“Toppling heads” battle

Tahrir al-Sham at stake as al-Jolani eliminates founding commanders

Abu Mohammad al-Jolani (C) commander of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, Abu Maria al-Qahtani, Abdullah al-Muhaisni, Abu Abdullah al-Shami, and Abu Ahmad Zakour (Edited by Enab Baladi)

“Toppling heads” battle

Tahrir al-Sham at stake as al-Jolani eliminates founding commanders

Abu Mohammad al-Jolani (C) commander of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, Abu Maria al-Qahtani, Abdullah al-Muhaisni, Abu Abdullah al-Shami, and Abu Ahmad Zakour (Edited by Enab Baladi)

Abu Mohammad al-Jolani (C) commander of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, Abu Maria al-Qahtani, Abdullah al-Muhaisni, Abu Abdullah al-Shami, and Abu Ahmad Zakour (Edited by Enab Baladi)

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Hassan Ibrahim | Khaled al-Jeratli

Disagreements struck the top of the pyramid in Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which militarily controls Idlib and parts of the countryside of the Hama, Aleppo, and Latakia governorates.

This time, it came from the gate of the third man, Jihad Issa al-Sheikh, who defected from it and disavowed its actions four months after the overthrow of the second man in the faction, Abu Maria al-Qahtani.

Disagreements are no longer confined to the HTS’ rooms, and the leader of the faction, Abu Mohammad al-Jolani, did not succeed in cordoning them off, especially after talk about a failed attempt to arrest Issa al-Sheikh, known as Abu Ahmad Zakour, so the dispute turned into a conflict with signs of disintegration and internal liquidations, and the latter announced his departure from the “group” because its policy is gradually changing, he says.

What is happening is not new to Tahrir al-Sham, which has become accustomed to defections of its leaders and jurists, but a name with the weight of “Zakour,” who managed files for the Tahrir al-Sham and moved between leadership positions in it, and carries tribal symbolism, is something unusual and carries consequences for Tahrir al-Sham, and it may put the faction at a new turning point.

In this file, Enab Baladi sheds light on the state of the ongoing dispute and its causes and discusses with research fellows and military experts the effects of the inner conflict among the HTS ranks and the impact on the region it controls.

Dispute caused over “collaborating” claims; What is the story?

The dispute with Zakour was not the result of recent days, as it came to light after the HTS issued a statement on August 17 regarding the tasks and powers of Maysar bin Ali al-Jubouri or al-Harari. Such a blow for al-Qahtani, 47, kept him 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.”

Charges of “Collaborating with enemies

Freezing the tasks of al-Qahtani was the most prominent and major episode revealed in the series of “collaborating, infiltration and communication with internal and external hostile parties” 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.

Enab Baladi confirmed the arrest of some of the names mentioned by the media and dissident leaders from the HTS months ago, including figures who hold sensitive positions in the Tahrir al-Sham at the administrative and military levels and who are close to the leaders of the first rank and the Sharia jurists.

After the freeze, the HTS began witnessing a struggle between two trends within it, the first supportive of al-Qahtani and including the blocs of the eastern region, with its Sharia jurist in the HTS being Mazhar al-Wais.

As for the second trend, it is dissatisfied with al-Qahtani and includes the leaders of the first rank, Abu Ahmed Hudud and the head of the HTS’ Sharia Council, Abdul-Rahim Atoun (known as Abu Abdullah al-Shami).

 

The al-Sharqiya (eastern) wing is distinguished by its military weight, and the number of the striking military force of this wing exceeds 1,200 fighters who were the spearhead in all Tahrir al-Sham operations against opposition factions, including the battle of the northern Aleppo countryside and the storming of Afrin, and the influence of this wing extends greatly within the security joint.

A research paper for the Candel Center for Studies

 

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.

Jihad Issa al-Sheikh tends to support Abu Maria and always shares pictures and posts about their relationship, accompanied by prayers, including for steadfastness on the path of “preaching and jihad” with the “life-long companion, Sheikh Abu Maria,” as he put it in one of them.

The HTS commander, Abu Mohammad al-Jolani, honoring members of the Red Bands Brigades in Idlib - November 2022 (Amjad)

The HTS commander, Abu Mohammad al-Jolani, honoring members of the Red Bands Brigades in Idlib – November 2022 (Amjad)

Eliminations, Coup

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

Al-Hamawi stated that if al-Qahtani had had a relationship with the sleeper cells of the US-led International Coalition, he would have fled months ago when the first cell was exposed.

He mentioned that HTS’ Binnish city bloc had prepared a file containing confessions from members, some of whom were affiliated with al-Qahtani, most of which were fabrications for them to sign, and this is what happened and that the eastern sector abandoned him.

 

The Binnish wing is economically and financially superior to the Al-Sharqiya (Eastern) wing, as it possesses large financial resources due to its control over the economic joint and the crossings, and militarily, it possesses a force of 1,700 fighters in the Idlib sector, while the regional connection in this wing plays a major social role at the expense of the organizational link. ideology, in addition to kinship relations.

A research paper for the Candel Center for Studies

 

Abu Yahya al-Shami, former Shariah jurist in Tahrir al-Sham, said that the real reason behind the arrest of al-Qahtani was the attempted coup against al-Jolani and not his connections (without denying it), pointing out that the coup did not succeed or fail and does not aim for reform, but rather to monopolize power.

Al-Shami said via Telegram on November 28, “The coup plotters numbered 400, including leaders and members, agents and employees. 100 of them were arrested, and 300 stayed on top of their work.”

Who is Abu Maria al-Qahtani?

“Abu Maria” or “Abu al-Hamza” is Maysar bin Ali al-Jubouri al-Qahtani, nicknamed “al-Harari” in reference to the Iraqi village of Harara, to which he moved from the village of al-Raseef after his birth there in 1976.

Al-Qahtani participated in the founding of Jabhat al-Nusra (now Tahrir al-Sham) in October 2011, after eight years of his work within al-Qaeda in Iraq, and he became deputy to its leader al-Jolani.

Al-Qahtani worked as a Sharia jurist of “al-Nusra” and “Emir” of the eastern region of Syria with the beginning of the armed conflict in 2012.

Al-Qahtani, who holds a diploma in Administration from Baghdad University and a BA in Islamic Sharia, is known for his hostility to the Islamic State group, which constantly attacks him through its loyal digital platforms.

In the period between 2014 and 2015, he played a leading role as an ideologue attacking the “extremists” of the Islamic State group until he earned the title “Conqueror of the Kharijites.” (Kharijites means Seceders or “those who exit the community).

Al-Qahtani was taught by Sheikh “Abu Abdullah al-Mayahi” and Sheikh Fares Faleh al-Mosuli and by Sheikh Abdul-Razzaq al-Mahdi, who defected from Tahrir al-Sham and then worked independently in January 2017.

Since 2016, despite being Iraqi, al-Qahtani has been a prominent advocate of “reforming Jabhat al-Nusra and localizing it.”

Not only did he maintain his outspoken hostility to the Islamic State group, but he also became an outspoken critic of al-Qaeda.

After the battles of Daraa in southern Syria, al-Qahtani headed to the northern Idlib region in a mysterious transition process that surprised many because there is no road between the two governorates except by passing through the regime-held areas.

At the time, activists said that the road passed through the town of Izraa, then the city of Daraa, to Idlib in a deal mediated by people from Deir Ezzor and Damascus.

In the past years, al-Qahtani participated with the HTS senior commander Jihad Issa al-Sheikh (Abu Ahmad Zakour) in leading the so-called “secret effort” to expand HTS grip in the Aleppo countryside through negotiation and mediation with the “flexible” factions in the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA).

Zakour defects after a failed arrest attempt

HTS dissident commanders spoke during the past few days about the arrival of Zakour to the Aleppo countryside after the dispute escalated and that HTS tried to arrest him in northern Idlib despite knowing that he was not there.

The HTS arrested the military commander within its ranks, known as “Abu Muslim Afes,” on December 12 after he refused to participate in the internal fighting and demanded full explanations justifying what was happening, according to a source close to the leader who spoke to Enab Baladi.

Enab Baladi was unable to confirm the arrest of “Abu Muslim” from another impartial source.

Enab Baladi contacted the HTS media office to obtain clarifications about the news of the killing of al-Qahtani in the faction’s prisons after news of that spread and about the attempt to arrest Zakour, but it did not receive a response until the moment this report was published.

Until the publication of this report, the HTS had not issued any statement about the dispute occurring, nor about the dismissal or freezing of the duties of Zakour, while the latter was the first to do so, according to what he posted on the social media platform X on December 13.

Zakour said that he did not take any step to leave or join any faction, and he does not have any Telegram channel or media platform other than this account.

A day after his hint, Zakour announced his departure from the HTS organizationally and politically, disavowed its actions, and said that the HTS leadership gradually changed its policy, specifying four points for these changes:

  • Control, hegemony, and the annihilation and dismantling of factions.
  • Seeking military, security, and economic control in areas controlled by the Syrian National Army in the Aleppo countryside.
  •  Security work, including kidnapping and other things, without coordination with any party and without his knowledge.
  • Directing prepared and ready-made accusations against anyone who violates the HTS’s leadership approach and distorting its image, whether inside or outside it.

Who is “Abu Ahmad Zakour”

Zakour comes from the al-Nairab region in the Aleppo countryside, and he managed and supervised the most prominent files and thorny issues in Tahrir al-Sham.

He enjoys popular support in the BouAssi clan from the Baggara tribe, and he opened the door to relations for al-Jolani with the tribal sheikhs, and the latter sought to get closer to them and gain popular support for him and his faction.

His roles varied between several positions, including director of public relations, a former official in charge of the economic file, and commander of the HTS-led Abdul-Rahman Brigade.

He contributed to establishing the HTS presence in areas and villages that were dissatisfied with the group’s practices and policies.

For two years, he has been managing the file of relations and communication with the SNA factions in the Aleppo countryside.

Zakour is known to have financial wealth, and he is accused of managing Tahrir al-Sham’s investments by operating them outside Syria through people as a front, far from his name and the HTS banner.

The United States and Turkey imposed anti-terrorism sanctions on two financial facilitators of “terrorist” groups based in Syria, including Jihad Issa al-Sheikh (Abu Ahmad Zakour).

Abu Mohammad al-Jolani, HTS commander, during a conference to launch a support campaign for the camps in northern Syria - December 15, 2022 (Amjad)

Abu Mohammad al-Jolani, HTS commander, during a conference to launch a support campaign for the camps in northern Syria – December 15, 2022 (Amjad)

Comrades are at a crossroads

In light of the change in Tahrir al-Sham’s behavior and rhetoric over the past years, which is no longer hidden from anyone, stable leadership figures remained at the forefront of the scene, carrying the HTS’s policy and plan, and playing roles to consolidate its control and impose its administration.

Al-Jolani, al-Qahtani, and Zakour, three names that carried the HTS banner and moved from invisibility to public appearance, from wearing the Islamic turban to appearing without it, from military uniform to civilian clothes, and from extremist rhetoric to moderation.

The brothers and comrades-in-arms, as they called each other, were dispersed, and Abu Ahmad Zakour became persecuted and lives in the Aleppo countryside, while there was no news of al-Qahtani in the HTS prisons amid talk about the deterioration of his health condition, and that he was suffering from leukemia. There is currently no news about al-Jolani, except that he is still the HTS leader.

Charles Lister, the senior fellow at the Middle East Institute and the director of the MEI-Syria program, said on August 16 via X (formerly Twitter) that al-Qahtani suffers from leukemia, and his condition has recently worsened.

“He 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.”

Four causes of conflict

According to a research paper published by the Candel Center for Studies, there are four basic reasons for the conflict within Tahrir al-Sham:

  • Abu Maria’s influence increased, as he now had the final say in the northern Aleppo countryside.
  • Abu Maria’s involvement in the security sector increased based on his responsibility for the issue of the Islamic State group and al-Qaeda and groups close to them.
  • The increased influence of the al-Sharqiya (Eastern) sector within the security and military articulation at the expense of marginalizing or reducing the powers of the Binnish sector.
  • Abu Maria coordinated with the Turks in the Aleppo countryside, as his influence in the northern Aleppo countryside gave him a wide space to communicate with Turkey every time it found itself forced to intervene in every case of military friction between HTS and the SNA factions.

What about al-Jolani?

Amid the turmoil and accelerating events taking place, al-Jolani appeared on December 6 at the University of Idlib to discuss the educational reality at the university and its development and met with academic elites, according to what was published by the university and the channels of the Syrian Salvation Government (SSG), the HTS political umbrella, without any video recording of the content of the meeting.

In the first week of last October, after a bombing campaign launched by the Syrian regime forces and Russia on the towns and cities of northern Syria, al-Jolani appeared three times, the first from inside the military operations room, the second in a hospital to visit the injured, and the third during a tour of shelter centers for the displaced.

Orabi Orabi, a researcher in jihadi groups, told Enab Baladi that the al-Jolani appearance at the university is proof of his presence in light of the talk about the rebellion of Zakour and a hint that he still enjoys presence and acceptance in social and even academic circles.

Orabi added that any appearance of al-Jolani carries his desire to show himself as honorable, connected, and linked to all sectors and segments in Idlib and that he is still present.

Who is al-Jolani?

Ahmed Hussein al-Sharaa comes from the Golan region in western Syria. He was born in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in 1982. He returned to Syria at the beginning of 1989.

Al-Jolani grew up and lived in the Mezzeh neighborhood in Damascus in the eastern villas area, and his Islamic inclinations were almost non-existent.

He was affected by the Palestinian uprising in 1999 and 2000, and someone advised him to go to the mosque and pray in it and commit to praying in the mosque, al-Jolani said in an interview.

Al-Jolani went to Iraq after the American invasion in 2003 and rose through the ranks of al-Qaeda in Iraq, and it is said that he became a close aide to its leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

He was arrested by the US Army and detained in Camp Bucca. After his release in 2008, he worked with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq at the time (before his death), and then he was appointed head of the Pakistani Intelligence Service in Ninewa governorate.

Al-Jolani returned to Syria in 2011 and founded the al-Nusra Front as a sub-group of the Islamic State (IS).

In 2013, he rejected al-Baghdadi’s instructions to dissolve the al-Nusra Front as an independent group and make it part of the IS organization and pledged allegiance to the al-Qaeda group and its leader at the time, Ayman al-Zawahiri.

The United States listed him as a terrorist in May 2013 as a “Specially Designated Global Terrorist.”

In 2016, al-Jolani announced that al-Nusra had changed its name to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham and severed its ties with al-Qaeda.

Severing ties was not acceptable to the international community, and in May 2017, the FBI offered a $10 million reward for information leading to his identity or location.

In early 2017, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham announced the formation of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), an alliance between it and other jihadist groups such as Ansar al-Din Front, Jaish al-Sunna, Liwa al-Haq, and the Nour al-Din al-Zenki movement. It later included more factions and groups.

In October 2017, the resignation of Hashim al-Sheikh (Abu Jaber) from his responsibility as Commander-in-Chief of the HTS was accepted, and al-Jolani was assigned to manage the affairs of the alliance.

Member of the Supreme Fatwa Council and Head of the HTS Sharia Council, Abd al-Rahim Atoun - April 27, 2022 (Salvation Government)

Member of the Supreme Fatwa Council and Head of the HTS Sharia Council, Abd al-Rahim Atoun – April 27, 2022 (Salvation Government)

Dispute reflection on HTS, Northern region

Those who follow the course of events, specifically the factional situation that formed during the first years of the armed uprising against the Syrian regime, may not forget that the involvement of any faction under al-Qaeda is a negative factor and may attach the accusation of terrorism to the region.

The justifications of the al-Qaeda crowd at the time were that the al-Nusra Front group, which emerged from the former, came to “support the people of the Levant,” according to what was stated in its statements, and would leave the region once the reasons for its existence were achieved.

But the following years were enough to make it clear that the group, which changed its name three times, entered into numerous alliances, and then left them again, has ambitions to rule the regions in which it is based.

Tahrir al-Sham (formerly al-Nusra Front) was the only military arm of al-Qaeda in Syria after the Islamic State group in 2014 also broke the baton of obedience, declaring the establishment of the “Caliphate State.”

In 2016, al-Nusra broke its connection with al-Qaeda to take the name Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, which made the Syrian arena free of factions affiliated with the jihadist organization, with the exception of some groups that are spread lightly in the region until today.

The faction settled on the name “Hayat Tahrir al-Sham,” and al-Jolani served as the person responsible for managing its affairs after the resignation of its general commander, Abu Jaber al-Sheikh.

Strengthening al-Jolani’s power

Years into the Syrian revolution, the name of the faction that turned into the largest force in northwestern Syria changed and settled on the name Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.

There have been changes in its structural, administrative, military, and security composition, but what has not changed in this equation is that the faction is still included on the “terrorist lists,” with al-Jolani sitting at the top of its pyramid.

The faction entered into alliances over the years, starting with the operations rooms and even forming factional blocs, but al-Jolani maintained himself as a decision-maker in these alliances, starting with the Jaish al-Fateh operations room and ending with the Al-Fath Al-Mubin military operations room, which still exists through the formation of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham.

Al-Qahtani’s freeze and arrest, and then the prosecution of Zakour, were preceded by many names of leaders and Shariah figures who had become outside the corridors of the faction, such as “Abu Shuaib al-Masri,” Abdullah al-Muhaisni, “Abu al-Abd Ashdaa” and others, and the only constant in the HTS equation remained Abu Mohammad al-Jolani.

Dr. Abdul-Rahman al-Haj, an expert in religious movements, told Enab Baladi that what is actually happening is the consolidation of power in the hands of al-Jolani and the elimination of leaders who believe they have the legitimacy to exercise authority no less than that possessed by al-Jolani.

The researcher added that the prosecuted HTS senior commanders played important roles on the way to the faction reaching its current level of control and organization, which placed them in leadership positions, which is what al-Jolani does not want.

Al-Haj said that al-Jolani’s movements took a traditional pattern of building dictatorships under the concept of “yesterday’s comrades who formed a group that built power, being eliminated one after another under various pretexts (most of which are real) to monopolize the decision-making process.”

Rashid Hourani, military research fellow at the Jusoor Center for Studies, told Enab Baladi that the HTS has witnessed many cracks, the most notable of which are the ones currently in effect.

The researcher believes that the most recent rift in the Tahrir al-Sham entity is one of two possibilities: either a state of dissatisfaction among leading figures regarding public policy and, thus, a coup against its leader so that they are not part of the current formation, which is the apparent possibility.

The second is that it is “a kind of misinformation,” and it is one of the tools of the battle that Tahrir al-Sham is conducting against the interior, which is suffering from a factional situation, specifically between the SNA factions in the northern countryside of Aleppo.

Hourani believes that the HTS wants, with this “misinformation,” to make its opponents believe that it is suffering what they are suffering, and it is possible that the apparent division in its current corridors is “a trick aimed at expanding into the SNA areas.

The military expert added that there is information that Zakour, who was recently pursued by the HTS, wants to form a military faction north of Aleppo, which is linked to the HTS’ desire to penetrate the region and thus create a military faction affiliated with it north of Aleppo.

Jihad al-Sheikh (Abu Ahmad Zakour) (R), HTS commander Abu Mohammad al-Jolani (C), and Maysar bin Ali al-Jubouri (Abu Maria al-Qahtani) (L) - October 15, 2022 (X/Mayasara Bn Ali)

Jihad al-Sheikh (Abu Ahmad Zakour) (R), HTS commander Abu Mohammad al-Jolani (C), and Maysar bin Ali al-Jubouri (Abu Maria al-Qahtani) (L) – October 15, 2022 (X/Mayasara Bn Ali)

What is the impact?

The dispute that is ravaging the corridors of Tahrir al-Sham today is not the first, nor is it the most severe, as its former HTS commander, “Abu al-Abd Ashdaa,” previously published a video recording entitled “So that the ship does not sink,” in which he revealed the negligence in fortifying the front lines and the state of corruption in the HTS circles. Such a video recording led to his arrest.

Researcher Rashid Hourani said that “Abu al-Abd Ashdaa” was leading a large and influential human mass in the HTS, but the rift did not leave a mark on its general organizational structure, even though it brought with it a torrent of scandals for the faction.

A study prepared by the Candel Center for Studies concluded that there are no internal conflicts or armed confrontations at the level of factions that may break out in Hayat Tahrir al-Sham or lead to its disintegration based on current data.

The think tank expected that the results would be limited to the resignation of influential individuals from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, such as Abu Ahmad Zakour and Mazhar al-Wais.

The study added that the role of Tahrir al-Sham may weaken in the northern Aleppo countryside, especially after the end of the role of al-Qahtani and the expected resignation of Zakour, which may push factions allied to Tahrir al-Sham, such as al-Hamzat and Suleiman Shah Division (Al-Amshat) to search for new alliances to protect itself, in addition to Ahrar al-Sham (Soufan’s wing), which transferred part of its heavy weapons from Idlib governorate to the eastern countryside of Aleppo.

The study concluded that the most important impact of the events may be represented by an expected acceleration of the active countries, especially Turkey, to take a decision to end the HTS file, beginning with ending its influence in the areas of the northern Aleppo countryside.

As a second step, great pressure may be exerted on the HTS to merge with the National Liberation Front (a moderate opposition faction in Idlib city and its countryside) while dealing by force of arms with those who reject this merger.

Who benefits?

Over the years, Tahrir al-Sham formed a state of hostility with local factions, notables of some regions, and even political parties and residents of some villages and towns, but the state of hostility it formed with military parties was the most influential.

Tahrir al-Sham expelled the largest moderate armed opposition factions with their members and leaders towards Turkey and the countries of asylum or towards northern Aleppo, where the SNA was formed, which is known today as “the most moderate faction” among the opposition factions.

The researcher specializing in the affairs of jihadi groups, Abd al-Rahman al-Haj, told Enab Baladi that any destabilization of the Tahrir al-Sham entity would theoretically be in the interest of the SNA factions, but it is clear that any potential collapse of Tahrir al-Sham will tempt all parties to fill the void, including the Damascus regime.

This will likely lead to the return of “foreign jihadists” and the re-emergence of al-Qaeda, according to al-Haj.

The researcher believes that the National Army or the National Liberation Front are the parties most likely to fill the void, but this is a scenario that is difficult to imagine at the current moment, as there are no indications of a collapse within the HTS and no internal conflict, and therefore this is a far-fetched scenario.

Among the most likely scenarios, the researcher expects that al-Jolani will restructure the HTS’s power centers and compensate for the lack of leaders with loyal leadership whose loyalty is almost guaranteed, and this is not difficult with the presence of a “strong” security apparatus.

 

 

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