“Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham” (HTS) once more appears, remarkably, in the governorate of Daraa, in a manner that indicates its attempt to remind the people of itself amidst the chaotic atmosphere enveloping the factions, after more than two years of media absence that was preceded by three years of total hegemony and strict control, the thing which triggered a number of questions about the objective behind its efforts to prove that it still exists.
These developments corresponded to a state of military recession in southern Syria, which in its turn functioned to shed the light on the military factions in the area, since a number of them tried to integrate and projects to form an alternative body for the southern front started, in addition to the repetition of the experiment of joint military operation rooms as a substitute for integration.
Daraa governorate incubates a number of military bodies, on top of which are “Youth of Sunna Forces” and “al-Thawra Army” (The Revolution Army), a coalition of many factions, and the “al-Bunyan al-Marsous” operations room which kept functioning for years, to be joined by the “Dar al-Adel Court” (House of Justice), as the only judicial umbrella in the governorate.
Exploding al-Hirak Announced the Birth of the Faction
In June 2012, a car bomb exploded at one of the Assad’s forces checkpoints in the city of Al-Hirak in the astern countryside of Daraa. Back then, “al-Nusra Front” (currently under Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham) announced itself as responsible for the operation among people and in the media, initiating the strongest proof of the Front’s presence in Daraa governorate at the time.
After the marked explosion, military operations followed, turning “al-Nusra” into one of the most noticeable and powerful opposition military factions in southern Syria. It owned the needed power to impose its regulations on the rest of the factions and to arrest a number of leaders, the most prominent of whom was Ahamad Fahed al-Nemaa, the leader of the Military Council in Daraa governorate, who has been detained in May 2014, on the accusation of establishing a national army, to be executed later on.
The Front’s activities were not limited to the battle field, for it moved on to judicial courts via the “Cobra Court,” which, for years, functioned as the judicial umbrella for the areas held by the opposition in Daraa and took over strategic positions that were controlled by Assad’s forces, the most prominent of which was Tall al Jābiyah in the western countryside of Daraa, in April 2015. As a result for this, “al-Nusra Front” managed to impose its hefty authority in the south that extended to the governorate of Quneitra and the western Ghouta in rural Damascus.
Critical Points Contained
During its progress deep in Southern Syria, “al-Nusra” experienced the greatest shock since its establishment, for a “chasm” appeared in its body after it indulged in a wide battle against “Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade” in the Yarmouk Basin and it failed to wine, even though one of its elements implemented a suicide attack that caused the death of the front-line leaders of “Yarmouk Martyrs,” in November 2015.
About a month later, “al-Nusra Front” witnessed an actual turning point in the south, as dozens of its leaders left Daraa governorate for Idlib governorate, passing in areas under the Assad’s forces control, in one of the most ambiguous deals during the Syrian revolution, thrusting “al-Nusra,” or what was left of it, in a dark tunnel that placed its future on the line and robbed its presence in southern Syria of its value.
“Al-Nusra Front,” for more than a year and a half, conducted a rehabilitation phase in Syria, in general, and in the south, in particular, during which it changed its name to “Jabhat Fateh al-Sham” and then to “Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham,” which refocused on Daraa governorate upon ferociously participating in the “Death Rather than Humiliation” battle within the activities of “al-Bunyan al-Marsous” operations room.
The leadership of “Tahrir al-Sham,” in the north, sent a new administrative group to the south, in May 2017, to restructure the southern division and send it back into the political scene, “to be shocked by the new reality that is totally different from what Tahrir al-Sham has been living in the north,” according to a source, close to Tahrir al-Sham in south and who asked to remain anonymous.
The source explained that “Tahrir al-Sham has a strong and a complete control in Idlib, but in Daraa it takes the shape of scattered groups that are unable to confront the factions of the Free Army.”
One of the new leadership’s goals was to retain authority and present “Tahrir al-Sham” as a one of the revolution’s objectives guarantors, especially with the state of dependency that the “Free Army’s” factions are going through in the south, according to the source.
Steps to Enhance Its Presence
After the arrival of the new leadership, “Tahrir al-Sham” in the south led a number of battles alongside other “Free Army” factions, the most prominent of which were in the cities of Hader and al-Baath in the Quneitra governorate, in addition to its strong role in the battle of Beit Jinn in the western Ghouta in rural Damascus. Nevertheless, failing all these battles gave the Leadership an impression about the need to find another way to prove their presence without leading lost battles, according to the source.
The source said that the previous developments inspired “Tahrir al-Sham” to concentrate its military effort on the ground through operations of a “limited-impact,” ones that, rather, have a media and popular effect under the military calm. Moreover, the Leadership sought to focus its civil effort on solving the people’s problems, especially those which the factions of the “Free Army” constitute a party in.
The source considered that “Tahrir al-Sham” has exploited the state of corruption and dependency within the factions and promoted itself as a guarantor for the people’s rights. This took a clear form in September 2017, when “Tahrir al-Sham” was assigned as a judicial body between the families of “Free Army” members who “Khalid ibn al-Walid Army” killed and the leaders of the factions, under which these members served.
After this, “Tahrir al-Sham” repeatedly played the role of intermediary in the south, reaching authoritative prosperity in January 2018, when it placed segregation checkpoints and stopped confrontations between the two major “Free Army” factions in Daraa, that followed the dispute between “Youth Sunna Forces” and “al-Thawra” Army in the eastern countryside of Daraa.
“Tahrir al-Sham’s” success in taking the first steps to prove its presence in the south motivated it to under take larger steps late in January 2018, when it implemented a mass field execution for a group of five it detained in its prisons, accusing them of affiliation with the “Islamic State” (ISIS), in a revengeful operation one day after a bomb car exploded at one of its checkpoints, killing a number of its leaders.
The source said that “Tahrir al-Sham’s” Leadership believed that the chosen time was suitable to implement the execution, as it will appear as a party who avenges the death of its members. However, at the same time, it did not want to make a show of the execution or to confront with “Dar al-Adel Court,” so it conducted the operation away from the people. Thus, “Tahrir al-Sham” made its first step, under this type of actions, out of the control of the Court’s area, in the areas held by the opposition factions in Southern Syria.
The execution was “Tahrir al-Sham’s” first indirect announcement of having its own detention centers and judicial body, despite the legitimacy that “Dar al-Adel holds” as the only judicial body.
The source indicated that “Tahrir al-Sham” has both secret and declared prisons, including three in the Lajat area, a major prison in Tall al Jābiyah close to the city of Nawa and another in the Death Tringle area.
“Dar al-Adel” is not Playing a Part
The numbers of the detainees, the investigation and judgment mechanisms in these prisons are yet unknown, particularly that “Tahrir al-Sham” has never allowed human rights bodies to observe these detention centers.
In an interview, the Head of the “Dar al-Adel Court,” Ismat al – Absi said that “Dar al-Adel” did not play a role in the latest execution by “Tahrir al-Sham.”
He added that the people were detained in 2015, at the beginning of the Court’s establishment phase, but the execution and issuing the judgment came later on, stressing that the Court, does not acknowledge any judicial body outside itself, even if the body recognized its security operations.
The number of the people detained by “Tahrir al-Sham” detainees is not specified, according to al-Absi; the military factions do not have a private judicial file, except “Tahrir al-Sham” which depends on judgments issued by its legislative figures in relation to the detainees, linked with the “Islamic State.”
“Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham,” under its current or former name, inspires a number of question marks about its contradictions within the Syrian revolution, as it fought against the factions in the “Free Army” in the north until it annihilated them and took them as an ally in the south, where it has been referred to as a judge during disputes between factions.
It also threatened the factions that have regionally coalited from drawing close to its control areas in the north and worked alongside these same factions in the south. Through the differences between the north and the south, it has been clear that “Tahrir al-Sham’s” attempt to reestablish itself in the future of the south massively relates to what the regional countries are planning for this area, which are still describing it as al-Qaeda franchise in Syria.