The destiny of the governorate of Idlib has not been resolved to the day, waiting for the trilateral summit which will join the presidents of Turkey, Russia and Iran, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Vladimir Putin and Hassan Rouhani at the capital Tehran on September 7, during which the three leaders are supposed to come up with a final resolution that determines the governorate’s future and the status of its opposition military factions.
In the past a few days, the Turkish and the Russian sides both have continuously issued statements about Idlib, addressing the conditions of the civilians housing it and the military map ruling it, as divided between the factions of the “Free Army,” classified as “moderate,” and “Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham,” considered a “terrorist group.”
On the ground, the reinforcements brought in by Assad’s forces and allied militia to the governorate’s surrounding are non-stop, met with the opposition faction’s deployment, which mainly took position at the length of the western strip of Idlib, connected with rural Lattakia and where the military operations are expected to start.
In parallel to the previous developments, popular demonstrations broke out in the opposition-held Northern Syria, expressing refusal of the military operation that the Syrian regime, backed by Russia, is planning against the area; they also condemned the statements of the UN Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, in which he expressed his readiness to open safe crossings for civilians to exit Idlib, in an indication to his approval of the Syrian regime’s offensive against the governorate.
Turkey Holds on to Idlib
Despite the pressure imposed on Idlib’s cause, Turkey is yet holding on to its role in contradiction to the analysis that anticipated its retreat, for the military reinforcements to the observation points it installed under the “de-escalation” deal did not stop in past months, which are accompanied by the statements of well-established leaders, among whom is the Minister of Defense Hulusi Akar, who said that his country is seeking to guarantee the safety of about four million people before the collapse of the ceasefire agreement in Idlib.
Akar added that Turkey is doing its best to prevent attacks on Idlib depending on the procedures undertaken through talks and communication with concerned states, saying: “We will prevent them, God welling.”
The Turkish position on the matter is not limited to this, as it requested that the factions which it supports and that are now functioning under the “National Front for Liberation,” to massively fortify their fronts and gave them reassurances that the military support it is offering them will persist. It also informed Russia of this, according to what informed sources from the “Free Army” has told Enab Baladi.
The sources added that the Russian and the Turkish statements about Idlib are part of the Astana Talks’ “media campaign,” especially after the American action taken to reactivate the political resolution it adopts for Syria once again.
They explained that Tehran summit will completely resolve Idlib’s fate, pointing out that Turkey has not so far given up on its vision for Idlib, which includes preventing any military action against the governorate by the Syrian regime.
Unlike past years, Idlib’s fronts are largely enhanced, through the number of the shifts’ personal at every axis and the military vehicles deployed at the confrontation lines.
According to the sources, Turkey is playing two roles, the first relates to decreasing the Russian pressure and the second has to do with supporting the military factions, performing under the “Free Army.”
They also said that it is impossible for Turkey to take its hands off Idlib, which it views as a base to preserve its national security on the one hand and a card to play in relation to the political resolution in the future on the other, pointing out that “if Turkey loses Idlib, the bargaining will shift to the northern countryside of Aleppo and Afrin.”
Al-Julani Goes Moderate
On August 31, 2018, Turkey registered “Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham” on the terrorism lists. This is not a new thing despite the viral reaction it triggered, as the former “al-Nusra Front” was already classified as a terrorist group, but the situation under which the classification decision has been announced has opened a wide space for analysis, especially with the continuity of the Russian-Turkish talks about Idlib.
“Tahrir al-Sham” is the principal pretext which the Syrian regime and Russia resort to as to start a military operation against Idlib, because the faction is classified on the “terrorism” lists and is excluded from the “de-escalation” deal, signed by the guarantor states (Turkey, Iran and Russia).
Throughout the past months, “Tahrir al-Sham” refused to dissolve itself with the rest of Idlib’s military factions, but the refusal was expressed by migrant leaders, classified under the hard-line, such as “Abu Yaqthan al-Masri” and “Abu al-Fath al-Ferghali.” This was accompanied by talks about a raft within “Tahrir al-Sham,” for there is a current that is calling for the elimination of international isolation and another calling for fighting Turkey and the factions it supports, such as “Ahrar al-Sham” and the “Free Army.”
It seems that the General Commander of “Tahrir al-Sham” Abu Mohammad al-Julani is skewing more towards the “moderate” current which wants to end the international seclusion, expressed through a number of incidents, the first of which was in September 2016. Back then, his speech alluded to political action and its relation to military action, this was followed by “Tahrir al-Sham” retreat from dozens of villages in the eastern countryside of Idlib, last year, a thing translated as a detailed application of the “Astana” deal’s provisions.
The basic point that provides a confirmation of the changes that “al-Julani” is making to eliminate the terrorism aspect of himself is the step he undertook this year, when he isolated a part of the hardliners in his faction, which in turn formed the “Guardians of Religion Organization” that started to attract dozens of “extremist” groups of “Tahrir al-Sham” to include them within its lines.
A source informed of the Jihadist current in Syria told Enab Baladi that al-Julani is expected to start attacking the “Guardians of Religion Organization” in the upcoming phase, in a step to prove that he is becoming “moderate,” and added that “al-Julani” does not, to the day, enjoy the complete authority to make the decision of dismantling “Tahrir al-Sham” with the presence of migrant leaders who totally disapprove this resolution.
These changes are derived from the Taliban’s experience in Afghanistan, which resorted to political action after a bitter conflict and opened an office in Qatar in 2013, after which Kabul and the United States showed readiness to conduct negotiations with the movement.
Three Personalities Advance “Jihad” and Refuse to Dismantle “Tahrir al-Sham”
Abu Yaqthan al-Masri
His name is Mohammad Naji, one of the top leaders of the Salafi “al-Nour” party (Party of The Light), Egypt.
He came to Syria early in 2013 and functioned as a Sharia scholar within the lines of “Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya” for three years.
The leader dissented from “Ahrar al-Sham” in September 2016, after he functioned as a Sharia scholar under the “Mujahidu Ashedda” (Strident Jihadist) brigade, along with “Talha al-Musayar” (Abu Shuayep al-Masri) and the head of the brigade “Abu Hamza al-Kurdi” and the rest of the brigades personal.
After its dissent, the whole brigade joined the “Fath al-Sham,” which functioned in Aleppo. Back then, an informed source told Enab Baladi that the number of its troops is estimated with 125 fighters.
Today, “Abu Yaqthan” is considered one of the key Sharia scholars of the military wing of “Tahrir al-Sham.” He provided a Fatawā that allowed for shooting “Ahrar al-Shm” fighters to death during “confrontations.”
“Abu Yaqthan” believes that Jihad is the only way that must be followed in Idlib.
On his official “Telegram” account, he said on August 27, that “we have no other choice but Jihad in Idlib and exposing the owners of this surrendering project.”
Abu Fath al-Ferghali
Yahia Taher al-Ferghali, Egyptian by nationality, is considered the top Sharia scholar of “Tahrir al-Sham” along with “Abu Yaqthan.”
He came to Syria early in 2012, one year after the break out of the Syrian revolution; he was positioned the head of “Sharia and Dawa Office” of “Ahrar al-Sham” in the coastal area.
During his action under “Ahrar al-Sham,” he was considered as an element of its hard-line, until he announced his resignation in 2017 to move to “Tahrir al-sham.”
He is also one of the people calling for “Jihad” in Idlib. He once negated communication with Turkey, and last May has said that “Tahrir al-Sham has nothing to do with the National Army what so ever” and it will always be “the fort of Jihad and revolution in the levant and the force of Sunnah people, as well as their shield.”
Back then he also stressed that “Tahrir al-Sham” “will never succumb to the supporter’s orders or suspect projects.”
As for his position of the current conditions that Idlib is witnessing, on August 27 al-Farghali, through “Telegram” said: “that who calls for a secular rule instead of the rule of Islam is an apostate infidel according to Quran, Sunnah and the nation’s scholars’ consensus.”
“Even if he prays and fasts, alleging that he is monotheistic. Those who support or accept his calls are only the same,” he added.
Abu Maria al-Qhatani
“Abu Maria” or “Abu Hamza” is Muyasar bin Ali al-Jaboury al-Qahtani, known as “al-Harari,” in reference to the town of Hararah in Iraq, from which he went to the town of al-Raseef after he was born in 1976.
Al-Qahtani functioned as a Sharia scholar at “al-Nusra Front,” and a prince to the eastern region of Syria at the beginning of the armed action in 2012.
Once “al-Nusra” failed to expand within Deir ez-Zor after the formation of the military council, al-Qhatani and his faction headed towards Daraa, where he fought against “Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade,” which back then was one of the factions under the Military Operations Center “MOC,” that today functions under “Khalid ibn al-Walid Army,” which pledged loyalty to the “Islamic State.”
After Daraa al-Qhatani headed to Idlib, in a secret shift about which many were curious, for there is a not a road between the two governorates, except for the one passing in the control areas of the Syrian regime.
Back then, activists said that the road passed through “Izra,” Daraa and Idlib finally, under a bargain in which people from Damascus and Deir ez-Zor functioned as mediators.
Al-Qahtani is active on “Telegram” under the name “al-Gharbi al-Muhajer al-Qhtani.”
On August 26, he commented on the developments happening in Idlib and said: “Idlib will be a cemetery to invaders.”