In late July 2019, several pro-Al-Qaeda media groups and clerics in Syria published essays sharply criticizing Hay'at Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS), the most powerful jihadi faction in the country, for abandoning its jihadi principles and seeking to impose its authority over other jihadi factions in Syria. For the first time, this criticism was extended to Hurras Al-Din, Al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate, which is accused of yielding to the dictates of HTS and relinquishing its independence as a jihadi group which follows the correct path. The accusations leveled against HTS include implementing Turkey's agenda due to pragmatic considerations, rather than behaving in accordance with pure jihadi principles; tyrannically attempting to control all other jihadi factions in Syria and bend them to its will; crushing any dissent or criticism of its policies; returning a Kurdish child who had converted to Islam to his Yazidi family; and turning a blind eye to blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad by an HTS cleric. It is noteworthy that, while Al-Qaeda followers have long accused HTS of watering down its jihadi principles, this appears to be the first time that similar accusations were made against Al-Qaeda affiliate Hurras Al-Din. The reason for this seems to be the recent discord that erupted within Hurras Al-Din, when some of its clerics expressed complaints about the group's leadership and were subsequently dismissed from their positions, in an act that was seen by many as a capitulation to HTS.
Bayan Foundation Essay By Basir Al-Shami: Hurras Al-Din Fighters Must Reform The Group Or Leave To Form A New One
An essay by Al-Qaeda supporter Basir Al-Shami titled The Syrian Arena: The Ships of Jihad and the Oppressive King, was distributed on July 22, 2019, by the Bayan Islamic Media Foundation, a pro-Al-Qaeda media group which focuses on Syria. It compares the various jihadi factions operating in Syria to ships, and HTS leader Abu Muhammad Al-Joulani to an oppressive pirate king who seizes all the ships to bring them under his control. Basir Al-Shami asserts that the majority of rebel factions operating in Syria are now subject to external powers, such as the Free Syrian Army (FSA) factions which have joined the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army, while the other ostensibly independent groups have become dependent on HTS, which he claims has started to follow the Turkish agenda. Al-Shami writes that although the precursor to HTS, Jabhat Al-Nusra (JN), was a faithful branch of Al-Qaeda and was committed to its jihadi principles, ever since the group rebranded itself as Hay'at Tahrir Al-Sham in January 2017, it has become a partner of Turkey's. He alleges that it has allied itself with Turkey in the hope that world powers will then relate to it as the legitimate representative of the Syrian Revolution and cancel its designation as a terrorist organization.
The above image is the cover page for the article by Al-Qaeda supporter Basir Al-Shami: The Syrian Arena: The Ships of Jihad and the Oppressive King.
However, relates Al-Shami, after HTS abandoned its principles, "from amidst the darkness a ray of hope shone" around which "the proud ones who rejected concessions and those humiliating policies and raised the banner of monotheism in word and deed, shari'a, and method," gathered – namely, Hurras Al-Din, which was founded in February 2018. This new group, according to Al-Shami, remains faithful to the path paved by jihadi figures such as Osama Bin Laden, Taliban leader Mullah Omar, JN leader Abu Firas Al-Suri, and "the nineteen heroes" of the September 11 hijacking. And yet, writes Al-Shami, the hopes that Hurras Al-Din would rescue the course of Syrian jihad were dashed when Al-Joulani, after bringing all other factions in the Idlib area under his control and compelling them to operate "in ways that do not conflict with his masters and their agreements," attempted to do the same to Hurras Al-Din. Al-Shami writes that some of Hurras Al-Din's members tried to "save the ship," but "the masters of the ship began to throw loads and cast weights and precious ingots off the ship" and accused the ship's would-be saviors of "trying to sink it." This is an apparent reference to the conflict that erupted recently within the ranks of Hurras Al-Din when some of the group's clerics criticized the leadership, which responded by dismissing them and their supporters. Al-Shami warns Hurras Al-Din's leadership that continuing to submit to Al-Joulani's dictates will not help the group, as HTS will eventually eliminate Hurras Al-Din as it has disposed of its other rivals. Al-Shami nevertheless offers hope that "there is still time for radical improvement" if Hurras Al-Din chooses to accept well-intentioned criticism and return to its original path. Otherwise, he cautions, there must be "a parting of the ways between the steadfast ones and the weak ones who submit to the pressure of reality," with the former creating a new group which will ignore "laws of the United Nations, what is known as 'international legitimacy,'" and the dictates of Western and Arab governments and thereby "restore the glory of the ummah" by fighting for the sake of Allah alone. In response to those who claim that breaking from Hurras Al-Din would mean "piercing a hole in the ship," Al-Shami reminds them that the group's alleged independence is an illusion in any case.
Bayan Foundation Essay By Bilal Khuraysat: HTS Must Be Criticized For Abandoning Its Principles
On July 24, 2019, the Bayan Islamic Media Foundation published another essay, by Al-Qaeda cleric Bilal Khuraysat, aka Abu Khadijah Al-Urduni, titled An Appeal for Making a Distinction. In the essay, Khuraysat criticizes HTS, asserting that criticizing jihadi groups for implementing foreign agendas is acceptable and even necessary, and should not be seen as causing dissension among those who support Syrian jihad. The Al-Qaeda cleric writes that although spreading conflict, dividing the ranks of the mujahideen, and weakening them in the face of their enemy must be avoided, it is nevertheless necessary to point out that some elements of the Syrian jihad – an apparent reference to HTS – are pursuing foreign agendas that endanger their jihad. In response to claims that criticizing specific jihadi factions will weaken the overall cause of jihad, Khuraysat writes that if a group has "shifted to implementing [foreign] agendas" it is obligatory to warn against the dangerous path it is taking, as Islam does not mandate "covering up deviations under the pretense of unity." The Al-Qaeda cleric advocates clarifying the status of the various jihadi groups in accordance with Islamic standards, in keeping with criteria originally established by jihadi ideologue Abu Qatadah Al-Filastini, whom Khuraysat claims has recently undergone a "clear transformation in his thought and method." Following these criteria will presumably lead to the conclusion that HTS has abandoned its original principles and is no longer a legitimate representative of jihad in Syria.
The above image is the cover page of the article by Al-Qaeda cleric Bilal Khuraysat, titled: An Appeal for Making a Distinction.
Abu 'Abd Al-Karim Al-Gharbi: HTS Members And Jihadi Clerics Must Protest HTS Deviations
On July 24, 2019, Abu 'Abd Al-Karim Al-Gharbi, a veteran Al-Qaeda cleric who is currently located in Syria, wrote a lengthy post on his Telegram channel criticizing HTS for abandoning its jihadi principles and urging members of HTS and other Syrian jihadi factions to protest these deviations. Al-Gharbi accuses HTS of perpetrating or turning a blind eye to such "sins" as blaspheming Allah and the Prophet Muhammad, preventing groups of mujahideen from fighting the regime, appointing clerics with "bad character" as judges, and inciting against critics and opponents, writing that such sins lead to defeat rather than victory. The Al-Qaeda cleric describes the recent case of HTS returning a Kurdish child who had converted to Islam to his Yazidi family as a particularly egregious sin, writing that it is obvious that they did so only to please the West. Al-Gharbi reminds his readers of another "sin" perpetrated by HTS in January 2019, when Syrian jihadis reported that one of the group's clerics, Abu Khattab Al-Urduni, accused the Prophet Muhammad of having dealt unjustly with one of his followers and was punished with a mere slap on the wrist. Al-Gharbi writes that administering "farcical" punishments which have no deterrent effect is worse than refraining from punishment, asserting that if someone were to steal a bit of inexpensive ammunition from HTS, the group would punish him more severely than if he had blasphemed Allah.
The Al-Qaeda cleric urges HTS fighters, clerics, and preachers to "defend their group" by speaking out against its deviations from its original principles. Pointing out that many veteran JN fighters – who continue to believe in the original group's ideology – chose to remain within HTS after it changed its name and principles, Al-Gharbi writes that these fighters have a responsibility to protest HTS deviations, which include holding gatherings where men and women mingle and making agreements with Turkey whose particulars remain unknown to the group's common fighters. The Al-Qaeda cleric appeals to HTS fighters to "protect their fighting from being hijacked" by the group's leadership, asserting that "[chief HTS religious official 'Abd Al-Rahim] 'Atoun and his media team of small clerics" weaken HTS and alienate potential supporters with their knee-jerk reaction of labeling any critics of the group's policies as "ISIS," and accusing them of resenting HTS accomplishments. Al-Gharbi warns HTS fighters that the group cannot achieve its goal of jihad as long as its commanders insist on "steering the group based on foolish, short-sighted political calculations leading to concessions, retreats, and ill-fated attempts to please unbelieving states."
Al-Gharbi singles out 'Atoun in particular, criticizing him for refusing to submit to the arbitration of a shari'a court when Hurras Al-Din leaders Sami Al-'Uraydi and Abu Humam Al-Shami summoned HTS to adjudication in January 2019. The Al-Qaeda cleric writes that 'Atoun's response to the summons – accusing his detractors of being ISIS and threatening to fight them, while agreeing to have the case adjudicated only by clerics from within HTS – makes him "the biggest ISIS member." Al-Gharbi writes that as long as the basis for HTS decisions, the group's position concerning several important issues, and its view of several factions, remain unknown, 'Atoun's appeals to HTS critics to judge the group favorably are unjustified. Al-Gharbi further accuses the HTS official of not following the policy he demands of others, since he over-generalizes by describing Hurras Al-Din members as ISIS. He writes that HTS is unable to tolerate criticism of, or disagreement with, its policies, as was demonstrated by the HTS arrest of Sami Al-'Uraydi, who later founded Hurras Al-Din, in November 2017. Al-Gharbi urges jihadi religious scholars to issue detailed statements about HTS, saying that those who believe that the group has a correct ideology and trust its leaders must "give sincere advice, set straight, and reject objectionable behavior," while those who oppose HTS must explain the reasons for their disapproval in hopes that some HTS members may repent, and in order to prevent the group's leaders from leading others astray. Al-Gharbi specifically mentions jihadi ideologue Abu Qatadah Al-Filastini as one who has "authority in the opinion of all brothers," asking him to clarify his position concerning HTS in order to rectify the current state of confusion and division among the mujahideen.
 See MEMRI JTTM Report Hay'at Tahrir Al-Sham's (HTS) 'Salvation Government' Returns Yazidi Child To His Family, Drawing Criticism From Online Jihadis, July 19, 2019.
 For information about some of the major episodes of Al-Qaeda criticism of HTS, see MEMRI JTTM Reports Al-Qaeda Supporters Criticize HTS Response to Sochi Talks As Deliberately Vague, An Abandonment Of Its Religious Principles, October 17, 2018; Jihadi Ideologue Abu Muhammad Al-Maqdisi: Together, Hay'at Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) And ISIS Are Contributing To The End Of The Jihad In Syria, January 11, 2019; HTS Is "Killing The Jihadist Spirit" Claim Al-Qaeda Leaders In Syria, January 31, 2019.
 See MEMRI JTTM Report Conflict Erupts Within Al-Qaeda's Syrian Affiliate; Dissenting Clerics Killed In U.S. Airstrike, July 1, 2019.
 See MEMRI JTTM Report Jabhat Fath Al-Sham And Four Other Groups Join Forces To Form New Umbrella Organization, January 30, 2017.
 The US State Department designated JN a Foreign Terrorist Organization in May 2014 and extended the designation to HTS in May 2018. HTS has protested its terrorist designation; see MEMRI JTTM Report Hay'at Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) Sharply Criticizes Terrorist Designation By U.S. State Department, June 4, 2018.
 Source: Telegram.me/ Bayan Islamic Media Foundation, July 22, 2019.
 Source: Telegram.me/ Bayan Islamic Media Foundation, July 24, 2019.
 See MEMRI JTTM Report HTS Arrest Of Senior Al-Qaeda Figures Stirs Discontent In Its Ranks, November 28, 2017.
 Source: Telegram.me/ Sheikh Abu 'Abd Al-Karim Al-Gharbi, July 24, 2019.