After a series of intra-insurgent clashes beginning on 19 January 2017 in northern Syria, al-Qaeda’s rebranded presence, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS), annexed several groups and clerics—and a number more since—on 28 January in a merger that took on the name Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). JFS followed the pattern of its parent branch, the Islamic State, and did not monopolize the leadership posts in HTS, leaving the emir post to Hashem al-Shaykh (Abu Jabbar). Al-Shaykh is a former senior official of Ahrar al-Sham, an insurgent group that also has links to al-Qaeda and has been the primary bridge between the mainstream rebellion in Syria and al-Qaeda. Al-Shaykh gave his first speech as General Leader of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham on 9 February, and Bilad al-Sham Media put out a transcript (reproduced below) and picture (above).
In the name of God, the most merciful. All praise is due to God the lord of the universe and peace and blessings be upon the Prophet and his companions and family.
Our people in of jihad and ribat in Syria, our steadfast, free and proud people, our Islamic umma (nation or community)—I greet you: May the peace, mercy, and blessings of God be with you.
I speak to you today and we are at the gates of the seventh year of our blessed Syrian revolution. We went through several stations during these years. Our revolution began from the mosques and our people embraced it and took it on board, following what their hearts and minds sensed: demanding freedom and ending the reign of this criminal regime. Then we took up the war against the regime’s strongholds and security branches. And it was nothing but a short span for the forces of truth against falsehood until they managed to extend their grip to cities and rural areas. We began this revolution by seeking assistance from God the All-Strong, the All-Mighty. So, we proclaimed: O God, we have no one besides you [to aid us]. And we signed the covenant as: Death before humiliation.
We paved the road with our blood and we maintained it with our patience and by gracing our calamities. And our people were the best of support and assistance—after God. You were a beacon for the avengers [the mujahideen] with your steadfastness. And you made it clear that you indeed carry the struggle and that your faith in the promises of God proved truthful.
It is not hidden from anyone the dangerous turn which the revolution is taking today and the magnitude of the challenges and hardships that face us from all levels, on the civil, political, and military fronts. A number of the students of knowledge and leaders sought after a solution to defend the capacities of the revolution and the lands which was freed through the blood of thousands of martyrs. And so the Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham was a step towards uniting and unifying the arena as an example of the hope which sprouts from pain and the rays of light which creep during utter darkness.
Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham is an independent entity not representing any branches of former factions. Rather, it is a merging initiative in which the factions within have dissolved and diffused, so it is a new stage in the stages of this revolution, a stage of serious, disciplined, hard work and a continuous and diligent struggle. Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham seeks to unify the Syrian arena under a united entity and unified command which leads the political and military work of the Syrian revolution in that which will secure its objectives in overthrowing this criminal regime. And the Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham seeks to liberate all the areas of Syria and protect its unity and the Muslim identity of its people.
We give calming news to our people: we will start off the work of this new entity by resuming the military work against the regime. We will attack its barracks and positions and we will lead a battle of liberation to restore [the revolution’s] original path with a strong victory, which will heal the breasts of the believers by the permission of God. And we say to our steadfast people who are besieged: have hope in God and glad tidings because indeed your sons are marching towards you with great pace because their strength has today gathered under the heart of one man convinced in the promise of God and his victory, seeking towards that which reduces your pain and coincides with your wishes.
And to our brothers in the different factions. We now extend our hands to you that you support and aid us and compromise; leave the past and lets unite our path. Here is the revolution reborn, so be its pioneers—leaders, as well as soldiers. And to my brothers in Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham I say: We fight for the sake of God and to support the oppressed and remove oppression and to establish the truth and justice. Our reference therein is the book of God and the Sunna of the Prophet (peace be upon him). Seeking guidance in it and making our example the etiquettes of Islam and its call. The path which you are walking is a great trust and a glorious legacy—let the last wind that you inhale be that of the gunpowder and the last noise that you hear that from the bullets.
You must not weaken in your determination and your ambition. You took charge of the initial phases of the Syrian jihad and its contributors marched behind the tales of your heroism and victories. You gave the regime the bitter taste of defeat for two years and you increased the forces of Hizballah in sourness, while the world watched how they fled from the battles in front of your strikes. Then the Russians came to return a glory they lost and they didn’t find from you anything but firmness and steadfastness. They went to document their victories on the civilian areas, the hospitals, the bakeries and other public utilities and infrastructure.
You are the hope for the people of Syria after God. So my advice to you is that you live up to that title because God indeed looks at your actions so seek assistance in him and don’t become weakened. Attach yourself to the sons of your people and be pliant in their hands and beware of transgressions and extremism. If you fear God and fulfil those commands, then God will unite the arena at your hands.
In the end we reach out to the Islamic umma to support the Syrian cause and aid it with whatever they are able to because in reality the battle for Syria is the battle of the umma today. The pages of Syria will not be turned by negotiations and conferences that exhaust the revolution and which serves the butcher (Assad). Indeed, the revolution has set off and it will be not stop until it reaches its rightful destination. Losing the battle in Syria and it leaving the grip of Ahl al-Sunna (the Sunnis) is the beginning of the Rafidites (Shi’is) enslaving the region. And no Sunni Muslim is safe from that. Betrayal will invoke humiliation, while supporting and aiding [the Syrian insurgency] will ward it off and stop it. And the reward will be like the action. Our thought in God is good and God has ensured the people of Syria. Indeed, God will not waste the rewards of the one who does good and all praise is due to God.
 In other words, al-Shaykh is saying HTS is not JFS/al-Qaeda.
 Al-Qaeda continues to present itself in nationalist and vanguardist terms in its attempt to co-opt the rebellion to give itself a base.
 As well as underlining the nationalist presentation of HTS, this is an inducement to groups and their leaders that they will be given real power within HTS.
 A shorthand for al-Qaeda’s model of warfare: applying the shari’a incrementally, avoiding a backlash of the kind that happened to the Islamic State, and integrating themselves organically into communities.
 Thus does HTS have it both ways: a Syrian cause and at the same time one for all Muslims.