Enab Baladi – Hassan Ibrahim
Hayat Tahrir al-Sham group, which controls Idlib governorate and parts of the western countryside of Aleppo, the Latakia countryside, and the al-Ghab Plain, northwest of Hama, has changed its discourse from extremism to moderation, with a pre-determined policy that enabled it to gain military and civilian control over the region.
The statements of HTS leader Abu Mohammad al-Jolani and senior Sharia men carried messages to the inside and outside in attempts to convince the West that Tahrir al-Sham (formerly al-Nusra Front) took off the black garment and ended its belonging to the extremist “terrorist” groups, which was met with a Western reminder that it is a “terrorist entity of particular concern.”
The discourse, which was recently stripped of the sharp “jihadi” dialect, carried some contradictions that were represented by unusual terminology. According to al-Jolani, the project in the region is a “project of a Sunni entity,” while components of other religions and sects live in the region.
In this file, Enab Baladi discusses with researchers in religious movements and jihadist groups the possibility that recalling the classification will be “additional pressure” on Tahrir al-Sham to provide more and the possibility that this “pressure” will generate an explosion or discontent from Tahrir al-Sham while it is waiting “Western flexibility” for what researchers considered a “reward” for the roles it plays in the region.
The US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has reclassified Hayat Tahrir al-Sham as an “Entity of Particular Concern” due to its continuous violations of religious freedom in the areas under its control, according to its annual report issued on November 25, 2022.
The commission said that the tyrannical and ideologically driven rule of Tahrir al-Sham, and its competition with many parties to control parts of Syria expose the religiously diverse population of northwestern Syria to constant danger.
The commission recommended that the US State Department reclassify Tahrir al-Sham as an “Entity of Particular Concern” due to its ongoing violations of religious freedom and that it impose targeted sanctions on additional HTS leaders.
The report stated that Tahrir al-Sham, emanating from al-Qaeda, remained the dominant ruling and religious force in northwestern Syria and continued to treat minorities with brutality. It imposed restrictions on the worship of the indigenous Christians of Idlib, expelled them, and seized their property and churches.
The USCIRF pointed out that this danger against the religiously diverse population continues, despite the fact that Tahrir al-Sham severed its official relations with the al-Qaeda organization and launched an active public relations campaign to rebrand itself as a legitimate civil authority.
Enab Baladi contacted the HTS media office to comment on the USCIRF’s report, but it did not receive a response until the moment this report was published.
The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) is an independent, bipartisan US federal government agency created by the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA), as amended.
USCIRF monitors the universal right to freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) abroad; makes policy recommendations to the President, Secretary of State, and Congress; and tracks the implementation of these recommendations.
The “Entity of Particular Concern” list includes groups, entities, and movements from 15 separate countries in the world: Afghanistan, Burma, China, Eritrea, India, Iran, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Vietnam.
History, classification chasing HTS
Al-Nusra Front (currently Tahrir al-Sham) arose in Syria at the end of 2011 as a faction that emerged from the womb of al-Qaeda, the most prominent “jihadist” faction on the world stage, and later announced that it was not affiliated with any organization, and considered itself a local Syrian force.
The HTS is still classified on “terrorism” lists, and al-Jolani is still listed among those wanted by the US, with a reward of up to $10 million for anyone who provides information about him.
In 2022, al-Jolani appeared in the mantle of service issues through visits to the people of villages and towns who follow the Christian religion and the Druze sect, and they are one of the components of the population fabric in Idlib, and he sent many messages after years of restrictions by some opposition factions, especially the al-Nusra Front, and some security incidents passed without comment from the HTS.
On July 19, 2022, al-Jolani visited a number of residents in the Christian villages of al-Qunya, al-Yaqubiyyah, and al-Jadida in the countryside of Jisr al-Shughour region, south of Idlib.
This visit came days after statements by al-Jolani, who considered that the project in the “liberated” north was no longer just a project for a revolution against injustice and tyranny but rather turned into a “Sunni entity.”
The Church of Saint Anna was reopened in the village of al-Yaqubiyyah in the western countryside of Idlib for the first time since the opposition factions took control of the area on August 28, 2022.
Dozens of people attended, and it is considered one of the most prominent, famous, and ancient churches, as it was restored in three historical stages, the last of which was in 1320 AD.
The inauguration and celebration of the region’s Christians on the feast of Saint Anna passed without comment from Tahrir al-Sham, which put the HTS and its leaders in front of criticism for “their discoloration and hostility to the factions previously under the slogan of Islam,” in addition to accusations of legitimizing Tahrir al-Sham itself as a “protector of minorities,” while it is the one whose members committed violations against them.”
On June 9, 2022, al-Jolani met with personalities and notables from the Druze community in the villages of Jabal al-Summaq in the northern countryside of Idlib during the inauguration and launching of the “water well project.” In his meeting, he made promises to address any “grievance” while not subjecting anyone to “oppression or injustice.”
Al-Jolani continued, describing himself by saying, “We are the people of truth,” after one of the notables demanded that the people of the region be equal with all people and not consider them a different sect, for they are “Muslims and do not accept to be described in any other way.”
Al-Jolani mentioned verse (ayah) 256 of Surat al-Baqara, “Let there be no compulsion in religion,” and stressed that no one would be forced to convert to Islam. He also absolved himself and his faction of any assault and harassment that the people of the region were previously subjected to.
The details of the local project, the well, its nature, the cost of its production, and the number of villages it feeds were absent from the video recording published by the Amjad media agency, and it ended with the words of al-Jolani that he did not harbor any political goals or gains from his visit, and the Harem region administration published the details of the well and the number of beneficiaries after five days of the visit.
Aaron Y. Zelin, Richard Borow Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told Enab Baladi that the classification as an “entity of particular concern” is not new, rather it is a procedure undertaken by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) every year, it included the HTS in this list for the first time in December 2020.
Zelin, the founder of Jihadology.Net, believes that this is just an indication that they still view Tahrir al-Sham’s actions towards minorities as “problematic.”
He also pointed out the importance of highlighting the difference between meeting with minority leaders and allowing them to pray or practice their beliefs in return for obtaining actual political rights or not being harassed by random people.
The expert in global jihadism does not see that this classification comes as an attempt by the United States to put more pressure on the HTS, as it has been applied since 2020, and this is not limited to Tahrir al-Sham, as there are other countries and entities included in this list.
The talk about the “Sunni project” was reinforced by al-Jolani when he considered that if the “revolution” lost, a calamity would strike the Sunnis in the region and the regional milieu, and they would turn into an “oppressed minority.”
This came in the context of his statements related to the Syrian issue and the path of Turkish rapprochement with the Syrian regime, during his meeting with the notables of the displaced in the city of Idlib, according to a video recording published by the Amjad media agency on January 11.
The HTS leader said that “the revolutionary project in Idlib is an exceptional event,” and it has a unified military and popular force with each other, and it is an event that does not happen every 50 or 100 years, and that the fate of the Syrians and Sunnis in the vicinity of Syria is also linked to decisions taken in the HTS-held areas,” he said.
Ruwan Al-Rejoleh, an expert in “jihadist and violent extremist” groups, told Enab Baladi that the HTS leader is trying to legitimize his existence, but with all attempts to deny the reality of extremism from al-Nusra Front and even with changing the names, the ideology remains the same.
Syria, ‘not a priority’
The repeated appearance of al-Jolani, accompanied by a change in the tone of HTS and the speech of its leader and its most prominent leaders and Sharia scholars, since al-Nusra Front announced its separation from al-Qaeda or any other “external entity” in July 2016, have not changed the Western stance, and especially the United States, towards its classification.
A few months ago, the US reminded Tahrir al-Sham that it is on the “terrorist” list when it called for Tahrir al-Sham to withdraw its forces from the areas controlled by the Syrian National Army (SNA) in the countryside of Aleppo, on October 18, 2022, against the backdrop of the latter’s forces entering Afrin.
The US embassy in Damascus said, via Twitter at the time, “We are alarmed by the recent incursion of HTS, a designated terrorist organization, into northern Aleppo. HTS forces should be withdrawn from the area immediately.”
The expert on jihadist groups, Zelin, is not sure that Tahrir al-Sham understands the mechanism of action of the United States of America and how to set policies in it, unlike the government of Tahrir al-Sham and the “tyrannical” governments in the region, according to him, where the leader can make a decisive decision on everything.
He explained that there is a complete political process in the United States and Europe, and it also takes time to take into account all these different political and strategic costs.
In addition to having different parts of the US government potentially interested in different things, so sometimes the policymaking process can become disjointed and not entirely aligned from one department to the next.
Zelin believes that as long as Tahrir al-Sham continues on its current course, it is unlikely that much will change on the part of the US government because Syria, aside from Tahrir al-Sham, is very low on the list of policy priorities these days.
In her turn, al-Rejoleh believes that the idea of “extremist jihadism” does not cross borders but only within the borders of Syria.
However, this does not negate that Turkey and the US deal with Tahrir al-Sham as a “terrorist” group and that the operations of the International Coalition in the HTS-held northwest are very qualitative and target “foreign terrorist” leaders, she added.
Despite the classification of Tahrir al-Sham on the “terrorist” lists, the US-led International Coalition focused on targeting or arresting “jihadists” affiliated with Hurras al-Din (HaD) faction in northwestern Syria, in addition to others affiliated with the al-Qaeda and Islamic State groups without targeting the HTS leaders.
“Unfair classification”: HTS
The HTS considered its inclusion on the “terrorism” lists several times as an “unfair classification,” including the response of the “Tahrir al-Sham” media office in an e-mail to Enab Baladi’s questions about renewing the classifications of the faction, the most recent of which was from Australia on February 17, 2022, as being a “terrorist” group.
The HTS said that it had made it clear on a previous occasion that its classification on the “terrorism” lists is a purely political matter that does not reflect the truth of the matter and the reality of the Syrian revolution and is not based on “tangible evidence,” and that whoever “committed massacres, killed the Syrian people with chemical weapons, and displaced two-thirds of the people, with the support of Iran and Russia, are the ones who deserve to be classified, and unfortunately they were not classified.
Al-Jolani’s speech and his promises to redress any oppression and that “There is no compulsion in religion,” not to regard the Druze community as a different sect, and not to comment on the opening of the Saint Anna church and the celebration rituals of Christians in Idlib seemed different from what he said in an interview conducted by Al Jazeera news channel on May 27, 2015, within the “Without Borders” program, which was presented by the Egyptian journalist Ahmed Mansour from inside northern Syria.
At that time, al-Jolani stressed the protection of the Druze and Christian villages in Idlib countryside and the sending of Islamic preachers to their villages to clarify their mistakes, as he put it. He believed that al-nasara (Christians) would be subject to “Islamic rule” if an Islamic regime was established in Syria, pledging to protect them.
Al-Jolani’s meeting with the Druze community in June 2022 was not, in terms of place or in terms of time, with Al Jazeera channel in 2015, far from the village of Qalb Lozeh in Jabal al-Summaq, in which a massacre took place at the hands of al-Nusra Front on June 10, 2015, when about 20 people from the Druze community were killed.
Days after that incident, al-Nusra stated that what happened was the participation of some of its members in the incident without taking orders from their emirs (their leaders) and that they had violated the directives of the “command,” noting that “delegations from (al-Nusra) set out to reassure the villagers after the incident that the massacre was an unjustified mistake and without the knowledge of the leadership.
Concerning al-Jolani’s statements on the Sunni entity and persecution, researcher Ruwan al-Rejoleh said that the Sunnis are the ones who have been the most persecuted and repressed at the hands of “terrorist jihadist” groups (with a Sunni orientation), including the al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State group.
Al-Rejoleh added that al-Jolani is trying to promote the legitimacy of his existence, but his survival depends on the classification process that countries will carry out for those who have an Islamic orientation in terms of belief, and not the extremist jihadi terrorist who seeks to implement a strict version of Islamic law by force of arms and terrorism, and primarily targets the Sunnis.
The Washington-based expert believes that there is no longer any minority or ethnic or religious diversity in the areas controlled by “terrorist” groups such as the Islamic State and al-Nusra, pointing out that the HTS’ existence is linked primarily to any Turkish-Russian-American agreement. For that, it is temporary and completely controlled, she assured.
Violations on a “religious” basis
Human rights and humanitarian organizations continue to document the violations against people of other sects and religions in the HTS-held areas although they have been decreased, but they still exist.
Nour al-Khatib, director of the Detainees and Forcibly Disappeared Persons department at the Syrian Network for Human Rights, told Enab Baladi that the SNHR has documented 11 cases of arrest targeting civilians of the Christian faith in Idlib governorate by Tahrir al-Sham members with the aim of seizing property belonging to their relatives or families who are outside HTS areas.
The Syrian Network also documented 16 cases of kidnapping of civilians of the Christian faith in Idlib governorate by unknown armed men, most of whom were unidentified, with the aim of extorting money from their families and releasing them in exchange for money.
SNHR estimates that the majority of the properties of civilians of the Christian religion in Idlib governorate, whose owners are located outside the HTS-held areas, have been seized by Tahrir al-Sham, or their relatives have been prevented from supervising it.
The head of the Detainees and Forcibly Disappeared Persons department added that the SNHR had documented 53 kidnapping cases, including three children and a woman from Druze-majority villages between 2012 until August 2022.
Tahrir al-Sham was responsible for 23 kidnapping cases, 16 cases carried out by the Islamic State group, and 14 cases committed by other “extreme Islamic” groups.
The number of population of the Druze villages remaining in their villages is estimated at about 20% of the original population, the vast majority of whom are elderly. These villages witnessed the largest wave of displacement, estimated at about 50% of the population, from the beginning of 2012 until 2014, due to the military operations and shelling that Idlib governorate was witnessing in general, according to SNHR estimates.
Al-Khatib pointed out that after the Islamic groups took control, the waves of displacement continued towards the southern Druze-majority As-Suwayda governorate or outside Syria due to the sectarian intimidation they were subjected to by various “extremist Islamic” groups.
Tahrir al-Sham prevented the Druze from practicing their religious rituals, closed their worship centers, and replaced them with mosques for all Muslims in the region.
The “extremist Islamic” groups in Idlib have practiced various types of violations against Syrian civilians of the Druze sect, specifically, the immigrants belonging to these organizations played a major role in that, according to al-Khatib.
She added that intimidation against civilians of the Druze community is one of the most common types of violations, followed by killings, which often take the form of assassination in mysterious circumstances, as well as looting.
The foreign jihadists, known as “al-Muhajreen,” also carry out these violations for the motives of religious extremism, and the daily contact between them and the Druze community was a major factor in the high rates of these violations, as the “al-Muhajreen” take the surrounding areas of the Druze community in Idlib as the basic bases for their presence and activity, according to al-Khatib.
Among the most prominent violations of Tahrir al-Sham and some factions, according to human rights organizations, are “persecution, kidnapping, captivity, torture, displacement, and denial of aid,” and forcing people to hide worship rituals and manifestations of religion and practice them in their homes.
The Syrians for Truth and Justice Organization (STJ) stated on November 18, 2022, that the Druze villages in Jabal al-Summaq are living in a state of instability amid kidnappings, killings, confiscation of property, and discrimination in obtaining rights and opportunities on religious grounds.
The Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria said on September 14, 2022, that it had received reports of the confiscation of property by HTS fighters between January and June 2022, and mainly the property of displaced individuals believed to be supporting the Syrian regime or opposing Tahrir al-Sham was confiscated, including Christians.
The Commission of Inquiry stated that “the described confiscation of property may amount to the war crime of pillaging, and that the property rights of displaced persons are also protected under customary international humanitarian law, and must be respected by all parties without discrimination.”
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