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In early February 2019, the Syrian insurgent group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which evolved out of Syria’s al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, and al-Qaeda loyalists represented in the group Hurras al-Din came to an agreement to put aside a dispute over ownership of weapons.
The two sides also agreed to cease attacks on each other in the media, as there have been multiple disagreements between the two sides that have played out on the internet. For instance, the al-Qaeda loyalists argue that HTS’ breaking ties with al-Qaeda was illegitimate and constituted disobedience to al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. They also argue that HTS’ strategies for the future survival of the insurgency and cause of jihad in Syria are mistaken.
Glossing over these disputes, the February agreement highlighted supposedly common ideological ground by affirming that the two sides are ‘mujahid groups on the manhaj striving to establish the religion through dawa and jihad’.
More recently, HTS has reportedly attempted to conciliate the al-Qaeda loyalists on the ground in north-west Syria. Indeed, HTS allegedly offered payments of $100 for each slain enemy fighter to Hurras al-Din and Ansar al-Tawheed (the latter the successor group for the al-Qaeda-loyalist elements of Jund al-Aqsa, which fractured because of Islamic State sympathizers in its ranks) for operations conducted in Aleppo and Hama provinces. In total, these payments purportedly amounted to $400 for Hurras al-Din and $3,000 for Ansar al-Tawheed.
A member of HTS’m ‘Red Bands’ unit affirmed the reports of these payments, describing them as a “step to conciliate the hearts. And God willing there will be unity with time.” He elaborated: “The aim is to bring together all the fighters to repel the aggressor, especially in the stage that we are in.” However, the general military official for Ansar al-Tawheed denied that any payments were made to the group by HTS for a recent raid conducted in northern Hama.
Even if these supposed HTS payments are true, more partisan pro-al-Qaeda types are not convinced by apparent HTS gestures of conciliation, reflecting the fact that the February agreement did not resolve the more fundamental disputes between HTS and the al-Qaeda loyalists. The foremost case in point is the Telegram channel Shibl al-Aqeeda. Commenting on the initial reports of the payments, Shibl al-Aqeeda published the following on the assumption they were true (the channel subsequently circulated the denial by the Ansar al-Tawheed official):
‘Let us be fair and start out with the words of the Prophet: “Whoso does not thank the people, does not thank God.” So may God reward best the one who undertook this matter. But let us also be honest with ourselves and all, because there are many question marks about this deed, and what is the secret in the timing of this publicizing and broadcasting!
‘They are trying to appear as though they support the mujahideen through granting them some dollars seeped in oppression and then publicizing that. By God, the mujahideen do not want from you this money and granting and publicizing! They only want you to open the fronts and break the bonds of Sochi, or at least if the mujahideen want to strike the Nusayris or engage in reconnaissance you should permit them to do that and not prevent them, then after the raids claim to recompense them because that is the peak of farcical behaviour. And when you open the fronts for the mujahideen to operate then their provision will be under the shade of their spear and not under the coercion of oppression.
‘Your wealth will not cover up for the oppression of your security personnel, the corruption of your judiciary and your protection of the Turkish patrols that implement Sochi. And they will not cover for the freezing of the fronts right now in the north, for we are not those whose silence you can buy with your wealth as you do with the rest. Note: my words represent me alone.’
Shibl al-Aqeeda’s words here embody grievances against HTS that persist whatever agreements HTS might strike with the al-Qaeda loyalists emphasizing ideological unity. Among those grievances is that HTS, by permitting Turkish patrols in north-west Syria that operate under the pretext of enforcing a de-escalation ‘buffer zone’, effectively allows for the implementation of the Sochi agreement between Turkey and Russia. This concession, it is argued, freezes the military frontlines in northern Syria and impedes the jihad against the Syrian government. In addition, since the main judicial system in the north is the Salvation Government’s Justice Ministry that is backed by HTS, it cannot possibly be an impartial uncorrupt system for resolving disputes between HTS and other parties.
Meanwhile, Abu Anas al-Masri, an Egyptian jihadist sheikh in Syria, released a lengthy testimony frequently criticizing HTS’ prison and security system; a similar criticism mentioned by Shibl al-Aqeeday above. Al-Masri, who was arrested by HTS in October 2018, was released after the Russians bombed Idlib prison in March 2019.
Al-Masri finds fault with numerous aspects of HTS’ prison and security system. For instance, he criticizes the interrogators, claiming that “most of the grievances and acts of corruption come from the interrogators, and most of them are not suitable in law and religion, and they have no ethics and morality or fear of God, and it is believed some of them were regime interrogators previously”. He also attacks the HTS security apparatus for using torture to obtain confessions, recounting that he was once with a man who went for interrogation and came back unable to walk as a result of being lashed and tortured until his skin cracked and bled.
It may be the case that al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri also weighed in on these recent controversies about HTS’ ongoing ‘oppression’. Al-Zawahiri, who has repeatedly criticized HTS’ strategy of governance and holding territory, recently released a short video entitled Oppression, in which, unsurprisingly, he warns against oppression. The video, largely consisting of quotations from religious literature, features at the end a quotation from the medieval theologian Ibn Taymiyya, saying, “God will support the just state, even if it is a disbelieving one, but He will not support the oppressive state, even if it is a believing one.” It could also be that this criticism is directed at the experience of the Islamic State, or perhaps it is directed at both the projects of the Islamic State and HTS.
There are of course counterpoints from HTS and its supporters to the claims levelled against the group by the al-Qaeda loyalists. On the issue of the Turkish patrols, for instance, HTS maintains that the patrols cannot block decisions by the group to launch attacks against Syrian government forces. And while the patrols are not desirable, they are ultimately a lesser evil in that they can prevent a wider offensive by the Syrian government and its allies on the ‘liberated’ north-west. Predictably, the group and its supporters will also insist that HTS and the Salvation Government are not synonymous, but rather that the Salvation Government’s courts represent a fair judicial authority.
In any event, the perceived grievance about HTS’ ‘oppression’ in the eyes of its jihadi rivals is a very real sentiment. Thus, despite the agreement HTS struck with Hurras al-Din, the main causes of tensions between HTS and the al-Qaeda loyalists will likely remain unresolved. At the same time, HTS, whose ranks are likely many times greater than the al-Qaeda loyalists, will remain the dominant actor in north-western Syria, whatever popular resentment might exist against HTS and its policies in the area.