“HTS” develops its ideology… political relations in Idlib’s “mini-state”

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

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


Enab Baladi – Ali Darwish

“Hay’ at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS)” has been working on demonstrating its ability to adapt to Syria’s internal situation to have a role in any future political process. The HTS has sent messages on the international and regional levels, the most recent of which is its talk on opening up relations with foreign countries.

Over the previous years, the HTS has undergone several shifts in its ideological and military structure. However, in the HTS’ commander-in-chief, Abu Muhammad al-Jolani’s meeting with the “International Crisis Group” on 20 February, he asserted that the HTS is a local movement that does not practice “external terrorism,” which was a turning point in the faction’s policy.

In recent months, the HTS has disbandment “jihadist” groups in areas under its control. It also prevented them from carrying out any military action, opening up headquarters without permission, and arrested prominent leaders in these groups.

While the leading cleric in the HTS, Abdul Rahim Attoun (also known as Abu Abdullah al-Shami), spoke to the Swiss newspaper Le Temps on 4 September directly about normalizing relations with western countries.

Moreover, in an interview with journalists a few days ago, the HTS referred to Idlib as a state governed by authority and institutions, even without the countries’ recognition, raising questions about the future plans of the HTS.

A political party project?

In an interview with Enab Baladi, the jihadist groups’ researcher, Ruwan al-Rejoleh, did not rule out the possibility of HTS becoming a political party or creating a political wing similar to Lebanon’s “Hezbollah” and the Palestinian “Hamas” Movement.

According to al-Rejoleh, the HTS aims to make a place for itself at the political negotiating table and political life, through “the use of violence, terrorism, and a rule of an iron hand to provide a model of hard-line governance, which secures state and security services.”

Al-Rejoleh added, western countries deal with the political wings of such “jihadist” organizations because, in the end, they represent a local segment and have domestic support, which means that, in return, these movements must change their “terrorist” structure, political language, and anti-western rhetoric.

The dealings with jihadist groups are governed by particular balances and dimensions, especially in the case of the HTS, which is linked directly to regional countries that have a significant impact on its legitimate, ideological, military, and political structures, according to al-Rejoleh.

The researcher continued saying, geography plays a vital role in defining determinants of relations and dealings of different players in a complex scene, such as the Syrian ground.

According to al-Rejoleh, the dynamics of interactions with “jihadist” groups cannot be overlooked from an ideological and pragmatic perspective.

She also added, the “militancy” of ideology and the strictness of senior clerics played a role in the “jihadist” groups’ dissent from the HTS, including the “Guardians of Religion Organization,” an armed insurgent group affiliated with al-Qaeda in Syria.

The international and pragmatic interests also had a role in setting the short and long objectives of the HTS’ leader, “Abu Muhammad al-Jolani.”

The researcher attributes this discord between the two sides to differences in the “depth and militancy of ideology” between “jihadist” groups and local and foreign “jihadist and Salafist” groups.

According to the researcher, foreign groups are generally more “extreme” and less locally accepted, unlike “jihadist” groups of local character and leadership, such as the HTS, marked by pragmatism and adaptation to global and regional changes.

HTS seeks normalization with the west

In his latest appearance, the leading cleric in the HTS, Abdul Rahim Attoun, called for normalizing relations with western countries, while speaking to the Swiss French-speaking newspaper Le Temps on 4 September.

Attoun talked about the need to normalize relations between the people in areas controlled by the HTS (Idlib province and parts of the western Aleppo countryside) and foreign countries.

He added, “we are currently working on polishing our image, and the goal is not to beautify reality but to show it as it is.”

Attoun said that Idlib residents are not living as the residents of the al-Raqqa province were living under the rule of the Islamic State (IS) organization in northeastern Syria.

He confirmed to the newspaper that “the HTS faction wants to exit the blacklist of terrorism, and only then the region will recover.”

Attoun justified the normalization of relations between the HTS and the west by saying that the region needs international help for reconstruction. He said, “the HTS was the last faction to fight the Syrian regime and its allies; however, it cannot eliminate it without help,” indicating to asking help from western countries to end the al-Assad regime’s existence in Syria.

He clarified, the HTS and the region need the help of the western countries.

For his part, the president of the “Syrian Salvation Government (SSG)” in Idlib, Ali Kiddeh, said to the Le Temps newspaper that the European Union (EU) should recognize the reality on the ground, the Syrian people’s desire of peace, and that the Syrian regime is a “terrorist.”

Kiddeh mentioned that relations with the international community are necessary to fight the Syrian regime. He added that the region needs everything from electricity, water, services, and international help and coordination with the SSG to enter the humanitarian aid to the region.

Kiddeh linked the entry of international aid to Idlib with international organizations’ cooperation with the SSG. He said in this regard, “international organizations should deliver assistance in cooperation with the SSG.”

The HTS has military control over Idlib and its countryside, besides the western countryside of Aleppo, along with the SSG, accused of being an extension to the HTS and controls the fuel, electricity, and communications sectors in these areas.

Idlib has a “state” with or without the countries’ recognition

In a meeting for HTS leaders with media professionals and activists on 30 August, the HTS leaders stated that “there is a state in the liberated areas of Syria with or without the countries’ recognition.” They added, “this state has authority and institutions, and manages the region’s affairs at all levels.” They said that “the media war on HTS is no less than the rest of the wars the faction goes through day after day.”

For the HTS leaders, the lands under their control are considered a state ruled by authority and institutions.

They added that “Idlib’s region has about four million people, and managed by an administration born from the revolution’s womb and the rubble of bombing, thus giving it legitimacy before the people and the world, which is a strategic victory.”

The HTS leaders said that the faction relied on the region’s capital, that is the youth, and the people, together with the expertise and capabilities of the liberated areas, and any intersection of interests with other entities is an added gain.”

Arresting “jihadists” and disbanding “jihadist” factions

On 18 June, the HTS arrested the former leader in its ranks, Serageddin Mukhtarov, (also known as Abu Salah al-Uzbaki), who is wanted by the International Criminal Police Organisation, commonly known as INTERPOL.

Mukhtarov was a leader in the jihadist group “Ansar al-Din.”

Several days later, the HTS arrested another former leader in its ranks, “Abu Malik al-Tali,” who is linked to the extremist mainstream on 22 June. The HTS justified his arrest by accusing him of attempting to “weaken the ranks and rip the already torn situation apart.”

The HTS arrest of “Abu Malik al-Tali” and “Abu Salah al-Uzbaki” led to fighting in the operations room “Be Firm,” which includes five jihadist factions: the “Coordination of Jihad” faction under the leadership of the former commander “Abu al-Abd Ashdah,” who was arrested twice for criticizing the HTS, the “Ansar Combatants Brigade” faction, the “Ansar al-Din Front,” the “Ansar al-Islam Front,” and the “Guardians of Religion Organization.”

The clashes ended with an agreement between the two parties to evacuate the “Be Firm” headquarters in Idlib and prevent the establishment of new ones. The agreement also prevented the setting up of checkpoints unless by the SSG’s “general management of crossings,” accused of association with the HTS.

The HTS also prevented the formation of any faction or operations room in its controlled areas. It has confined military operations to the “al-Fath al-Mubeen” operations room since 26 June, after signing the cease-fire agreement with the “Be Firm” operations room, thus controlling all areas in contact with the Syrian regime.

The “al-Fath al-Mubeen” operations room includes the HTS, the “National Front for Liberation (NFL)” included in the “Syrian National Army (SNA),” and the “Jaysh al-Izza.”

The HTS faction also arrested the French “jihadist” Omar Diabi, known as “Omar Omsen.” The faction justified the arrest with several lawsuits against Diabi and accused him of heading a miniature administration.

The forty-one years old “jihadist” leads a group of French fighters in Syria. He was born in Senegal and moved to Syria in 2013. Then, Diabi headed a “jihadist” brigade in Latakia’s forests, mostly from French fighters, and is considered the spiritual leader of his group.

According to French authorities, Diabi is responsible for recruiting 80 percent of French-speaking jihadists who went to Syria or Iraq,” while the US State Department classified him as a global terrorist in 2016.

Back then, Reuters reported statements from the US State Department that “Diabi is leading a group of about 50 foreign fighters in Syria, who was engaged in terrorist operations with the militant Islamist “Nusra Front,” which changed its name to the “Fath al-Sham Front,” before becoming the “Hay’ at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS).”

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