HTS, Sham Legion tension: More than dispute, less than confrontation
Enab Baladi – Hassan Ibrahim
An attack launched by the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) on military points controlled by the Sham Legion faction in southern Idlib countryside sparked talk of disputes that have recurred recently between the two factions.
The attack brought to mind previous attacks launched by Tahrir al-Sham, the de facto ruler of large areas of the northern Idlib region, against multiple factions it excluded from the military arena.
An attack or incursion may have become a normal and usual event in the case of the factions in northwestern Syria, but for Tahrir al-Sham to be a party to it, it must be accompanied by statements from soldiers and activists that shed light on the desire of HTS to expand the power difference with other factions and extend its influence over wider areas, and impose its authority under the pretext of “unifying forces and ending the state of factionalism,” especially since the history of Tahrir al-Sham bears witness to the infighting that it waged.
An attack during which fighters from the Sham Legion were arrested, preceded by similar operations against the latter during the past months, which opened the door to questions about the frequency, purpose, and dimensions of these operations, especially that they are between Tahrir al-Sham which is listed on “terrorism” lists and the Turkish-backed Sham Legion.
On April 12, the Sham Legion said in a statement that Tahrir al-Sham stormed a number of its stationing points in the axis of the town of al-Bara in the southern countryside of Idlib and expelled the fighters of the Legion by force of arms, and took control of those points.
For its part, Tahrir al-Sham issued a statement, a copy of which was obtained by Enab Baladi through the Tahrir al-Sham media office, in which it attributed the reasons for the attack to the response to repeated complaints from the people of the al-Bara town against fighters of the Sham Legion as a result of their practices that “have nothing to do with the revolution” like their “immoral” practices and abuses against the residents, the neglect of their military duty in protecting the local people and other matters that the HTS would mention later, according to the statement.
The HTS added that it had arrested some “abusive” fighters without specifying their number and stated that the statement of the Sham Legion does not solve the problem and does not confront the truth.
The HTS urged the leadership of the Sham Legion to work to solve the problems and control the behavior of its members and assume their full responsibilities.
Evacuation of a “Sharia office” and “stationing points”
On November 13, 2022, dozens of HTS vehicles and fighters surrounded the “Sharia office” building of the Sham Legion in Idlib city, and the entire area was closed off.
Although the number of those who were in the headquarters did not exceed ten persons, including alternate Sharia scholars and university students, whom “poverty forced them to reside in the headquarters,” according to what was published by the official of the “Sharia’s office,” Omar Hudhaifa.
Hudhaifa said that the building is one of the “shares of the spoils of the Sham Legion faction on the day the spoils were distributed among the components of the Jaish al-Fateh following the takeover of the city of Idlib and that it was a dilapidated building that was repaired and equipped by the Sham Legion.
According to the Sham Legion official, The pretext was that the Salvation Government, the political umbrella for Tahrir al-Sham, needed all government buildings to be used in managing the governorate.
Hudhaifa said that there are many huge and modern buildings occupied by Tahrir al-Sham in Idlib, and they are more suitable for the government than this dilapidated building, which is a remnant of the French mandate, and the “strange insistence” on taking over this particular building by Tahrir al-Sham cannot be explained by the HTS, except because it belongs to the Sham Legion.
When the issue of opening the internal crossings topped the media front in September 2022, Tahrir al-Sham attacked military points of the Sham Legion, on the background of a dispute between the two parties over the exchange of stationing points near the Trinbeh-Saraqib crossing, on the 29th of the same month.
The head of the media office of the Sham Legion, Saif Abu Omar, told Enab Baladi at the time that Tahrir al-Sham attacked several points of the Sham Legion with machine guns, which resulted in several casualties among its fighters.
Same old tactic, messages for Ankara
Tahrir al-Sham appeared for the first time in Syria at the end of 2012 under the name “Jabhat al-Nusra for the People of the Levant.” It is a faction distinguished by its emergence from the womb of al-Qaeda, the most prominent jihadist faction on the global scene, and later announced its separation from any organization and considered itself a local Syrian force.
Tahrir al-Sham controls Idlib governorate militarily, and a part of the western countryside of Aleppo, the countryside of Latakia, and the al-Ghab Plain northwest of Hama, and it worked to extend its control by dissolving and displacing some factions, confiscating their weapons, or forcing them to go along with its policy, then it moved to dismantle the majority groups from foreign fighters.
The former colonel in the regime forces, Abdul-Jabbar al-Akeidi, believes that Tahrir al-Sham’s movements towards the Sham Legion’s military sites are a continuation of its policy that it has followed since 2014 of “oppression” of the factions and control of their weapons, whether under the name of “Jabhat al-Nusra” or under the current name.
Al-Akeidi said in an interview with Enab Baladi that the Tahrir al-Sham attack on the factions and their disarmament and headquarters were always accompanied by the advance of the regime forces previously, and it was a prelude to the regime’s advance on a specific area and gave an example of the exclusion of Tahrir al-Sham and its dismantling of the Syrian Revolutionaries Front, Hazm Movement and Ahrar al-Sham Movement, which was followed by the regime’s control of large areas.
Al-Akeidi, who is the founder and former leader of the Revolutionary Military Council in Aleppo, pointed out that the policy of Tahrir al-Sham used to delude the factions that they are friendly to them and that there are no differences and then tends to accuse them of “collaborating with the Americans, debauchery, smoking, dealing with Turkey, the introduction of foreign forces, and other pretexts.”
Tahrir al-Sham is now practicing the actions of which the factions were previously accused, according to al-Akeidi.
The colonel believed that the Tahrir al-Sham attack on the points of the Sham Legion would carry messages from Tahrir al-Sham to Turkey, as it considered the Sham Legion a faction affiliated with and close to Ankara.
The messages indicate that if Tahrir al-Sham is not considered part of any future “settlement” or any arrangement and solution for the region, it is capable of “unrest, creating problems, and putting sticks in the wheels,” according to al-Akeidi.
The Sham Legion took neutral stances in the factional infighting in northern Syria, the most prominent of which was its neutral position regarding a series of internal fighting led by the HTS (al-Nusra Front and formerly Fateh al-Sham Front) with several military factions, including the Ahrar al-Sham Movement.
With each fighting, several factions took a position of neutrality and refrained from interfering or mediating in some cases, which was accompanied by accusations of collusion, and facilitating the passage of convoys from both sides of the fighting.
Al-Akeidi considered that the policy of “oppression” against the factions was the responsibility of the parties that supported Tahrir al-Sham or even those who continued to watch the fighting without an actual move to stop the clashes and are now waiting for their turn until Tahrir al-Sham excludes and disintegrates them.
After Hayat Tahrir al-Sham removed the Sham Legion from its legitimate office, Omar Hudhaifa, the official in charge of the office in the Sham Legion, reminded, through a post on December 1, 2022, of “Tahrir al-Sham’s oppression” against several factions previously, and its restrictions on fighters stationed on the fronts of Idlib and southern Aleppo, as more than 300 people were arrested at the time, and 23 “guarding points” were emptied in one night.
Hudhaifa asked, “Is anyone doing this keen on the fronts and frontiers and the security of the region and preserving the (Muslim egg) as he claims?” He added that Tahrir al-Sham broke “this whole egg” after killing and displacing hundreds of “Mujahideen,” pointing out that reality is capable of proving everything, and “falseness, shame, deceit, and treachery will be exposed.”
The HTS is still classified on “terrorism” lists, and Russia is using the faction as a pretext to advance in northwestern Syria. Abu Mohammad al-Jolani, the HTS commander-in-chief, is still listed among those wanted by the US, with a reward of up to $10 millions for anyone who gives information about him.
The faction did not succeed in escaping from the classification after changing its name to “Hayat Tahrir al-Sham,” as Washington insisted, on May 15, 2017, on placing it on the “terrorist” lists, while Tahrir al-Sham believes that Western classifications “lack the truth, as they are not based on concrete facts or evidence.”
What is Sham Legion?
The faction was formed on March 10, 2014, out of 19 Islamic opposition factions and groups in Syria. These groups operated on large areas of Syrian territory, starting from Aleppo governorate in the north to the capital, Damascus.
The Sham Legion is currently affiliated with the National Front for Liberation, a key unit in the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA), which is affiliated with the al-Fateh al-Mubeen operations room with Tahrir al-Sham, and has military points in many areas of Idlib and Aleppo.
Sham Legion is considered one of the most prominent factions close to Turkey.
In October 2015, the Institute for the Study of War considered the Sham Legion as of the “power brokers” in Syria that receives its fund externally from Turkey first, then Qatar, followed by the Muslim Brotherhood.
The study classified it as an “Islamic political” faction fighting the Syrian regime, in addition to its fight against the Islamic State group and al-Nusra Front.
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