On 1 February Abu al-Yaqzan al-Masri, a senior religious official (shar‘i) representing the hardliner wing within Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), announced his defection from the group. Al-Masri’s decision came as a direct response to a recent interview with Abu Muhammed al-Julani, the amir of HTS, in which he gave his support to Turkey’s planned operations against the Kurds in northeast Syria. HTS’s rapprochement with Turkey has long been a sensitive issue causing problems both within the group and between HTS and al-Qaida-aligned figures. In a speech published on 5 February 2019, al-Qaida leader Ayman al Zawahiri reiterated his criticisms of HTS, albeit not mentioning the group explicitly.
Al-Masri, who allegedly was arrested by HTS following his defection, has long been a critical voice within HTS. As recently as 30 December 2018, he said in a videotaped sermon in Idlib that Turkey’s battle against the Kurdish YPG is “between a secular army and a secular, atheist party; a battle that is one episode in a long struggle between Turkish and Kurdish nationalists, in which Islam has no stake, and God’s word has no part.”But tensions in HTS over the issue of Turkey were already brewing back in September last year, when it was reported that al-Masri was objecting to the party line. Initially there were rumours that two other senior sheikhs, namely Abu Malik al-Tali and Abu Malik al-Shami, had also resigned, but those claims have since been refuted (see here).
Al-Masri’s defection was long in the making, prompted as it was by al-Julani’s rapprochement with Turkey. The defection is in itself a serious matter since al-Masri was a senior and extremely vocal shar‘i in HTS and rumoured to be heading al-Asa’ib al-Hamra’ (the Red Bands), an elite military force within the group. After migrating to Syria in 2013, he joined Ahrar al-Sham but later switched sides to HTS in September 2016. In the summer and fall of 2018, he was seen traveling to the battlefronts and publishing regular videos including a series called “short words from the land of jihad.” While it has been claimed that he was forced to resign, it appears more likely that the Egyptian could no longer tolerate the warm feelings between his amir and the Turks, who are apostates in the eyes of al-Masri. Back in September 2018, he delivered a sermon equating secularism with apostasy from Islam and explaining how Turkey is very much secular. Further attesting to his hardline approach in theology, al-Masri has also been one of the fiercest voices against rival Jihadi groups Nour al-Deen al-Zinki and Ahrar al-Sham for their close collaboration with Turkey.
The immediate reaction from HTS has been ambiguous. Al-Zubayr al-Ghazi, a senior HTS ideologue, called on al-Masri to remain in HTS despite his differences, saying that “the brotherhood of faith is greater than the brotherhood of groups and organizations” (fa-ukhuwwat al-iman a‘zam min ukhuwwat al-jama‘at wa-l-tanzimat). But for the group it was important to send a signal that going against the party line would not be tolerated. Hence, on the same day as al-Masri’s resignation, HTS published a ruling stating that no one is allowed to publish fatwas before they have been approved by the shariah council (also like to statement). Two days later, Abu Abdullah al-Shami, the head of HTS’s shariah council, sought to defend against al-Masri’s criticisms, writing that it is not HTS that is changing in shifting its position (meaning ideology), as the critics claim, but rather the strategic context is changing, requiring the group to navigate the changing environment. Reports of al-Masri’s detention notwithstanding, an HTS insider source told this author that the expectation inside HTS is that al-Masri will eventually return, although Hurras al-Deen might seem the logical choice on an ideological level as al-Masri’s future home.
Re-emergence of tensions between HTS and Hurras al-Deen
As if al-Masri’s defection and implicit criticism of HTS was not enough of a headache for the group, it came at a time when renewed debate between HTS and Hurras al-Deen was being kickstarted. To remind readers, Hurras al-Deen is mainly composed of former Jabhat al-Nusra members who defected either after al-Nusra rebranded to become Jabhat Fath al-Sham in July 2016 or after the creation of HTS in January 2017, which effectively completed the breaking of ties with al-Qaida. Since its establishment in February 2018, Hurras al-Deen has consistently been at odds with HTS, criticizing the group for breaking its pledge of allegiance (bay‘a) to al-Qaida, for diluting the religion and monotheism (tawhid), and for not handing over certain weapons of HTS to Hurras al-Deen that the latter claims are the property of al-Qaida.
The tensions between HTS and al-Qaida loyalists came to a head in spring 2017, when Sami al-Uraydi, a Syrian-based al-Qaida leader, published a series of extremely critical essays directed against his former comrades. The situation escalated further in the fall when HTS began to arrest some of the critics including senior figures like Uraydi, Abu Julaybib and Abu Khallad. But it was after the formal establishment of Hurras al-Deen in February 2018 as a new al-Qaida group in Syria that the tensions got out of control. On 5 May 2018, the first casualty was recorded when Abu Uqba al-Kurdi, a Hurras al-Deen shar‘i, was shot by HTS at a checkpoint in Abu Utba outside of Aleppo. The explanation coming from HTS’s Abu Malik al-Shami was that a car didn’t stop when it was asked to and thus was shot at. Only afterwards was it realized that the passenger was a member of Hurras al-Deen. The shooter was subsequently arrested. Hostilities would continue, however, and on 11 July Abu al-Miqdad al-Urduni was arrested by HTS on fraud accusations. Al-Urduni is not officially a member of Hurras al-Deen, but he is close to the group and a good friend of Uraydi’s. He remains imprisoned to this day. Around the same time, Hurras al-Deen started to complain that HTS was arresting its fighters and opposing its military attacks on the regime
The dispute re-emerged on 30 January when Hurras al-Deen amir Abu Hammam al-Shami and its chief shar‘i Sami al-Uraydi published a statement following a new round of meetings between HTS and the Hurras al-Deen leadership. Abu Hammam’s and Uraydi’s argument can be divided into two themes. First is that some of HTS’s weapons belong to al-Qaida, and since Hurras al-Deen now represents al-Qaida in Syria it is the rightful owner of the weapons. Second is the argument that HTS’s jihad is not on founded on correct aqida (creed) or manhaj (methodology). As a way to settle the issue, the two suggest that a group of ‘independent’ scholars of religion, namely Abu Muhammed al-Maqdisi, Abu Qatada al-Filastini, Nail bin Ghazi, Tariq Abdelhaleem, Hani Sibai, and Sadiq al-Hashemi, review the case and issue a judgment.
As expected, HTS members wasted no time in responding. The first response came from al-Zubayr al-Ghazi, a shar‘i in HTS’s military wing, in an essay titled “Does the Hurras group have rights and arms with Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham?” Al-Ghazi builds his argument around the case of Abu al-Khayr al-Masri, al-Zawahiri’s deceased deputy, who according to the author not only ruled that al-Nusra could cut ties with al-Qaida but also that everything in its possession (including weapons) should remain its property. Al-Ghazi threatens that HTS could at anytime publish al-Khayr’s written ruling. To prove that Abu al-Khayr was in fact al-Zawahiri’s deputy at the time, six letters from al-Qaida shura members were shared (here, here, here, here, here and here). HTS claims (through al-Ghazi) that in a meeting on 5 January 2018 between Abu Hammam and al-Julani with Sheikh Abu Abd al-Karim al-Masri (an al-Qaida shura council member) as the overseer, 16 clauses were decided upon, among them the ruling of Abu al-Khayr – before his death – that the possessions of Jabhat al-Nusra would become the possession of (first Jabhat Fath al-Sham and then) HTS. Al-Ghazi only mentions 10 of the clauses, of which Hurras al-Deen, he states, would eventually break six (1-4, 8 and 10). He goes on to explain that after the agreement was made between al-Julani and Abu Hamman, both went back to their respective groups for final approval, but Abu Hamman’s al-Qaida loyalists (this was before the formal establishment of Hurras al-Deen) would not accept it (according to Abu Abdullah al-Shami not a single of the 16 clauses were accepted) and as a result Abu Hammam even offered his resignation (which was not accepted). Abu Hammam then referred the issue to a group of scholars for them to decide the issue.
The scholars’ reaction
As soon as the statement by Abu Hammam and Uraydi was published, I reached out to al-Maqdisi and Abu Qatada to ask how they would respond. Al-Maqdisi’s response left little doubt concerning his position on HTS. He answered that adjudication is not possible at the moment as HTS behaves like the Islamic State, and it is pointless since a potential judgement would never be implemented, whether it came from him or from Abu Qatada. Abu Qatada was more diplomatic in his response, saying that he awaited an invitation from both parties before he would intervene. In statements on their telegram channels, Abdelhaleem and Sibai conveyed similar arguments. Abdelhaleem wrote that ruling in this case is impossible because it would require both parties to accept the ruling, which could not be enforced, while Sibai was more diplomatic but essentially said the same.
Afterwards al-Maqdisi, Sibai, Abdelhaleem, al-Hashemi and Nail bin Ghazi all agreed to arbitration subject to acceptance by HTS. Abu Qatada, who recently has been perceived as moving closer to HTS, still has not responded directly to the invitation, but in typical Abu Qatada fashion he authored an ambiguous statement stressing that people should focus on good things rather than be sources of enmity. This aligns with his general efforts in the last two years to promote reconciliation rather than provoke conflict.
While the scholars nominated by Hurras al-Deen to judge appear overwhelmingly in favour of Abu Hammam and Uraydi, HTS has the support of the most important factions of foreign fighters (muhajireen) in Syria (see here and here). The fact that the Turkistani Islamic Party (TIP) continues to side with HTS is particularly important as there have been questions whether it would switch sides due to its historic relationship with al-Qaida.
On 4 February Abu al-Qassam (an al-Qaida shura council and Hurras al-Deen member who accompanied Abu al-Khayr from Iran to Syria in late 2015) and Abu Muhammed al-Sudani also weighed in. In a gentle tone they suggested that the issue should be solved through arbitration by the scholars. A similar suggestion was made by Abu Abdalrahman Mekki, who is affiliated with Hurras al-Deen.
Renewed debate between Abu Abdullah al-Shami and Sami al-Uraydi
Entering the fray next was Abu Abdullah al-Shami, the head of HTS’s shariah council and thus the highest religious authority in the group. Al-Shami is no stranger to verbal combat with al-Qaida and especially Sami al-Uraydi, whom he debated at length back in fall 2017 about the issue of allegiance to al-Qaida. As part of the latest controversy, he published a statement titled “Six Issues” in which he comments on six issues raised by Hurras al-Deen figures. On the matter of weapons, he makes the same argument as al-Ghazi, invoking the ruling of Abu al-Khayr to conclude that the weapons are the property of HTS and under no circumstance are to be given to Hurras al-Deen. Al-Shami concludes that the weapons issue has been settled from a legal (shar‘i) perspective, and thus HTS will not accept arbitration by the scholars of religion in the matter. Nonetheless, and almost comically, al-Shami notes that arbitration by the Salvation Government, the HTS-dominated government in Idlib, remains a possibility.
Another important point raised by al-Shami is the issue of a military council. In their statement from 30 January, Uraydi and Abu Hammam criticized HTS for proposing a multi-group military council to be led by a figure from Faylaq al-Sham, a Free Syrian Army- and Muslim Brotherhood-linked group. Al-Shami says that Hurras al-Deen makes a mistake in focusing too much on the proposed individual rather than considering the greater good that would be derived from such a military coalition. Interestingly, he draws a distinction between the Free Syrian Army and the National Army, consisting of Ahrar al-Sham and Nour al-Deen al-Zinki, arguing that the former is more legitimate than the latter (despite Ahrar and al-Zinki being jihadi groups). Al-Shami ends his statement by claiming that Hurras al-Deen is at fault for the conflict between the groups and that it should stop trying to recruit fighters from HTS.
As expected, al-Shami’s long-time foe Sami al-Uraydi could not let the former’s words pass without comment. In a response, Uraydi teases al-Shami for being inconsistent in his opinions from the days of al-Nusra to HTS, the ‘Six Issues’ being no exception. Uraydi even compares al-Shami to the Islamic State and its late spokesperson Abu Muhammed al-Adnani in that the Islamic State would not accept arbitration by an ‘independent’ group of scholars and instead al-Adnani challenged none other than al-Shami to a mubahala (mutual imprecation). Commenting on the specific issue of the rights to the weapons, Uraydi rejects the claims made by al-Shami and argues that Hurras al-Deen has evidence that refutes HTS’s argument that Abu al-Khayr had made a definitive judgement. HTS, it will be recalled, has said on several occasions (through al-Shami and al-Ghazi) that it has proof of Abu al-Khayr’s judgement. Uraydi rejects this. On the establishment of a group of scholars to arbitrate, Uraydi actually suggest combining the two proposals to satisfy both parties, meaning including judges from the Salvation Government and independent scholars.
On the matter of establishing a new military council, Uraydi shoots back saying that Hurras al-Deen already has a military coalition, namely ‘Incite the Believers’ which is made up of Hurras al-Deen, Ansar al-Islam and Jabhat Ansar al-Deen. Hence, there is no need for another military coalition especially not one against al-wala’ wa-l-bara’. Uraydi finishes his response with an implicit threat. The earlier position of the Islamic State on arbitration led to infighting between the mujahideen, and HTS should be extremely careful so that history does not repeat itself. Addressing the HTS fighters directly, Uraydi tells them that the disagreement is not with them but with the leadership of HTS, and that they simply want it to be resolved through legitimate arbitration.
De-escalation or infighting?
The exchanges between al-Shami and Uraydi left the relationship between the groups and their respective supporters in an extremely precarious state. Would the tensions be relaxed or would they escalate into infighting? On 7 February, Abu al-Qassam published a message aimed at deescalating tensions, urging the factions not to fight each other and to resolve their differences through legal judicial procedures (‘an tariq al-qada’ al-shar‘i). The same day, however, a fighter from HTS died from wounds resulting from an episode of infighting with Hurras al-Deen fighters in Aleppo countryside, bringing the tally of casualties from inter-group dispute to two. Hurras al-Deen quickly published its condolences and established a court to determine the fate of those who fired the bullet. One theory has it that it was HTS’s plan to manufacture a crisis between itself and Hurras al-Deen as part of al-Julani’s policy of rapprochement with Turkey and of establishing HTS as a moderate force. But this is probably to attribute too much cunning to the HTS leader.
As the infighting was beginning to become physical, on 10 February the two groups reached a deal concerning six issues to deescalate the conflict. The agreement stipulated that provocations in the media should come to a halt and that the issue of personnel and weaponry going from one group to the other should be settled. A committee to supervise the implementation of the agreement was created, the statement notes, though the names of its members were not given. Although the situation appears to be under control for the moment, one can be sure that Hurras al-Deen stands ready to take advantage of any further attempt by al-Julani to get closer to Turkey. In the event of more movement in that direction, more conflict will likely follow.