Last week’s press conference by Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) leader Abu Mohammed al-Joulani was noted for its changing tact and rhetoric, especially towards minorities. However, in light of HTS’ past crimes against minority groups, is this a lasting shift?
Last week, the leader of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), Abu Mohammed al-Joulani, held a press conference in Idlib during which he commented on recent developments in Syria. As remarked by most observers, the speech stood out for its difference in style and substance.
Notably, Joulani’s comments moved away from religious rhetoric and towards issues plaguing Syria such as corruption, economic degradation and general divisions caused by the Regime’s policies, noting that discontent is even affecting areas that have not seen active fighting in years.
Diverting from the group’s sectarian attitudes, Joulani also spoke softly about Alawites and Christians, avoiding the common sectarian slur “Nusayri” to refer to the former and instead noting that these minorities, as well as others such as Kurds and Druze, are frustrated by the Regime, poking holes at the Regime’s framing of itself as the “Protector of Minorities”. While the speech is certainly a change in rhetoric and visible attitudes, such shifts appear to be a cover-up at best.
Since last week’s speech, attitudes among HTS militants and supporters on social media have shown little change. Sectarian and divisive statements against Alawites and Christians have remained prevalent, subject to little moderation or restriction. These discriminatory terms were additionally used in the most recent edition of HTS’ weekly newspaper.
Furthermore, in attacking the Regime’s self-promotion as the protector of minorities, Joulani has forgotten that it was under his leadership that the HTS – then known as Jabhat al-Nusra, the Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria – effectively bestowed that title upon Bashar al-Assad. Many of Syria’s minorities had warmer attitudes towards the Syrian Opposition, and it was not until the highly sectarian rhetoric against fellow non-Sunni Muslims and violent, physical attacks against minorities across Syria (in Hama, Latakia and Qalamoun) proliferated, that many turned away from hard-lined opposition groups.
Michel Kilo, one of the few Christian politicians still part of the Syrian Opposition, cited the extremist behaviour of groups such as HTS (as part of Jabhat al-Nusra) as one of the biggest hindrances to the Syrian Revolution.
Only last month in July, a Christian refugee who was deported from Turkey back to Idlib was reportedly arrested by HTS and his whereabouts are still unknown. Members of Syria’s many minority groups remain sceptical of Joulani’s words.
Joulani’s recent shift in rhetoric seems to be aimed at presenting HTS as a viable alternative to the rest of the Syrian Opposition. Having forcefully eliminated or co-opted all other sides in Idlib, killed well-known opposition activists, such as Raed Fares and Mohammed Saloum, and established its own puppet government in the form of the Syrian Salvation Government (SSG), Joulani and his men are now looking to ensure the long-term survival of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham. Despite the group’s attempts to garner support and render itself as a credible entity amidst the Regime’s ongoing bloody offensive, the behaviour of the HTS still remains extreme and its crimes against Syrians cannot easily be forgotten.