Hayat Tahrir al-Sham driving out foreign factions, why?
Enab Baladi – Khaled al-Jeratli
After the end of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS)’s militaristic rhetoric and escalation against Junud al-Sham, a Sunni Islamic “jihadist” militant group of mostly Chechen fighters, the HTS fighters launched a war on the headquarters of foreign fighters, whose identity the HTS did not name initially, in the Jabal al-Turkman area.
After hours of battles and circulated videos of capturing operations on both sides on 24 October, HTS announced that its offensives are limited to two groups of foreign fighters, excluding the Junud al-Sham group.
HTS did not name Junud al-Sham among its targeted groups because of the presence of a previous political settlement between the two sides, under which Junud al-Sham exited confrontation areas.
A temporary truce between HTS and Junud al-Sham
HTS communications director, Taqi al-Din Omar, told Enab Baladi that the “military tension” in Jabal al-Turkman in Latakia’s northern countryside with “a group of extremists involved in security cases and sheltering wanted persons,” ended under certain conditions on 28 October.
HTS required the remaining fighters of these groups to turn themselves into the HTS to investigate their security records. It also requested the handover of those wanted for security reasons, who are members of foreign factions, and the release of HTS captivated fighters.
Omar added that the ceasefire was achieved after some leaders in these groups were killed and a number injured during confrontations with HTS, noting that all military action in Jabal al-Turkman had ended and that HTS fighters had returned to the frontlines with the regime.
Omar’s statement of the end of military operations came a day after the arrest of three leaders of Chechen nationality, including the brother of Muslim al-Shishani, Junud al-Sham faction’s senior commander.
HTS eliminating its once allied jihadist groups
Foreign “jihadists” were a cornerstone when the star of al-Nusra Front faction rose in Syria in 2013. Syrians can not forget that al-Nusra, which had broken its association with al-Qaeda and then merged with other factions under the name of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, was known to have a majority of foreign fighters among its ranks, a former fighter of the Ahrar al-Sham Movement told Enab Baladi after requesting his name be withheld for security concerns.
The former fighter added that the HTS had previously promoted foreign fighters as a core military element on the Syrian scene. “Stories of grandeur were built around these foreign fighters’ heroism in battlefields.” This helped the emergence of a significant group of Syrians who defended foreign fighters and advocated their presence, even with the risks their existence might bring to the future of the Syrian revolution.
Until 5 September, the senior leader of HTS, Abu Mohammed al-Golani, was saying that foreign fighters in Syria are part of HTS during an interview with the Turkish version of the British newspaper, The Independent.
HTS’ volatile military and political positions on foreign fighters trigger some questions, to which the researcher in “jihadist” groups affairs at Jusoor Center for Studies, Abbas Sharifa, commented that HTS’ intention behind its latest military operations is to limit military influence to its organization.
Sharifa pointed out that HTS is keen on controlling all war and peace options in northern Syria, together with the National Liberation Front (NLF), by removing other factions from the scene.
Is HTS sending messages to Western countries?
The Syrian regime uses foreign “jihadist” groups as an excuse or pretext to justify its military actions on northern Syria at international conferences. Similarly, Russia uses these groups as a reason for its constant bombing of populated areas in the north of Syria.
On this matter, Sharifa said that HTS’ efforts to exclude other jihadist groups are unlikely related to its desire to send messages saying that the area is clear of such factions. However, this purpose can benefit HTS and would be an additional gain to its primary military objectives.
According to Sharifa, the recent military confrontations between HTS and other jihadist groups project HTS as a dominant force in the region that can control other hardline groups considered a threat by some regional parties when needed.
The repatriation of foreign nationals from Syria remains a thorny issue for Western countries, citing security concerns and difficulty investigating what their citizens have committed while in Syria.
The United States (US) had opposed a draft resolution presented at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) prohibiting the rehabilitation and social integration of foreign combatants that were in Syria.
On 31 August 2020, Washington vetoed the draft resolution, which was approved by 14 member states, because it did not contain a paragraph calling for the return of foreign combatants to their countries of origin, particularly foreign fighters detained in Syria and Iraq, as reported by the Agence France Presse (AFP) news agency.
Popular protests: Solidarity with foreign factions or expression of rage towards HTS
On 27 October, a popular protest was organized in the Bab al-Hawa square, north of Idlib, against HTS’ confrontations with foreign “immigrant” factions in the Jabal al-Turkman area.
The protesters chanted slogans to bring down HTS’ leader Abu Mohammed al-Golani and stop fighting foreign “immigrant” factions that battled the regime and its allies for years.
They also raised banners with the words, “Behind every infighting stands a supporting State. Our silence has encouraged the real killer to kill more. You fight your brother while your enemy is behind you.”
On 29 October, another protest was initiated from the Great Mosque in al-Atareb city in Aleppo’s western countryside. The protest was organized against HTS and called for the same demands of the 27 October protest.
Commenting on these protests, Sharifa said that regardless of whether they were right or wrong, they reflect Syrians’ “mistrust” of HTS’ narrative, justifying these factions’ dismantling because they are lawless and extremist.
According to Sharifa, the protests are more of “popular outrage” than solidarity with foreign factions, particularly that HTS provocations coincided with the regime and Russian forces’ bombing on the northern region while hinting at new military operations against the HTS areas of influence.
HTS dismantling groups of “experienced fighters”
The last few months witnessed increasing talks among Syrians about how much foreign fighters are experienced in fighting and the growing need for them as talks of a potential military campaign in the Latakia countryside by Russia and the regime were escalating.
As for Sharifa, the dismantling of foreign factions by HTS has little to no impact on the military level, for they are small groups of fighters. He added that there is no relation between the possible military campaign and the dissolving of these factions, as this move is primarily designed to enforce HTS’ sovereignty in the region.
Still, Sharifa did not deny that the non-existence of these experienced fighters on battlefronts would create some imbalance, as they have spent years fighting on frontlines and are experienced in mountainous terrains.
Sharifa continued saying that the relatively small number of foreign fighters diminishes the military impact of their absence. The fear, however, is that these groups might turn into sleeper cells pursuing their own agendas in the region.
Many of these factions’ members might consider leaving Syria, like what happened with Mousa al-Shishani, the brother of Muslim al-Shishani (Junud al-Sham’s leader), when Turkey arrested him during an attempt to leave Syria through borders with Turkey.
The beginning of tensions
Idlib governorate witnessed rising tensions between HTS and other factions, starting with HTS’ (previously the al-Nusra Front) assault on the Syria Revolutionaries Front (SRF) and some factions in the former Free Syrian Army (FSA) in late 2014.
The factional infighting led to the dissolution of many of FSA’s military formations. HTS arrested many of these factions’ fighters and seized their weapons to rule out all factions sharing control of areas outside the regime’s influence in Idlib and its countryside and other regions such as Aleppo countryside, Hama, and Latakia.
The differences between HTS and foreign “jihadist” groups in the northwestern region coincide with Russia’s and Turkey’s desire to neutralize groups they classify as “terrorist” in the region to further consolidate the Moscow deal signed on 5 March 2020. The deal provided for a ceasefire and ensured a security corridor on both sides of the M4 international highway linking Aleppo and Latakia.
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