The decision to make Abu Mohammed al-Jolani leader of Hayy’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) has provoked further defections and splits within the organisation. Analysts believe HTS is slowly being whittled down to its core as it faces growing rejection from local Syrians and increasing military pressure.
The strategy in recent months has been to dilute the brand of Al Qaeda (AQ) and draw in other groups to project the image of a legitimate Syrian based army of resistance. Al-Jolani, a veteran of AQ who was a former Leader of Jabhat al-Nusra and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS), remained in the background as the power behind the throne while Abu Jaber was the official HTS leader. He has now been demoted to lead the group’s Shura Council.
Events appear to have led HTS to ditch this approach. Al-Jolani has now emerged front and centre alongside former commanders of JFS. JFS was formed last year as a rebranding of Jabhat al-Nusra, widely recognised as Al Qaeda’s franchise in Syria. JFS subsumed itself into the HTS coalition at the start of this year but was always in de facto control.
Al-Jolani and others claimed in recent months that their links to AQ had been severed but in Idlib and other towns in Syria, their tactic of establishing an AQ-style emirate by stealth has been firmly rejected. Onlookers believe that Jolani’s catapulting into the leadership is an indication that all pretence is now being dropped. The AQ sympathetic core within the organisation is taking full control with a determination to impose control at any cost and deal harshly with defecting groups and local opposition.
But if anything, the situation has deteriorated further for HTS. After Al-Jolani took control, an HTS affiliate called Kataib Ibn Taymiyyah splintered off. This has led to immediate retribution by HTS with reports of the group clashing with Ibn Taymiyyah fighters near the town of Darat al-Izza in western Aleppo. It emerged that HTS had arrested Sheikh Osama Shanaq, the administrative head of Ibn Taymiyyah, as well as a fourteen-year-old called Qassem, the son of the leader of the Ibn Taymiyyah battlions, Abu Abdul Rahman.
These battalions had been affiliated to Ahrar Al-Sham before defecting to Jabhat al-Nusra during recent clashes between the two groups in Idlib. Now, HTS’ heavy handed tactics have made the group an enemy.
There have been other departures as HTS comes under severe pressure. Its religious adviser Sheikh Abdullah al-Muhaysini left after secret tapes emerged of HTS commanders ridiculing the group’s sharia council. Other groups to have quit include Jaish al-Ahrar, Liwa Shuhada al-Ghab and in July, the Nour al-Din al-Zinki Brigade went its own way.
Heavy handed attempts to shut down or infiltrate public institutions have met with angry protests from locals in Idlib province who had just won the right to vote for their own local council. In June, thousands of people took to the streets of Ma’arat al-Nu’man waving Free Syrian flags and protesting at an HTS crackdown against democratic forces in the area. This had included the murder of the head of the Free Police force in the town, Colonel Tayser al-Samahi. Despite its best efforts, HTS has not succeeded in convincing local populations that it represents the aims and objectives of the Syrian revolution.