What keeps the HTS leader away from Coalition airstrikes?
As the US-led International Coalition escalated attacks on “jihadists” in the areas of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) in northern Syria, the commander of Tahrir al-Sham, with his frequent public appearances, seemed immune amid questions about him surviving Coalition’s strikes and if the US sees him as a threat.
Abu Mohammad al-Jolani, general commander of the HTS, has made several public appearances, despite the fact that he is wanted and that his entire Islamist group is listed on the UN Security Council’s “terror lists.”
The HTS, formerly known as the Nusra Front, controls Idlib city and parts of the western countryside of Aleppo, Latakia countryside, and al-Ghab Plain northwest of Hama governorate.
IS leader, latest blow
The Coalition strikes focused on targeting leaders of “jihadist movements,” or those affiliated with Hurras al-Din group, as well as other independent jihadists, by launching smart bombs from either drones or warplanes where airdrops were also carried out to eliminate Islamic State leaders.
The last bombing of a “jihadist” pocket in Idlib was on 3 December 2021, when a person riding a motorcycle near the village of Kafr Batikh, south of Idlib, was killed by a US drone attack, while seven civilians of one family were injured as they passed by in a car.
The Syria Civil Defense (SCD) team confirmed at the time that one person had been killed and that five civilians of one family, including three women and a child, had been slightly wounded following a “stockpiled” reconnaissance aircraft’s targeting of a motorcycle on the Ariha-al-Mastouma road.
But three days later, the Pentagon spokesman, John Kirby, said in a press conference that the US raid had targeted Musab Kinan, the leader of Hurras al-Din group, which revealed that the slain motorcycle man was one of the most wanted Jihadists in Syria.
In more powerful elimination, the leader of the Islamic State group, Abdullah Qardash, who has also gone by the name of “Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi,” was killed on 3 February in an airdrop operation conducted by US forces helicopters in the town of Atma, north of Idlib.
The landing forces surrounded a house between the towns of Atma and Deir Ballut on the border with Turkey. Forces later clashed with those inside the besieged house.
According to the Civil Defense, at least 13 people, including six children and four women, were killed as a result of shelling and clashes following the airdrop.
Elimination of foreign fighters
Al-Jolani started to appear in the de-facto HTS sub-state on the various military, service, and economic occasions, and at a high rate, although his name is still on America’s wanted lists and with a reward of up to ten million US dollars for anyone who could provide information leading to him.
Abdulrahman a-Haj, an expert on Islamic movements, said in an interview with Enab Baladi that there is a positive US position on al-Jolani doings in regard to containing and putting an end to the “phenomenon” of foreign fighters and ending the presence of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group.
Although the HTS denies that there is a systematic policy towards migrants, stating that “they are still on the side of the revolution, and are still in favor of its project and its leadership,” it has worked to extend its control by dissolving and eliminating certain factions, confiscating their weapons, and forcing them to align with its policy.
More than four months ago, a decision was issued to evacuate homes in Idlib by evicting foreign fighters (migrants), which led to accusing Tahrir al-Sham of targeting foreigners and jeopardizing their livelihoods through such a decision.
Last February, Tahrir al-Sham said that the resolution was inclusive and that it was not specific to a particular category or nationality. It includes all those who live in these houses (that are public property), whether or not they are affiliated with a faction.
On 25 October 2021, the HTS launched a military campaign against the headquarters of foreign “jihadist” factions in the countryside of Latakia, the largest of which is the Jund al-Sham faction led by Muslim al-Shishani, whom the HTS previously demanded to leave Syrian territory with his foreign fighters.
Dr. al-Haj emphasized that exclusions can only be conducted by al-Jolani, particularly since this was accompanied by a shift in the ideology adopted by the HTS, formerly the Nusra Front, and the creation of a viable civil environment and relative stability that does not exist in any other part of Syria.
In early November 2017, the Syrian Salvation Government (SSG) was formed to control the aspects of life in the Idlib region, in terms of service and administration, through a series of economic, agricultural, and educational offices to establish service projects in the city, and to be the civil governing body of the HTS.
The emergence of the Salvation Government enabled the general commander of Tahrir al-Sham to appear and utilize this platform to advertise the provision of services in all sectors and to make promises of meeting people’s needs, a radical shift from discussing the “pure” military aspect of the battles and the fight against the regime.
With the implementation of the policy of “exclusion” and the creation of a “civil” environment, al-Haj considers al-Jolani successful in advertising himself as a dire and urgent US need in current circumstances.
Maintaining the pressure of being targeted and on the terror list helps the Americans consolidate the role he is playing, according to researcher al-Haj, who indicated that the HTS commander’s continuous pursuit of the award (the removal of his name from the designated terrorist list) would render his performance of the task he was assigned far more adequate.
“Safety valve” for US interests
There is no grave threat to al-Jolani’s life by the US, which is at least what he senses and what enables him to “stroll” freely, or it might be possible that he had received reassurances about not being targeted, according to al-Haj.
Moreover, the US interest has come to keep him as a “safety valve” against extremist organizations in the region and as a significant local force in the face of the regime and Russians in Idlib, seeing that Russia is using the presence of Tahrir al-Sham as a pretext for continued shelling and military operations in HTS-held areas.
As Enab Baladi monitored, the regime and Russian forces carry out bombings and operations targeting opposition-controlled areas on an almost daily basis, even when the Moscow ceasefire agreement, signed by Russia and Turkey on 5 March 2020, continues to take effect.
Tahrir al-Sham responds by targeting and bombing gatherings or sites of the regime and Iranian forces in the towns and villages surrounding its control areas.
No guarantees when it comes to “jihadists”
The recurring appearance of al-Jolani raises questions about the possibility of having guarantees or cards to present or to divert the attention focused on him.
Dr. al-Haj reckons that the United States does not trust the “jihadists” and their transformations. Its policy of individual assassinations appears to be effective in influencing and weakening these organizations for reasons of risk assessment, organizational activities, and changes that they underwent.
Certain “jihadist” organizations have been removed from the list of designated terrorist groups in recent years, meaning that the list is “flexible.”
Based on that, al-Jolani believes that his name can be removed from the list, but the real guarantee for his survival is the role that no one else but him would be able to play in Idlib, according to al-Haj.
It is customary for organizations to become more extreme once they are targeted and to collapse and disintegrate if they seek ideological change, experts say.
Tahrir al-Sham has changed its behavior since the Nusra Front announced its defection from al-Qaeda, or any other foreign entity, in a video recording streamed in July 2016. According to al-Jolani, al-Nusra changed its name to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, later becoming Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.
The HTS also pursued Islamic State members and launched a campaign of arrests and field executions at the time, arresting the senior leader of the Islamic State, Abu al-Baraa al-Sahili, and executing him in Idlib in July 2018.
Al-Jolani is a new model whose transformations have never been matched before, as Dr. al-Haj says while considering that al-Jolani had made a successful move with this shift whilst remaining coherent and that he had demonstrated an actual abandonment of “jihadism” and his ties to it. “This is, in fact, an infrequent and unforeseen thing,” he concluded.
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