Tahrir Al-Sham had been formed by members of Al-Qaeda, functioning in Iraq. Syrian commandants were among them and moved to Syria after the outbreak of revolution. In Syria, they established Al-Nusra Front and thousands of volunteers came from Syria, the countries of the Arab and Islamic world (especially the countries of the Middle East), the countries of Western Europe (mainly the United Kingdom and France), the Islamic countries of Central Asia (particularly Chechnya), and other countries around the world where there are Muslim communities. They all came to join the organization. In the same context, “In just one year, we reached 5,000 members after we were six during the first year, the financial support also doubled, and we managed to spread in a very large area in Syria,” Al-Julani says.
The Most Important Reasons and Motives are as Follows:
Ideological reasons have prompted some volunteers to join the ranks of Al-Nusra Front. Those volunteers are the ones who have become believers in the jihadist Salafism as a result of the activity of Salafi preachers in Islamic countries and their urgency for young people to wage jihad in the Islamic regions that are experiencing instability.
The Iranian media machine and the one affiliated with Al-Assad regime both have played an important role in feeding the sectarian conflict. This role was perfectly clear when the mentioned media started to film and promote sectarian films on social media. The first act of this kind took place in Hama when the phrase “There is no god but Bashar al-Assad,” was seen written on the pulpits. The second is the famous Raml camp video that appeared in it a person who was being tortured and forced to say “There is no god but Bashar al-Assad.” The third is a video depicts a Syrian citizen being buried alive and asked to repeat the exact same words. Considering this attitude, it is reasonable to conclude that Al-Assad regime wanted the conflict to be sectarian by provoking the Sunnis and pushing them towards the jihadist organizations and, at the same time, releasing the jihadists from prisons to complete his sectarian strategy.
In addition, the war that had been waged against the Sunni areas of Al Qusayr and Western Qalamun by the Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah was provocative for the jihadists, especially when Iran portrayed Hezbollah’s victory over the Al-Qusayr area as a victory for the Shiites in their war against the Sunnis.
All of that have raised strong reactions in the Sunni Muslim world as Sunni clerics, including Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, Sheikh Mohamad al-Arefe, Nabil al-Awadi, and others, have called on the Sunnis of Muslim world to go to Syria to aid the jihadists there. However, they did not specify that the volunteers should join the ranks of Al-Nusra Front, but rather other factions, especially those affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, such as Shields, which later named Sham Legion.
Nevertheless, it is likely that many volunteers have eventually found their way to Al- Nusra Front and other Salafi-jihadi groups due to their tempting and organized ideological superiority. Al-Nusra and Hezbollah have become the main tools that portray the war in Syria as a Sunni-Shiite war. Moreover, Al-Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons against Sunni-majority areas has given Al-Nusra Front the chance to invest in it and show that the Sunnis are being subjected to a campaign of extermination carried out by the Nusayri Army. Thus, thousands of volunteers have been prompted to come to Syria.
They are relating to pictures coming from Syria that tell heroic stories of the jihadists there. The media of Al-Nusra Front, despite its fragility, has benefited greatly from Al-Jazeera media, especially since Al-Jazeera has always been reviewing suicide operations and depicting them as if they were heroic actions. Therefore, the feeling of adventure that prevails the mentality of the Salafis is added to the other reasons for volunteering in the ranks of Al-Nusra.
Al-Nusra Front has managed with its experience to change its ideological structure because the people that are under the weight of violence and organized international terrorism are interested in the ideology of Al-Nusra Front besides basic services. Therefore, al-Julani, in the presence of leaders from al-Qaeda, has announced the abolition of Al-Nusra Front and the formation of a new entity called “Jabhat Fateh al-Sham” without any affiliation with al-Qaeda.
The announcement of Fatah al-Sham was not only a formality but also problematic, according to what has later been revealed by some of the figures associated with the event in their internal testimonies. From the first moment, a few members of the organization’s Shura Council resigned, led by Abu Julaybib who was al-Julani companion on the establishment journey, Abu Khadija al-Urduni and Abu Humam al-Shami. While Sami al-Oraydi, the general Sharia official of Fateh al-Sham Front, suspended his duties. The worst was the anger of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri who sent two separate messages in which he announced his rejection of the schism. Al-Zawahiri has opined that the schism was only allowed to take place if all the members of al-Qaeda’s Shura Council had approved on it or a formation of an Islamic state had been reached. On the other hand, Abu Khayr al-Masri, al-Zawahiri’s deputy, announced himself his blessing for what had happened a day before the announcement of the schism because he expected Al-Zawahiri’s approval. Whereas the latter’s rejection was interpreted as being influenced by the rest of the members of Al-Qaeda’s Shura Council, especially those settled in Iran, such as Saif Al-Adel and Abu Muhammad Al-Masry.
Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham “January 2017”
At the end of January 2017, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham was formed by merging a number of factions operating in northern Syria. The first to join were Nour al-Din al-Zenki Movement, Fatah al-Sham Front, Ansar al-Din Front, Liwa al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar and Liwa al-Haqq. Furthermore, several sheikhs and advocates of Jihadi Salafism joined Tahrir al-Sham, such as: Abdul Razzaq al-Mahdi, Abu al-Harith al-Masri, Abu Yusef al-Hamwi, Abdullah al-Muhaysini, Abu al-Taher al-Hamwi and Musleh al-alyani.
As the time passes, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham shows greater flexibility to save its project from public or external isolation but, still, has the ability to renew violent confrontation as well, which has not stopped.
Manifestations of Political Changes
In a way that combines attack and defense, the military strategy of Tahrir al-Sham has been represented over the various stages of the war inside Syrian territory. However, as the war approached its sixth year in 2017, it has been noticed during the last two years that there has been an increasing focus on the political nature applied in Tahrir al-Sham strategy, especially in its military operations that aims to fight terrorism represented by the two organizations (ISIS and al-Qaeda). These operations have taken place within Tahrir al-Sham controlled areas in Idlib and its surroundings. Specifically, military raids have been carried out against the Guardians of Religion Organization because it represented a source of threat that necessitated, on the one hand, Tahrir al-Sham to suppress it in order to prevent any disruption that would change the balance against Tahrir al-Sham supremacy in those areas. On the other hand, by having done that, Tahrir al-Sham has been seeking to reach the centers of influence and Western decision in order to improve its image.
Al-Julani’s war against ISIS and Al-Qaeda organization in Syria is part of his emerging strategy which is experiencing various transformations from time to time, and there is no evidence of these transformations. It is not only his separation from the extremist jihadist groups, but also fighting them in Idlib where Tahrir al-Sham has been waging a war against ISIS since 2014. Since the March 2020 ceasefire, Tahrir al-Sham has escalated its raids and arrests to hinder ISIS’s attempts to build a secret network of cells in Idlib, especially after the latter lost its control over the lands of eastern Syria.
At the same time, Tahrir al-Sham has contained non-ISIS foreign jihadists, and since March 2020, it has dismantled by force the members that oppose Tahrir al-Sham’s commitment to the Turkish-Russian truce, Guardians of Religion Organization in particular. This organization is an al-Qaeda-linked faction led by individuals who Deviated from Tahrir-al Sham because of contention over Tahrir al-Sham being relatively pragmatic, and they did not agree on the schism from al-Qaeda as well. After having followed the policy of containment towards the Guardians of Religion at first, Tahrir al-Sham turned its weapons towards the organization in mid-2020 after the Guardians of Religion members had tried to consolidate an alliance with deviators from Tahrir al-Sham and others from the extremist factions that were opposing the ceasefire.