Clashes have erupted today between al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS), and its heretofore-inseparable ally, Ahrar al-Sham. For the overall insurgency, the bodes ill, in the short-term, but there might be some long-term political advantages if JFS isolates itself from the wider opposition.
Ahrar al-Sham confirmed on 18 January that it would not attend the so-called peace talks, organized between Turkey and Russia, with Iran in attendance, in Astana, Kazakhstan. Ahrar’s reasons included the ongoing bombardment of Wadi Barada and the holding of these talks under Russian auspices after Moscow’s criminal conduct in Syria. Crucially, however, Ahrar said it would not attend because while Ahrar stood as a bulwark against the excommunication or the labelling as traitors those groups that were going to attend, Ahrar did not want to leave any one group—namely al-Qaeda—isolated.
“We have no doubt that our decision might be wrong despite believing it’s right,” said Ahrar, and concluded: “lying is the person who says this is the time for politics only. No, it is just heating up, and the jihad arenas today are calling on the lions of Islam and the heroes of Syria to continue the way of their martyred brothers and to maintain the flag of jihad high above our blessed land.”
Thus, did Ahrar al-Sham again have it both ways and make clear that it has not broken from jihadi-Salafism. Ahrar does not regard jihad as a necessary defensive measure, as groups like the Salafist Jaysh al-Islam do, but regards jihad as a central tenet of the faith; it merely adds other elements, like politics, to achieve its ends.
Quite a surprise, therefore, that just twenty-four hours later JFS launched co-ordinated attacks against Ahrar in Idlib, notably in Khirbet al-Joz, where Ahrar’s headquarters and checkpoints were seized, and JFS displaced Ahrar from control of the border-crossing with Turkey. The attacks this morning by JFS concentrated in an area controlled by a Palestinian emir of Ahrar, Abu Khuzayma, who has previously been accused of being an al-Qaeda agent; the idea that Abu Khuzayma conspired with JFS against Ahrar in this case would not be surprising. JFS also attacked Ahrar in Bdama, Darkush, al-Zayniya, and outside Jisr al-Shughur. JFS claimed that the trigger for its attacks on Ahrar was Ahrar taking JFS prisoners. In reality, JFS’s move was something like a pre-emptive strike, as they see it.
So far from reading Ahrar’s statement of solidarity as far-reaching, JFS saw it as a grudging statement and viewed Ahrar’s defence of a process in Astana that JFS considers treacherous to be the more important aspect. Ahrar has openly accused JFS of harbouring Islamic State cells and on 17 January, Jaysh al-Fatah was ostensibly forced to transfer power to an elected council, which redounded significantly to Ahrar’s political benefit as against JFS (though Jaysh al-Fatah has since confirmed that it was only ceding service-provision capacity).
Additionally, Ahrar’s refusal to merge with JFS in December 2016 is ascribed by JFS to commanders in Ahrar who serve the whims of Turkey, which allowed Aleppo to fall and is now conspiring with the Coalition—and perhaps soon the Russians—in a wave of airstrikes against JFS’s leadership.
Put simply, JFS has come to suspect that Ahrar, its long-time ally, is a potential lever in a campaign to bring about its downfall.
It has to be said that JFS is probably correct in its assessment that Ankara is quietly giving additional intelligence to the Coalition for anti-JFS strikes, is near-certainly correct that Turkey signed-off on Aleppo City’s collapse in exchange for the Russians leaving Operation EUPHRATES SHIELD areas unmolested, and it is beyond question that as Turkey asserts herself in northern Syria, eastern Aleppo Province for now but in time also Idlib, it has created an inevitable Turkish interest in undermining JFS. To the extent forces within Ahrar are identified with Turkish power, they are implicated in this, and the anger at Turkey, particularly for the newly-warm relations with Moscow and the fiasco it allowed to occur in Aleppo, which goes well beyond jihadist circles, is an effective weapon in JFS’s political warfare against the factions of Ahrar resistant to a merger.
This situation is especially precarious for Ahrar because al-Qaeda exerts considerable influence over sections of its leadership and anything up to a third of the organization beyond that; if it comes to a radical confrontation it is difficult to see it being resolved without Ahrar splintering. Ahrar has maintained a dualistic posture between Syrian Islamism and globalist jihadi-Salafism, functioning as the vector in northern Syria for al-Qaeda’s efforts to insinuate itself into the mainstream rebellion it seeks to co-opt. The strains of the months-long political duel with JFS have exacerbated this contradiction, which runs right through the heart of Ahrar, and already opened fissures in the organization that could well lead to schism. Large-scale combat between Ahrar and JFS would do short-term damage to the overall insurgency in the north, but if outside powers joined such an indigenous campaign against al-Qaeda and the sections of Ahrar beholden to it, it might effect the political-military decoupling between the Syrian opposition and al-Qaeda that the West has so long demanded.
UPDATE: In the morning of 20 January, Jund al-Aqsa (now a formal part of JFS) launched an offensive against Ahrar al-Sham’s bases in the Jibal al-Zawiya area, with particularly intense fighting in al-Bara, and Jund took several villages, notably Qaminas; the gains from the attack were largely turned back by the end of the day.
With prominent Ahrar figures publicly lamenting that “JFS betrays Ahrar al-Sham for the thousandth time,” on 21 January, Ahrar launched its own wide-ranging offensive against Jund/JFS. Ahmed Issa al-Shaykh (Abu Issa), the leader of Suqour al-Sham, issued a statement saying Jund—referred to as “mini-Daesh“—needed to be eradicated. Suqour then joined with Ahrar, as did Jaysh al-Islam’s forces in the region and Jaysh al-Mujahideen, to assault Jund/JFS. The fighting spread out of Idlib into western Aleppo. It had political consequences, too. Two JFS officials, Abu Ahmed al-Zukour and Abdullah al-Halabi, defected to Ahrar. There were reports that units of Ahrar had defected to JFS; there was no confirmation of this.
A ceasefire was signed between Ahrar and the ostensibly-non-existent Jund al-Aqsa on 22 January that agreed for return of prisoners and the restoration of JFS as a mediator—it is to JFS that accused criminals (i.e. Islamic State sleeper agents and assassins) are to be handed.
This is not the first time Ahrar has called off an apparent attempt to extirpate Jund. With accusations that Jund was infiltrated, harbouring, and/or being taken over by IS cells at least a year old, and a series of clashes over the preceding days after Jund tried to assassinate Ahrar’s leadership in the Hama area, on 7 October 2016, Ahrar launched an all-out offensive against Jund and the following day issued a fatwa saying Jund not only “shelters inside them many elements loyal to the organization of al-Baghdadi, the Khariji,” but “they even have a secret bay’a to him.” On 9 October, Jund gave its allegiance to JFS, and despite some further minor clashes this effectively halted Ahrar. Ahrar says that JFS agreed to a joint oversight mechanism to deal with the IS cells in Jund after JFS absorbed it, but this agreement was never implemented.
This time around, the ceasefire seems to have come from field commanders in Ahrar, which has left some of Ahrar’s senior leadership—and presumably all the other groups that mobilized against Jund and who were not included in the ceasefire arrangements—feeling displeased. It has also not resolved the issue; the labelling of Jund as Khawarij, as many oppositionists publicly and privately now have, is not something that is easily retracted.
In parallel with this, Ahrar appears to have settled one of its internal disputes—at least for now. Ahrar held internal elections on 29 November that gave the leadership to Ali al-Umar (Abu Ammar), a close ally of Turkey’s. This triggered eight senior Ahrar members to “suspend” their involvement in the group, including the leader al-Umar replaced, Hashem al-Shaykh (Abu Jabbar), al-Shaykh’s outgoing deputy and military leader Abu Saleh al-Tahhan, the former chief shar’i Abu Muhammad al-Sadeq, local commander Abu Khuzayma, and the former leader of the Kurdish Islamic Front Abu Abdullah al-Kurdi. And on 10 December, Jaysh al-Ahrar was formed, led by al-Shaykh, as part of a semi-coup. Initially consisting of sixteen units, Jaysh al-Ahrar soon added two more. On 22 January 2017, al-Shaykh dissolved Jaysh al-Ahrar and had it re-integrate within Ahrar. Ahrar also recently (23 June 2016) pulled back in Jaysh al-Sham, which purportedly splintered from the organization on 9 October 2015.
Al-Shaykh’s statement on the dissolution of Jaysh al-Ahrar is remarkable in itself. The formation of Jaysh al-Ahrar was a means of pressuring for reform, says al-Shaykh, and that has now been achieved. Al-Shaykh has agreed with al-Umar on maintaining Ahrar al-Sham on the “manhaji path”. That path will allow for intellectual diversity in the movement and stick to “moderation,” says al-Shaykh, who uses the word wasati [centrist] in describing the course Ahrar will take. By this he means avoiding the “extremes” of the secular Free Syrian Army and its regional and international backers on the one side, and avoiding IS-style takfirism on the other. This fits remarkably closely within this schema not only of jihadi-Salafism generally, but al-Qaeda specifically.
The word “wasati” appears a lot in pro-al-Qaeda commentary, and the trajectory described by al-Qaeda’s leader—of jihadi unity, refusing to with the U.S., regional governments, and their secular allies, while avoiding wide-scale excommunication of Muslims or forcing them to kneel to any one faction (a la the Islamic State)—is presented by al-Qaeda as a “moderate” one, too. Additionally, Ahrar has previously invoked the phrase ikhwat al-manhaj (brothers in [correct] methodology) to explain its unwillingness to fight, first IS and then al-Nusra. Such hesitancy was not notable in Jaysh al-Islam, for example, which is not a moderate group—it is a Salafist one—but it is not jihadist, and so warred on IS early and without restraint because it felt no kinship in ideology.
UPDATE 2: On 23 January 2017, a foreign jihadi cleric within Ahrar al-Sham, Abu Fatah al-Farghali, an Egyptian, resigned. Al-Farghali was close to Abu Muhammad al-Sadeq and is very favourably disposed to JFS, with whom he advocated a merger. Al-Farghali was involved in Jaysh al-Ahrar.
UPDATE 3: Also on 23 January, JFS separated from Jund al-Aqsa. JFS issued a statement, a “Clarification on the Reasons for the Joining and Separation of the ‘Jund al-Aqsa’ Group” (translation by al-Maqalaat):
Praise be to God, and prayers and peace be upon the Messenger of God, his family, companions and whoso is loyal to him. As for what follows:
In October 2016, during preparation for the second battle to break the siege of Aleppo, and amid a clear advance for the forces of the mujahideen in the north Hama countryside, a clash arose between the Ahrar al-Sham movement and Jund al-Aqsa, with the matter extending to the stance of many of the factions in the rank of Ahrar against Jund, and the clashes led at the same time to the killing of many people from the liberated areas at the hands of the regime again, in addition to hundreds of prisoners being taken by both of the two conflicting sides, as well as many casualties between the two sides.
We intervened at that time to convince the two sides to agree to a ceasefire through recourse to a shar’i court, and the matter led to the agreement on the following points:
- Immediate ceasefire
- Releasing prisoners from the two sides
- Jabhat Fatah al-Sham would receive the points of the clash
- Forming a shar’i court
That happened amid an announcement by a delegation from Jund al-Aqsa—at whose head was their emir—declaring its allegiance on behalf of the whole group to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, according to the prior facts. As we set out to apply the terms of the agreement with Ahrar on the one hand and the terms of the allegiance with Jund on the other, we noticed the two sides were delaying in applying the court proceedings, and we received a number of affirmations from Jund on the lack of their acceptance of that bay’a [pledge of allegiance], indicating rather that the emir had pledged allegiance on his own behalf and whoso wished from their members, not the faction in its entirety. Thus, it seemed clear that the Jund al-Aqsa group would not deal with the Jabha on the basis of hearing and obeying: the main pillar for the bay’a.
We were keen more than once to clarify these circumstances, but our fear of the renewal of clashes by a side and our hope that the Jund would comply with their bay’a meant that the choice not to clarify the matter got the better of us. And amid the clashes that have renewed between the two sides and the lack of the Jund’s submission to any of the clauses of the bay’a, we (even as the two sides have agreed to resolve the matter through a judicial committee) declare that Jund al-Aqsa is not affiliated with Jabhat Fatah al-Sham—organizationally that is—even as the bond of Islam remains, and we all hope that the recent agreement between Ahrar and Jund succeeds.
And praise be to God the Lord of the Worlds.
In short, JFS denies that this is an expulsion, exactly, since it denies that Jund al-Aqsa was ever really under its control and thus dissociates itself from its behaviour. On the heels of Ahrar al-Sham’s accusation that JFS was sheltering IS cells and Ahrar’s own internal reconciliation and recommitment to the “manhaji” path, the timing is very interesting.
UPDATE 4: In the afternoon and into the evening of 23 January, intense fighting erupted between the rebellion and JFS in Idlib and spread into Aleppo. JFS surrounded the bases of Jaysh al-Mujahideen in Maarshurin, eastern Idlib, near the famously anti-JFS town of Maarat al-Numan, and JFS then assaulted Jaysh al-Mujahideen in western Rif Aleppo. JFS expanded into attacks on al-Jabhat al-Shamiya (The Levant Front). Allegedly JFS was assisted in this by Harakat Nooradeen al-Zengi. This provoked a reaction from the broader armed opposition, including Ahrar and Suqour al-Sham, and seemingly Faylaq al-Sham, which mobilized to help Levant Front to defend Maarshurin. Civilian protests against JFS have broken out in a number of areas.
UPDATE 5: On 24 January, JFS kidnapped Beha al-Halabi and Layth al-Qasir, two media activists who arrived in Idlib after they were deported from Aleppo City last month. The mainstream rebels mobilized for a large-scale anti-JFS operation, though its success appears minimal. Harakat Nooradeen al-Zengi—which has denied that it has taken part in this squabble—allegedly sent 400 fighters to held JFS besiege Jaysh al-Mujahideen’s positions in Hraytan in western Aleppo.
In the evening, JFS released a statement explaining its conduct that framed its attacks on the rebellion as a preventive measure:
[W]e’ve taken some actions and humbled ourselves [by splitting from al-Qaeda] and even after all the sacrifice of JFS for the sake of the umma … they extended their pens and fatwas against unity and going to extremes by insisting on dismantling the group as a whole. … [A]fter the failure to unite, the Coalition airstrikes began to target the gamechangers and the players who would bring about a change [betterment] in this field, a clear message to isolate us and fight us, and some went to extremes of holding hands with the U.S. criminals. And during these events, the Astana conference appeared, which was supported and nurtured by the occupier, Russia. They forced some groups to attend and they [the rebels going to Kazakhstan] became a humiliation in the field of jihad and revolution. From overthrowing the murderous regime, [the rebels had now agreed] to talks and agreements [and then] to a ceasefire and the supply humanitarian aid, along with a statement to implement a democratic state, and an joint agreement to isolate JFS and fight them. … [S]o … we had to defend ourselves before the events happened.
UPDATE 6: Clashes continued between the rebellion and JFS on 25 January. In the morning, Ahrar al-Sham’s leader issued a private order (which soon leaked) called for a general mobilization to prepare to resist JFS. Five groups—Kataib Thuwar al-Sham, Suqour al-Sham, the western Aleppo sections of al-Jabhat al-Shamiya (The Levant Front), the northern sections of Jaysh al-Islam, and Tajamu Fastaqim Kama Umrat—joined Ahrar. [More than a dozen other smaller groups would join Ahrar over the next week-and-a-half.] Twenty-three important shaykhs had called on the most powerful armed opposition groups in northern Syria—Suqour, Jaysh al-Mujahideen, Tajamu, Jaysh al-Islam, al-Jabhat al-Shamiya, and Faylaq al-Sham—to join Ahrar, and in the meantime for Ahrar to protect these groups. (The clerics echoed the extremely stern fatwa yesterday by the Syrian Islamic Council that called for rebels to fight JFS because it was “Khawarij” and for JFS’s members to defect.) JFS issued its own statement in effect declaring war on those rebel groups it deemed treacherous—who either received foreign support or attended Astana. JFS assaulted the Central Prison in Idlib, leading to the freeing of a number of pro-Assad and IS prisoners. Oppositionists began tweeting the hashtag, “Jolani: Servant of Assad“. JFS destroyed Jaysh al-Mujahideen’s positions in western Aleppo leaving the FSA of minimal strength in that area, though its attacks against groups—notably Suqour al-Sham, whose leadership were subject to an assassination attempt—in Aleppo were less successful. That said, JFS does not need to annihilate all of the groups opposed to it to neutralize them into dependency and/or subordination.
UPDATE 7: The fighting continued on 26 January. JFS fired on civilian protesters in al-Hazum, and overran a Jaysh al-Islam [now Ahrar al-Sham] checkpoint in Kafr Dariyan in Idlib. Ahrar pushed JFS out of Ehsem, and violence continued between JFS and Ahrar in al-Dana. JFS added political warfare to its physical assaults on Jaysh al-Mujahideen, claiming that it had found cannabis at the bases of Jaysh al-Mujahideen, and Jaysh al-Mujahideen responded that the drugs had been confiscated from dealers. A long statement explaining the last few days from JFS’s point-of-view was released; the argument, roughly, is that JFS preemptively defended itself against a foreign conspiracy working through local rebel groups and it only used a minimum of force—all in service of the revolution.
There were then two statements from jihadi clerics, Abdallah al-Muhaysini, a Saudi who is publicly unaffiliated and in reality a senior JFS official inside Syria, and Issam al-Barqawi (Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi), among the most prominent jihadi-Salafist ideologues, who lives in his native Jordan. These clerics have clashed before over how al-Qaeda (JFS) should deal with other insurgent groups, and their statements here were remarkably opposed.
My brothers, many of the beloved ones ask: “What is your comment on those who describe Jabhat Fatah al-Sham as Khawarij?” I say, O brothers: This description is a false one for the characteristics of the Khawarij have not applied to our brothers. Our brothers fought and thrashed the enemies of God and everybody saw this. But my brothers, this does not mean that if we aid a faction or take part with it in fighting and battles that we compliment or flatter in a matter that we condemn before God. … [T]he urgent solution for the field is that everybody accepts a shari’a court that ends this fighting and disputation and preserves the blood so that fitna [strife] and big, wide corruption is not caused in the land … So I ask every reformer, every person who fears God, and every ardent one, to push in this direction and to know that a word in fitna is harder than the strike of a sword.
The stress from al-Muhaysini was on ending the fighting: on the one side refuting the charge that JFS were “Khawarij“—i.e. like the Islamic State, which carries with it a necessity for total war—and on the other side calling on JFS to desist from attacks, with the ultimate aim of having the whole matter submitted to arbitration.
Al-Barqawi would have none of this. Unlike al-Muhaysini and other important pro-Qaeda jihadi-Salafi ideologues like Umar Othman (Abu Qatada al-Filistini), al-Barqawi is an advocate of taghalub (one faction overpowering or forcibly dominating another). Al-Barqawi has previously called for JFS to assert itself over all the other groups, which he labels as apostates if they are supported by foreign governments. Now al-Barqawi goes even further and calls for JFS to treat the Syrian opposition like the Banu Qurayza, the Jewish tribe, whose men were massacred via beheading by the early Muslims at Medina in 627.
The Banu Qurayza incident is deeply controversial in Muslim historiography and jurisprudence. As one scholar put it, “no act of the Prophet’s has been more severely condemned by the opponents of Islam or defended with more embarrassment by his apologists.” But the episode has been used by the Islamic State to justify its worst conduct, including the savage repression of the (Sunni) Shaytat tribe that rose against them in August 2014. Seven-hundred Shaytat tribesmen—exactly the same number as the Jews from the Banu Qurayza who were murdered—were slaughtered over three days.
JFS has cost itself some popularity in doing this; it has also been more or less successful. JFS has stuck to a policy of shaping, rather than directly ruling, the environment, and on that basis this past week of operations against the rebellion must be said to have worked in its favour, expanding its own area of direct influence and either eliminating or forcing smaller mainstream and nationalist forces into being subsumed by a fellow “manhaji” group, Ahrar al-Sham.
As one pro-al-Qaeda commentator put it, “Jabhat Fatah al-Sham has succeeded … The mission of JFS was not that [the groups it attacked] would merge with them. No, their mission was to dissolve the factions and the foreign project coming with it … That these factions joined and merged Ahrar al-Sham is actually endorsed by JFS. The mujahideen have been trying to achieve this goal for a long time now. The greatest losers are the foreign powers who are watching their treacherous projects melt away … If we did not know any better we would even say that this was an elaborate scheme between Jabhat Fatah al-Sham and Ahrar al-Sham, through a ‘good cop, bad cop’ routine, to reach that which they were unable to reach for months: to absorb the factions that keep refusing a merger.”
28 JANUARY 2017
The northern Aleppo section of Harakat Nooradeen al-Zengi, the part of the organization associated with Turkey’s Operation EUPHRATES SHIELD that constitutes something over a quarter of the organization, broke away and joined Faylaq al-Sham.
Later on, shortly after 15:00 British time, an insurgent merger was announced, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS, The Syrian Liberation Committee), led by the former leader of Ahrar al-Sham, Hashem al-Shaykh (Abu Jabbar), and containing al-Qaeda’s rebranded Syrian branch, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS), the non-EUPHRATES SHIELD portion of Harakat Nooradeen al-Zengi, Jabhat Ansar al-Din, Jaysh al-Sunna, and Liwa al-Haq. This is both the unification and dissolution of the Jaysh al-Fatah coalition put together to overrun Idlib City in March 2015. Predictably, among those who left Ahrar with al-Shaykh to join HTS were Abu Saleh al-Tahhan and Abu Muhammad al-Sadeq, the driving forces behind Jaysh al-Ahrar, who have clearly played Ali al-Umar, pretending to return to Ahrar while having secretly coordinated this public defection with al-Qaeda. Equally predictable was the half-dozen jihadi clerics—Abdallah al-Muhaysini, Muslah al-Alyani, Abdul Razzaq al-Mahdi, Abu Harith al-Masri, Abu Yusuf al-Hamawi, and Abu Tahir al-Hamawi—who immediately signed-up to HTS. These clerics maintained a posture of independence, but many of them signed a fatwa that made it obligatory to enter a merger with JFS and all of them are sympathizers with al-Qaeda, even where they are not, as al-Muhaysini is, actual operatives of JFS/al-Qaeda.
The official statement announcing HTS read [translation by Bilad al-Sham Media]:
All thanks is due to God, who said: “Indeed, God loves those who fight in His cause in a row as though they are a [single] structure joined firmly” [As-Saf: 4].
Due to what the Syrian revolution is undergoing today, the [external] plots that plague it and the internal conflicts that threaten its existence, it took great effort from us in order to unite the word and the ranks.
We—the factions whose signature is present below—announce that all our factions will cease to exist and a complete merger within the new entity under the name: Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, under the leadership of Abu Jabbar, Hashem al-Shaykh (previously of Ahrar al-Sham)
And we call on the factions in the arena to fulfill this covenant and to join this new entity in order to unite our banners and to preserve the fruits and the jihad of this revolution, so that this may be the seed of unifying the capacities and strength of this revolution, to preserve its course and achieve its desired objectives—most notably the overthrow of this criminal regime.
We ask God that he grants us victory and a clear conquest.
Signatures of the factions involved:
Jabhat Fatah al-Sham
Harakat Nooradeen al-Zengi
Jabhat Ansar al-Din
Shaykh Abu Abdulmalik al-Shami, a JFS shar’i and one of the most extreme voices in condemning groups that cooperate with Turkey as heretics (while maintaining that the differences with Ahrar are narrow and few), reaffirmed his allegiance to HTS. Also unsurprisingly, Abu Fatah al-Farghali, the Egyptian jihadi cleric who resigned from Ahrar two weeks ago, a major architect of Jaysh al-Ahrar and one of the loudest voices within Ahrar favouring a merger with JFS, joined HTS. That Abu al-Abed Ashidaa, who briefly led the unified insurgent forces in Aleppo City, announced his allegiance to HTS was likewise no shock: since the fall of the city, Ashidaa been engaged in political warfare on JFS’s behalf to press Ahrar (and others) into a merger with JFS. Abu al-Abed brought with him his pro-JFS faction, Mujahidu al-Ashida, once a splinter from Ahrar.
Then the wave of defections began from Ahrar to HTS, staring with military spokesman Abu Yusuf al-Muhajir, a known pro-JFS hardliner, and jurist Abu Hafs al-Minbij, and continuing with a number of entire units (albeit small ones): Suqour al-Izz [not to be confused with the Hama-based rebel group of the same name], Saraya al-Aqsa, Liwa al-Abbas, Ansar Homs, and Ahrar al-Jabal al-Wastaniya. The claim that the Kurdish faction of Ahrar had defected to HTS has been denied by the group.
A number of other insurgent groups joined HTS: Katibat al-Rashid, Katibat al-Sahabat, and Katibat Qawafil al-Shuhada in Khan Shaykhun.
In Gaza, Jaysh al-Umma, led by Abu Hafs al-Maqdisi, congratulated HTS. Within Syria, some had already taken to calling the group Hetish—intended pejoratively, and not-accidentally nearly rhyming with Daesh.
29 JANUARY 2017
A number of individuals and groups pledged allegiance to HTS:
- Katibat Usud al-Rahman
- Jamaat Fursan al-Sunna from Rif Aleppo
- Katibat Taliban from near Sarmada
- Asaad al-Khilafah
- Kataib al-Khattab, a small FSA-branded group
- Fursan al-Sham, a unit of The Levant Front
- The tribe of al-Sa’b al-Abiya
- Abu Haydar al-Kurdi, a military leader of Jaysh al-Sunna
- Abu Islam, the leader of the “Armour Brigade”
- Suraqa al-Makki, a Saudi preacher
- Shaykh Iyad Mahmud
- Shaykh Hamza Abu Husayn
- Abu al-Battar al-Jazrawi, a jurist
There was a wave of defections from Ahrar al-Sham to HTS:
- Abu Yahya al-Shami, the leader of the Daw’a Department
- Liwa Tamqeen, one of the more active and powerful units of Ahrar
- Two “formations” and nine “brigades”
- Khalil Abu Ismael, the general leader of armaments
- Abu Bara al-Qahtani, the leader of the media office in southern Aleppo
- Kataib Ahmad Asfan, another active unit
- Katibat Riyah al-Janna, an Ahrar battalion from eastern Rif Hama
- Shaykh Abu al-Waleed al-Hanafi, the leader of the media office in Rif Aleppo
- Abu Musab al-Tunisi, a military leader
- Shaykh Abu Muhammad al-Nu’maani, the director of the central body of endowments (awqaf)
- Katibat Hudayfa ibn Yaman, a strong unit in Aleppo
- Liwa al-Iman
- Usud al-Hamza
Abu Malik al-Shami, JFS’s leader in western Qalamun, re-pledged allegiance to HTS.
A number of English-language pro-al-Qaeda channels congratulate HTS
Bringing an end to the major phase of fighting, HTS has withdrawn from checkpoints in Sarjah that belong to Suqour al-Sham, and Abdallah al-Muhaysini insists that there was much hugging and reconciliation.
30 JANUARY 2017
While most of the fighting ended in Idlib yesterday after HTS announced a ceasefire with Suqour al-Sham, today HTS (prior al-Nusra/JFS units) have stormed the bases of the First Coastal Division in Latakia and stole both their light and heavy weapons.
Harakat Nooradeen al-Zengi’s Twitter account was suspended. [Over the next forty-eight hours, Twitter would finally crack down on al-Qaeda’s presence and suspend essentially the whole leadership of HTS. The only major prior move Twitter has made against al-Qaeda was the 26 December 2016 suspension of three important pro-al-Qaeda clerics: Issam al-Barqawi (Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi) and Umar Othman (Abu Qatada al-Filistini) based in Jordan, and the London-based Hani al-Sibai. A notable exception is Tariq Abdelhaleem, of Egyptian origins and now based in Canada, who remains present on Twitter.]
31 JANUARY 2017
Katibat al-Jihad fi Sabeeli Laah from Suqour al-Sham, active in Jibal al-Zawiya, has defected to HTS.
Four battalions from the artillery and missile brigade and the commander of operations for Ahrar al-Sham, Abu Hisham, defected to HTS.
Hussam Atrash, the lead religious official of Harakat Nooradeen al-Zengi, has tried to implicate several U.S.-supported rebel groups in al-Qaeda’s hostage-taking in Syria, part of the effort to pressurize them into joining HTS by distancing them from the West. Atrash claims that al-Zengi did not kidnap the two Italian aid workers, Greta Ramelli and Vanessa Marzullo, who were taken in July 2014 and released in January 2015. Technically this is true: Ramelli and Marzullo were kidnapped by Harakat al-Zahir Baybars, which did not become part of al-Zengi until September 2015, when it and the Aleppo City Battalions, which had been part of U.S.-vetted Tajamu Fastaqim Kamr Umrat, joined al-Zengi. Baybars’ entry into al-Zengi’s ranks, after Baybars had kidnapped the Italians and handed them to al-Nusra, was the direct trigger for al-Zengi losing its status as a U.S.-vetted and -supported group. Atrash openly says that al-Zengi received $5m of what al-Nusra received to free Ramelli and Marzullo, though he claims this is because al-Qaeda entered al-Zengi-held territory, and then adds that MOM-supported groups shared in the spoils, too.
1 FEBRUARY 2017
Abdallah al-Muhaysini released a statement:
My brothers the soldiers of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, may Allah bless you wherever you go. I want to turn your attention to an important matter: it is that the mindset and thinking of a battalion differs from that of a brigade, dealing as a brigade differs from dealing as a group, and dealing as an entity differs from dealing as a state.
The more a body expands the more the differences expand and the less similar the point of view becomes between its followers. It has not occurred in history that the umma (Muslim community) gathered on one point of view, not even on preferring the fiqh of differing or awareness. Look at how Shaykh al-Islam [Ibn Taymiyya] mobilised against the Mongols sects from Sufis, Asharis, and others and defended the existence of Islam, look at Saladin [al-Ayyubi] and others. …
Here we are today, thanks to God, taking a serious step towards Sunni alignment in Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham. Here are the allegiances coming successively, one after the other, from the different colours from FSA to Islamists. You will, in the coming days, notice a discrepancy in the stances, so you have to widen your chests. So here is a brother with [Harakat Nooradeen] al-Zengi (previously) who writes his thoughts and here a brother from Fatah al-Sham (previously) who writes his opinion and here is one from Ahrar al-Sham (previously) who writes to all his direction and thoughts and here from Ansar al-Din and here from Liwa al-Haq and over here the independent Shaykhs. So there must be understanding for the fiqh of differing. With meetings of discussion and thought we will reach to a body with the same point of view or a close one.
The official banner of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) is released:
Those units joining HTS today include:
- Katibat Usud al-Harb
- Liwa Ahrar al-Jibal
- Liwa al-Qadisiya, active in Sahl al-Ghab area
- Katibat Usud al-Jibal. part of Liwa Ansar al-Sahel
- Katibat Shilka
- Asaad Tawhid (Liwa Ansar Allah) defected from Ahrar al-Sham
- Liwa Huthayfa from Ahrar al-Sham
- Katibat Abdullah ibn Abbas, active in southern Rif Idlib around Khan Shaykhun
- Katibat Abu Jasim Huwayr from Thuwar al-Sham
- Katibat Ahrar al-Junub, a unit of Liwa al-Sadis from southern Rif Aleppo, part of al-Jabhat al-Shamiya (The Levant Front)
- Katibat al-Miqdad Bin Amr, part of Liwa al-Fatah
- Katibat al-Mujahideen Hraytan
- Katibat Mujahideen North Hayan
- Katibat Mujahideen Yaqud al-Adas
- Kataib Mujahideen al-Shamal
- Katibat al-Jihad
Abu Saleh al-Tahhan, the former military emir of Ahrar al-Sham, has been appointed as the general military leader of HTS, and Ahmad al-Shara (Abu Muhammad al-Jolani), the former head of the official al-Qaeda faction in Syria, has been appointed as the leader of military raids (ghazawat).
This reinforces the resemblance HTS has to al-Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen (MSM) formed by al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) merging with a half-dozen Salafi and jihadi factions in Iraq in January 2006 and indeed to the Islamic State (then the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI)) formed in October and November 2006 by fusing with a wider array of groups and tribes. AQI did not monopolize the senior positions in MSM. AQI’s leader, Ahmad al-Khalayleh (Abu Musab al-Zarqawi) was a deputy to Abdullah Ibn Rashid al-Baghdadi, better-known as Abu Ali al-Anbari (real name: Abdurrahman al-Qaduli). The very important position of official spokesman was given to Muharib al-Jiburi, who was known to the AQI set but led his own independent unit, Saraya al-Ghuraba. And the “prime minister” position went to Abdul Rahman al-Falahi, Saraya al-Jihad’s leader. In other words, to secure a merger, AQI was prepared to divide the spoils. After al-Khalayleh was killed and al-Qaduli was imprisoned, Abdul Munim al-Badawi (Abu Hamza al-Muhajir) became the head of MSM, where AQI remained at least primus inter pares. On formation of ISI, which again broadened the “front” without changing AQI’s ideology, al-Badawi was the deputy and war minister to Hamid al-Zawi (Abu Umar al-Baghdadi).
This analogy is evidently alive in the minds of some of those at the top of HTS. Hussam Atrash, the religious leader of Harakat Nooradeen al-Zengi, said two days ago: “Yes, we failed in one thing, which is not to have finished factionalism and united [the insurgents] by force.” The concept of taghalub (dominating with force) has split jihadi clerics, at least in public, with Abdallah al-Muhaysini strenuously denying that al-Nusra/JFS believes or acts in this way, and another of al-Qaeda’s clerics and JFS’s supporters and authorities, Issam al-Barqawi (Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi), recommending it as the only way forward. The Islamic State drew on this idea when it monopolized power across the areas from which the rebels had expelled the regime—and it was, tacitly, often welcomed, because it did away with the need for a toll at a dozen different checkpoints along a road and brought some kind of order, even if it was medievally cruel. Al-Barqawi, of course, was among the mentors to the Islamic State’s founder, and al-Nusra/JFS is an offshoot of the Islamic State. The apple didn’t fall far from the tree.
2 FEBRUARY 2017
Katibat Abu Jasim Huwayr joined HTS.
Despite the ceasefires with its main rivals—Ahrar al-Sham and Suqour al-Sham—HTS continues to assault groups in its way, attacking Kataib al-Safwa al-Islamiyya’s headquarters in west Aleppo.
3 FEBRUARY 2017
Groups and individuals that joined HTS:
- Katibat al-Tawhid wal-Jihad, an important, if small, jihadi group, already tied into al-Qaeda’s network and dominated by Uzbeks
- Katibat Rayat al-Islam
- Katibat al-Shahid Abd al-Islam, active in Anadan
- Ahrar Hayan, from northern Rif Aleppo
- Katibat Ahfad Bani Umaya, active in Khan Shaykhun, defected from Ahrar al-Sham
- Katibat Ansar Banyas defected from Ahrar al-Sham
- Jamaat Usama Ibn Zayd defected from Ahrar al-Sham
As it was the first Friday since Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham was formed, a large rally was organized. The famous footballer-turned-revolutionary from Homs, Abdelbasset al-Sarut, was present, as was Abdallah al-Muhaysini, who can be seen for the deeply effective preacher he is, utilizing tried and tested methods of simple, emotive appeals and generating a frenzy in his audience. Among the signs in the audience was one that called the opposition delegation at Astana “losers,” while HTS are “winners”.
Ahmad Abazeid, a Syrian writer and analyst who was deported from Aleppo City in December to Idlib Province, said: “The process of driving out the revolutionaries, emptying the liberated areas of their military power and human cadres, spreading blackness and killing hope is now in full swing. What do you need Russia for when you have [Abu Muhammad] al-Jolani (Ahmad al-Shara)?”
Qutayba al-Shiqran, a former Ahrar fighter who quit the battlefield and is now the deputy to Firas al-Raslan, the external relations official of the Service Administration Commission (SAC), the Ahrar-backed services body that operates in parallel (and often in place of) the weak provincial council in Idlib, said: “Ahrar al-Sham welcomed the muhajirun (foreign fighters) and treated them with dignity. But most of those treated well met that with ill, beginning with [the Islamic State’s former war minister] Abu Umar al-Shishani (Tarkhan Batirashvili), and continuing all the way to [Abdallah] al-Muhaysini!”
Ahrar al-Sham’s official spokesman, Ahmad Qurah Ali, said: “We call on Shaykh [Abdallah] al-Muhaysini, shar’i in Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, to stop promoting false information about the majority of Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya joining the Hay’a, just as we call on him to stop visiting the bases of [Ahrar’s] battalions in order to convince them to defect.”
Shaykh Muslah al-Alyani issued a statement in response to Ahmad Qurah:
I read what brother Qurah Ali—official spokesman of Ahrar Al-Sham—wrote, in which he requested that Shaykh Abdallah al-Muhaysini stop visiting the headquarters of Ahrar and asking them to unite with Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham.
By God, I was astonished by these words that are not true! I have been together with Shaykh al-Muhaysini since the announcement of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham! And he did not visit a single headquarters of Ahrar and ask them to join the Hay’a. Shaykh Abdallah only visited the military commander, Abu al-Munthir (on the request of Abu al-Munthir), and it was a general meeting in which the way to unite the arena was discussed. Likewise, the same for Abu al-Baraa Maarshamarin.
So why this animosity in your speech? Why this approach of hostility against a student of knowledge? Or is it a methodology of: If you are not with me you are against me? Does Ahrar al-Sham no longer want al-Muhaysini to visit their headquarters? Or is it a personal judgement of Ahmad Qurah Ali? Is it not right that we remain brothers even if we disagree?
4 FEBRUARY 2017
Individuals and groups that joined HTS:
- Katibat Ahrar Hayan
- Sariyat Usama bin Zayd from the military office of Ahrar al-Sham in Sahel (coastal area)
- Katibat Fursan al-Khilafa
- Abu Yaqub, an important military commander of Ahrar in the Sahel (coastal area), defected to HTS
HTS cleric Muslah al-Alyani responded to the Coalition killing Abu Hani al-Masri, an Egyptian jihadi and member of Ahrar al-Sham, by saying:
We heard a lot of fear [from rebel groups] of terrorist designation, and the enemies have used this fear in people. The designation became a stick used by the West to threaten the factions.
[The rebel groups] said: ‘We will not merge with [Jabhat] al-Nusra because it is al-Qaeda’. So al-Nusra left al-Qaeda. Then they said, ‘We will not merge with [Jabhat] Fatah al-Sham because it is designated’. So Fatah al-Sham entered the merger [that formed Hay’ay Tahrir al-Sham]. They then said, ‘We will not enter Tahrir al-Sham because it contains those who are designated’.
And today, one of the men of Ahrar al-Sham is bombed, Shaykh Abu Hani (may God accept him). And this is the message to all the factions: as long as you are on the field of jihad and in the field of Islam, then you are designated.
Remember the words of God: “It is Satan who is trying to frighten his allies, so do not fear them, but gear me if you are [indeed] believers” [Al-Imran: 175].
Ahrar chose a new deputy, Jaber Ali Pasha, former head of Ahrar’s Islamic Commission, and Dr. Anas Najeeb is the second deputy.
In a statement released on jihadi channels, Hussam Atrash, the shar’i of Harakat Nooradeen al-Zengi, blames Ahrar al-Sham for the failure to merge at the end of last year—a familiar accusation. Atrash claims that Ahrar’s shura council voted in favour of the merger by a narrow majority but the defeated faction threatened to defect, so Ali al-Umar (Abu Ammar) backed down. Atrash further claims that it was the Nahhas brothers—Kanan who is on Ahrar’s shura council and Labib who is Ahrar’s external relations chief—who leaked the details of Ahrar’s deliberations to the outside world, which built pressure against the merger, among other things from the “dollar groups”—the Western-supported mainstream rebel factions.
Labib al-Nahhas, particularly, with his brother, is associated with what some call the thawri (revolutionary) faction of Ahrar that are comfortable with the FSA flag and have been the most publicly strident in objecting to Ahrar merging with al-Qaeda. This faction once included Mohammed al-Absi (Abu Mustafa al-Absi), the international relations official (roughly the job Labib now does), who was killed in the mysterious September 2014 explosion that killed Ahrar’s leadership, and currently includes Hussam Tarsha (Abu Umar al-Hamawi), who once publicly accused al-Nusra’s leader of being “mentally instable,” and apparently Mohannad al-Masri (Abu Yahya al-Hamawi), who led Ahrar between September 2015 and September 2016. While many of the disputes within Ahrar, such as that between Hashem al-Shaykh and Ali al-Umar, have been presented in ideological terms, this transpired to be a mirage; the difference was only on tactics—at its crudest, whether Turkey or al-Qaeda was a better partner in forwarding Ahrar’s agenda. The Nahhas faction does appear to be somewhat more “moderate”—even if suspicions remain that it is putting an acceptable face on Islamist militancy—but it is profoundly weak on the battlefield, where the real centre of gravity is.
5 FEBRUARY 2017
Jaysh al-Izza—the Hamawi rebel group, not the Ahrar faction that has joined HTS—appears to be trying to balance HTS in the area. Two local groups, Liwa Abna Kernaz and Liwa Suqour al-Jihad, have joined Suqour al-Izz.
Jabhat Shuhada al-Sham in western Qalamun joined HTS.
Abu Mahmud al-Filistini, a Britain-based pro-al-Qaeda ideologue, explained why, from a jihadi perspective, those who objected to the inclusion of Harakat Nooradeen al-Zengi, which was not an Islamist group in origins and which has a bad reputation, were mistaken.
6 FEBRUARY 2017
8 FEBRUARY 2017
Aron Lund at Carnegie gives a run-down of the formation of HTS. Read the whole thing, but this part was especially striking:
“It’s like Iraq circa 2006,” says a Syrian who works closely with the armed factions. At that time, Iraq’s Sunni rebels were bogged down in internal squabbles over power, money, and doctrine, exacerbated by near-unbearable pressure from the U.S. military and Iranian-backed Shia militias. Some of the smaller and Gulf-funded insurgent groups began to look for a way out, and they found it in a U.S.-backed project known as the Sahwa … Meanwhile, many of the hardline Islamists who refused reconciliation with Baghdad decided to follow Al-Qaeda into an alliance known as the Mujahideen Shura Council, which presented itself as a unifying force among the rebels and a guarantor of principled resistance—just as Tahrir al-Sham is doing today in Syria. In October 2006, it changed its name to the Islamic State in Iraq. Those insurgent groups that tried to steer a middle course—such as the Islamic Army of Iraq, the Iraqi Mujahideen Army, or the 1920 Revolution Battalions—soon began to splinter and fade away, leaving the Islamic State as the dominant power within a collapsing Sunni insurgency. The rest, as they say, is history.
There is still a bewildering number of smaller Sunni insurgent factions in northwestern Syria, but there is little they can achieve on their own. Only the two bulked-up Islamist giants, Tahrir al-Sham and Ahrar al-Sham, are capable of launching independent operations and exercising real leadership.
The question now is which group will finally absorb or disassemble the other. With Ahrar al-Sham seemingly unable to deal with its own internal rifts, the smart money is on Tahrir al-Sham. … “They have a stronger propaganda line, they appear more cohesive, and they are more aggressive,” says the Syrian who works with rebel groups. “Ahrar [al-Sham] on the other hand has a hesitant leader, is riven by internal inertia, Turkey is beginning to squeeze it, and its newfound allies—the armed opposition groups that joined it—are a bunch of losers.”
“Right now, [Tahrir al-Sham] controls all the supply lines in northwestern Syria, in towns like Sarmada and Dana,” adds a well-informed non-Syrian diplomatic source. “The border crossing at Bab al-Hawa is still run by Ahrar al-Sham, but Nusra has done what the Islamic State did in Azaz [near the Bab al-Salameh crossing north of Aleppo], they just took the town next to it instead.”
In other words, Tahrir al-Sham is well placed to continue to poach fighters from Ahrar al-Sham and the smaller groups, gradually cementing its dominance over the dwindling Syrian insurgency. An aggressive intervention of Gulf money, Turkish military aid, and U.S. drone strikes might be able to shift things around, but that is by no means certain and even less likely to be tested. …
As counterintuitive as it may seem, this tense rivalry may lead straight back to unity negotiations. … Both groups remain true believers in the ideal of Islamic unity and they fear, for good reason, that the current two-way split could cripple the insurgency. Tahrir al-Sham … is now working for renewed unity talks, both out of ideological fervor and as a stratagem to anchor Ahrar al-Sham in its own rejectionist posture and fully “jihadize” the insurgency. It is far from inconceivable that Ahrar al-Sham, or some large chunk of it, will stumble into such an alliance simply to break the stalemate and escape its own internal contradictions.
Kataib Ansar al-Sham joined HTS.
Sami al-Uraydi and Samir Hijazi (Abu Hammam al-Suri) have formally broken away from HTS. When Jabhat al-Nusra rebranded as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS) on 28 July 2016, ostensibly breaking links with al-Qaeda, almost immediately it triggered the dissociation of a faction of al-Nusra/JFS. This was kept secret until 23 August, when Iyad al-Tubaysi (Abu Julaybib) tweeted—allegedly, since it was not a verified account (now suspended)—that he had split from JFS because of JFS’s “disengagement” from al-Qaeda. Al-Tubaysi was previously a Jabhat al-Nusra military emir in Deraa who was reassigned to the coastal area in March. Al-Tubaysi moved with Ahmad al-Khalayleh (Abu Musab al-Zarqawi) to bring the Islamic State’s predecessor onto Iraqi soil 2002 and crossed into Syria with Ahmad al-Shara (Abu Muhammad al-Jolani) in 2011 to extend the franchise. Al-Tunaysi is an old disciple of Issam al-Barqawi (Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi)—though al-Barqawi has recommended remaining within JFS. With al-Tubaysi is Samir Hijazi (Abu Hammam al-Suri) and Bilal Awad Abdul Razzaq Khuraysat (Abu Khadija al-Urduni). These three and half-a-dozen others have been de facto separate from JFS since the 28 July rebranding.
9 FEBRUARY 2017
HTS launched attacks against Thuwar al-Sham—now formally a part of Ahrar al-Sham—in western Rif Aleppo in the morning.
HTS’s leader, Hashem al-Shaykh (Abu Jabbar), gave his first speech. Al-Shaykh denied that HTS was al-Qaeda, and called for a common front against Shi’ism.
21 FEBRUARY 2017
Reuters reported, based on the testimony of five rebel officials, that the 15,000 or so CIA-supported Free Syrian Army (FSA)-branded rebels in north-western Syria have been cut off by the United States. The U.S.-overseen operations room in Turkey, the MOM, ceased supplying TOW anti-tank missiles around November time, and now the suspension of support includes salaries, training, and ammunition.
No official reason has been given for the U.S.’s freeze on support to the northern FSA. It comes simultaneous with the assault by al-Qaeda’s Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which has reorganized the insurgent landscape in the area. “The reality is that you have changes in the area, and these changes inevitably have repercussions,” as an FSA official put it, adding that no military assistance could “enter at present until matters are organized.” The hope is that the suspension is temporary. But the U.S. has a record of cutting off rebel groups when al-Qaeda assaults them, and it nearly always results in al-Qaeda destroying the groups. In this case, the pattern appears to have repeated, with HTS having neutralized its foes.
Still, there are indications that the suspension of assistance is actually to do with MOM “aiming to send the aid to one, unified fighting force,” and the rebels failing to cohere into such a structure, which appears to precede the HTS events.
The supplies to the FSA-style groups were never all that great: repeated requests for anti-aircraft weapons that might have altered the terms of the battle have been turned down and U.S. fears of weapons transfers to extremists—never borne out in practice—kept both the supply of munitions and the number of recipients very tight. Some MOM-associated groups continue to receive support from Turkey and its Operation EUPHRATES SHIELD—a non-revolutionary venture that works through rebels to protect Turkey’s borders from terrorist groups, namely the Islamic State and the Kurdish PKK.