, they were testing me--see what I'm going to ask for, am I going to be very pushy, do I know my stuff, am I just looking for a scoop. Before setting off for Syria, I had not asked to see al-Julani, but I had made it clear I wanted to speak to people who were able to talk on behalf of HTS in an official capacity. During this time, I think my escorts were assessing whether they should...

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