In late May, a new faction based in the rebel-held province of Idlib emerged. In announcing its formation, the group, Saraya al Moqawama al Sha’abiya (or the Popular Resistance Companies, PRC), portrayed itself as a civilian force meant to bolster Idlib’s defenses against the Assad regime and its allies.
Indeed, the PRC’s debut statement reads “We announce the launching of the Popular Resistance Companies, a popular revolutionary volunteer movement, [which] aims to organize all material and human resources from the people of the villages and cities and our people, the displaced people and noble clans, in the battle of existence with the powers of foreign and domestic occupation.”
However, the statement does not mention that the forces were created by the most powerful jihadist faction in Idlib, Hay’at Tahrir al Sham (HTS). HTS, which contains a multitude of factions and which evolved out of the former Al Nusrah Front, announced the creation of the PRC nearly two weeks prior to the PRC’s official founding statement.
A series of posts released on HTS’ Ibaa’ News Agency on May 12 reported the creation of the PRC by the HTS-backed Salvation Government in northern Syria. The photos show members of HTS’ military leadership meeting with the Salvation Government’s Northern Shura Council to discuss the formation of the PRC and the wider security situation in Idlib and northern Hama. As Ibaa’ stated, the move is meant to “allow the people to participate in confronting the Russian and [Assad] regime occupation in an organized manner.”
Ibaa’ also released a video of the meeting, which also includes interviews with two leaders of the PRC. The first individual interviewed was identified as Khaldun al Ahmad, the general manager of the PRC, while the second, Hazem Abu Omar, was identified as a military coordination official within the group.
Since May 28, the PRC has released several videos on its social media channels. These include the launching of its “Fortify Your Country” campaign, a meeting between the PRC’s leadership and local clans and tribes, and the formation of several subcommittees around Idlib and its surrounding areas.
Beginning with the “Fortify Your Country” campaign, the PRC stated that this project is meant to allow those willing civilians and other PRC members to help dig tunnels, trenches, and help fortify ribaat points around Idlib. Photos and videos showing PRC members, including women and children, taking part in this campaign have also been released.
Additionally, a video of a meeting between the PRC’s leadership and local tribal leadership was released. The aforementioned Khaldun al Ahmad, Hazem Abu Omar, and other PRC officials seen in the Ibaa’ video, are shown discussing the PRC and its strategy with the tribal officials.
Perhaps most interestingly, the group has also released a series of videos which several subcommittees around Idlib were created. The subcommittees are divided into the geographical divisions: Idlib City and its Countryside, the Eastern Region, the Southern Region, the Northern Region, and the Western Region.
While the Idlib city subcommittee is relatively axiomatic as to what its area of responsibility constitutes, the others are not as clear. Below is a brief overview of the other subcommittees:
- Saraqib and its surrounding countryside
- Southern Aleppo countryside
- Al Zerbeh Company
- Northern and Western Hama countryside
- Khan Shaykhun, Idlib
- Khan Shakhun Company
- Jabal Shashabo
- Northern and Western Aleppo countryside
- Adana Company
- While not explicitly specified in the video, it is likely that this subcommittee is responsible for the areas surrounding Jisr al Shughur and the Latakia area and/or areas near the Al Ghab plain and Ma’arat al Numan.
- Darkoush Company
Both entities are meant to provide an outlet for citizens to conduct guerilla warfare against the regime and its allies. In fact, as Deraa is under regime control, Deraa’s PRC demonstrates that even as Assad and his cohorts regain territory in Syria, the civil war is far from over. HTS’ PRC in Idlib exists for the exact same reason.
However, HTS’ PRC largely allows the jihadist conglomerate to buttress its military with an auxiliary force akin to a national guard. So far, the PRC’s stated goals have been to help fortify Idlib and its surrounding areas and act as a guerilla force in the event of a regime push into the province. In that respect, this PRC can act as a force multiplier for the actual military of HTS.
Even with the regime continuing its advance in northern Hama and intensifying its air campaign against rebel-held areas in Idlib, it is unclear if a full-fledged offensive in Idlib is imminent. It seems unlikely that a full recapturing of Idlib is possible due to the amount of Turkish troops stationed in the north. However, the Assad regime may be looking to retake territory closer to the areas in which it controls in Latakia, Hama, and Aleppo.
Bridging this gap, then, would allow for an offensive into Idlib - which is one of the prime reasons that the PRC was formed by HTS in the first place. It is worried that even with Turkish troops in northern Idlib, there is still room for the Assad regime to maneuver inside the rebel-held enclave. How far the regime and its allies push into Idlib remains to be seen.
In any event, HTS’ PRC, much like the similar named group in Deraa, is a good indication of what’s to come in a post-regime ‘victory’ Syria.
Since the original post, two new videos have been released by the PRC. One details a new subcommittee that was formed in the Jabal Zawiya area of Idlib, which includes the cities of Ariha and Ma'arat al Numan. This means that the PRC's Western Region subcommittee is likely responsible for the areas near Latakia. As HTS does not control Ariha or Ma'arat al Numan, this subcommittee is therefore responsible for the surrounding areas within the Jabal Zawiya area that are indeed under HTS control.
The second video detailed the creation of the Al Zerbeh Company, which belongs to the PRC's Eastern Region subcommittee (responsible for Saraqib in Idlib and the southern Aleppo countryside). What's significant about the Al Zerbeh Company is that it distinctly appears to be an armed unit as members carrying Kalashnikovs can be seen in the background.
The formation did not classify itself as a subcommittee for the town of Al Zerbeh, but instead referred to itself as an individual company within the PRC. Indeed, the official in the video (seen holding the paper) explicitly states that the unit was formed to "combat the Russian occupation, the criminal regime, and defend our religion and land" as part of the PRC's Eastern Region.
Thanks to Jens Hittrien (@JensHittrien), the central figure of Al Zerbeh Company (ostensibly its leader) has been identified as Nader al Jawid. Jawid, an elder of the Albu Sheikh clan of the Baggara tribe, was previously the leader of Liwa Ahrar Albu Sheikh and Jaysh al Sha'ab - both active in the south Aleppo countryside.
Since the last update earlier this week, two new individual units within the PRC have been created. The first, announced on June 12, is the Khan Shaykhun Company, which like the Al Zerbeh Company, is a fighting unit. While not stated in the video, this unit is under the command of the PRC's Southern Region as the committee had previously described responsibility for Khan Shaykhun.
The second new unit, announced earlier today by the PRC, breaks the established mold of individual units or subcommittees for a designated area. Instead, this unit is comprised of the Albu Sha'aban al Zubaidiyah tribe (and is aptly named the Albu Sha'aban Company). While the Albu Sha'aban tribe is present across the Euphrates river valley, Raqqah, and Hasakeh, the tribe also has components in Aleppo and Idlib.
An exact location for the company was not given in the video, but given the background, in that it is similar to the Al Zerbeh Company video, the unit is likely based in areas of Aleppo or northern Idlib controlled by HTS. As such, it is either subordinate to the PRC's Eastern or Northern subcommittee.
Building tribal support allows PRC to expand its reach and increase not only its geographical presence but also recruitment base within Syria's tribal structure.
While not a unit or subcommittee, the PRC also announced a new solidarity campaign aimed at women in HTS-controlled areas. In the accompanying video, a spokeswoman for the campaign states that "Women are the sisters of men and jihadi operations are not just for the men." She adds that the campaign is aimed at supporting the mujahideen and their operations in Idlib.
Additionally, HTS' Ibaa' News Agency released a new video showing PRC leaders and representatives holding a meeting with the citizens of Armanaz in northern Idlib. The video offers a good demonstration of how HTS is building support of and membership within the PRC. A representative for the PRC's Northern Region subcommittee reports that the meeting was meant to "talk about the situation of the Resistance, how the operations of the Resistance work, and [how] Muslims can participate in the defense of their religion and their land."
The continuing existence of the PRC and its overall goal of becoming a national guard-esque entity rests on its ability to garner public support. Based on the videos produced by the PRC so far, it appears that this grassroots effort is working.
Since the last update, the PRC has added three new companies to its organization: the Adana Company, the Ma'arat Misrin Company, and the Darkoush Company. All three are located in northern Idlib, where HTS controls vast swaths of ground.
Based on the given territorial distribution of the PRC's individual subcommittees, it is likely that the Ma'arat Misrin Company is subordinate to the Idlib City and its countryside subcommittee, while the Adana Company belongs to the Northern Region subcommittee, and Darkoush Company, the Western Region subcommittee.
The videos show that HTS has been relatively successful at getting smaller armed units in joining its project, thus building up its forces, increasing its geographical presence, and keeping those units from joining rival groups.
Additionally a new PRC official was introduced, Abu al Harith al Zabadani. Zabadani is also an official for the HTS-linked Salvation Government, where he belongs to its Dawah department. Based on the video released by the PRC, Zabadani is fulfilling a similar role within the organization.