From IS gate, will Tahrir al-Sham “Get Off a Terrorist List”?

HTS senior commander Mazhar al-Wis (R), HTS general commander Abu Mohammad al-Jolani (C), and commander Abu Maria al-Qahtani (L), in a meeting with the notables of the eastern region - 14 July 2022 (Amjad)

HTS senior commander Mazhar al-Wis (R), HTS general commander Abu Mohammad al-Jolani (C), and commander Abu Maria al-Qahtani (L), in a meeting with the notables of the eastern region - 14 July 2022 (Amjad)

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The powerful Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and its affiliate Public Security Service have repeatedly announced the arrest of Islamic State (IS) members or sleeper cells in special operations in northwestern Syria, which all were met with ‘no comment’ from the hardline group.

Amidst a complex relationship and Tahrir al-Sham’s denial that the General Security Service is affiliated with it, the name of the security apparatus emerged through operations announced through its digital accounts or through its spokesman, Diaa al-Omar, by arresting senior IS commanders and members in its areas of control in Idlib governorate, and part of the western countryside of Aleppo and Latakia and the al-Ghab Plain and northwest of Hama.

Tracking IS fighters by the HTS began after the battles on the front lines in northern Syria stopped on 5 March 2020 due to what is known as the Moscow Agreement that was brokered by Russia and Turkey.

Since then, the HTS tightened its security and military grip on the northwestern region, and the pace of arrests of IS cells has increased recently, which raised speculations if such operations may play a role in removing Tahrir al-Sham from the terrorism lists and the extent of IS’ ability to harm the HTS.

Tracking IS cells, regional and international role

The General Security arrested on 23 August a group of people involved in killing a man and his wife, three days after the crime that took place in the village of Kaftin in the northern countryside of Idlib.

Diaa al-Omar, the spokesman for the Security Service, told Enab Baladi via electronic correspondence that the “cell” consisted of several people, most of whom were arrested by General Security, adding that they confessed their affiliation with the Islamic State and that their leader is an Uzbek.

The General Security issued a statement stating that Abu Bakr al-Uzbeki and Abdullah al-Uzbeki, who were involved in the killing of a man and his wife, belong to one of the active IS security cells.

The cell has committed previous operations, including killing one of the HTS fighters and two civilians.

The murder, which met with great resonance among the people of the villages of Jabal al-Summaq, came after several violations that were recently exposed to the residents of the area, amid calls to limit the practices of harassment by some factions operating in the area, most notably the Turkistan Islamic Party.

The Turkistan Party denied the violations, pointing out that what is being said is “a slander against the faction that distances itself from any internal problems.”

Syrian researcher Dr. Abdul Rahman al-Haj, who covers religious movements, told Enab Baladi that the HTS acts as an international and regional police force against the Islamic State group and against foreign fighters in general and al-Qaeda in particular.

The HTS ignores the announcement of any operations against al-Qaeda or foreign fighters in an effort not to create new opponents and limits the announcement of its operations only against the cells of IS, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), and the Syrian regime, according to al-Haj.

On 14 June, General Security arrested a number of IS leaders in the town of al-Dana, northwest of Idlib, as part of a large-scale security operation, according to a statement.

The General Security said the next day that among the arrested were leaders in what is known as “Wilayat al-Sham,” and they hold sensitive positions, the most important of which is securing roads and supplies.

On 6 July, the General Security said it had arrested members and commanders of the Ansar Abu Bakr Brigade group, revealing their secret armed operations, especially against the Turkish army that the group dubs the “Turkish NATO.”

HTS faces difficulties, obstacles

The formerly “al-Nusra Front for the People of the Levant” first appeared in Syria at the end of 2012 as a faction distinguished by its emergence from the womb of al-Qaeda to be its Syria branch led by Abu Mohammad al-Jolani, who sought to remove the HTS from the terrorism lists.

The expert al-Haj believes that Tahrir al-Sham seeks, by declaring its repeated operations against the IS’ sleeper cells, to consolidate the role it claims to play as a de-facto force and a necessary need for regional and international security, which may necessarily contribute towards removing its name from the lists of terrorism.

Al-Haj asserts that removing HTS from the lists of terrorism is not an easy matter, as it relates to real shifts in its ideology that prove that it is no longer linked to global Salafi jihadism and that it has behavior on the ground that can be accepted at the minimum level of the international community.

The expert in the jihadist movements believes that the HTS will still be blacklisted even if it fulfills all the conditions to keep it under pressure and to ensure its continuation in this role it plays.

The old ties of Tahrir al-Sham are an obstacle, despite changes it made since its founding in January 2012, and defecting from the Islamic State in April 2013, and the declaration of non-affiliation with al-Qaeda in July 2016.

On the 3rd of last July, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy published an article in which it mentioned three reasons for “Why Is It So Difficult to Get Off a Terrorist List?” for the HTS.

Jihadist movements expert Aaron Y. Zelin said the strategic priorities, political factors, and institutional inertia make it hard to remove a group from government lists even if it no longer meets the designation criteria, potentially hog-tying U.S. policymakers.

These political considerations have consequences. One consequence is institutional inertia, which causes these types of decisions to take a long time. Usually, a group is delisted only after it has been defunct for some time or there is a positive U.S. interest that does not have large political downsides, according to Zelin.

“Despite al-Jolani’s aspirations, the barriers to HTS being taken off any terrorism lists, in the United States or elsewhere, are high. The group’s behavior and rhetoric remain extreme, and so the status quo seems acceptable,” he added.

IS in Idlib, absence, and presence

The arrests of IS sleeper cells in the HTS areas did not receive any comment from the group, which usually does not announce its losses regarding the arrest of “cells” affiliated with it.

The presence of IS remained confined to repeated statements by Tahrir al-Sham or the US-led International Coalition of arresting or targeting its members or senior commanders.

IS comments and announcements are limited to the assassination of its senior leaders or when it conducts military operations, according to researcher Abdul Rahman al-Haj, who indicated that the group has never announced anything other than that, neither in Syria nor anywhere else.

According to Enab Baladi’s monitoring of the IS’ media statements, its latest announcement about losses in Idlib was the killing of its leader, Abdullah Qardash, known as Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi, in a US military operation in the border town of Atma, northern Syria, on 3 February.

On 10 March, IS mourned its leader, 35 days after his killing, via an audio speech by the new official spokesman for IS, Abu Omar al-Muhajir, under the title “Some of them have paid their vow by death (in battle),” broadcast by his al-Furqan Foundation via Telegram platform.

The danger, to what degree?

The Islamic State made numerous attempts to harm the HTS in its areas of control, but it failed due to the heavy security grip and severe monitoring of the jihadist movements and IS network in the northern region, according to Dr. al-Haj.

The expert in religious movements believes that IS is unable to retaliate in the HTS areas, and if it could do something, it would have avenged its senior leaders who were arrested or assassinated, pointing out that Tahrir al-Sham has a key role in that.

The HTS carried out many security operations to pursue the IS members in northwestern Syria, in addition to restricting and prosecuting foreign jihadists, despite denying the existence of a systematic policy towards foreign fighters.

In 2017, the US classified the HTS as a “terrorist organization” after it changed its name from Fatah al-Sham Front, which included an alliance of opposition military factions, the most prominent of which was Jabhat al-Nusra after it split from al-Qaeda in 2016.

The Salafist faction did not manage to escape the classification after changing the name to Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, as Washington insisted, on 15 May 2017, on rolling it on the terrorist lists, while the HTS considers that the Western classifications “lack the truth” and it was not based on “facts or concrete evidence.”

 

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