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“Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham” Relinquishes “Ideology” and Goes “Pragmatic”

Troops under the “National Front for Liberation” at the confrontation line with the Syrian regime, northern rural Hama – October 10, 2018 (AP)

Troops under the “National Front for Liberation” at the confrontation line with the Syrian regime, northern rural Hama – October 10, 2018 (AP)

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Under the title “Jihad and Sharia Politics between Constants and Variables,” “Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham” (HTS) has in June 2018 published a statement explaining the nature of the relationships it has with some countries, in a “cloaked” gesture at Turkey, and defined the frame of these bonds “through the amount of essential interests they bring in, benefiting the Syrian revolution and Jihad in Damascus.” 

The reference to the “essential interests” was a tipping point and a marked development, never hinted at by the “Tahrir al-Sham” in the first years which witnessed the foundation of its primary form the “al-Nusra Front.” Formerly, it assured the need to consolidate “Allah’s religion,” turning the rule to sharia, realizing justice among all people and “protecting the Damascene jihad and continuing with it,” in a discourse reflecting Salafi jihadism mindset.

Four months passed since the statement, which the “Tahrir al-Sham” followed with another, presenting its approval of the Turkish-Russian deal concerning the governorate of Idlib, which provides for the establishment of a buffer zone between the areas controlled by the Syrian regime and those held by the opposition. Though it did not directly mention its approval in the statement, its principal meaning is conducive to acceptance and implementation.

The approval of the deal offered a clear confirmation of the changes in the politics of the “Tahrir al-Sham,” which were not instant, but have been developing in the last two years, starting with the General Commander “Abu Mohammad al-Julani’s” speech, delivered in September 2016, about political action and how it relates to military action, which was backed by the withdrawal of the “Tahrir al-Sham” from dozens of towns in the eastern rural parts of Idlib in 2017, in an accurate translation of the “Astana” deal’s terms.

 

From “Ideology” to “Pragmatism”

The changes that befell the policies of the “Tahrir al-Sham” correspond to the developments of the Syrian affair, especially in terms of the areas, where the “Tahrir al-Sham’s” presence is focused and how it shrank to Idlib governorate only, which for its turn witnessed many changes since the “Astana6” deal was signed, for the borders of the opposition factions were settled and contracted at the eastern flank of the area. In parallel, the political landscape also underwent several changes, represented by working to form the constitutional committee and talks about conducting elections as to decide the future of Syria.

All these developments offered the “Tahrir al-Sham” the needed trigger to modify its own tendencies, for the ideology that is based on “hyperbolic extremism” would not suffice today, and it was necessary to make a detour to new politics and discourse based on interest and long-term survival in a step to have hegemony over the futuristic scene, even if the hegemony was to save its existence alone.

Abbass Sharifah, Islamic and political researcher, said that the different policy the “Tahrir al-Sham” is following is not motivated by division or a change from extremism to moderation, for the faction is using these two concepts as “pragmatic” interest-related tools.

In an interview with Enab Baladi, Sharifah added that the only thing that is, today, igniting the policy of the “Tahrir al-Sham” is not “ideology” but “pragmatism” and maneuvering as to gain benefits, pointing out that “ideology” has weakened a lot after seven years from the Syrian revolution, and, to a certain extent, it “cooled off.”

The interests that the “Tahrir al-Sham” is seeking, its General Commander “Abu Mohammad al-Julani” in particular, are power, influence and “preserving hegemony,” to which he referred in all his video speeches and the last of which was released in August 2018.

Sharifah explained that “al-Julani” is keen as not to enter losing battles which might lead to the total nihilation of the faction. Accordingly, he measures the gains and enhances its presences in posts that make him safe from alienation, liquidation or dismantlement.

In a statement issued last June, the “Tahrir al-Sham” restricted its military compass to what it has defined as fighting the Syrian regime and its allies. It also said that this relates to its relations with others, “those whose interests meet with ours within this frame, even if in certain dimensions, relations could be built with them under the frame which serves this compass.”

 

A Two-Way Speech: Internal and External

Since its formation, the “Tahrir al-Sham” has followed a single method in delivering its speeches, for they were not directed only at the domestic sphere, namely Syrian people and its affiliate troops, but they were also delivered to those abroad and the international community, despite the “enmity” it developed for the latter, being the “infidel west.”

The two-way discourse which the “Tahrir al-Sham” started to adopt, took its first steps during the “al-Julani’s” interview with the “Al Jazeera” channel in September 2016, for he appeared with a Malaysian hat on, which his Prince Abu Musab al-Zarqawi used to wear. He also wore an outfit that Osama bin Laden was famous for, in an image that resulted in a political and military depth which he tried to export to both inside Syria and abroad.

The “Tahrir al-Sham’s” double discourse did not stop at this interview, for it was proposed in the approval statement of the “Sochi” deal, released in October. The statement differed, for a massive number of its often-used expressions were eliminated and replaced with others, in a step to satisfy the internal currents and highlight the new policy for the international community’s observation.

The principal point indirectly hinted at by the “Tahrir al-Sham” in the statement was thanking Turkey, considered the key side to the deal signed with Russia in “Sochi.”

The “Tahrir al-Sham” said: “We appreciate the efforts of all those who are, inside and outside [Syria], seeking the protection of the liberated areas and the prevention of invading and committing massacres in them,” warning against the “evasive Russian occupier or trusting its intentions.”

The statement’s text included the expression of “we call the world to address its responsibilities,” seen as first of its type indicator in the discourse of “Tahrir al-Sham,” which in previous statements and speeches included contrasting expressions, such as “And never will the Jews or the Christians approve of you.”

In most of its former statements, it utilized anti-west slogans, which also applied to west-affiliated establishments functioning in Syria, considering asking for their help as both “prohibited and infidelity.”

Sharifah said that “al-Julani” has currently managed to contain the rift suffered by the “Tahrir al-Sham” through the statement answering the “Sochi” deal, explaining that “al-Julani” has, in the statement, pushed the limits, stressing the continuity of holding on to weapons and Jihad in Damascus, attacking “Sochi” from the beginning to the end but mentioning no words that literally refuse the deal.

The statement presented two lines of discourse, the first is external, the approval and identification with the international policy as to preserve its presence and interests, and the second is internal “exaggerated, beyond the limits” and sharp as to satisfy some of the voices inside the “Tahrir al-Sham.”

Sharifah believes that “al-Julani” managed, through the dual discourse, to achieve its external and internal goals.

The “Tahrir al-Sham’s” call for the international community to handle its responsibility can be seen as the faction’s fortification through the civil and humanitarian dimensions, as well as a preservation of its presence by hiding behind the humanitarian tragedy, which might take place in case Idlib is invaded by the Syrian regime, Russia and Iran, according to Sharifah.

 

Is “Tahrir al-Sham’s” Habilitation Possible?

To the day, the “Tahrir al-Sham” preserves its central power, represented by the “al-Nusra Army,” which was its spearhead in its last battles against other factions, such as the “Ahrar al-Sham Movement.”

According to observers, the “Tahrir al-Sham” failed to change the equation in Northern Syria, which was its goal since formation; it rather complicated the area’s reality further.

The changes conducted by the “Tahrir al-Sham” might lead to an experience similar to that of the Afghani Taliban Movement, for the latter has directed its efforts to political action after a bitter conflict and opened an office in Qatar in 2013, following which Kabul and the U.S. showed readiness to negotiate with it.

However Sharifah does not expect a similar scenario, pointing out that the “Tahrir al-Sham’s” status cannot be compared to Taliban’s for a variety of reasons, as the popular incubator in Idlib hates “Tahrir al-Sham,” stressed by the demonstrations that broke out throughout Northern Syria, refusing to carry the “Tahrir al-sham’s” flag while they choose to highlight the flag of the Syrian revolution.

The researcher, expert of Jihadi movements, said that the “Tahrir al-Sham’s current policy depends on kidnapping, killing and distorting the rights of the people and civilians. At the level of economy, it depends on stealing the returns of Bab al-Hawa, Abu Dali and al-Eiss, the profits of which are filling the pockets of the powerful figures of the Salvation Government, the formation of which was announced through the support of Tahrir al-Sham.”

According to what military sources have told Enab Baladi, the current number of the “Tahrir al-Sham’s” troops does not exceed 40 thousand fighters, but the “National Front for Liberation’s” troops’ number goes beyond 70 thousand personnel, which diverts the balance of favor to the latter at the disadvantage of the first, especially militarily speaking.

The situation in Idlib governorate, following the implementation of the first terms of the “Sochi” deal, depends on the form of the futuristic administration, and the role to be assigned to the “Tahrir al-Sham,” at the civil, administrative and military levels.

According to Sharifah, the “Tahrir al-Sham” cannot be habilitated or given a role in the future, explaining that today it is performing a functional task and is executing the countries’ interests to be recognized and politically habilitated.

He said that it is identifying with all the concessions demanded by the international community. So, it could be described as “lacking legitimacy, and that the problem des not relate to the faction itself but to its leading figures, like al-Julani, and its security, military and economic offices.”

Going back to the life track of the Salafi jihadism’s currents, we find that they have neither social nor political future, for they are groups that appear at times of crises, living under their shade to disappear from the forefront once they end. The historical background and experience stress that they do not continue and disappear, especially those born and became active in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

 

Al-Julani Renounces “Hardliner” Groups

The changes relating to the “Tahrir al-Sham” are not limited to those mentioned above, for they include the step which “al-Julani” undertook as to eliminate the “terrorism” adjective of himself, represented by the dismissal of a part of the hardliners under its factions, which for its part formed the “Guardians of Religion Organization.” Later on, the Organization started attracting some of the “extremist” groups of the “Tahrir al-Sham” and included them in its lines.

A source, informed of the actions of the jihadist currents in Syria, told Enab Baladi that “al-Julani” is expected to start attacking the “Guardians of Religion” in the next phase, as to prove himself as a “moderate.” Nevertheless, he added that to the day “al-Julani” does not have the ability to make the decision of dissolving the “Tahrir al-Sham” with the presence of migrant leaders who totally refuse this operation.

The Idlib deal, signed by Russia and Turkey, awaits the implementation of its next stage, providing for the removal of the “radical” factions, which basically spread in the northern countryside of Lattakia, reaching the borders of the western rural parts of Hama.

In what sounds as a hint at refuting the deal and disapproving it, four “Jihadist” factions formed an operation room, called “And Encourage the Believers,” after they dissented from the “Tahrir al-Sham,” in the past two years.

The room is accused of its fundamental affiliation to the “al-Qaeda.”

Among these factions are:

The “Guardians of Religion Organization”

The “Ansar al-Tawhid”

“Ansar al-Din Front”

“Jabhat Ansar al-Islam”

 

The Red Bands team under the “Tahrir al-Sham” – August 2018 (Tahrir al-Sham)

The Red Bands team under the “Tahrir al-Sham” – August 2018 (Tahrir al-Sham)

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