Striving for Hegemony: The HTS Crackdown on al-Qaida and Friends in Northwest Syria

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The first indication that something was about to happen—again—came on June 17, when Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) security officers arrested Abu Salah al-Uzbeki (Sirajuddin Mukhtarov). Abu Salah, the founder of the mainly Uzbek Katibat al-Tawhid wa-l-Jihad, is a prominent Jihadi commander and ideologue who shortly before his arrest had defected from HTS and, together with approximately 40 fighters, joined Ansar al-Deen, a rival Jihadi faction sympathetic to al-Qaida.

The atmosphere within the rebel landscape in Syria’s northwest was growing increasingly tense even before Abu Salah’s arrest. In a surprise move on June 12, the five groups Hurras al-Deen, Ansar al-Islam, Ansar al-Deen, Tansiqiyat al-Jihad, and Liwa al-Mouqatilin al-Ansar announced the establishment of the new operations room “So Be Steadfast” (Fa-thbutu), much to the displeasure of HTS. According to an insider, the operations room was created in response to the recent losses of territory to the Syrian regime and the implementation of the Sochi agreement.

After the arrest of Abu Salah, a series of events ensued that exacerbated tensions even further, leading to episodes of infighting between HTS and the operations room between June 22 and 27. The true trigger of conflict at this specific time remains unknown. One purported reason is that HTS instigated its crackdown when it became aware that the groups constituting the new “So Be Steadfast” operations room had their eyes set on taking control of Idlib city. Another explanation is that tensions grew due to a combination of (1) the operations room starting to see HTS as a new sahwa (“awakening”) movement on account of HTS’s strengthening of ties with Turkey and (2) HTS’s arrest of prominent commanders of the operations room and the rumours that HTS was involved in the assassination of high-ranking al-Qaida figures in June. A third and related argument is that the HTS crackdown played to Turkey’s desire to fulfil its responsibility as part of the Sochi Agreement to control the M4 highway.


Escalating tensions

Throughout June, tensions between HTS and rival al-Qaida-linked groups were mounting. Among al-Qaida sympathisers there is a feeling that HTS continues to defer to Turkey’s interests as part of the political negotiations between Turkey and Russia. This deference, they believe, is not only a transgression of religious principles but a threat to the Jihadi project in Syria. The recent killings of three senior al-Qaida members in US drone strikes have only further aggravated the situation. First, Abu al-Qassam, a military commander and shura council member of Hurras al-Deen, was killed together with Bilal Al-San‘ani, the former amir of Jaysh al-Badiya, on June 14. Eight days later Abu Adnan al-Homsi, Hurras al-Deen’s head of logistics, was similarly killed in a drone strike. According to al-Qaida members (and Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi), HTS likely played a role in leaking details about the location of the al-Qaida leaders. Most recently, on August 13, a drone strike killed the al-Qaida military trainer Abu Yahya al-Uzbeki.

Nearly a year earlier, on September 9, 2019, Abu al-Abd Ashida had delivered a stinging critique of HTS in a video entitled “So as Not to Sink the Ship.” Ashida used to be HTS’s head of Aleppo City and the administrator of its Umar bin al-Khattab army, but defected mainly because of the group’s reliance on external actors. At some point during spring 2020, he established Tansiqiyat al-Jihad. When announcing his defection, Ashida complained that HTS was no longer a movement for the ummah since it had been seized by individuals who have made the group their own little kingdom. “Whoever has different opinions, they marginalize him,” he said.

Abu al-Abd Ashida’s ‘So as Not to Sink the Ship’

These tensions between HTS and its more ideologically hardline rivals had been several years in the making. In November 2017, HTS established the Syrian Salvation Government (Hukumat al-Inqadh al-Suriyya) with a view to taking total control of Idlib and western Aleppo. Heavily criticised for not tolerating rival political entities and for implementing contested policies, the Salvation Government quickly came to be viewed as HTS’s exclusive political project. Examples of exclusivist policies include banning the books of al-Maqdisi, restricting communication within areas under its control, and, from December 2018, banning Islamic education unless it was under the Salvation Government’s authority. Prior to its establishment, however, HTS had already made several declarations intended to control the political environment and discipline its own members. First, it prohibited its preachers and ordinary members from proclaiming takfir without an official fatwa from the sharia council (the prohibition for preachers was issued on June 19, 2017; the prohibition for rank-and-file members was issued on July 12, 2017). Then it prohibited its members from watching Islamic State videos and, most controversially of all, forbade the establishment of any new factions in its territory.


Infighting begins

On the morning of June 22, HTS moved to arrest Abu Malik al-Tali, a former Jabhat al-Nusra commander in Qalamoun and subsequently a prominent HTS commander in Idlib. A few months earlier, al-Tali had defected from HTS and established Liwa al-Mouqatilin al-Ansar, which later became part of the So Be Steadfast operations room with al-Tali as its leading military commander. This was followed by an official statement from HTS prohibiting its members from leaving the group without getting permission from its “Monitoring and Overseeing Committee.” Even if an HTS member is allowed to leave, according to the statement, he is prohibited from forming a new military faction or joining any existing group in the area.

These events led the So Be Steadfast operations room to issue a statement warning HTS of any further provocations and accusing it of taking actions that pleased the Assad regime and foreign occupiers. Speculating about HTS’s intentions, the statement remarks, “This raises the question about the motives of the arrests, particularly in times when we are witnessing the full implementation of the terms of the Astana process, the latest being the completion of joint patrols on the M4 highway.” The operations room ended the statement by demanding the release of its detained members and the establishment of independent courts to ensure fair trials.

During the night of June 22, the first bout of infighting broke out in Arab Saeed, and over the following days the infighting would spread to several cities and villages in Idlib. The rival parties reacted by mobilizing their fighters and establishing checkpoints around the governorate. (For examples of So Be Steadfast operations room checkpoints outside of Idlib city, see here, here, here and here.) Over the following days, the contending parties began using heavy weapons, with HTS targeting the headquarters of Hurras al-Deen, Ansar al-Deen, and Ansar al-Islam. Apparently in reaction to the HTS leadership’s appeal to the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), a prominent Jihadi group in Idlib with longstanding ties to al-Qaida but that sided with HTS in recent years, to set up road blocks in and around Jisr al-Shughour, the So Be Steadfast operation asked TIP to remain neutral.

In terms of numbers, HTS is typically assessed to command between 10,000 and 15,000 fighters, while Hurras al-Deen—the largest of the factions comprising the operations room— numbers approximately 3,000. The numerical advantage of HTS meant that from the beginning the operations room had an interest in ending the conflict quickly. But neither did HTS seek a prolonged conflict as fighting rival Jihadis is not a popular cause among its base. Nonetheless, in this case HTS deemed it necessary in order to cement its local hegemony. Casualty numbers for the period June 22-27 are hard to ascertain. An interview with an operations room member revealed the number of killed fighters from the operations room to be between 10 and 15. This is likely too low, and the combined casualty number probably exceeds 100.


Managing conflict

Interest in settling the conflict was visible from the beginning. Already on June 24, Sami al-Uraydi, a senior Hurras al-Deen ideologue, called on the warring parties to halt the violence and implement a judicial process to settle their disagreements. Al-Uraydi has been the fiercest critic of HTS among al-Qaida loyalists in Syria in recent years, so for him to take a leading role in de-escalating tensions indicates that Hurras al-Deen saw no benefit in fighting HTS.

On the same day, in a statement titled “Allah Has Forbidden Me From Killing a Believer,” al-Qaida Central weighed in on the conflict with criticism and advice. Accusing HTS of being the aggressor, al-Qaida writes that it was alarmed to see how the group started targeting the mujahideen, who like al-Qaida are dedicated to jihad, despite continuous calls to settle the parties’ differences through arbitration. Al-Qaida reminds HTS that “unity among the mujahideen is a Quranic duty and an indispensable legal necessity,” one that it is “not permissible to neglect.” Therefore it is “not a legitimate solution to overcome the Muslims and violate the blood of the believers.” In a direct reference to the fact that HTS considers itself the dominant faction in northwestern Syria, al-Qaida writes that not even the strongest groups “have a verse from Allah’s book, a Hadith from the traditions of the Messenger of Allah, or a consensus from the Muslims on considering the blood of their believing brothers permissible.”

Commenting on another issue leading to tensions between HTS and rival Jihadis, al-Qaida affirms that no group has the right to forbid an individual from fighting Jihad under the banner of the group of his choice. This is in direct opposition to HTS’s ruling from two days before that prohibited fighters from leaving and joining other Jihadi groups. The statement continues, “The mujahideen are now preoccupied with fighting each other while the enemy surprises them and prepares to eradicate them (…) For this reason, we call on all the mujahideen to fear Allah for the sake of the blood of their Muslim brothers in all factions, and to apply the language of reason and sharia, and to quickly initiate the application of the rule of Allah the Almighty through an independent judiciary.” Addressing the al-Qaida supporters who still remain within HTS, al-Qaida prohibits them from taking part in the ongoing conflict. An to the “people of pride” within HTS, it says, “so take as your slogan, ‘you are forbidden from killing your mujahideen brothers.’” In a final note, al-Qaida calls on Jihadi scholars to intervene and fulfil their responsibility to end the fitna.

Just one day after, a scholarly peace initiative was proposed by a group of nine scholars, the best known of the group being Abd al-Razzaq al-Mahdi. The initiative called for an immediate ceasefire and a judicial process to rule in the conflict between HTS and the So Be Steadfast operations room. While the latter was quick to accept the proposal, it took HTS several hours to do so (page 1 and 2), and when it eventually did respond it blamed its opponents, and Hurras al-Deen and Ansar al-Deen in particular, for instigating the conflict. HTS specifically mentions the prohibited defections from HTS, the presence of checkpoints set up by the groups operating outside the al-Fatah al-Mubin operations room, and the fact that these groups previously arrested some of HTS’s members. While accepting the scholars’ call to de-escalate tensions, the group placed the responsibility on the So Be Steadfast operations room, arguing that a solution to the conflict depends on dismantling the checkpoints not administered by al-Fatah al-Mubin and the aggressors’ being held accountable in court.

The So Be Steadfast operations room quickly responded, arguing in a statement that HTS’s statement was built on lies and that HTS had in fact rejected the scholarly peace initiative by demanding the disbandment of So Be Steadfast-controlled checkpoints. Nonetheless, the operations room declared itself ready to disband its checkpoints for three days under the supervision of Jund al-Sham and Ajnad al-Kavkaz, to foster an environment where peace negotiations and a judicial process could be initiated. At the top of its list of priorities was the resolution of the situation of Abu Salah al-Uzbeki and Abu Malik al-Tali.

In the end, as both groups were wary about the negative impact of prolonged conflict, it only took a few days to de-escalate tensions through various local ceasefire agreements. The first of these agreements was reached in the village of Arab Saeed in the Sahl al-Rooj area on June 26. Signed by Abu Hafs Binnish (HTS) and Abu Abdullah al-Suri (So Be Steadfast operations room), the agreement stipulated five points: (1) a ceasefire in Arab Saeed and Sahl al-Rooj and the lifting of checkpoints from both sides, (2) that the fighters from the village of Arab Saeed be allowed to remain in the village and keep their weapons, (3) that those required to leave Arab Saeed be allowed to do so and be allowed to bring their weapons, (4) that those fighters accused of crimes be transferred to the Turkistanis (likely TIP) who are to manage the legal proceedings, and (5) that Hurras al-Deen’s headquarter in Arab Saeed be closed and the group not be allowed to establish new checkpoints in the village. Other local ceasefires were also signed in the villages of Yaqubiya and Hamama and in the Harem area.

Despite these various local ceasefire agreements, the infighting did not stop immediately. In the ensuing hours there were several complaints about continued aggression. For instance, it was reported that HTS forces attacked the headquarters of Ansar al-Islam in Sarmada and in the village of Hamama. Later in the day came reports that HTS had launched attacks north of Idlib in Armanaz and that these had been repelled by factions of the So Be Steadfast operations room. This prompted the operations room to issue a statement in the evening of June 26 criticizing HTS for violating the terms of the ceasefires, specifically mentioning the attack in Sarmada.

While tensions did for the most part subside, there would continue to be reports of new episodes over the following days, one example being HTS cracking down on the headquarters of Tansiqiyat al-Jihad in Western Aleppo, leaving the small group on the brink of survival.


Who’s the aggressor?

Like he has done so many times before, Abu Abdullah al-Shami, the right-hand man of HTS-leader Abu Muhammad al-Julani, would of course weigh in. As Hassan Hassan explained, al-Shami argued that HTS was not the aggressor. HTS and Hurras al-Deen had, according to al-Shami, signed an agreement regulating the al-Qaida affiliates’ activities in Syria. Following these regulations, Hurras al-Deen would not be allowed to set up checkpoints or conduct intelligence or security operations—yet this was exactly what Hurras al-Deen was doing, al-Shami writes. The purpose of these regulations was for Syria’s northwest to be dominated by a unified militant movement led by HTS. From the perspective of HTS, the establishment of new groups and operations rooms would be counterproductive to unification.

HTS would also issue an official statement through its Ebaa News Network on the conflict, accusing Hurras al-Deen of behaving like the Islamic State— an accusation others have previously directed against HTS. According to the alleged eyewitness account of a certain “Abu Dujana”—an HTS fighter—in one incident a group of fighters from HTS surrounded a Hurras al-Deen checkpoint. Abu Asid, the leader of the HTS contingent, offered the Hurras fighters a safe way out if they surrendered, which they agreed to do. What allegedly happened next was that one of the Hurras fighters approached Abu Asid and, instead of leaving peacefully, fired his weapon, killing Abu Asid and injuring three other HTS fighters. According to the HTS statement, this “treacherous” behavior was a clear reminder of how the Islamic State under al-Baghdadi failed to adhere to such agreements.

In the days following the ceasefire, HTS and the National Salvation Government would issue several new decrees in an attempt to further limit the space and activities of rival Jihadi groups. On June 26, HTS published a highly controversial, if not unprecedented, declaration prohibiting the formation of new groups and operations rooms and requiring any existing group to operate under the authority of HTS’s own al-Fatah al-Mubin operations room. On June 28, the National Salvation Government ordered the closure of all military bases in Idlib city except those under the command of al-Fatah al-Mubin. This was followed later that day by another order to close all Hurras al-Deen bases in and around Jisr al-Shughour, the group’s stronghold. The statement also prohibits any Hurras al-Deen-controlled checkpoints in the area.


Arresting critical voices

Alongside its efforts to cement institutional and organizational hegemony, HTS also began to target critical voices in the Idlib region. The first person to be targeted was the former British national Tauqir “Tox” Sharif, better known as Abu Husam al-Britani, who is often described as an “aid worker” but who is also affiliated with Tansiqiyat al-Jihad. His arrest on June 22 led to major protests in several cities throughout Idlib in reaction to the perceived injustice of HTS’s unilateral power projection.

Over the following days, social media was flooded with calls for the release of “Tox.” Most surprising was on June 30 when Hani al-Sibai, a London-based Egyptian Jihadi ideologue, joined the chorus decrying HTS’s arrest of Tox. Since 2018 al-Sibai had sought, unlike his colleagues Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi and Abu Qatada al-Filastini, to take a neutral position in the conflict between HTS and al-Qaida members in Syria. Yet the arrest of Tox appeared to provoke al-Sibai to issue a strong condemnation of HTS’s aggressive behavior.

Al-Sibai wrote that “the aqidah and manners of your brother who is detained in Idlib, Tauqir Sharif otherwise known as Abu Husam al-Britani, have been praised by virtuous & trustworthy non-Arab & Arab brothers in Britain who know him and who I have personally known for years.” “Abu Husam al-Britani,” he continued, “preferred to live in roughness rather than luxury! He preferred to share in the grievances of the people of Shaam, and how many they are! He preferred to share in their joyous occasions, how rare they are! And now he has been arrested for so-called security reasons! The correct thing to do would have been to present him to an impartial Sharia judge who has full right to give permission for an arrest or to deny it! Even if he were to order his arrest based on, for example, the seriousness of the accusations, he [Tox] should be presented to the judge to defend himself!” In a direct message to HTS, al-Sibai ends by saying, “Do not be deluded by your power or numbers! Hasten towards releasing your brother Abu Husam al-Britani and all your brothers detained recently even if they disagreed with you. Let your problems be solved by reform and ruling with Sharia.”

On July 15, Tox was finally released after having been subject to torture during his incarceration according to his wife and himself. This provoked Bilal Abdul Kareem, an American journalist operating in Idlib, to interview Hani al-Sibai on the legality of torture in Islamic law. Unsurprisingly, in the interview, al-Sibai, who has previously written extensively on torture, explained that torture is indeed prohibited. Tox’s freedom would last less than a month. On August 11, HTS security officials once against arrested him, and two days later, the group also moved to arrest Bilal Abdul Kareem at his home in Atmeh.

Finally, on September 1, HTS announced in an official statement that it had also arrested Omar Diaby, better known as Omar Omsen. Originally known as the “French super-recruiter,” Omsen had established the group Firqat al-Ghuraba, a French-dominated faction close to Hurras al-Deen. According to HTSs’ media department, Omsen had on more than one occasion violated the rules in northern Syria and HTS had filed several court cases against him. Specifically, HTS complained that Omsen was running his own administration, bringing charges against people in his local court and incarcerating them in his prison. For HTS, considering itself the ultimate authority in Syria’s northwest, this was intolerable.


The future of the Jihadi project in Idlib

Given these recent developments , it appears that the struggle between Jihadi pragmatists—or realists—and purists will continue to define the militant landscape in Syria’s northwest in the coming years.

HTS is likely to continue to pursue a pragmatic approach to the political context in which it operates. The group and its leaders argue that understanding this context, or this “reality” (waqi‘a), is essential, and that the group’s methodology must necessarily be adjusted in order to survive. Importantly, an ideological corpus, mainly authored by Abu Qatada al-Filastini and his student Abu Mahmoud al-Filastini, is slowly emerging to support the direction HTS is taking, thus giving ideological backing to Abu Muhammad al-Julani’s political project.

Similar to its competitor the Islamic State, HTS’s ambition is to establish a state, yet its approach to how such a state should be established and what form it should take is different. This is particularly evident in its relations with external actors—most of all Turkey—with which the group has shown itself willing to engage and negotiate agreements. However, when it comes to internal competitors, HTS’s approach is similar to that of the Islamic State, which tried to suppress and control any competing actors including other Jihadis such as Jabhat al-Nusra.

This dual strategy is likely to continue as recent events testify. HTS will do anything in its power to control the actions and undermine the support of al-Qaida elements in Idlib. In response, al-Qaida supporters will attempt to take advantage of HTS’s pragmatism, which remains controversial in Jihadi circles. On numerous occasions, senior figures have defected from HTS, either becoming “independent” or joining al-Qaida-aligned groups. In addition to these senior figures, HTS still comprises ideological hardliners among its rank and file whose sympathy remains in line with al-Qaida’s ideological project. Thus, when al-Julani makes deals with the Turks and moves away from sporting traditional religious clothing, he repels segments of his own constituency.

In June 2020, in the midst of the infighting between HTS and the So Be Steadfast operations room, al-Maqdisi published an article titled “The Predicament of the Supporters of the Sharia between the Client Factions and the Manipulated Factions.” In it he advises true Jihadis, meaning al-Qaida loyalists, to concede defeat and disband. HTS’s suppression, he says, has become too severe. True Jihad in Syria, in his view, can only be successful when HTS is defeated.


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