Hayat Tahrir al-Sham shuts down arms stores across Idlib

The Syrian Salvation Government in Idlib issued a decision to shut down all weapons stores in the areas under its control as a result of accidental shootings and explosions taking place inside these stores.

The Interior Ministry of the Syrian Salvation Government affiliated with Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) issued Jan. 25 a decision to close all weapons stores in the areas under HTS control.

The decision stated, “In light of the recurrent explosions in some arms stores, which caused the death of many Syrians in the liberated areas, the Salvation Government decided to close down all stores selling and buying arms in the liberated areas. The stores’ licenses will be suspended and they will have until mid-February to completely close their doors and be emptied of any goods.”

After the deadline, the Interior Ministry will inspect the stores to ensure the implementation of the decision. Violators of the decision would be referred to the judiciary, their goods confiscated and their stores permanently closed.

The Criminal Security Department of the Interior Ministry will be following up on the implementation of the decision and will withdraw and suspend the license issued by the ministry for shops violating the decision.

On Jan. 18, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) documented the killing of a jihadist of Dutch nationality who succumbed to his wounds as a result of an explosion in a weapons store in Idlib. The shopkeeper of Syrian nationality and an Uzbek jihadist were also killed.

Moreover, on Jan. 25, SHOR reported the death of two jihadists — one of them is the owner of a weapons store in the city of Idlib and a man of Uzbek nationality. They were reportedly dismantling a land mine inside the store in Al-Jalaa Street in the center of the city. Five people, including jihadists and civilians who were close to the blast were wounded.

Ahmad Lattouf, interior minister in the Syrian Salvation Government, told Al-Monitor, “The explosions that have recently taken place — especially near or inside arms stores and claimed the lives of many and injured civilians — are no surprise to anyone. These explosions have been causing panic, fear and destruction among the population.”

He said, “Our investigations showed that the negligence on the part of these storekeepers is one of the main reasons behind these explosions.”

Lattouf noted, “Since the Interior Ministry is concerned with maintaining internal security and securing the necessary conditions for a safe and stable life, we reviewed the matter and decided to completely close these stores within residential neighborhoods without any exception for anyone. We will later work on finding the appropriate solutions for running these stores without posing any danger to our people.”

He said that the decision issued by the ministry is clear and explicit, and does not provide for withdrawing weapons from civilians or revolutionary factions. “Some individuals and parties, however, are seeking to create a rift between the Salvation Government and the people, who are our main priority,” he added.

“We will work on providing our people with security and safety. The liberated areas under the Salvation Government are seen as the safest in Syria despite its large population,” Lattouf noted, stressing that the ministry seeks to apply all security measures in the areas under its control.

Majd Kilany, an Idlib-based researcher at the Jusoor Center for Studies, told Al-Monitor, “Several explosions took place last year in weapons stores, which have greatly proliferated in the markets and crowded neighborhoods. Many online campaigns have gone viral requesting the competent authorities to close them down.”

He said, “However, these decisions are usually not followed through and most of these stores are said to be affiliated with HTS and have licenses from the authorities. In any case, there is no party capable of controlling the chaotic proliferation of weapons. This requires a decision at the highest levels from authorities across northern Syria.”

Kilany added, “Arms trade is one of the most popular businesses in northern Syria and weapons prices are subject to the conditions of supply and demand. Their prices decrease in times of peace and hit record levels in times of war. Individual weapons can be found in almost every house in northern Syria. However, there are some restrictions on medium and heavy weapons, which are limited to official missions by the active factions.”

Omar Abu Khaled, an arms dealer who owns a weapons store in Idlib, told Al-Monitor, “The [Interior Ministry] decision is not right and has other dimensions, as it limits the possession of weapons in the hands of one party only, which is HTS. HTS fears a popular revolution against it. The decision also encourages arms trade on the black market, which is monopolized by a certain group. This only makes matters worse and will cause the arms prices to rise with the increased demand for weapons, while the Salvation Government seeks to take away arms from civilians.”

Jumaa Najjar, a teacher at a school in Idlib, believes that the decision to shut down weapons stores is a positive step.

“I believe that the decision would stop the explosions and accidental shooting inside these stores, which poses a great threat to civilians and terrifies them. Shutting them down would control the spread of weapons in the opposition-held areas,” he told Al-Monitor.

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