How Tahrir al-Sham covered internal disputes
Enab Baladi – Hassan Ibrahim
Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which holds military control in Idlib, has taken several steps to divert attention from its internal disputes and to reduce the circulation of the conflict between its currents and first-line leadership, starting from the file of “espionage and penetration” to defections, exchange of accusations, and talk of a coup and internal liquidations.
The faction is currently experiencing a state of conflict and confusion after the suspension of tasks of the second-in-command, “Abu Maria al-Qahtani”, and his arrest, along with the defection of the third leader, Jihad Issa al-Sheikh (Abu Ahmad Zakour), who revealed issues for which the faction’s leader, “Abu Mohammad al-Jolani”, was responsible, including bombings and cooperation with foreign intelligence.
In this report, Enab Baladi monitors files, events, formations, tools, and characters that emerged in Hayat Tahrir al-Sham’s sphere and within its ranks during the ongoing crisis, and what the HTS used to deflect the focus on the state of conflict and internal fragmentation.
Delays in talking about penetration, A threatening formation
In the first months of 2023, the issue of penetrations within the ranks of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and collaborators in favor of the International Coalition, Russia, and the Syrian regime came to the media forefront, sparking widespread controversy in the region.
The HTS delayed the disclosure of the penetrations until July of the same year, whereas a military formation called “Saraya Dera’ Al-Thawra” appeared in June 2023, which threatened Tahrir al-Sham and demanded the release of all detainees, threatening that all the HTS interests would be legitimate targets if they did not comply.
The existence of the formation did not last more than three months, according to Enab Baladi’s observations. After Saraya Dera’ Al-Thawra claimed responsibility on July 14, 2023, for the killing of the security leader in Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, Ibrahim Mohammed al-Ali, known as “Abu Suhaib Sarmada,” its threats vanished from the media, which were issued on September 29 of the same year.
In a previous conversation with Enab Baladi with researchers in jihadist affairs, they speculated that there is no independent formation as such, or that the HTS knows of its existence but typically follows a strategy of exploiting opportunities, and that the presence of local opposition and enemies of the HTS in its controlled areas could be exploited as a pretext to reorganize the internal house of Tahrir al-Sham and redistribute power and eliminate dangerous opponents.
Attributing espionage to new elements
The first official talk about the presence of penetrations within the ranks of Tahrir al-Sham was on July 16, 2023, when the spokesman for the General Security Service operating in Idlib, Dia al-Omar, said that intelligence agencies (he did not specify their affiliation), for the sake of their own agendas, resorted to enticing and trapping those he called “weak souls,” seducing them to gather information from them.
On July 30, 2023, al-Omar said that the Syrian regime took advantage of the General Security, opening its doors for membership to penetrate Tahrir al-Sham and its components and to plant agents within its ranks.
Al-Omar mentioned that the “ring of agents” arrested by the General Security are members including figures affiliated with Tahrir al-Sham, civil figures, and in military factions and the Salvation Government (the political umbrella of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham).
Al-Omar did not provide any clarifications about the number of detainees or their names despite the charges being proven according to the investigation, nor about some of them being from the first-line leadership, nor about some being charged with dealing with the International Coalition.
HTS discredits itself, A mild tone statement
Tahrir al-Sham issued a statement on August 17, 2023, stating the suspension of powers and duties of the faction’s second-in-command, a member of the Shura Council Maysar bin Ali al-Jubouri or al-Harari known as “Abu Maria al-Qahtani,” due to his “mistake in managing his communications without considering the sensitivity of his position,” as it said.
The suspension of al-Qahtani’s duties and powers proves the contradiction of HTS’ narrative that the “agents” within its ranks are new elements who joined it.
The HTS statement about the suspension carried a softened tone far from attack, using the word “brother” to describe al-Qahtani, considering that the news circulated about him was exaggerated and part of a context of “misleading and organized field and media targeting” against the revolution.
Tahrir al-Sham said in its statement that the investigation committee in the penetration file summoned al-Qahtani because his name was mentioned in some investigations and questioned him without disclosing his arrest or the conditions of his imprisonment.
Al-Qahtani’s latest posts were five days before his suspension was announced, stating that he was sick, and Telegram rooms (widely spread in the region) circulated news about his death in prison, but it is unconfirmed. Meanwhile, al-Qahtani is suffering from leukemia, and his condition has recently worsened, according to faction leaders and as written by researcher Charles Lister from the Middle East Institute.
A statement of removal dated earlier
The “espionage” file revealed the hidden, and the intensity of the dispute escalated until the leader and third man in Tahrir al-Sham, Jihad Issa al-Sheikh (Abu Ahmad Zakour), announced his defection from the faction organizationally and politically, on December 14, 2023, disassociating himself from the actions of the HTS.
Three days after Abu Ahmad Zakour’s defection, Tahrir al-Sham’s accounts and allied media circulated a decision stating that Jihad Issa al-Sheikh was removed and stripped of his powers due to his misuse of his position and breach of general policy.
The removal order bore the date of December 3, but Jihad Issa al-Sheikh considered that Tahrir al-Sham’s decision carries an earlier inaccurate date.
Tahrir al-Sham’s attempt to arrest Abu Ahmad Zakour from the countryside of Aleppo on December 19, 2023, failed, after which the leader revealed four files and issues carried out by Abu Mohammad al-Jolani and associated with him: a bombing near the Atmeh border crossing with Turkey in 2016, a targeting with explosives of fighters from the Nour al-Din al-Zenki movement in the countryside of Aleppo in 2017, a pledge of allegiance and cooperation of factions from the Syrian National Army (SNA) with Tahrir al-Sham, and dealings with external parties in exchange for a price and opening prisons to British and American intelligence.
A religious figure responds
Neither al-Jolani spoke nor did Tahrir al-Sham issue any statement in response to the files revealed by Jihad Issa al-Sheikh. However, the head of the Supreme Fatwa Council in Tahrir al-Sham, Abd al-Rahim Atoun, responded to the accusations on December 20, 2023, saying that Tahrir al-Sham is innocent of what was attributed to it, considering it “falsehood and lies.”
He added that the dispute with Abu Ahmad Zakour was not about “authority and seat” as promoted but about clear financial corruption and security suspicions that cannot be ignored. In the case of “the penetration cells for the benefit of some countries,” the investigation is still ongoing.
For his part, Jihad Issa al-Sheikh told Enab Baladi that the accusations directed at him of “misusing his position, violating public policy, financial corruption cases, extortion, and security suspicions” are unfounded, pointing out that al-Jolani relies on Atoun for religious fatwa and patching up and beautifying the HTS project in the eyes of the fighters.
Al-Jolani’s sixth appearance in two months
After the dispute intensified, Abu Mohammad al-Jolani increased his appearances. On December 26, 2023, he attended a dialogue seminar titled “Governmental Work Between Visions and Accomplishments” with ministers of the Salvation Government, the political umbrella of Tahrir al-Sham, to talk about the government’s work during 2023 and gave promises to support local agricultural and industrial production, and to develop education and health services.
Al-Jolani appeared on December 23, 2023, during a session for the management of religious guidance, and on December 6 of the same month, he appeared at the University of Idlib to discuss the educational reality in the university and its development and met with the academic elite without any recorded footage of the meeting’s content.
In the first week of October 2023, after a bombing campaign launched by the Syrian regime and Russian forces on towns and cities of northern Syria, al-Jolani appeared three times: first from inside the military operations room, secondly at a hospital visiting the injured, and thirdly touring shelters for the displaced.
The issue of Tahrir al-Sham’s arrest of the head of the Bakara tribe’s Shura Council in Idlib, Sheikh Youssef Arbash (Abu al-Hassan), on December 20, 2023, sparked widespread debate, and a number of the tribe’s elders issued a statement condemning the arrest and demanding his release.
On January 7, HTS released Arbash, and the Syrian Tribes and Clans Council said the release came with a guarantee from the Council, thanking Tahrir al-Sham and the Salvation Government. The issue of the guarantee was widely circulated in the media by Tahrir al-Sham’s allied media.
For his part, Sheikh Youssef Arbash clarified to Enab Baladi that his detention for 17 days in Tahrir al-Sham’s prisons was due to his proximity to the dissenting faction leader, Jihad Issa al-Sheikh (Abu Ahmad Zakour).
He denied the existence of a guarantee from the Syrian Tribes and Clans Council for his release, noting that the guarantee is “a story and an invention” by the Tribes Council, adding that he is not criminally culpable or owes any money.
He mentioned that his long detention was to find out if there were any commercial relationships connecting him with Abu Ahmad Zakour, but this was not proven, denying that he experienced bad detention conditions.
Strategies for survival
Tahrir al-Sham first emerged in Syria in early 2012 under the name “Jabhat al-Nusra for the People of the Levant,” a faction distinguished by its birth from the womb of al-Qaeda, one of the most prominent “jihadist” factions on the global stage, and later announced its separation from any organization, considering itself a local Syrian force.
Tahrir al-Sham holds military and security control over Idlib province, part of western Aleppo countryside, Latakia countryside, and al-Ghab Plain, northwest of Hama. It has worked to extend its control by dissolving some factions and removing them, seizing their weapons, or forcing them to comply with its policy. Then, it moved on to dismantle “jihadist” groups whose military formations are dominated by foreign fighters.
Abu Mohammad al-Jolani is still listed among those wanted by the United States, with a reward of up to ten million US dollars for anyone who provides information about him.
Hayat Tahrir al-Sham seeks to gain its legitimacy and ensure the flow of its resources, its survival, and the continuation of its control. It relies on a threefold strategy that combines attempts to gain local legitimacy, regional and international acceptance, and building military power, according to a study prepared by the researcher specialized in studying Islamic movements and the transformations of “jihadist Salafism,” Azam al-Qasir.
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