Hardline Islamists to ban smoking, the ‘one way to relieve the stress’ in Idlib city

Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham (HTS)—a hardline Islamist faction led by former Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat Fatah a-Sham—took full control of the northwestern provincial capital of Idlib city from rival factions last month. 

The capture of Idlib city was one in a series of land grabs by HTS last month during a wave of infighting with rival Islamist faction Ahrar a-Sham, Syria Direct reported at the time.

Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham, and its past iteration, Jabhat a-Nusra, previously attempted to impose a sharia-compliant lifestyle areas under their control in Idlib province including strict dress codes and tobacco bans.Previous bans by Jabhat a-Nusra targeted argeeleh pipes rather than cigarettes and were not strictly enforced.

The Islamist coalition’s latest incursion into civilian life unfolded late last week, when HTS began barring entry of tobacco products into Idlib city.

The hardline coalition also circulated flyers at checkpoints, requesting that fighters manning them “turn over any quantity of [seized tobacco] products and turn over any violators over to authorities,” according to a copy of one of the flyers obtained by Syria Direct.

Abu Munther’s cigarettes and coffee. Photo courtesy of Abu Munther.

“There are incentives for those who remedy any such evils,” according to the statement.

According to the strict interpretations of Islamic law adopted by groups like HTS and the Islamic State, smoking is forbidden.

The decree to ban smoking has sparked fear and anger among the smoker-heavy community in Idlib city, says resident Abu Munther, 26,who predicts that the ban will not last.

If HTS carries out the ban, civilians will rise up against the rebels “just as they did against the regime,” the Idlib resident tells Syria Direct’s Alaa Nassar.

“People in Idlib city have reached the point where they’re disgusted with life under the rule of rebel factions.”

Q: Could you tell us about the flyers Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham circulated around Idlib city announcing an upcoming ban on tobacco products?

HTS has a way of promoting their decisions before later imposing them by force.

They want to get a feel for how people on the streets [would react to] this decision, to see if they should implement it or keep on benefiting from the fees and taxes they put on traders. An estimated 70 percent of Idlib city residents are smokers—whether it’s argeeleh or cigarettes.

As they see it, cutting them off from bread is more merciful than cutting them off from smoking. Smoking is a red line when it comes to bans. People will rise up against them, and they won’t follow the smoking laws. It’s the only way to enjoy oneself, considering the region’s poor living conditions.

Most HTS members in the city are smokers. One of them was a close friend of mine, and he still smokes three packs a day.

If HTS keeps putting pressure on people, they will stand up against them, just as they did against the regime.

Q: What was your reaction when you heard about the decision?

My thoughts are the same as the rest of the smokers here in the city: I can’t give up the one way to relieve the stress of life here. People in Idlib city have reached the point where they’re disgusted with life under [the rule] of rebel factions. We now know that they behave the same way the regime does—imposing taxes and limiting freedoms.

If this decision goes into effect, I’m going to Turkey—no doubt about it. This is how most of my smoker friends I’ve spoken with about this decision see it.

Q: Would you say that this smoking ban is part of a wide attempt by Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham to control civilian life?

They haven’t fired a single bullet against the regime for a year. They’re only concerned with getting money, ruling the city and imposing their will on people. What does this revolutionary faction stand up for?

Q: Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham, then known as Jabhat a-Nusra, previously imposed a tobacco ban in Idlib in 2014. How does the recent decision compare with previous attempts?

At the time, HTS banned argeeleh in cafes only. They didn’t completely ban smoking. They didn’t strictly enforce the decision on those who smoke argeeleh— whoever wasn’t smoking in a café was smoking at home.

People’s reactions were way less harsh than reactions [to the recent decision]. There are far more cigarette smokers than argeeleh smokers. 

Alaa Nassar

Alaa was forced to flee Damascus with her family because of the pressure from the Syrian regime in 2013. She was a student of Arabic Language & Literature at the University of Damascus. She came to Syria Direct because she hopes to find a new direction in her life and to show the world what is happening in her country.

Tariq Adely

Tariq Adely graduated from Brown University in 2014 with a bachelor's degree in comparative literature and translation. He continued his studies at the Qasid Institute and the Institute for Critical Thought in Amman, Jordan.