Michael Ratney, who has been the United States Special Envoy for Syria since July 2015, wrote a public letter on 11 March 2017 that labelled all constituent parts of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) as members of al-Qaeda and therefore as terrorists. On 12 March, HTS’s “Administration of Political Affairs”—its newly-minted political office, perhaps evidence of an evolution in HTS’s thinking about an endgame in Syria—issued a statement in reply, which is reproduced below.
HTS’s statement is very heavy on defining HTS not only as a Syrian nationalist project—in other words, not al-Qaeda—but as the revolution. HTS correctly states that the West has tried to separate HTS from the mainstream rebellion and the opposition-supporting civilian populations that HTS has quite deliberately tangled itself into to further its ideological goal and to provide itself a durable base that can perhaps be used for foreign terrorism, while being shielded against Coalition attacks. In HTS’s telling, this effort to neutralize HTS is an attempt to put down the revolution entirely, and, given the degree of co-dependency HTS has wilfully fostered, this claim—like all good disinformation—has an element of truth to it.
HTS also capitalizes on what is simply a fact: al-Qaeda has done more for the Syrian opposition’s war against the Assad regime and its Iranian and Russian lifelines than the United States. The U.S. policy failures in Syria—stepping back from punishing the Assad regime for its chemical massacre in August 2013, doing nothing to inhibit the flow of Iranian-controlled Shi’a jihadists into Syria to rescue Bashar al-Assad’s regime, and backing the Kurdish PKK to displace the Islamic State’s hold on Sunni Arab areas in eastern Syria—have allowed jihadi-salafists, al-Qaeda specifically, to present themselves as a vanguard for the Syrian opposition.
HTS then uses these facts to audaciously denounce those who “interfere in the affairs of the revolutionary forces” and “strike discord among its members,” barely six weeks after it—a foreign-origin project, a splinter from the Iraq-based Islamic State (IS)—attacked and restructured the revolutionary forces in northern Syria to be subservient to its own interests, which are ultimately transnational.
Clarifications Regarding the Statement by Michael Ratney, the United States Special Envoy to Syria
Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) has (clearly) defined itself from the day of its inception. We have reaffirmed our commitment to the goals of our revolution, which are represented in toppling [Bashar] al-Assad’s criminal regime. We have also stated that we are fully independent and do not represent any foreign body or organization. Further, we have clarified that the establishment of HTS symbolizes a new phase of the Syrian revolution. The members of HTS are members of this revolutionary nation. They have pledged to champion the cause of their people and to protect them and their Islamic identity.
In late 2016, the people of Syria marched in massive protests demanding a merger of all revolutionary forces and a complete unity. The decision to form HTS was a direct response to these demands and came after careful consideration of the sensitive phase that we are going through in this great revolution.
In an unprecedented initiative, the most effective key forces of the revolution announced the complete disbandment of all organizations and the establishment of a new body, namely Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the aim being to establish a collaborative nucleus, a unified project that would: act as a shield for the revolution, guarantee the journey is continued, and ensure that its achievements would not go to waste. This project is the choice of our people, who showed tremendous support and backing of the announcement. After six long years of this revolution, the Syrian people have gained enough experience to allow them to distinguish friend from foe. They can determine very clearly those defending them and those who falsely claim their representation, inhumanely playing on their vulnerabilities and traumatic events.
Since the ignition of the Syrian revolution, the United State has been incapable of taking a decisive and definite stance. They have, on numerous occasions, contradicted their claims of freedom, the right to self-determination, and human rights. They have done this by backing oppressive tyrants against the nations endeavouring to achieve their freedom and dignity. These acts have further illustrated their hypocrisy and double-standards regarding their decisions. This is because their methodology in determined benefits is purely driven by their self-interest, not the interests of our people. As a result, their vetted interests take precedence to the interests of the people, their demands, and concerns.
This selfish policy has resulted in their constant preclusion of the hopes of our people as they insist on breaking their resolve and ending their revolution by the following:
1) Affirming the legitimacy of the Assad regime, refusing to topple it, covering up its war crimes, and turning a blind eye to them. A clear example was that of the chemical attack in 2013.
2) Permitting Iran and their militias to invade Syrian territory, while also turning a blind eye and remaining silent to their war crimes.
3) The support of the PKK and their racist policies against the natives of the land they govern.
4) Allowing Russian airstrikes against civilians, which have completely abolished entire towns and villages.
These are but some of the reasons that have caused the Syrian people to reconsider the position of the United States. This has allowed them to develop a clear vision of their reality, which poses the question: “What has the United States done for Syria?” and “What are the measures of determining this friendship that Michael Ratney claims?”
The “friends of Syria” do not stand with the enemy of the Syrian people; they do not back tyrants aiming to annihilate them; they do not support the onslaught against a nation.
Self-proclaimed champions of international peace and stability should not violate sovereign lands by allowing every invader “a piece of the pie,” all while preventing anyone wishing to rescue the victims to act!
After the first glimmer of hope on a path to fulfilling the Syrian people’s hopes and aspirations, the United States, represented by their Special Envoy to Syria, Michael Ratney, attempts to mislead the public regarding the formation of HTS. It aims to misdirect the revolution so the people do not achieve their goals. It does this by casting doubts and fears about this project and eventually hopes to end the revolution and separate its members from the masses.
The United States also hopelessly strives to interfere in the affairs of the revolutionary forces and their internal structure and strike discord among its members. This will lead to its ultimate goal of infighting rather than remaining focused on the enemy whom all weapons are currently drawn at.
We would like to reaffirm that HTS is the project of a unified nation. Their doors are open to all those wanting aid, support, and to defend our cause and our people. Millions of people world-wide share this hope and have stood in solidarity with this project for this nation and people. Our project is clear in its vision, goal, and mission. We are stronger as we stand by our sincere mujahideen brothers. We are proud of the leaders, thinkers, and great minds of our nation and hope to complete a project that will bring relief and joy to every free Muslim who seeks a better future for his children and family, a future of honour, dignity, and resolve.
 An interesting part of Ratney’s letter was that it referred to Ahrar al-Sham as being among the “loyal protectors of the Syrian revolution.” The U.S. has shunned Ahrar, refusing all public engagement with it and has at least once considered putting it on the terrorism blacklist, for the eminently-defensible reason that Ahrar has important connections back to its founding with al-Qaeda’s network. Such connections were demonstrated again recently when the Coalition killed Abu Hani al-Masri, a Qaeda-associated jihadi who was an Ahrar military commander. Ratney’s statement is therefore a potentially important marker. More immediately, Ratney’s letter was a sign that some part of the U.S. government has remained focused on Syria and was seeking to derail the ongoing efforts by HTS to patch things up with Ahrar.
Ahrar has tried to straddle the line between Syrian Islamism and global jihadi-salafism. Ahrar succeeded in providing al-Qaeda a portal into the rebellion, but the outcome for Ahrar has been less positive, with the organisation splitting along that faultline between nationally-focused Islamist revolutionaries and transnationalist jihadists. The state backing for Ahrar, particularly from Turkey, has contributed to this, with Ankara ensuring that its allies retain the formal levers of power within Ahrar, which led to the defection of al-Qaeda’s closest allies within Ahrar to HTS.
One potential, however unlikely, is that Ahrar is pulled away from its foundation, sheds its al-Qaeda-inclined operatives, and is drawn into the rebel mainstream. Those looking for signs of this might see it in the fact that, a day before Ratney’s letter there was a statement by Issam al-Barqawi (Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi), probably the most prominent jihadi cleric, who favours al-Qaeda, wondering if Ahrar had departed jihadism altogether.
Still, it should be said that al-Barqawi, in many ways the spiritual father of the Islamic State, is an extremist even by jihadist standards and has clashed with other pro-al-Qaeda clerics on this question of how al-Qaeda should treat non- Qaeda jihadists. Moreover, on the same day, Ahrar’s official spokesman said there is no al-Qaeda in Syria, and HTS is part of the “revolutionary forces“.
Ahrar has a habit doing things like this: the last time it was in the midst of a (rather successful) media campaign to portray itself as part of the rebel mainstream, it rather marred the effect by releasing an obituary for the Taliban’s leader, Mullah Muhammad Umar, praising him as one who “reminded us of the true meanings of Jihad and Sincerity,” and left a model of “how to build an [Islamic] Emirate in the hearts of the people before it becomes a reality on the ground.”