Will infighting in Syria’s Idlib shape fate of “jihadist groups”?

A fighter from the elite forces of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham - 2020 (Ibaa)

A fighter from the elite forces of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham - 2020 (Ibaa)


Enab Baladi – Ali Darwish

Afghanistan, Chechnya, Bosnia, Iraq, and other countries have experienced severe wars since the eighties of the last century. Stations used to include factions and formations, whose mainstays were “Jihadists,” one of the most prominent parties involved in military operations. Fierce fighting in the battlefield, hearing and obeying the leaders’ orders, have given the “jihadists”—mainly “the foreign jihadists” who left everything behind for a goal they set previously according to a belief established in their minds— fame at the local levels in the countries in which they fought battles.

Some jihadist groups moved to Syria, along with their military experience, fighters, and leaders who fought in previous countries. The actions of these groups began to go public in 2012; they claimed responsibility for sporadic attacks in Syria, most notably the attack on al-Assad army’s General Staff headquarters in central Damascus, the Syrian capital, which was claimed by “al-Nusra Front for the People of the Levant.”

Al-Nusra Front broke off formal ties with al-Qaeda and merged with several factions in 2017, changing its name into Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS).

After the opposition factions’ control over the area receded further following the dissolution and assimilation of factions and the constant battles, the influence of  jihadist groups appears to be limited to Idlib governorate, northwest of Syria, which is also controlled by “moderate” factions of the Turkish-backed “Syrian National Army.”

Besides, Idlib has seen this week infighting between the opposition factions, mainly between the largest faction in the region- HTS and several “jihadist groups,” some of which are directly linked with al-Qaeda group. 

HTS arrested prominent leaders of these groups, some of whom are foreigners after they were their allies over the previous years.

This arose the question about the future of these factions, and if they will dissolve themselves or go out of Syria or they will fight to the end.

Need for more considerable attention by the international community

Hassan Abu Haniyeh, a Jordanian researcher and expert of jihadist groups, highlighted to Enab Baladi that the future of the “jihadist groups” in Syria is contingent upon dynamic developments inside Syria (the course of events, developments, and decisions), in addition to the international dynamics that are the most important, especially regarding the agreements between the most effective forces in the Syrian file and specifically Turkey and Russia.

These two countries have previously demanded, since the launch of the “Astana Talks” in the Kazakh capital, from the guarantor countries of the parties to the conflict in Syria (including Iran), then, in the Russian resort of “Sochi,” the dismantling of these groups, and thus the merging of the HTS within the framework of “the Syrian National Army,” and the establishment of the transitional period, but all these moves seem to be doubtful.

The handling of “jihadist fighters,” particularly the foreign ones, has always been a dilemma since their presence in  Afghanistan, Iraq, Bosnia, and Chechnya, according to Abu Haniyeh.

This dilemma could be solved if there was an interest in finding a solution to the Syrian issue, which has so far been only through concluding tactical or localized agreements amid the absence of strategic solutions.

Abu Haniyeh believes that there is not much international interest in the Syrian file, and what the United States is doing regarding the so-called “fighting terrorism” is, in fact, ensuring security on the borders of Israel and countering Iranian influence. In other words, it is not very much concerned with the great future of the jihadist groups in the region.

Russia and Turkey also have complicated issues and conflicting interests, and all of this depends on the future. So far, there has been a lack of clarity concerning the future of northwestern Syria, and therefore the fate of the groups remains subject to regional and international agreements.

The strength of these groups is not based on their existence or their own power mainly, but rather because they possess a substantive force in the absence of any perceptions on the issue of figuring out a final solution, according to Abu Haniyeh.

Hayat Tahrir al-Sham graduates an elite force course - 18 May 2020 (Ibaa)

Hayat Tahrir al-Sham graduates an elite force course – 18 May 2020 (Ibaa)

HTS’s struggle to survive

The HTS leadership is trying to prove that it is adapting itself to the new realities regarding the area’s internal affairs, and wants to have a share in any future process. Therefore, we always see, according to Abu Haniyeh, HTS is in an effort to establish relations with Turks. Yet, their relationships do not enjoy sufficient confidence. 

Besides, the HTS leadership, through its leader, Abu Muhammad al-Jolani, is attempting to send both international and regional messages. For instance, al-Jolani, in an interview with “the International Crisis Group,” website on 20 February, affirmed that HTS is a local group, independent of al-Qaeda’s chain of command, and it did not practice “external terrorism.”

 He described his relationship with the Guardians of Religion Organization (the organization he is fighting today) as “complicated,” but they were obliged not to use Syria as “a launching pad for external operations” and recognize “the Salvation Government/SG” on both security and military levels,” according to his statements. 

Therefore, “al-Jolani” presents himself to the Turks and Russians that he can end forms of transient movements as is the case in the operations room “Be Firm/Fa’ Ethbatu” (the newly formed jihadist group led by former HTS leaders), specifically “the Guardians of Religion Organization” an armed insurgent group affiliated with al-Qaeda in Syria.

This was seen through clashes or arrests, and even direct battles and killings between the two sides, according to Abu Haniyeh.

However, the researcher in the affairs of jihadist groups denies that there are final determinants of the infighting, or a comprehensive confrontation, adding that this situation will remain intense until international agreements take place. 

Internal conflicts amongst “Jihadist groups”…  Will they lead to a solution?

“Jihadist groups” are always engaged in conflicts with each other on the basis of ideology, and the grounds of domination and control over many issues.

All these jihadist groups have been part of HTS since its establishment under the name of “the Nusra Front.” The groups broke off from HTS successively mainly because it announced its independence from al-Qaeda or because they had disagreements over internal affairs in managing the areas in Idlib and north-eastern Syria, as well as they, had different views regarding the outcomes of the Russia-Turkish agreements, particularly last March’s agreement signed between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, in the Russian capital, Moscow. 

Following this agreement, many HTS leaders defected, such as “Abu Malik al-Tali,” who later formed “The Ansar Combatants Brigade” faction, and “Abu al-Abd Ashdah,” who established the “Coordination of Jihad” faction. The leaders, then, joined the operations room “Be Firm” on 12 June, which also included the Guardians of Religion Organization, “Ansar al-Din Front” and “Ansar al-Islam Front.”

After al-Tali joined the operations room, “Be Firm,” HTS arrested him on 22 June, arguing that Abu al-Tali was trying to “weaken the ranks and rip the already torn situation apart.”

HTS also arrested the leader in the ranks of “Ansar al-Din,” Serageddin Mukhtarov (aka Abu Salah Uzbaki) on 18 June, who is wanted by the International Criminal Police Organisation, commonly known as INTERPOL. 

The operations room “Be Firm” demanded from HTS to immediately release Abu al-Tali, and threatened to escalate the situation, but HTS did not respond to its demands. 

Tensions escalated between the two parties after the deployment of their checkpoints. The situation developed into an armed confrontation using light and medium weapons by the operations room “Be Firm” on 23 June while HTS used heavy weapons at times.

This provoked an angry response from religious and military figures in Idlib, who called on both parties to desist from fighting and form a single leadership.

The clashes between the two parties continued for days, ending with the signing of three agreements in different regions on 25 June.

The first agreement included the area of Arab Saeed and Sahl ar Rūj, west of Idlib, and stipulated a cease-fire between the two parties in these two areas, and the removal of barriers and high alert status.

The agreement also provided that the people of the village of Arab Saeed can keep their personal weapons, and whoever wants to come out of his village can hold his weapons.  

Some of the defendants on both sides are also referred to “the Turkestan Islamic Party” faction for judicial review.

In addition to the closure of the headquarters of the “Guardians of Religion Organization,” one of the factions of the “Be Firm” operations room, in Arab Saeed, the latter pledged not to deploy any barriers in the area.

The second agreement contained the areas of al-Hamama, al-Yaqoubiya, and al-Jadida, west of Idlib, adding that the headquarters of the “Guardians of Religion Organization,” should be immediately evacuated, except for one headquarter. The agreement also provided that only the management of the crossings can set up checkpoints, in addition to that, some elements will be released while others will be referred to the court. 

The third agreement covered the regions of Haram, Armanaz, al-Sheikh Bahar, and Koko, north of Idlib, and its text was similar to the second agreement.

Earlier, the “Be Firm” operations room announced that it accepted calls to stop fighting against HTS, but with the guarantee of the battalions of “Junud al-Sham” and “Descendants of the Caucasus,” for three days.


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