Hussam al-Atrash was the most senior religious official of Harakat Nooradeen al-Zengi and is now Deputy General Security Official of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a jihadi-salafist insurgent group in north-western Syria whose relationship with al-Qaeda is much-contested. On 31 May, al-Atrash issued a statement arguing for a change of course for the insurgency in the “Greater Idlib” area.
Al-Atrash’s statement had three components, all of them heretofore anathema to HTS in any of its incarnations. Al-Atrash calls for the insurrectionist and jihadist groups in Greater Idlib to abandon their individual structures and unite under the authority of the Interim Government, which has been recognized by a number of Western governments, including Britain, as the legitimate government of Syria. In al-Atrash’s telling, this is the only way to ward off what he sees—probably correctly—as an impending offensive by Iran, Russia, and the battered remnants of Bashar al-Assad’s regime to subdue Idlib and its surroundings. At present, the pro-Assad coalition can present its assault on Greater Idlib in War on Terror language by claiming the zone is as a nest of jihadists linked to al-Qaeda. If the Interim Government had authority over Idlib, this would politically complicate the regime coalition’s strategy. Al-Atrash specifically accepts the idea of (at least temporary) de facto partition in Syria as a means of salvage for “the Sunnis,” using the example of Iraq where, in al-Atrash’s conception, the Sunnis fought for it all rather than accepting a federal area, and lost out in this all-or-nothing gamble. Al-Atrash also directly says that the insurgency’s fight against the pro-regime coalition should be put on hold since re-opening that front right now would lead to disaster.
The most dangerous phenomenon is the phenomenon of overthrowing: with every issue contradicting the desires of some, we see protests in the streets. The people came out to overthrow the regime, then overthrew everything except the regime.
The red and yellow are growing daily on the map in exchange for the disappearance of the black, while the green maintains its stability, which is not (favourable) with the (following) calculation: if the red and black converge and the black is terminated, they will be turned by the international machinations to green and what was green will be turned into black. Then they will start the battle to grab Idlib and its liberated surroundings from the hands of the [insurgent] factions and that is a day the leaders, political theorists, and shar’iyyun will regret.
I am completely confident that the countries that day will not be pleased with HTS, Ahrar al-Sham, and al-Jaysh al-Hur [The Free (Syrian) Army], because they are designated [as terrorists] whether they know it or not. By then, it will be the scenario of Iraq and that of the destruction of the last stronghold of the Sunnis in front of the eyes while the Americans’ ally will be the [YPG-controlled] SDF and the Russians, the regime, and the [Iranian-run Shi’a] militias. Whoever thinks that the Americans or the Russians will coordinate with him is mistaken. They will not place their aid except with the likes of [Egyptian ruler Abdelfattah] al-Sisi and [United Arab Emirates president Khalifa bin] Zayed [al-Nahyan]. They will not even allow Turkey to repeat the [Operation] EUPHRATES SHIELD scenario.
It reminds me of a story narrated by one of the distinguished Iraqi brothers, recalling the situation in Iraq when the war was launched on the Sunnis. He said: There were, in Iraq, two scholars with importance among the Sunnis in Iraq: Taha al-Dulaymi and Harith al-Dari. The opinion of the first was that the Sunnis should convene in the province of Anbar, form a government similar to that in Erbil, gather their energy, and then strike. The second advocated for jihad on the level of Iraq as a whole and rejected the principle of partition. Of course, it was the second view of Shaykh Harith al-Dari that was chosen. The result: Ahl al-Sunna [the Sunni people] in Iraq were lost between the hammer of the [U.S.-led] Coalition and Daesh, and no longer had a village where they could escape the spectre of death and displacement.
Today, whoever denies the division of Syria into territories or areas of influence is stupid, blind, or lives with the illusion that the [foreign] countries themselves fed him.
The most important thing after all this: What is the way to save what remains of Ahl al-Sunna in Idlib and the surrounding areas and ward off a devastating, tragic Crusade? I believe the solution is that the Interim Government governs the liberated areas, declares a Ministry of Defence, and that the [insurgency’s] military factions dissolve themselves and enter the Ministry of Defence without banners. There is no doubt that the Interim Government has international legitimacy, is sustainable as a cover for the liberated areas, and is impossible to designate after having been recognized [as a legitimate representative of Syria by many Western states]. It is the only tactical way to save the scene from the spectre of designation and war, regain the initiative, end the abhorrent factional situation, and address [external] states in a formal manner.
If someone says, “and our battle against the regime?” we tell them: “Organize your ranks, gather your strength, and work under a legitimate cover, otherwise, in the current reality, I do not think we will make progress against the regime. Rather, if we open a battle with the regime during the current truce and in light of the factional disintegration—with the absence of the factions for popular embrace—the result will be that of the last battle of Hama: losing more liberated land, losing the elite of the mujahid youth, and even greater destruction of the liberated areas.”
There is no doubt that we are now thinking in the overtime period and that the arena needs courageous and decisive decisions, instead of theorization, factional infighting, and Twittering.
Hussam Ibrahim al-Atrash
 Maps of Syria demonstrating which actor controls which territory tend to follow the colour scheme where the Iran-Russia-Assad forces are displayed in red; the Islamic State is shown in black; the mainstream opposition is shown in green; and the YPG/PKK is shown in yellow. Al-Qaeda has entangled itself into the rebel-held areas in north-western Syria, so is sometimes not differentiated from the green and sometimes it is. Al-Atrash’s point is that the world will accept the regime coalition displacing IS, and will then turn on insurgent-held areas as they have the IS-held areas.
UPDATE (1 June 2017): Sami al-Uraydi (Abu Mahmud al-Shami) is among the Qaeda operatives who broke with HTS, and is the former deputy to Jabhat al-Nusra leader Ahmad al-Shara (Abu Muhammad al-Jolani), now the top military official in HTS. Al-Uraydi responded to Hussam al-Atrash today, blasting him and HTS for yesterday’s statement. Al-Uraydi said he was not surprised that the likes of al-Atrash had said this—it is what they said before they joined HTS. The surprise is the behavior of HTS’s leadership, says al-Uraydi. Al-Uraydi says he was assured by al-Shara and his General Judge, Abdelraheem Atoun (Abu Abdullah al-Shami), that this would not happen, that al-Atrash and his ilk would be brought into the jihadi fold, rather than jihadism within HTS diluted. If someone proposes a democratic solution to Syria, “I will kill him,” al-Uraydi quotes al-Shara saying. Atoun allegedly broke in at this point to add: “We will kill him. I will kill him publicly.” In al-Uraydi’s telling, this promise has now been broken. Al-Uraydi and those who think like him argued at the time that Harakat Nooradeen al-Zengi merged into HTS that bringing in non-jihadi groups would damage the purity of HTS’s jihadi belief and methodology, bringing in corruptions like nationalism and democracy, and spreading sedition. Al-Uraydi feels vindicated at this point.
UPDATE (3 June 2017): As expected, HTS put out a statement clarifying its formal position:
To the head of the General Shar’i Committee, Abu Yusuf al-Hamawi …
What was issued a few days ago by Hussam al-Atrash has damaged the mujahideen—soldiers and leaders—in HTS, with speech contrary to the shari’a, and contradicting and opposing the aims of the jihad that was carried out in Syria.
After these years of jihad and sacrifices and offering of martyrs and blood, someone comes out making these demands.
Therefore, we demand accountability for he who issued this violation and taking firm action with him because we saw the fitna [strife] that took place between the mujahideen from their preoccupation with this subject, destabilizing their ranks, and the ignorant thinking of some about leaving the group or quitting fighting, and we do not exaggerate if we say that they started to lose confidence bit by bit in the group.
“And Allah knows the intention”
Your brothers in Jaysh al-Nusra and the elite forces in the Idlib district and from them:
Uqbah al-Shami (General Official of the Jaysh and elite forces)
Abu Abdullah al-Yemeni (Deputy General Director)
Abu Ubayda al-Hamawi (Military Deputy)
Shaykh Abu Ibrahim al-Shaykh Bahr (Administrative Official)
Abu Shama al-Ansari (Deputy Administration Director)
UPDATE (5 June 2017): Abdelraheem Atoun responded to Sami al-Uraydi by claiming that Atoun’s statement that he would kill anyone who advocated democracy or secularism was understood by all those present as a joke, at the expense of the Kharijites, intended to reduce tension and resolve the dispute between Jabhat al-Nusra’s leadership.
UPDATE (5 June 2017): HTS referred Hussam al-Atrash to a shari’a court to answer for the charges laid against him. It is notable both that al-Atrash is not backing down, though he has clarified that he does not intend the Interim Government to rule by secular law, and that these theological crimes are not the only ones that might be used against al-Atrash. There is the matter of the kidnapping of two Italian aid workers, Greta Ramelli and Vanessa Marzullo, who were abducted in July 2014 and released in January 2015 after a ransom payment of $1 million. Al-Atrash’s then-group, Liwa al-Ansar, kidnapped Ramelli and Marzullo, and gave them to Jabhat al-Nusra. Al-Atrash was expelled from Liwa al-Ansar and formed Harakat al-Zahir Baybars. It was when the Baybars group joined Harakat Nooradeen al-Zengi in September 2015 that al-Zengi lost its U.S.-vetted status.