Al-Julani starts getting rid of anti-pragmatism trend
The departure decision of the Sharia scholar in Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, Abu al-Yaqzan al-Masri, and the decision to prohibit issuing fatwas and Dawah direction outside Tahrir al-Sham’s General Sharia Council, sum up the movements of the leader Abu Mohammad al-Julani to renounce the radical formations and trends in the faction, in a step to prove the group’s moderation and to drop the accusation of “terrorism.” This comes in preparation for the new phase that Idlib Governorate will undergo at military and administrative levels.
Al-Julani’s steps have not been as surprising as they have been expected, especially since the beginning of last year. Tahrir al-Sham had witnessed several changes that contradicted what the group has been actually established for, most notably the change in its discourse and the relationship with Turkey. The manifestations of this change started appearing to the public, beginning with the deployment of control points without any hindrance, up to the issuance of statements that go in line with Ankara, the most recent of which regarding the battle of East Euphrates.
Abu Mohammad al-Julani pre-empted the current stage that his faction has reached by several moves, including the expansion of power on the land at the expense of the Free Syrian Army’s factions, which are the factions of the National Front for Liberation, and the expansion of the work of the Salvation Government, which represents the administrative and civil sides of Tahrir al-Sham.
This coincided with the entry into force of the Sochi Agreement between Turkey and Russia in September 2018, which stipulated the establishment of a buffer zone between the Syrian regime and the opposition factions and the opening of the international highways Damascus-Aleppo and Aleppo-Lattakia for the commercial and civil movement.
Differences started appearing
It seems that al-Julani’s current plan to renounce extremist trends will not be easy, especially with the existence of al-Qaeda’s Guardians of Religion Organization, which will obviously be the first refuge for all the extremist leaders, whether Abu al-Yaqzan or others.
The Guardians of Religion Organization was formed in February 2018, and included seven military groups: Jaysh al-Malahim, Jaysh al-Sahel, Jaysh al-Badia, Saraya al-Sahel, Saraya al-Kabul, Jund al-Sharia, and Jund al-Aqsa cells, led by the former leader in Hayat Tahrir al-Sham Abu Humam al-Shami.
In the days leading up to the departure of Abu al-Yaqzan, the relationship between Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and the Guardians of Religion Organization has been strained after their meeting on Thursday, 31 January, as the Guardians of Religion rejected Tahrir al-Sham’s proposals for the future of the next phase in the north.
The proposals consisted of forming a military council led by a dissident officer from the Syrian regime and a member of the Free Syrian Army or Sham Legion, most likely the Legion. The proposals also suggested that the military council have the decision of declaring peace and war in the Syrian north, and that Tahrir al-Sham open international highways with the Syrian regime.
The points proposed by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham led the leaders of the Guardians of Religion Organization, Abu Humam al-Shami and Sami al-Oraydi, to demand Tahrir al-Sham to hand over the disputed weapons between the two factions in the past. The two leaders said in a shared statement: “We think that we cannot let go of our rights and weapons. We demand them now to grant us our weapons and rights, as the issue has not yet been settled and resolved.”
The two leaders added that “it is now the time for a general mobilization to defeat the regime, weaken it economically and cut off its supply routes.”
Hayat Tahrir al-Sham’s proposals are linked to a report published by Enab Baladi on 17 January, in which it presented the expected scenario in Idlib after the change of the military map on the ground.
A source from the Free Syrian Army who had connections with the Turkish side at that time said that the National Front for Liberation would be dissolved and joined to Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, provided that the dissolution would not be following the conventional meaning but rather following the form of integration into a unified body for all formations.
The source added that Idlib will be politically and militarily divided, provided that the Turkey-backed Sham Legion will be in charge politically and Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham will be responsible for the region militarily.
The source pointed out that the Salvation Government will be reactivated to resume political action, but on a new front.
In recent years, al-Julani has taken several steps to push away the charges of terrorism linked to his armed faction and gain international acceptance. Actually, he isolated a section of the extremist movement, which in turn was transformed into the Guardians of Religion Organization. Later on, this organization started recruiting other extremist groups affiliated to Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.
In an earlier interview with a source, who is well-informed about jihadi movements in Syria, he said that al-Julani is expected in the next phase to attack the Guardians of Religion Organization and isolate the extremist movement, as a step to prove that Hayat Tahrir al-Sham is a moderate Islamic movement, adding that till today al-Julani cannot take the decision to dissolve Hayat Tahrir al-Sham alone, as the organization has other muhajireen leaders who categorically reject such process.
Why Abu al-Yaqzan first?
Despite the clarity of al-Julani’s plan to dismantle the extremist wing of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham in Idlib, choosing Abu al-Yaqzan first raises several questions, especially that al-Masri has a great weight in the movement, being the leader of its military wing. Abu al-Yaqzan has led most military operations launched by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham against both the Free Syrian Army and al-Assad forces.
Abu Souraka al-Sharii, the movement coordinator, published on Instagram, hours after the resignation, that “Abu al-Yaqzan has mentioned Turkey and its policy in his recent speech and tried to incite anger against it. Such a move has upset the Turkish authorities who responded through the Turkish newspaper Yeni Şafak. The newspaper reported that the movement’s leader al-Masri is backed by Emirati and Saudi intelligence. As a consequence, Abu al-Yaqzan was immediately sacked by al-Julani, and the rest will follow soon.”
The movement coordinator indicated that “Hayat Tahrir al-Sham is currently employing the faction policy, though it was strictly rejected by the movement, which excommunicated those who adopted it. The reason behind such a shift is that Hayat Tahrir al-Sham knows now that the only chance for it to have a share in liberated Syrian territories can be only boosted by following such strategy.”
Abu al-Yaqzan, who is a former leader of the Salafist al-Nour party in Egypt, came to Syria in early 2013 and became a commander in Ahrar al-Sham for three years.
In September 2016, Abu al-Yaqzan broke away from Ahrar al-Sham, after being commander, along with Talha al-Musayer, aka Abu Shuaib al-Masry, and Abu Hamza al-Kurdi, the commander of the Brigade, as well as the whole faction.
During the latest battle, Abu al-Yaqzan gave Hayat Tahrir al-Sham’s soldiers the permission to shoot and kill Ahrar al-Sham’s fighters He addressed the fighters of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham saying that “the only way I can make a progress in the battlefield and lead the faction is by killing the opponents. Shoot them in the head, and I will be responsible before Allah during the Day of Resurrection.”
Abu al-Yaqzan’s latest fatwa was to forbid fights against the Turkish army east of the Euphrates. Then, he launched a military operation against al-Zenki, west of Aleppo.
The Turkish pro-government newspaper, Yeni Şafak, which is close to the decision-making circles in Ankara, published a report last January saying that the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia gave Abu al-Yaqzan the permission to issue fatwas to fight the Free Syrian Army and other movements in region.
After the US decision to withdraw from Syria and the discussions held between Donald Trump and Turkey about the Turkish strategy to eliminate ISIS, the newspaper quoted intelligence sources saying that Ahrar al-Sham had been commissioned by what it described as “evil forces” to destabilize the region.
Yeni Şafak reported that the plan, which was drawn up by the United States, Israel and the Gulf states in Idlib, aims to block the peace process by disrupting the Sochi Agreement, distracting Turkey from the operation in East of the Euphrates, and pushing the Turkish troops to get involved in the conflict taking place in the west, i.e. in Idlib.