Syria's main insurgent group blasts the US Embassy over its criticism of crackdown on protesters

This is a locator map for Syria with its capital, Damascus. (AP Photo)

IDLIB, Syria (AP) — The main insurgent group in rebel-held northwest Syria blasted the U.S. on Thursday over its criticism of a crackdown on protesters in areas outside government control. The group said Washington should instead respect protesters at American universities who have demonstrated against the war in Gaza.

The statement by the U.S. Embassy in Damascus came after months of protests against Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, or HTS, in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province by people opposed to the rule of the group that was once known as the Nusra Front, the Syria branch of al-Qaida. The group later changed its name several times and distanced itself from al-Qaida.

Anti-HTS sentiments had been rising for months following a wave of arrests by the group of senior officials within the organization.

Earlier this month, HTS members attacked protesters demanding the release of detainees with clubs and sharp objects outside a military court in Idlib city, injuring several people. Days later HTS fighters fired into the air and beat protesters with clubs, injuring some of them as protests intensified to demand the release of detainees and an end to the group’s rule.

The rebel-held region is home to more than 4 million people, many of them displaced during the conflict that broke out in March 2011 and has so far killed half a million people.

The conflict began with protests against President Bashar Assad’s government before turning into a deadly civil war that left large parts of the country in ruins.

The U.S. Embassy in Damascus posted on the social media platform X on Wednesday that it supports “the rights of all Syrians to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, including in Idlib.”

It added that “we deplore Hayat Tahrir al-Sham’s regime-style intimidation and brutality against peaceful protesters as they call for justice, security, & respect for human rights.”

HTS responded in a statement saying that “liberated areas enjoy a safe environment for the expression of opinion” as long as they don’t aim to destabilize the region and spread chaos. It added that the U.S. Embassy should back the Syrian people aiming to achieve “freedom and dignity against a criminal regime.”

“The rights of university students in the United States should be preserved and their demands in supporting the Palestinian people and Gaza should be respected,” HTS said in a statement.