There is growing evidence to support the view that the formation of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) is part of a long-term strategy by Al Qaeda to take control of part of Syria destroying other opposition forces in the process. Central to this strategy is the HTS military commander Abu Mohammed al-Joulani.
The formation of HTS in January this year immediately provoked fears that this coalition of groups, dominated by Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS), was an attempt to overwhelm other rebel organisations in northwest Syria, centering on the city of Idlib.
The actions of HTS have done little to dispel these concerns. Despite their claims to be a Syrian nationalist force and entirely independent of any other network (essentially al-Qaeda), HTS has engaged in relentless military attacks on other anti-Assad forces. Most analysts are agreed that the only reason for this can be a bid for supremacy at the risk of creating division in the face of the Syrian regime onslaught.
For months now, HTS has rounded on Ahrar al-Sham, which had previously been an ally. In January, JFS assaulted Ahrar al-Sham positions in Idlib and other positions along the Turkish border with Syria. When Ahrar tried to create a broader coalition of Syrian opposition forces, HTS reacted with maximum hostility. This sectarian approach to other opposition groups has now led to a rupture with the pro-jihadi cleric Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi.
Ahrar al-Sham, for its part, has accused JFS of harbouring ISIS terrorists within its ranks. That assertion stings given the previous history of the JFS leader, also HTS military commander, al-Joulani. His history is rather chequered. Back in 2003, he was a close associate of the notorious Abu Musab al-Zarqawi who pioneered the use of filmed beheadings of hostages, a practice that even Al Qaeda’s leadership felt the need to condemn.
More controversially, al-Joulani went on to work under the ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and rose to become leader of ISIS operations in Nineveh province. Eventually he broke with al-Baghdadi and rejected attempts by ISIS to take over JFS. Instead he pledged his allegiance to al-Qaeda but last July claimed JFS was now independent of AQ as well. But this claim has been received with near universal scepticism.
Under his command, HTS has shown a sectarian streak worthy of ISIS and al-Zarqawi with the recent bombing of Shia pilgrims in a cemetery in Damascus. They have also engaged in forced conversions of Druze villagers. And like ISIS, their rule has often been heavy handed and intolerant of any opposing voices. This has led to explosions of anger from local Sunni Muslims.
After HTS attacked the headquarters of the Free Syrian Army faction Thuwar al-Sham in February this year, Syrians in the western Aleppo town of Atareb took to the streets. A member of the local council, Mohammad Shakurdi, outlined the frustration that many were coming to feel about HTS:
“HTS said they’d protect the revolution and the Syrian people, but all they’ve done is kidnap people, put up checkpoints and terrorise residents.”
The 28 year-old local councilor detailed how HTS had spent much of its time attacking the headquarters and warehouses of the FSA as well as a local canning factory. Local residents were fuming that instead of taking on Assad government forces, HTS was aiming its firepower at other anti-Assad groups. Shakurdi said many felt that HTS was trying to destroy the very people who had begun the insurgency against Assad during the Arab Spring back in 2011.
It also emerged that HTS seized a bulldozer being used to build a local hospital for its own use. They also attempted to take control of bread distribution from the local council. At one checkpoint, HTS refused to let two trucks full of flour pass leaving a much needed free bakery in Saraqeb unable to make any bread. Two thousand families were affected by this move.
The aid organisation involved reported it had no history of friction with HTS or JFS. But this action fits into a growing pattern of attempting to control populations by taking over civic functions previously run by local councils. However, the last thing that war-torn Syrians need now is further disruption to much needed supplies. The anger of ordinary people has been channeled into demonstrations that HTS then suppresses.
So what is the end game for HTS? When JFS declared itself an independent organisation last July, al-Joulani heaped praise on the AQ leadership claiming they had “implemented the words of Sheikh Osama bin Laden”. Referencing al-Zawahiri and the AQ deputy leaders by name, he added that their “noble stance will be recorded in the annals of history”.
There are clearly good reasons for putting distance between HTS and AQ. At this stage, it makes sense to try and develop some Syrian nationalist credentials. But its high handed attitude to other groups and local residents constantly undermines this façade. Al-Joulani has also not been shy when it comes to admitting that he will attack Sunni Muslims in Syria who oppose him. He told Al-Jazeera:
“We today fight against those who fight us, whether they be from the Sunnis or not and there are people from among the Sunnis who fight us.”
Despite all protestations that HTS and JFS are no longer linked to AQ – the suspicion remains that this has more to do with warding off US attacks and posing as an indigenous Syrian liberation movement. Many Syrians, from bitter experience, are seeing through this charade. What most people on the ground are witnessing is an AQ-allied terror group swallowing up the anti-Assad opposition by stealth with the aim of creating, in the longer term, a theocratic dictatorship.
And this, a growing number of Syrians feel, is a devious subversion of their original insurgency.