In Interview With Turkish News Outlet, Hay'at Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) Leader Abu Muhammad Al-Joulani Compares Syria To Afghanistan, Affirms Support For Foreign Fighters

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September 9, 2021

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On September 5, 2021, the Independent Turkish, the Turkish franchise of the British Independent online newspaper, published an interview with Abu Muhammad Al-Joulani, leader of Syrian jihadi group Hay'at Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS).[1] The interview with the journalist Cihat Arpacık was the first to be granted to a Turkish news outlet by the HTS leader, whose real name is Ahmad Husayn Al-Shar'. In addition to a full-length printed interview, the Independent Turkish also posted a one-minute video clip on Twitter containing excerpts from the interview, which appears to have been conducted in Arabic.[2]

The cover of the Arabic translation of the interview, showing Al-Joulani (left) facing Arpacık

On September 7, HTS supporters posted an Arabic translation of the interview on Telegram,[3] and the following report is based on the Arabic transcript of the interview.

Al-Joulani begins with a discussion of the Afghan Taliban's takeover of Afghanistan after twenty years of jihad against the U.S. and the U.S.-backed Afghan government, and its relevance for the Syrian revolution. The HTS leader asserts: "We must derive lessons and messages from the past twenty years […] No colonialist power has the opportunity to make its occupation of a country last forever." Al-Joulani adds that in his opinion, "the United States of America's decision to withdraw from Afghanistan was a correct decision. Now the Afghans will solve their problems among themselves." He further suggests: "Perhaps all these issues could have been solved in one meeting twenty years ago. Much money was spent and many were killed from both sides – the Afghans and the Americans – but the problems increased due to erroneous strategies."

Responding to a question about his view of the Islamic State (ISIS), which recently returned to the headlines following the suicide attack it perpetrated at the Kabul airport, Al-Joulani says that ISIS is "an organization that wears the mask of Islam, but they harmed it," claiming that it "made Westerners see Islam in a bad light and fed Islamophobia." The HTS leader further asserts that ISIS caused damage to the Syrian revolution, comparing ISIS activity in Afghanistan to its earlier activity in Syria: "They tried to disrupt the agreement concluded between the United States of America and the Taliban. They could not bear the Muslims' joy over the colonialist's exile from their land, so they carried out such an operation."

Discussing the setbacks suffered by Syrian rebels, who now control only the Idlib area after previously controlling much of Syria, Al-Joulani rejects the suggestion that "the opposition has lost the war." Acknowledging that the "division between the combatant revolutionary groups posed a great problem," the HTS leader insists that "it was not the main problem" and notes that contributing factors include  Russia and Iran siding with the Assad regime, as well as the involvement of ISIS, which fought against the regime and the rebels at the same time.

Al-Joulani notes that Russia joined the conflict expecting to gain control over all of Syria within several months, but "now six years have passed since it entered the line of conflict and the resistance still continues." The HTS leader further states: "Five million people live on the soil of liberated Idlib. The revolutionary groups are now in a state of unity under the umbrella of the Military Council. The situation is changing for the better. We have definitely not lost the war. Otherwise, we would not be sitting here today."

When asked about current HTS strategy Al-Joulani responds: "The regime and Russia speak to us in military language and we answer them in the same language. They use civilian politics to achieve military goals. Of course, we have programs to confront them, but I do not want to speak about them here."

When asked whether the problems between HTS and other "revolutionary military groups" which led to bloodshed have been solved,[4] the HTS leader claims that many armed groups were formed since the start of the Syrian revolution, making conflicts between different groups inevitable. He also points out that HTS was not the only group to enter armed conflicts with rival factions, but insists that the conflicts have ended: "After we established civilian institutions to deal with civilian issues, the military groups intensified their efforts to [deal with] the military issues and the problems disappeared.  Currently, we enjoy good relations with the other groups. We have joint operations rooms, guard at the frontlines together, and we do not face any problems."

Al-Joulani describes his vision for the future of Syria, saying: "I dream of Syria as a state from which Russian and Iranian occupation has disappeared, as well as the current regime. […] I see Syria as a state that will achieve its future goals at the hands of its children inside Syria and those who were forced to emigrate from its soil […] The Muslims will live under the umbrella of Islam and govern themselves. The will of the Syrian people will triumph just as the will of the Afghan people has triumphed."

Al-Joulani rejects projected scenarios that Syria will be divided into separate states for Sunni Arabs, Alawites, and Kurds, declaring that these will not materialize and "Syria will remain united thanks to this revolution."

Arpacık asks Al-Joulani for his opinion on the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), which control a large part of northeastern Syria and are backed by the U.S., but are viewed by Turkey as a threat and a front for the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) militant group. The HTS leader replies that "the Kurdish people is a Muslim nation and it is an important part of Syria." Asserting that YPG control over northeastern Syria depends on the continued presence of U.S. forces, Al-Joulani warns: "After American forces leave Syria, the Kurdish YPG will follow them. The scenes of people falling while hanging onto planes in Afghanistan will be repeated here. Similarly, concerning Russia, we will see scenes of people falling from Russian planes." The HTS leader disavows the YPG, declaring: The YPG has opinions hostile to the revolution. […] We consider them part of the American and Russian forces, not part of Syria."

Discussing Turkey's military presence in the Idlib area, Al-Joulani contends that the many Syrian refugees who have fled to Turkey place Turkey in a "political, economic, and social predicament" which has led to a limited Turkish involvement in the Syrian conflict. The HTS leader claims that Turkey has "managed to achieve equilibrium in the face of Russian and regime advances" and "has not interfered in civilian domains" in Syria. He further asserts: "There are historical and geographic ties connecting Syria and Turkey […] We want to support the interests of both countries, for any threat to the Syrian revolution is a threat to Turkey in the long term."

Al-Joulani declares that "Hay'at Tahrir Al-Sham will never act [only] in its own particular interests. We have supported the civilian institutions in Idlib. The region enjoys stability thanks to this civilian government." The HTS leader explains that the Syrian Salvation Government and other civilian institutions in Idlib are intended to take the place of the "Nusayri [a pejorative term for the Alawite sect] regime" and eventually govern all of Syria. Al-Joulani further claims: "By strengthening these institutions the emigration and refugee problems will be solved, since in the absence of safety and security, the termination of education, and decline of the economy, people search for ways to emigrate and leave the country. This civilian infrastructure removes the causes that make people think of leaving their land. We aim to return the refugees from abroad."

Al-Joulani discounts the importance of the international summits held in Geneva and Astana to discuss the Syrian conflict and dismisses the rebel representatives who attended those meetings as not representing the people living in Syria, or the rebel fighters: "As I previously said, the real language of Russia and Iran is the military language and the negotiations and political agreements that they conduct are [intended] to gain time militarily […] Those who claim to represent the Syrian revolution have no connection to the revolution."

Noting that the Geneva summit discussed reforms to the Syrian constitution, while there are 150,000 Syrians incarcerated in regime prisons and more than a million Syrians have been killed in regime and Russian airstrikes, Al-Joulani rejects the summit and other such initiatives as irrelevant: "They must talk about the particulars of Russia and Iran leaving Syria. They refrain from speaking about these issues to divert the revolutionaries from their goals."

When asked about reports that the Assad regime is planning another offensive on the Idlib area, the HTS leader confirms the rumors: "They will act to seize the soonest opportunity to do that, but our defensive lines are strong. Of course, we have offensive plans."

In response to the question of how a "comprehensive military operation" against Idlib city would affect the local population, which has grown dramatically in recent years, Al-Joulani replies that every military campaign inevitably leads to deaths and the displacement of civilians, and asserts that "in all our military operations, our first priority will be to protect the civilians. Our second goal will be to regain areas over which the regime gained control […] We have taken military actions to protect the areas here and to prevent new waves of displacement."

When asked about foreign fighters in Syria and their place in the future of the country,[5] Al-Joulani describes foreign fighters as "our muhajireen[6] brothers who have come to help us." The HTS leader insists that his organization will protect foreign fighters and denies that they pose a threat to their home countries: "Of course, we will not abandon them. They have become a part of us. […] Those fighters do not pose a threat to their countries. They now live under our authority and our policy is not based on enmity toward any country. […] I want to repeat: Our brothers the muhajireen are a part of us and we will protect them according to the teachings of our religion and culture."

At the same time, Al-Joulani rejects reports that some foreign fighters have traveled from Syria to Afghanistan, saying: "I have never heard that anyone from here went to Afghanistan."

When Arpacık concludes the interview with the question: "We never saw your face until 2016 and now you conduct interviews with the foreign press. What is the reason for this change?" the HTS leader replies that at the start of the Syrian revolution it was believed that revealing his identity would cause "some problems" and "prevent [him] from moving around easily," but "after the personality of the revolution crystallized" he showed his face on camera. Al-Joulani states that the Syrian revolution has undergone many phases and that now "conducting interviews is one of my duties. I must inform people of what is happening in Syria."

An image posted by the Independent Turkish showing Al-Joulani during the interview

It should be noted that Al-Joulani has recently been interviewed by several Western media outlets. In January 2020, the HTS leader gave an interview to the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG) think tank, which was published in February 2020, and in January or February 2021 he granted a video interview to American PBS journalist Martin Smith, which was aired in June.[7]

 

[1] Indyturk.com, September 5, 2021.

[2] Twitter, September 4, 2021.

[3] Telegram, September 7, 2021.

[4] In June 2020, HTS launched a campaign against Al-Qaeda affiliate Hurras Al-Din and other hardline jihadi groups. HTS previously fought against other rival rebel groups. See MEMRI JTTM Reports: Following Elimination Of Rival Factions, Hay'at Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) Leader Calls For Unity Among Remaining Rebels; Vows Not To Oppose Turkish Operations Against Kurds, January 21, 2019; Syrian Islamist Rebel Group Announces Its Dissolution, March 26, 2019; and Al-Qaeda's Decline In Syria – Part II: Tense Relations Between Al-Qaeda And Hay'at Tahrir Al-Sham, February 12, 2021.

[5] HTS has recently persecuted several groups of foreign fighters, as well as individual foreign fighters. See MEMRI JTTM Report: Leader of Junud Al-Sham Addresses Syrian People: The Charges Against Us Are False; If We Are Banished From Idlib Our Fate Will Be Sealed, July 6, 2021.

[6] In Islamic history, the term muhajireen (literally "immigrants") refers to the Prophet Muhammad's followers who fled with him from Mecca to Medina, in contrast to the ansar (literally "supporters"), the local population of Medina, who welcomed Muhammad and his followers. Modern jihadi groups often use the term muhajireen to refer to foreign fighters and ansar to refer to local mujahideen.

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