The following report is now a complimentary offering from MEMRI's Jihad and Terrorism Threat Monitor (JTTM). For JTTM subscription information, click here.
In recent weeks, the disputes have increased among the rebels in the Idlib region of Syria, which is under Hay'at Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) control, about HTS itself and about its leader, Abu Muhammad Al-Joulani. The disputes reached their peak with the harsh public criticism expressed by one of the senior members of the organization, Abu Al-Abd Ashda'a, which led to his arrest, and with demonstrations for and against the organization. The disagreements also affected the foreign fighters in the Idlib area. On October 7, 2019, several foreign fighters' organizations, headed by the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP), published a statement in support of HTS, in light of what they describe as "the glaring injustice" with which the organization is treated, while they claim it is open to constructive criticism, and prudently administers the areas under its control. In response, a statement released on the same day by "a group of immigrant fighters in Al-Sham," dissociated itself from the statement of support for HTS, alleging that it represents only the commanders of the organizations whose names appear, who are loyal to Al-Joulani.
This document reviews the two statements and the responses they generated among the rebels in Idlib.
Statement In Support Of HTS: The Organization Is Open To Criticism; This Is The Time For Unity
As stated, on October 7, 2019, several organizations of foreign fighters published a statement titled, "Statement and Clarification from the Immigrants in Syria [i.e. the foreign fighters] about the Situation in the Arena," in which they criticize what they refer to as "the glaring injustice" with which HTS is treated, and praise the organization for its administration of the areas under its control.
The statement reads, "The jihad and its people are experiencing trying times… We write these words as testimony to Allah the Exalted and to history, and to fulfil our obligation, especially in light of the glaring injustice [perpetrated] against our brother warriors and the leaders of HTS, alongside whom we have worked for many years and among whom we have always found only effort, true friendship, sacrifice, adherence to [decisions made by the council of] the shari'a, and no fanaticism in their opinions; all this, while protecting the Muslim outposts on the fronts.
"We summarize our position in the following points:
Allah has granted the arena unity following division and controversy and we support the position of our brothers. We will never function as an opportunity for dispute. We are determined to work toward unity of the ranks and the word. We saw a blessing in this unity of opinion in the battles, in the preparations [for battle], in the security and services granted to the Muslims in the liberated areas.
We found that in this arena there is great openness to being freely criticized [and that there is room] for a wide range of religious and ideological schools of thought. We did not see that it was forbidden to express contradictory opinions or that voices were silenced. There are many who voice criticism and express contradictory opinions and say what they believe is true and no one censures them, unless their words harm the jihad and we object [to criticism which harms the jihad]… on many occasions we proffered advice and there was responsiveness and changes were made…
We take this opportunity to thank Allah the Exalted for the organizational situation in the liberated Syrian north and for the developments there: shari'a courts… operate in the liberated area, police positions are located there, religious schools proliferate daily, the mosques are operating… the camps are recruiting young fighters… Praise to Allah all we have seen of our HTS brothers is the fortifying and strengthening of the positions on the fronts, supply of equipment to the fighters, [the establishment] of military camps, and the preparation of the people for the fight against the aggressive enemy…
This does not mean that we absolve our fighter brothers [of all error]. We believe that mistakes were made in several areas, however our approach is to discover the reasons for this, to offer advice in secret and to contact all those concerned… until we achieve our goals.
We must recognize the seriousness of the situation and the fact that what is required now is not the same as what is required in a time of full prosperity and wellbeing…"
The statement is signed by: the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP); the emir Abu Abd Al-'Aziz Al-Uzbeki, in the name of the Uzbek Monotheism and Jihad Brigade; Abu 'Abdallah Al-Qaucausi, in the name of the Caucasian Jaysh Al-Muhajireen Wal-Ansar; sheikh Abu Safiyyah, in the name of Harakat Al-Muhajireen Al-Sunnah; the emir Abu Qatadah Al-Albani, in the name of the Albanian Brigade; Abu Al-Walid Al-Mutayri and Abu Sheikha Al-Jazrawi, in the name of the Arabian Al-Ma'ali Confederation, which unites the Algerians; Abu Turab Al-Turki, in the name of the Abu Khalid Al-Turki Brigades; and Abu Hajar Al-Tunisi (head of Foreign Fighter Affairs), and Dr. Abu Al-Husayn Al-Urduni (HTS defense official).
It should be noted that several of the organizations which signed this statement published a similar statement of support on February 5, 2019, following the severe criticism against HTS expressed by Al-Qaeda supporters both within and outside of Syria.
Foreign Fighters: HTS Exploits The Foreign Fighters In Its Wars Against Other Factions and Opponents
In response to the statement of support, on the same day a statement was published with the title "Statement of Dissociation of the Immigrants [Fighters] to Syria from what was Thrust upon them by the People of Crime and Oppression," which was signed by "a group of foreign fighters in Al-Sham." This statement claims that the signatories to the statement of support represent only themselves, and harshly criticizes HTS which they allege exploits the foreign fighters in its struggle against opponents both within and beyond its own organization, as was the case in Afghanistan, Bosnia, and Chechnya.
The statement reads: "…The Al-Sham arena is similar to many other jihad arenas in many ways, one of which is the issue of the immigrants [foreign fighters]. We saw what happened in the past in Afghanistan where the parties exploited them for their internal wars and all those who refused to fight in their internal wars were forced to leave due to the pressure brought to bear on them and the blocking of any possibility for them to earn a living. They returned to their own countries where they were apprehended by the intelligence apparatuses and imprisoned. Worse things happened in Chechnya, in Bosnia, and Herzegovina.
"Today there is someone [i.e. Abu Muhammad Al-Joulani] who wants to utilize the immigrants as pawns with which to further his political ambitions and his Pharaonic dreams, and to attack his rivals and intimidate his opponents. Each time a rivalry unfolds between him and one of the factions, he first sends the immigrants to fight… and to incite the people against his rivals, claims that they are fighting against the immigrants. Each time his evil deeds are exposed in one of the many failed campaigns, he sends the immigrants to their doom, so that… he can declare that he has sacrificed more blood than those who accuse him of impotence and capitulation. But the height of abomination is the use made of our name, the immigrants, with respect to the internal matter concerning HTS, so as to make use of us vis a vis the Syrian fighters in the organization, who demanded that some changes be made, so that we will be on the side of the detested oppressor, so that the HTS fighters will hate us. And this follows a long period during which he [Al-Joulani] tried to induce the Syrian factions to hate us by using our name in every campaign in order to take control of an access route or an arms storehouse.
"We declare that the statement published in the name of several immigrants' brigades in Syria represents only the commanders of the brigades who are close to Al-Joulani and his entourage, who wrote and agreed to it. We dissociate ourselves before Allah the Exalted from this false testimony which everyone is aware of, if he knows the situation of HTS and the way it manages its affairs, as well as its methods of control over the liberated areas.
"We exhort the HTS leadership to cleave to Allah the Exalted, to impose His religious law in the areas under its control, to stop causing damage to people's lives and property, and to restore the stolen rights to their owners, if it wants Allah to remove His anger from it. It knows better than others how its enemies lie in wait for it, and the degree of hatred people have toward it…"
Debate On Telegram Among Supporters And Opponents Of HTS
The above statements also generated debate among supporters and opponents of HTS on Telegram. HTS supporter Abu Muhammad Al-Shimali wrote that the statement in support of the organization represents 95% of the foreign fighters in Syria, and that the objective of the organization's opponents is not to demand reform or to provide advice but rather to topple HTS, including the foreign fighters in its ranks, as well as the local supporters of the organization.
Conversely, Dr. Alaa Al-Sharif, an activist in Idlib who is known for her opposition to HTS and has been arrested by the organization several times, shared a number of announcements on her Telegram channel which she claims were posted by foreign fighters who oppose HTS. One of the posts she shared reads: "The immigrants who are not Arabic speakers do not know the reality. In the end they are among Al-Joulani's commanders." According to the writer, who does not identify himself, Dr. Abu Al-Husayn Al-Urduni, who signed the statement in support of HTS, is "Al-Joulani's right hand man and is the one who carries out his orders." He also claims that Abu Hajar Al-Tunisi previously opposed Al-Joulani but changed his position to support him after receiving a bribe.
See MEMRI, JTTM Reports: Protests In Idlib Against HTS And Its Leader, Al-Joulani; HTS Responds With Demonstrations Of Its Own, September 21, 2019; Syria-Based Hay'at Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) Arrests Commander For Accusing Group's Leadership Of Corruption And Journalist For Posting Video Of Remarks Online, September 12, 2019.
See MEMRI Special Announcements No. 728: Foreign Fighters In Syria Release Statement In Support Of Hay'at Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS), February 9, 2019.
Telegram, October 7, 2019.
Telegram, October 7, 2019.