Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham’s (HTS) Survival Strategy

Summary:

Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham topic continues to have great importance among the politics of the countries concerned with the Syrian file. The organization still represents the biggest node in Idlib file, which is the largest international obstacle in front of the negotiations for a final political solution. In this paper, we will review the strategy of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, and the most important causes and factors of its survival till the moment. Its local and regional relations will also be addresses, in addition to its future, especially after the major changes that took place in Idlib following the March 5 Moscow agreement between Russia and Turkey.

This paper discusses Hayat Tahrir al-Sham’s survival strategy through the following axes:

  • An overview of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham’s ideology
  • The decision to disengage from Al-Qaeda and the great challenge.
  • Turkish points spread… the beginning of identity change
  • Factors and reasons that contributed to Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham’s survival
  • Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham and Turkey… carrot and stick policy.
  • Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham’s future
  • Recommendations

Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham’s ideology

Since its establishment as Al-Nusra Front, it has carried the doctrine of al-Qaeda. It is part of the chain of global jihad, and secretly adopted al-Qaeda’s name as a registered brand to attract immigrants and announce its religious identity. In addition, in order to avoid repeating the mistakes of other jihad arenas such as Iraq, it did not announce its affiliation with al-Qaeda only after its dispute with ISIS came to the public on 9/4/2013 in an audio speech by Al-Julani, when he renewed his pledge of allegiance to Ayman Al-Zawahiri, the Emir of Al-Qaeda. This speech was led by the fear that his fighters would defect, and join ISIS as the representative of Al-Qaeda in Syria. The announcement of allegiance to Al-Zawahiri was tantamount to blocking the way for ISIS. (1)

Their religious ideology and interpretation of texts

Those who are in-depth in the Salafi-jihadi organizations, which Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham is one from, knows that there are no fixed jurisprudential foundations that these organizations adopt, but rather they leave a large margin of jurisprudence for their legal council to derive the fatwas appropriate according to every organization’s local conditions. However, one essential unites all of these organizations, and it is considered the red line, which crossing it means to create a major rift within the organization. This particular essential is represented by the organizational disengagement from the mother al-Qaeda organization. There are also other common things among these organizations, such as the atonement of the international system, the United Nations and the Arab ruling regimes. They also mislead all Islamic movements that take a non-jihadist path to reach their goals and receive external support. All of these were essentials that were open to individual development according to the conditions of empowerment and weakness in each arena.

Some simple examples support the above:

  • Atiyah Abd al-Rahman and Abu Yahya al-Libi, two al-Qaeda scholars, do not declare Islamic parliaments to be infidels, while the Sharia Council of the Islamic State in Iraq (ISIS) and the Mujahideen Youth Movement in Somalia demonize Islamic parliaments (2).
  • Al-Qaeda and Taliban have established local relations with Pakistan, and international relations with the United Nations, while the rest of the branches of Al-Qaeda consider these countries as part of the infidel international community. An example of this is Al-Julani’s first audio he published in the establishment announcement of Al-Nusra Front. On January 24th 2012, he launched a fierce attack on Turkey and considered it a tool the international system and NATO use.

Therefore, it is concluded from the foregoing that there was no real danger threatening the survival of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham except for its disengagement with al-Qaeda. Other than that, it was necessary to make legitimate changes, such as identifying with regional countries such as Turkey, and changing some religious rulings and fatwas that Tahrir al-Sham can override through its own Sharia council.

The decision to disengage from Al-Qaeda and the great challenge

Al-Nusra Front was not thinking of disengaging from al-Qaeda as long as ISIS exists and attracts the front’s fighters, however, there are several local, regional and international factors that forced it to make that decision on 7/28/2016, namely:

  • Escalated international coalition’s targeting of the headquarters and leaders of Al-Nusra Front (3).

A published article in Washington Post by David Ignatius warning that al-Nusra Front had sent terrorists to America and Europe through Syrian refugees, and this article was the main reason for the hasty disengagement less than a week from when it was published, for fear of a decision by the international coalition to completely eradicate al-Nusra Front from Syria (4).

  • The armed factions in northern Syria stipulated that al-Nusra Front be disengaged from al-Qaeda in order to start integration negotiations with it.
  • No external financial support for al-Nusra Front after the restrictions on its supporters from outside Syria, which made the front compel to weave new relations with the factions and the countries that support them.
  • Fear of Turkey’s support for Euphrates Shield factions after its success in expelling ISIS from the northern countryside of Aleppo, and heading to Idlib to eliminate al-Nusra Front.

The main reason for disengagement

By the prisoner exchange deal between Al-Qaeda’s Yemen branch and Iran in 2015, leaders of Al-Qaeda, Saif al-Adel, Abu Muhammad Al-Masri, Abu Khayr al-Masri, Al-Qassam Al- Urduni, Abu Abdul Karim Al-Masri and Khallad Al-Urduni, arrived in Syria except for Saif al-Adel and Abu Muhammad Al-Masri, as Iran stipulated that they remain under house arrest for a while inside Iran. Due to the communication interruption between the leadership of Al-Nusra and Al-Zawahiri because of security conditions, Saif al-Adel was delegated with the Syrian file, and he appointed a tripartite committee known as the Hittin Committee. His committee consisted of Abu Khayr al-Masri, who is Al-Zawahiri’s first deputy and was killed by the international coalition in an air raid near Al-Mastumah camp on 26 2/2/2017, Abu Abdul Karim Al-Masri and Al-Qassam Al- Urduni. The committee took an internal decision to isolate al-Julani, then al-he quickly took the decision to disengage (5).

Al-Nusra Front’s plan to absorb the mistakes surrounding the decision to disengage from Al-Qaeda

Al-Julani and his leadership knew the danger of this decision and the splits that would occur as a result, so he was forced to direct a play that would make al-Nusra front’s elements convince that the decision to disengage came from the leadership of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan to the leadership of al-Nusra Front in Syria. His plan included convincing Abu Khayr al-Masri, the official representative of Ayman al-Zawahiri in Syria, that there is a great interest in disengaging Jabhat al-Nusra from al-Qaeda and that he must come out with a vocal word that suggests to al-Nusra Front’s elements that the decision was taken by the leadership of the parent organization. Al-Julani and his Shura Council were able to convince Abu Khayr al-Masri of this move, and indeed he came out in a video release accompanied by al-Julani, Abdul Rahim Atoun and Abu al-Faraj al-Masri on 7/28/2016. In the video, they announced that the interest of jihad in Syria requires disengaging al- Nusra Front from al-Qaeda. Because of the organizational hierarchy, al-Nusra soldiers know that Abu Khayr al-Masri was higher in organization than al-Julani and a representative of al-Zawahiri, and therefore he must announce the disengagement, which means that the decision was taken by the parent organization, not by the leadership of al-Nusra Front (6).

Effects and consequences of the decision to disengage from Al-Qaeda

Abu Jalibib al-Urduni, one of the military leaders of al-Nusra Front, announced on the second day of al-Nusra’s disengagement from al-Qaeda in a tweet using the name of Iyad al-Tubasi that his pledge of allegiance is still to al-Zawahiri, and that his organizational affiliation is still with al-Qaeda. Abu Hammam Al-Shami, on the other hand, the former military general of Jabhat al-Nusra, announced that he has retired from working with al-Nusra Front, without explaining the reasons for his decision (7). These two people knew that the decision to disengage was taken unilaterally, and it did not come from Al-Zawahiri, but they were unable to reveal this to public opinion, and to al-Nusra front’s soldiers for fear of arrest by its leadership. Indeed, al-Julani and his leadership succeeded in that decision and convinced their elements that the decision had come from the organization’s higher leadership. As for the secret correspondence, according to a source from within the al-Nusra leadership, a message came from al-Zawahiri to al-Julani in which he reprimanded him. He also sent another message to Abu Khayr al-Masri in which he firmly warned him of the cosequences of taking this action. Al-Julani responded to al-Zawahiri’s message that he will always be on the covenant, and that this matter was only for the media to overcome the danger and bow before international storms, and that al-Nusra still the branch of al-Qaeda in Syria. Al-Zawahiri replied and demanded Al-Julani to send a documented video declaring his pledge of allegiance to Al-Qaeda, as so Al-Zawahiri learned from his experience with ISIS. At the time, Al-Zawahiri did not have an official document to prove publicly Al-Baghdadi’s pledge of allegiance to him. ISIS took advantage of the absence of official document, and denied the association with al-Qaeda. ISIS considered that they had a literary, not an organizational link with al-Qaeda. Following Al-Zawahiri’s demand for Al-Julani for this video, Al-Julani had no choice but to send a message in which he admitted the complete organizational disengagement, and that the interest of the arena requires this move. This is what caused a media crossfire exchange between Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi and Abd al-Rahim Attoun, the general Sharia of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, which is the new name of al-Nusra Front after its disengagement with al-Qaeda. Al-Maqdisi accused Atoun of breaking the pledge and pulling off allegiance on his official channel on Telegram. Legitimate responses were exchanged between the two parties as a result. Evidence for this is the response of Sami al-Oraydi to Atoun, a scholar in al-Nusra, under the title “The Proven Saying in Refuting Sheikh Abdul Rahim Atoun’s Speech in the Six Issues.” “I add here a new point for God and another for history: O Sheikh Atoun, did not your ruler al-Julani pledge loyalty to His Majesty Sheikh Ayman after the first message of rejecting the announcement of Fatah al-Sham, and before the announcement of Hay’at?! Did he not pledge to him a message and shared it with us that he will stop proceeding with the disengagement, and will not take any step in this matter Dr. Al-Zawahiri’s approval?! Have you fulfilled your pledge?! And do not say that this came after steps that can not be redone, but rather it came before any step taken in the Hay’at project, this is a violation of the new covenant, and it is added to your record, and may God help,” Sami al-Oraydi says.

Of course, these secret messages exchanged between al-Julani and Abu Khayr al-Masri on one side, and al-Zawahiri on the other, lasted more than three months, and this media crossfire exchange through telegram channels on both sides proved to the United States of America that the disengagement is real and not formal, which made it take a decision to stop Air raids on Fatah al-Sham faction.

Jund Al-Aqsa: the candidate faction to succeed Al-Nusra Front, representing Al-Qaeda in Syria

There are some jihadi leaders, such as Abu al-Qassam al-Urduni, Sami al-Oraydi and others who are aware of al-Nusra Front’s moves and its intention to disengage from al-Qaeda, so they started contacting Saif al-Adel who is in charge of regional files in al-Qaeda and is under house arrest in Iran. He is trying to obtain official approval from al-Qaeda for Jund al-Aqsa faction after merging it with the groups that would split from al-Nusra Front following the decision to disengage from al-Qaeda. These correspondences were led by Al-Qassam al-Urduni, his name is Khalid al-Aruri, and he is Jordanian, but they were not crowned with success due to al-Qaeda’s reservations about this faction, and his tendency toward extremism and atonement. Al-Julani knew that Jund al-Aqsa faction was the candidate to succeed al-Nusra in representing al-Qaeda, and this posed a threat to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham.

Al-Julani was aware of these correspondences, so he developed a proactive plan to thwart this new faction that would obtain the legitimacy of representing Al-Qaeda, for fear of the defection of his fighters and joining this new faction. His plan includes two things:

The first: militarily dismantling Jund al-Aqsa faction.

The second: arresting and marginalizing these leaders.

Of course, al-Julani did not take these two measures in a direct way because he was aware of the sensitivity and danger of these measures, and he wanted to prepare his fighters and leaderships. Therefore, he needed compelling legitimate excuses to take these measures.

Forming Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham

In the midst of these correspondences between the leadership of Fateh al-Sham and the leadership of al-Qaeda, al-Julani formed a section that included six factions and called it Hayat Tahrir al-Sham on 28/1/2017 to prove to al-Zawahiri that the decision to disengage was right, and that the association of al-Nusra Front with al-Qaeda was an obstacle to unifying and integrating the front with the other Syrian factions. The factions are:

  • Jabhat Fatah al-Sham
  • Jaysh al-Ahrar
  • Turkistan Islamic Party
  • Liwa al-Haqq
  • Ansar al-Din Front
  • Nour al-Din al-Zenki Movement

Later, several other battalions and formations joined this section, and the approved name of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham became Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham.

Disbanding Jund Al-Aqsa

As it has been mentioned, al-Julani needed pretexts to implement his plan of thwarting the new formation representing al-Qaeda, so he took advantage of major events that took place in the countryside of Hama, including kidnappings and assassinations carried out by Jund al-Aqsa faction against other factions located there. They also arrested several members of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham stationed in Hama countryside. In addition, Jund Al-Aqsa faction carried out a terrible massacre at the Khazanat checkpoint near Khan Sheikhoun as they executed more than 120 detainees from the Free Syrian Army. Al-Julani prepared whatever he could to get rid of the Jund Al-Aqsa faction. Indeed, this happened on February 16, 2017, after a battle that lasted for several days and ended with the branch of Jund al-Aqsa faction in the Hama sector leaving, to be called Liwa al-Aqsa to Raqqa and declare allegiance to ISIS. harsh conditions were imposed on the remaining members of the Jund al-Aqsa faction in the Idlib sector, such as disarmament, being located in a specific geographical plot, which is the city of Sarmin, and not to include any new member without informing Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham.

Thus, al-Julani has finished off the greatest danger. If HTS members try to defect and join a faction that has heavy weapons, organization and numbers on the ground, then they would have no way but to stay within the ranks of HTS. However, the danger is still imminent through the leaders Al-Qaeda’s capabilities and symbolism to attract pledges of allegiance from groups within Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham and to form a new faction. Therefore, it was necessary to direct the second strike on 26/11/2017 through a wide security campaign that managed to arrest Al-Oraydi and Abu Jlaybib Al- Urduni, but al-Julani failed to arrest Al-Qassam Al- Urduni and Abu Hammam al-Shami, who escaped at the last moment. Instead of this plan bringing a positive result as al-Julani planned, it came to the opposite end! Two days after the arrests, Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri gave an audio speech entitled “Let us fight them with a solid structure” on 28/11/2017, and he blew up a surprise, and announced that al-Julani had unilaterally disengaged from al-Qaeda, and that he had broken his pledge and allegiance. “We told our brothers that what they did, in addition to being a breach of the covenant, will not achieve what they demand of unity, because it is really a step back due to the American pressure, which will not stop the bombing, the classification of terrorism, nor any other of the baseless arguments they put forward,” al-Zawahiri says.

Al-Zawahiri added that al-Nusra Front’s leadership had pursued a policy of blinding, and misleading its members by deluding them that the disengagement came from al-Qaeda, but Al-Zawahiri categorically denied their argument. “Whoever adheres to his pledge of allegiance to Al-Qaeda would be arrested if he acted in the name of Al-Qaeda, and the policy of restricting the brothers who adhere to the pledge of allegiance has begun, moreover, the matter has reached the point of fighting, arresting women and interrogating children,” al-Zawahiri adds.

Afterwards, he added in very clear words that the leadership of Al-Qaeda did not completely dissolve anyone from its pledge. “And here I would like to confirm categorically that we did not dissolve anyone from our pledge, we only expelled Ibrahim Al-Badri and those with him from the group, but we did not dissolve anyone from our pledge, neither al-Nusra Front nor others, and we did not accept that al-Nusra front’s pledge of allegiance to be secret, and we listed that as a fatal mistake,” he says in his speech.

Forming Guardians of Religion Organization

Following al-Zawahiri’s speech and the arrest of al-Qaeda leaders, major defections began in Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham ranks, starting with so-called Elite Forces, Badia Army, Jaish al-Sahel, Abu Hamza al-Yamani Group, numbering 300 people, and a group of immigrants From the Arabian Peninsula, and many others. These groups later united with members and leaders who had left al-Nusra Front since 7/28/2016, the date of its disengagement from al-Qaeda, and formed the so-called Guardians of Religion on 27/2/2018 under the leadership of Abu Hammam al-Shami (Samir Hegazy), Abu Al-Qassam Al-Urduni (Khaled Al-Arouri), and the general scholar Sami Al-Oraydi.  So, by eliminating every faction or component that could attract and include any members and leaders that would defect from Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, al-Julani instead of avoiding that, he fell into it and contributed to making it unknowingly. Guardians of Religion became a strong rival faction to al-Julani and an official representative of al-Qaeda. This faction had great symbolism specially among immigrants. As a result of these defections, the number of Guardians of Religion jumped from 200 people in mid-2016 to 1,300 people after al-Zawahiri’s speech.

Turkish points spread… the beginning of identity change

In the midst of correspondence flurry among the leadership of al-Nusra Front, the leaders of al-Qaeda in Syria and the leadership of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, a qualitative and prominent event took place in Idlib province, that is, Turkey reached an understanding with Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham to spread its Turkish points. It began spreading its points on 3/10/2017, and this was the second dengerous challenge after the decision to disengage from al-Qaeda. It was a challenge because the ideological doctrine of al-Nusra Front is based on atoning the Turkish state as it is a member of the Crusader NATO (8), and that Turkey’s rulers are secular, apostates, so the question is, how did they agree to deploy Turkish points in areas under their control ? This was one of the most important reasons for the defections in Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, in addition to the main reason we have mentioned, which is Jabhat al-Nusra’s misleading its members about the disengagement from al-Qaeda.

How did HTS manage to convince its adcovates about spreading Turkish points?

Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham found itself in front of two options, the best of which were bitter, either to agree to the peaceful deployment of the Turkish points, and therefore the beginning of abandoning its solid ideology, which will contribute to more defections in its ranks, or Turkey with the help of factions of the National Army deploy the points by force and end Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham. The negotiations between Turkey and Fatah al-Sham had lasted more than three months, with the mediation of a well-known revolutionary figure, Rami al-Dalati. one of the reasons that made al-Julani take a risk and agree to the decision to spread the points peacefully is that al-Zawahiri’s word had not yet come out in public, and thus he felt safe in terms of not having defections in his ranks. Between the spread of the Turkish points and Al-Zawahiri’s speech, more than a month and a half had passed. The spread of the Turkish points was on 10/3/2017, while Al-Zawahiri’s speech was on 28/11/2017, and the defections came afterwards.

Nevertheless, defections occurred as soon as the Turkish points came, most notably:

  • Abu Talha Al-Hadidi, formerly responsible for the Badia and Idlib sector.
  • Abu Hafs Al-Urduni, formerly the General Security head of the Al-Nusra Front.
  • Hammoud Sahhara, formerly Emir of Aleppo.

Those decided to retire in their homes, with having their members accompanied who numbered about 200.

The plan of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham’s leadership to tame its members to agree to the deployment of the Turkish points included the following:

  • Convincing the fighters that the Turkish points are limited and small, and that they have the same enemy as them, which is the terrorist PYD party, as Turkey hastened to deploy its first points on Mount Barakat overlooking the city of Afrin.
  • It was Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham that imposed its conditions on Turkey by limiting the spread of heavy weapons at Turkish points.
  • Turkey was not allowed to deploy its points on the front lines to separate the regime forces from the armed factions.
  • It is legally permissible to conclude a truce with an infidel country if the conditions are in favor of the Muslims. (9)

By this plan, the leadership of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham was able to absorb the anger of its members and tame them through the legislators’ tours on the headquarters in order to prove the correctness of Hay’at’s decision, and that it does not violate the Book and the Sunnah. The Hay’at’s losses were limited to the defection of about 200 members and only three commanders whom we mentioned earlier.

Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham withdrew from eastern al-Hasakah

Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham withdrew from more than 150 villages within 72 hours after the regime had launched a fierce attack on the southern countryside of Aleppo and the eastern Idlib countryside on January 9, 2018. This was a serious setback in Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham’s ranks, which considered this withdrawal as implementation of the Astana Agreement. Consequently, HTS began to lose its solid ideology, and gradually began to identify itself with international agreements in its members’ point of view. However, the leadership of HTS began to justify the withdrawal to its members by saying that there is no need to be exhausted with the enemy having the Ahrar al-Sham faction, Al-Zenki and others who want to weaken HTS facing the regime in order to attack and end it completely.

As the regime approached Saraqib on February 8, 2018 crossing the Astana Agreement’s lines and taking control of Khan Tuman and Tell Touqan, HTS agreed to deploy Turkish points in the village of Alsurman, Tell Touqan, and the city of Saraqib. At this point, HTS members did not object to these points because Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham needed these points to hinder the regime’s attack and its advance towards Saraqib after Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham’s had failed to confront repel it. Thus, the leadership of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham no longer needed new justifications to convince their members about the deployment of Turkish points, as these points are what stopped the regime’s attack towards Saraqib. 

Ideological disbanding to Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham

The original HTS members, i.e., al-Nusra Front’s members, began to fidget, complain, and seemed dissatisfied with the leadership’s policies, as they began to feel like losing ideological identity.

The reasons for this feeling can be summarized as follows:

  • Disengaging from Al-Qaeda, and their leadership’s lies to them.
  • Approving ot deploy Turkish points belonging to a NATO member state, which they viewed as an infidel country.
  • Identifying with factions of the Free Army, which were previously seen as holders of a blind banner that it was not permissible to ally with.
  • Military withdrawals from east of the railway in implementation of international agreements.
  • Including members closer to the mercenaries who are concerned with salary and money and do not hold any religious ideology.

On the other hand, Guardians of Religion Organization was formed, and began to build an operations room called “incite the believers” with the aid of Ansar al-Tawhid Front, formerly Jund al-Aqsa. The flow began towards Guardians of Religion, as hardly a day passed without members from Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham join Guardians of Religion.

Factors and reasons that contributed to Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham’s survival

The danger went back to Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham’s leaderships due to the defection of its members and them preferring to join the Guardians of Religion organization. Therefore, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham resorted to a tight plan to ensure its survival and continuity, which can be summarized as follows:

  • Totally dominating the financial resources.
  • Preventing the Guardians of Religion faction from engaging in any economic activity that brings them money, and exerting maximum financial pressure on the organization, such as:
  1. Prohibition of collecting donations in mosques.
  2. Preventing them from excavating antiquities.
  3. Preventing them from kidnapping journalists that would get them ransoms.
  • Forming a government to administer the liberated areas to be the civil arm and a front for Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, which would make the leaderships weave international relations, and expelling all institutions of the interim government affiliated with the National Coalition.
  • Bowing to the Turkish pressures and implementing their requests represented by:
  1. Stopping drones’ raids on the Hmeimim military base. No raid has been carried out on the base since 2018.
  2. Preventing any attack on the Syrian regime. So was happened after the Guardians of Religion fought a battle on the village of Tangara in the Al-Ghab Plain on 6/8/2020.
  3. Forming a buffer zone in accordance with the Sochi Agreement, and withdrawing heavy weapons at a depth of 15 km. Tahrir al-Sham withdrew tanks from the countryside of Hama and lowered their banners from the headquarters there in the towns of Hobait and Kafr Nabudah, as a result.
  4. Contributing and facilitating the traffic of commercial convoys on international roads.
  5. Opening channels of dialogue with the Syrian opposition institutions, such as the Coalition, the Interim Government and the Syrian Islamic Council, and forming a political office and foreign relations in Turkey. This office was headed by Zaid Al-Attar and then Dr. Yousef Al-Hajar. 

The International Credentials of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham

Despite all the previous procedures and HTS implementation of Sochi Agreement, HTS knows that this is not enough to get out of the terrorist lists as there will come a day HTS clashes with Turkey when it does not agree to dissolve itself, and it will have to disband it by force. This is why Tahrir al-Sham resorted to opening back channels with the international community Represented by America, the European Union and the United Nations through political mediators from the opposition and even the coalition itself. The international credentials include the following:

  • Cooperation with the international community to prevent a refugee crisis in Europe. “We have a common ground with Washington, which is putting an end to the humanitarian crisis and the suffering of the Syrians, in addition to putting an end to the displacement towards Turkey and Europe,” Al-Julani says. “This is the issue on which we can cooperate more than any other issue,” he adds (10).
  • Security cooperation with all international parties in combating ISIS file and handing over wanted ISIS leaders to Turkey and then to the international community. In his meeting with Martin Smith, Al-Julani said that his role in fighting al- Assad and ISIS and in controlling an area in which millions of displaced people may turn into refugees reflects common interests with the United States and the West (11).
  • Releasing the kidnapped journalists, including the German journalist Janina Wendisen, from Guardians of Religion Organization and handing her over to Turkey (12) .
  • Handing over the daughter of a French fighter belonging to Guardians of Religion Organization through the Bab al-Hawa crossing, with great media coverage from Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham in order to appear as an implementer of the Geneva Conventions on prisoners and children’s rights
  • Announcing its preparation to fight the Guardians of Religion after creating the reasons for it.

With this plan, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham ensured that there will be no defections in its ranks anymore due to the members’ financial need. Guardians of Religion do not have salaries to distribute to the elements that joined them from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. Tahrir al-Sham postponed the international community’s plans to end it by force as Turkey and countries still needed it in sensitive files, such as the implementation of the Sochi Agreement, cooperation in the fight against ISIS and the fight against Guardians of Religion. However, the biggest tax paid by Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham is its total loss of its religious ideological identity, as it turned into a local faction without any religious agenda in its members’ eyes. Thus, the composition of its members can be divided into 3 sections:

The first section still carries the religious ideology, but cannot defect due to its involvement in prostitutes and assassinations against other factions. This section needs a back to protect it, so it was forced to stay in Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, and it represents 10%.

The second section, Tribalists, they are members affiliated with a leading figure in Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham just because they are from his city or region, and they do not hold any ideological identity. If this leader left from Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, they would even go out with him, and these constitute 50%

The third section: the beneficiary and the mercenaries. These were recruited after the disengagement of Al-Nusra from al-Qaeda. Most of them were appointed in police formations, checkpoints, and administrative and security work by the leadership of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, as they are concerned with salary, financial spoils from other factions and tax collection from merchants, and they make up 40%.

Summary of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham’s ideology

In conclusion, Tahrir al-Sham did not abandon the Salafi-jihadi doctrine at the level of the members and leaders in the third and second ranks. However, a partial change occurred among the first rank’s leaders due to their negotiations with Turkey. This change is embodied in the following:

  1. No longer atoning the Turkish state and giving the permission to deal with it. This was evident in Tahrir al-Sham’s support for Operation Peace Spring. (14)
  2. Permissibility of receiving financial support from states, even if they are infidels.
  3. They allowed to raise the revolution flag after they had described it as the flag of the French occupation.

It is notable that these changes are on the branches’ issues level, not on the origins’, and as it was mentioned earlier, the legal scholars of the Salafi-jihadi organizations can issue fatwas adapted to the reality of each arena of jihad.

Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham and Turkey… carrot and stick policy.

Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham began identifying with the Turkish requirements, such as withdrawing from east of the railway, implementing the Astana Agreement, then implementing the Sochi Agreement to the full, and preparing its members to disband the room: “incite the believers”, in addition to not carrying out any military actions against the regime, especially that the regime invaded Ghouta, Damascus and Daraa. Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham made all these concessions because it knew that the alternative to that, in case it refused, would be Turkey’s use of force to finish it off. As Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham knows that Turkey is using it as a temporary card, and there will come a time when Turkey forces it to disband itself, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham tried to hold onto its power cards to keep Turkey in need of it. These cards are as follows:

  1. Obstructing the deployment of the Turkish advanced points from time to time, and inciting the towns’s people in which the points are to be deployed against the Turkish army. This happened at Morek points, and Turkey was prevented from establishing a point in Kafr Zita, Sher Maghar in Al-Ghab, and in the Prophet Ayoub hill in Jabal Zawiya. It took Turkey two months to be able to deploy Prophet Ayoub hill point.
  2. Exploiting Turkey’s need for Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham militarily as a claw against the regime, especially after all Russian pressure and threat to break the Sochi Agreement, and attacking Idlib. Turkey cannot remove Tahrir al-Sham before turning the ceasefire agreement into a permanent agreement registered in the Security Council, and this is what Russia rejects.
  3. Marketing for the Salvation Government’s and letting it take control over the service, administrative, educational, and health joints as Turkey needed to deal with these institutions affiliated with the Salvation Government.
  4. Whenever Turkey pressured Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham to disband itself, it resorted to reaching an understanding with Guardians of Religion and the radical extremist factions, and threatening to form a joint operations room with them, and even merging with each other.
  5. Launching drone strikes on the Hmeimim base and waving this card against the Russian agreement.
  6. After the March 5 Moscow agreement, HTS pushed its members, Salvation Government employees and civilians to hold sit-ins on the M4 road to prevent the passage of Turkish-Russian patrols, and this was a major obstacle that would put pressure on Turkey, and would make it look in great embarrassment before Russia, as it is unable to implement the Moscow Agreement. (15)
  7. Threatening to bomb the Turkish outposts if Turkey decided to launch an attack with the National Army factions on Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham and disband it by force. Turkey, on the other hand, did not have any real pressure cards on Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, it was in dire need of their help at least in three main files, namely:
  • Implementing the Sochi Agreement to prevent any attacks on the regime.
  • Pushing it to attack the Guardians of Religion and the operations room “incite the believers.”
  • Protecting the Turkish points from any radical factions’ attacks.

This relationship continued to fluctuate between Turkey and Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham. Sometimes Tahrir al-Sham bows to Turkish pressure, and sometimes it holds onto some of its previous cards. This situation kept going untill the regime and Russia began violating the Sochi Agreement, and launched their comprehensive attack on Idlib countryside. Maarat al-Numan and Khan Sheikhoun were seized, in addition to the western and northern countryside of Aleppo. Turkey took advantage of this bad military situation and got very large columns to protect Idlib from the regime’s invasion, as the number of Turkish soldiers reached more than 23 thousand Turkish soldiers in Idlib. Turkish points became huge military barracks after they were only checkpoints. Practically, all headquarters of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham were surrounded, and Turkey was able to subjugate Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and turn it into a tool in its own hands and the stick that Turkey uses against any radical rebel groups. The identification between Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham and Turkey is evident during the statement issued by Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham on 9/10/2019 in which it supported the Operation Peace Spring that Turkey carried out against the PYD party east of the Euphrates.

Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham and the Turkish Offers

Turkey made several offers to Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham in order to disband itself peacefully. These offers were represented by tempting Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham to include more than 70% of its members in the new police apparatus to be formed in Idlib, and the rest of its members can join National Front for Liberation. Howeve, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham rejected these offers and officially refused to disband itself (16). Because of the accelerated events and Turkey’s lack of confidence in Russia towards stopping its attacks against Idlib governorate, Turkey fell between two options, the best of which was:

The first one: If Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham kept itself alive, it would remain as Russia’s excuse for not implementing the Sochi agreements, and the March 5 Moscow agreement.

The second: If Turkey pressured Tahrir al-Sham, and disbanded it by force, Turkey would have no alternative to carry out the previous missions, and the liberated areas would get in great chaos.

Therefore, Turkey resorted to the following plan to subjugate Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham:

  1. Putting pressure on it and pushing it to fight the Guardians of Religion faction, and disbanding the operations room “incite the believers”. This happened on 6/27/2020.
  2. Forcing it to break up the sit-ins, and to allow the joint Russian columns and patrols to pass on the M4 road. Tahrir al-Sham did not have any other option than agreeing to it.
  3. Forming a military council for the liberated areas and persuading HTS to align under it while being the leader, in return, HTS had to shifted into brigades affiliated with this council.

Thus, it can be said that Turkey has succeeded in disbanding the religious ideological identity of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, and transforming it into a local faction (17) that carries out actions that Tahrir al-Sham had previously considered as religious treason for years, such as accompanying Russian patrols, implementing international agreements, and fighting every faction fights the regime, such as Guardians of Religion and others.

However, Turkey has not succeeded in dismantling it militarily or economically so far. HTS’s involvement with the Military Council is still nominal, and it has not merged its members with the other factions. Economically, it still maintains a financial balance of more than 150 million dollars. With this balance, it can control, recruit new elements, and subjugate the rest of the factions in its favor by spending on them. Tahrir al-Sham spends on all the factions stationed on the contact lines from outside the National Front, such as the Turkistan Party and Ansar al-Din Front, and the independent immigrant groups.

Tahrir al-Sham is Russia’s card against Turkey:

Russia ‘s Foreign Minister has accused Turkey of not fulfilling its pledges to implement the Idlib agreements. In his press conference with the Egyptian Foreign Minister in Moscow, Lavrov called on Turkey to speed up the achievement of the “ultimate goal” in Idlib governorate, calling for an end to Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham’s file. (18)

The Turkish Defense Minister replied by denying and said that Turkey did what it had to do (Anadolu Agency), and Tahrir al-Sham was one of the talks discussed by the Turkish and Russian presidents in Moscow on September 29. Although neither of the presidents declared anything, the Turkish newspaper Hürriyet and Star spoke, in their issue on October 7, about the necessity of merging Tahrir al-Sham with the national army, and that the international community no longer accepts only changing Tahrir al-Sham’s name. “HTS must understand that there is no other choice but to disband itself and integrate into the national army, and accept the fact that the international public opinion does not give any opportunity to make any turns,” Star newspaper said. “Disbanding HTS and merging it with the national army will relieve many departments, and they should know that changing their name no longer convinces countries (19),” came in Hürriyet newspaper.

Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham’s future

Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham lost its ideological identity and its military superiority after the recent battles by the regime. Its strength appeared like any other local faction, and its economic budget declined after closing the crossings with the regime and resorting to smuggling operations. Great pressure was put on Tahrir-al-Sham after having been surrounded by the Turkish military barracks, and after the Russian threats to invade Idlib under the pretext to fight Tahrir-al-Sham. The options have become very narrow for Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, and three scenarios can be imagined for the future fate of the organization:

The first scenario would be to continue with the same current policy with Turkey and agree to some requests, but reject the others until it reaches the final pressure point, where it resorts to changing its name again, and agrees to merge the Salvation Government with the Interim Government into a single government that will control the main ministries of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, hold to the crossings and maintain its main military force under a new name such as the “rapid intervention forces” under the authority of the Military Council. In this scenario, Tahrir-al-Sham would keep the card of the radical groups as it is, so that Turkey will remain in need of it against them. The percentage of realization of this scenario and its probability is 60%.

The second scenario would be to agree to the Turkish conditions by merging into the Military Council and getting its members to join with the other factions as a complete merger with the National Army. Tahrir-al-Sham knows that the end of this option is the complete termination of it. The probability of this scenario is 30%

The third scenario is to violate its agreements with Turkey, launching an attack on the regime, attacking Russian bases, and threatening to target Turkish convoys. This would be in case Turkey escalated pressure on Tahrir-al-Sham to disband itself by force. The probability of achieving this scenario is 10%.

Recommendations

After the relationship between Turkey and Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham in the balance of profit and loss has been monitored since the deployment of the Turkish points in agreement with Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham on 3/10/2017, it is clear that Turkey has lost more than it gained in the relationship with Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham. To infer this point, we find that whenever Turkey disagrees with Russia, Putin is blackmailing Turkey and accusing it of sending terrorists to Libya and violating the Sochi Agreement. Turkey has lost great military and field influence. The area lost by the opposition since the withdrawal of HTS in 2017, the battles in Hama countryside in 2019, then the battles of Idlib countryside and Saraqib in 2020 is estimated at 4870 km2 as shown in the map.

Russia’s pretext for this act was to not disband HTS. Now, it is doing it again, and Russia and the regime threatens to invade Jabal Zawiya and Al-Ghab Plain under the same pretext, which is HTS. On the other hand, Turkey has discovered that the presence of HTS does not add more than 7% of military power to the arena. After the Turkish military deployment in Idlib at the moment, there is no longer any military need for Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham. As for the “incite the Believers” room, it has been dismantled, and Guardians of Religion Organization has become besieged in some villages and contact lines in the coastal region, and Al-Ghab Plain. Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham did not succeed in preventing the repeated attacks on the joint Turkish/Russian patrols on the M4 road, supposing it was not involved in these attacks to blackmail and put pressure on Turkey.  In addition, the popular incubator has become grumbled at Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham for imposing taxes, arresting activists. Showing a very bad model for the liberated areas’ management causes embarrassment to Turkey in front of the international community, and from a legal point of view, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham is still classified on terrorist lists according to internal Turkish law. Therefore, it is reasonable to believe that ending Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham achieves Turkish interests in Syria much more than keeping it.

Disbanding Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham achieves the following interests for Turkey:

  • Stripping Russia of any pretext to launch any new attack on Idlib Governorate.
  • Turkey would look as a country fighting terrorism before the international community.
  • Disbanding Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham would practically uncover the radical groups that are carrying out military operations on the joint Turkish-Russian patrols on the M4 road.
  • Disbanding Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham means that the interim government, the coalition, and opposition institutions would come to Idlib governorate, and this is a very qualitative development in the path of a political solution.
  • After removing Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, Turkey can unite the four areas, Spring of Peace – Euphrates Shield – Olive Branch – Idlib, into one area affiliated with the coalition militarily, politically and administratively.
  • Turkey would form an elected parliament for liberated areas, as well as a government similar to the Government of National Accord in Libya in order to enter the negotiations for a final political solution with a strong card, which is the formation of an alternative opposition government to the regime of Bashar al-Assad, united in one body, and based on Syrian territory, not abroad.

References:

  1. https://youtu.be/ZXEdZiC86N4
  2. The Complete Works of Atiyah Abd al-Rahman
  3. https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.aljazeera.net/amp/news/arabic/2015/2/27/%25D8%25B7%25D9%258A%25D8%25B1%25D8%25A7%25D9%2586-%25D8%25A7%25D9%2584%25D8%25AA%25D8%25AD%25D8%25A7%25D9%2584%25D9%2581-%25D9%258A%25D9%2582%25D8%25B5%25D9%2581-%25D9%2585%25D9%2582%25D8%25B1%25D8%25A7-%25D9%2584%25D8%25AC%25D8%25A8%25D9%2587%25D8%25A9-%25D8%25A7%25D9%2584%25D9%2586%25D8%25B5%25D8%25B1%25D8%25A9
  4. https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.aljazeera.net/amp/news/presstour/2016/7/21/%25D8%25AA%25D8%25AD%25D8%25B0%25D9%258A%25D8%25B1-%25D9%2585%25D9%2586-%25D8%25AE%25D8%25B7%25D8%25B1-%25D8%25AC%25D8%25A8%25D9%2587%25D8%25A9-%25D8%25A7%25D9%2584%25D9%2586%25D8%25B5%25D8%25B1%25D8%25A9-%25D9%2585%25D8%25B3%25D8%25AA%25D9%2582%25D8%25A8%25D9%2584%25D8%25A7-%25D8%25B9%25D9%2584%25D9%2589
  5. Several interviews were conducted with people close to the committee who came from Iran. we refuse to mention their names for the sake of their lives.
  6. https://www.alaraby.co.uk/politics/2016/7/28/%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AC%D9%88%D9%84%D8%A7%D9%86%D9%8A-%D9%8A%D8%B9%D9%84%D9%86-%D9%81%D9%83-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A7%D8%AA%D8%A8%D8%A7%D8%B7-%D8%A8%D9%80-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%82%D8%A7%D8%B9%D8%AF%D8%A9-%D9%88%D8%AA%D8%B4%D9%83%D9%8A%D9%84-%D8%AC%D8%A8%D9%87%D8%A9-%D9%81%D8%AA%D8%AD-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B4%D8%A7%D9%85
  7. https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.aljazeera.net/amp/midan/reality/politics/2019/4/1/%25D8%25AD%25D8%25B1%25D8%25A7%25D8%25B3-%25D8%25A7%25D9%2584%25D8%25AF%25D9%258A%25D9%2586-%25D9%2587%25D9%2583%25D8%25B0%25D8%25A7-%25D8%25AA%25D8%25B9%25D9%258A%25D8%25AF-%25D8%25A7%25D9%2584%25D9%2582%25D8%25A7%25D8%25B9%25D8%25AF%25D8%25A9-%25D8%25B7%25D8%25B1%25D8%25AD-%25D9%2586%25D9%2581%25D8%25B3%25D9%2587%25D8%25A7
  8. Al-Julani’s speech on the founding day of al-Nusra Front on January 23, 2012 https://www.dailymotion.com/video/xnys9x
  9. A speech by Abu Al-Fath Al-Farghali, a scholar in Tahrir-al-Sham, entitled “The four conditions for the entry of the Turks no longer exist and we are under the rule of the secular Turkish” https://t.me/jbsvxnxchddbxbxjndbxhd
  10. Al-Julani’s meeting with Martin Smith for Frontline
  11. https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.alaraby.co.uk/politics/%25D9%2585%25D9%2582%25D8%25A7%25D8%25A8%25D9%2584%25D8%25A9-%25D9%2584%25D9%2584%25D8%25AC%25D9%2588%25D9%2584%25D8%25A7%25D9%2586%25D9%258A-%25D8%25A8%25D8%25A7%25D9%2584%25D8%25A5%25D8%25B9%25D9%2584%25D8%25A7%25D9%2585-%25D8%25A7%25D9%2584%25D8%25A3%25D9%2585%25D9%258A%25D8%25B1%25D9%2583%25D9%258A-%25D8%25B9%25D9%2584%25D9%2589-%25D9%2588%25D8%25A7%25D8%25B4%25D9%2586%25D8%25B7%25D9%2586-%25D8%25B1%25D9%2581%25D8%25B9%25D9%2586%25D8%25A7-%25D9%2585%25D9%2586-%25D9%2582%25D8%25A7%25D8%25A6%25D9%2585%25D8%25A9-%25D8%25A7%25D9%2584%25D8%25A5%25D8%25B1%25D9%2587%25D8%25A7%25D8%25A8%3famp
  12. https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.bbc.com/arabic/middleeast/2016/09/160929_german_jpurnalist_syria_free.amp
  13. https://euroabia.com/%d8%aa%d8%b3%d9%84%d9%8a%d9%85-%d8%b7%d9%81%d9%84%d8%a9-%d9%85%d9%86-%d8%a5%d8%af%d9%84%d8%a8-%d9%81%d9%8a-%d8%b3%d9%88%d8%b1%d9%8a%d8%a7-%d8%a5%d9%84%d9%89-%d9%88%d8%a7%d9%84%d8%af%d8%aa%d9%87%d8%a7/
  14. Al-Julani’s meeting with Amjad Media Network https://amjad.media/?s=%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AD%D9%88%D8%A7%D8%B1
  15. https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=3TBG3W5zhWE
  16. A source from within Tahrir-al-Sham
  17. Al-Julani’s acknowledgment of Tahrir-al-Sham’s transformation into a local faction whose reference is Islamic jurisprudence, in his meeting with the International Crisis Group on February 20, 2020 https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.enabbaladi.net/archives/364950/amp
  18. https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.alaraby.co.uk/politics/%25D9%2587%25D9%2584-%25D9%258A%25D9%2585%25D9%2583%25D9%2586-%25D8%25AF%25D9%2585%25D8%25AC-%2522%25D8%25AA%25D8%25AD%25D8%25B1%25D9%258A%25D8%25B1-%25D8%25A7%25D9%2584%25D8%25B4%25D8%25A7%25D9%2585%2522-%25D9%2581%25D9%258A-%2522%25D8%25A7%25D9%2584%25D8%25AC%25D9%258A%25D8%25B4-%25D8%25A7%25D9%2584%25D9%2588%25D8%25B7%25D9%2586%25D9%258A%2522%25D8%259F%3famp
  19. http://albosala.com/هل تندمج “هيئة تحرير الشام” في الجيش الوطني؟!

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