Three scenarios await Tahrir al-Sham following al-Qahtani’s dilemma

Abu Mohammad al-Jolani, Commander of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (R), and former HTS second man Abu Maria al-Qahtani (L) (Edited by Enab Baladi)

Abu Mohammad al-Jolani, Commander of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (R), and former HTS second man Abu Maria al-Qahtani (L) (Edited by Enab Baladi)

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Enab Baladi – Hassan Ibrahim

The powerful Hayat Tahrir al-Sham is still living under the impact of the “Infiltration and communication with hostile parties” issue that struck at the roots of the faction and reached the top of its pyramid, maintaining a thread of communication between its movements, components, and blocs that has not yet been interrupted within the HTS areas of control in Idlib and Aleppo in northwestern Syria.

A rift whose features have not been completely clear, but the charged atmosphere warns of division amid ongoing tensions between the components of the Tahrir al-Sham and many possible scenarios after about three weeks have passed since the freezing of the leadership roles and powers of the second man in Tahrir al-Sham, Maysar bin Ali al-Jubouri (al-Harari), better known as “Abu Maria al-Qahtani, due to his involvement in the case of “collaborating, infiltration and communication with internal and external hostile parties.”

Despite the Tahrir al-Sham’s talk about some details of the “spy cells” issue and its contradictory narration that its members are new members who joined its ranks, ambiguity still surrounds the fate of the 47-year-old commander, which opened the door to talk about the fate of Tahrir al-Sham and its options in the face of the exclusion of the second man who enjoys the support of large groups within HTS and has the support of some of its first-rank leaders.

From decision maker to isolated person

Tahrir al-Sham, led by Abu Mohammad al-Jolani, issued on August 17 a statement stipulating the freezing of the tasks and powers of al-Qahtani. Such a blow kept the HTS veteran out of the Tahrir al-Sham accounts, albeit temporarily, and showed a deep rift in the faction’s hierarchy, followed by reports of a struggle between movements and components of the first ranks. 

The statement carried a “nice and mild” tone, compared to the HTS statements against former senior commanders, following previous disputes with them or their objection to the policies of Tahrir al-Sham, such as the former Sharia jurist Talha al-Maysar, known as “Abu Shuaib al-Masri.”

An unknown fate surrounds al-Qahtani after his powers were frozen, especially since he is one of the founders of Tahrir al-Sham (formerly al-Nusra Front) and a decision-maker in it. He manages the file of its fight against the Islamic State group and participates in the files of Tahrir al-Sham’s expansion towards the northern and western countryside of Aleppo.

Freezing the tasks of al-Qahtani was the most prominent and major episode revealed in the “collaborating with the enemies” series, and the presence of senior commanders of the Tahrir al-Sham in its prisons for the same accusations contradicts the HTS narration that the “infiltrators” were from the new members.

Al-Qahtani leads the fight against the Islamic State group and was often presented by the followers of Tahrir al-Sham as a religious scholar or cleric, but he is more of a leader, executor, and businessman than a scholar, and in the period between 2014 and 2015 he played a leading role as an ideologue who attacks the extremists of ISIS. He even earned the title “Conqueror of the Kharijites.” (Kharijites means Seceders or “those who exit the community).

The HTS statement was limited to freezing the tasks without mentioning the date of al-Qahtani’s arrest or investigation or whether he was detained outside prisons or under house arrest.

Al-Qahtani remains absent from publication via his social media accounts since August 12, when it was published that he was ill, which was not usual for him.

Abu Maria al-Qahtani suffers from leukemia, and his condition has recently worsened, according to leaders and according to Charles Lister, the senior fellow at the Middle East Institute and the director of the MEI-Syria program.

Lister said on August 16 via X (formerly Twitter) that “al-Qahtani is not dead, though his health has deteriorated significantly in recent days, amid his internal problems with the HTS and dismissal from leadership roles…His fate is not known, but the consequences are disastrous.”

Hassan I. Hassan, founder and editor-in-chief of the US-based New Lines Magazine and co-writer of the 2015 New York Times bestseller ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, commented on X that “ISIS is celebrating today. It’s an excellent time for ISIS after wasting his blood and the blood of al-Jolani a week ago.”

Hassan added, “The HTS is embarking on a new and dangerous adventure, restricting and excluding its most prominent men. It is taking risks because of an important reason for the success of its policy in recent years and the reason for the stability of its affairs in the north and even internationally.”

ISIS did everything to reach him (al-Qahtani), and the organization blamed the HTS for the killing of its fourth leader in early August, according to Hassan.

Conflict comes to light

The decision to freeze leadership duties cannot be considered a natural matter in the case of al-Qahtani, nor can it pass without confusion, especially with a leader who was a partner in founding the al-Nusra Front in October 2011 and was deputy to its leader, Abu Mohammad al-Jolani, and he was legally appointed as “emir” of the eastern region of Syria with the beginning of armed action in 2012.

The decision to freeze his duties created a conflict between two currents within it, the first supportive of him and including the Eastern Region bloc, HTS Sharia head Mazhar al-Wais, and the second dissatisfied with al-Qahtani, and includes the leaders of the first rank, Abu Ahmed Hudood and the head of the Sharia Council in Tahrir al-Sham, Abdul-Rahim Atoun (better known as Abu Abdullah al-Shami).

Al-Qahtani has a prominent presence within Tahrir al-Sham, given his role in establishing the al-Nusra Front in the region, to which the Eastern Region bloc (Deir Ezzor, Raqqa, and al-Hasakah) owes its allegiance. He had a role in supporting it financially and preventing its members from being prosecuted before the courts for their repeated violations.

The HTS formed an investigation committee, which it described as “special,” according to the statement. A military source in Tahrir al-Sham told Enab Baladi that the committee included security personnel, military leaders, and administrative figures. The source refused to disclose whether al-Jolani was taking part in the committee.

HTS-defected commanders and Sharia men mentioned that Abu Obeida Mnazmat, senior commander, was the head of the investigation committee and had broad powers.

The thing that fueled the dispute is that the al-Qahtani supporters’ movement believes that “Mnazmat” is affiliated with the second movement (al-Qahtani opponents). They accused the head of the committee of tampering in order to convict al-Qahtani.

Two days after the mission freeze statement, HTS leader and the man who continued to lead Tahrir al-Sham’s diplomacy, Jihad Issa al-sheikh “Abu Ahmad Zakour” said praising al-Qahtani on X website that he was “the best companion,” with a photo of them together, taken on top of the snow and in a former HTS uniform. 

The HTS dissident, Saleh al-Hamwi, said a day before the statement of freezing powers that what is happening is internal liquidations that are out of the control of al-Jolani.

“If al-Qahtani had anything to do with the cells of the US-led International coalition, he would have fled months ago when the first (spy) cell was uncovered.”

Al-Hamwi stated that the Tahrir al-Sham bloc in Binnish city, led by Abu Hafs and senior HTS commanders, prepared a file containing confessions of some elements affiliated with al-Qahtani, most of which were fabrications to entrap him, and this was what was done, but the Eastern Sector (loyal to al-Qahtani) abandoned it.

Exclusion, integration and pacification

Orabi Orabi, a researcher in jihadi groups, told Enab Baladi that it is not possible to give weight to the nature of the repercussions the HTS will suffer after the transformations it has undergone in the past period, and this may put Tahrir al-Sham in the face of new turns and possibilities, the first of which is the exclusion of the al-Sharqiya bloc, which is the security and economic bloc that surrounded al-Qahtani.

Orabi explained that the exclusion of the al-Sharqiya bloc is considered one of the most likely possibilities, and it seems that the most prominent target for his exclusion and removal from the scene will be the Sharia Judge Mazhar al-Wais, Farouk Shuhail, and “Abu Muhjin al-Haskawi,” given their propaganda and tribal role in supporting al-Qahtani, and their position in his support against the Binnish bloc.

Abu Ahmad Zakour is linked to large commercial interests with the al-Qahtani bloc, and therefore, he will be faced with the choice of antagonizing the Binnish bloc or standing with it, and it is likely that he will stand on the fence in the event that his commercial and financial interests and his position within Tahrir al-Sham are protected, said Orabi.

The Binnish bloc needs to win over members of the people of the eastern region through various possible means, such as material temptations, in addition to persuasive rhetorical work, says the expert on jihadi groups.

In addition to the role of leaders from the people of the eastern region in persuading them to unite around the Tahrir al-Sham project, stick to it, and renounce sedition.

The second scenario and possibility, in the view of researcher Orabi, is the cohesion of the al-Sharqiya bloc and the attempt to win over elements of the “dormant” blocs, such as the Aleppo bloc and the Abu Malik al-Tali bloc, and perhaps they will offer the Hama bloc an alliance with them.

In order for the al-Sharqiya bloc to guarantee the alliance of the “dormant” blocs with it, it must make extensive concessions on its security control within Tahrir al-Sham. Consequently, this bloc will not have absolute control over the security joints, which will lead to its weakening in the future, according to Orabi.

The expert believes that the blocs will not be inclined to agree to this scenario, given the amount of gains they may obtain from excluding the bloc in exchange for agreeing to support it.

He believes that the third option is calm, working to choose a compromise solution by al-Jolani and taking some measures to satisfy the Binnish bloc, then followed by other measures to reassure the al-Sharqiya bloc so that the situation does not develop into a declared clash or take a reaction that affects the HTS cohesion.

The researcher believes that the calm scenario is the most likely of the three scenarios in the current situation because any new division in Tahrir al-Sham will have a harmful effect on everyone’s interests and will give the HTS’ opponents the ability to dismantle it more easily.

The freezing statement carried a “gentle and mild” tone, compared to the statements of the HTS against former leaders following previous disagreements with them or their objection to Tahrir al-Sham’s policies.

The statement was criticized by HTS opponents, saying that an issue such as “communication with internal and external hostile parties” should not be met with a “fraternal” statement.

 

 

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