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memri
September 16, 2018 No.
1416

Hay'at Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) Prepares For The Fateful Battle For Idlib

By: N. Mozes*

The following is now a complimentary offering from MEMRI's Jihad and Terrorism Threat Monitor (JTTM). For JTTM subscription information, click here.

Introduction

Some seven and a half years after the start of the uprising against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, the rebel factions in the northern Syria region of Idlib are readying for the final battle that will decide the outcome of the Syrian revolution. This battle is particularly fateful for Hay'at Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS), led by Abu Muhammad Al-Joulani, which controls most of the region. In many senses, Al-Joulani is cornered: The Syrian regime has declared that the only acceptable outcome is its retaking of the territory – whether by means of what it refers to as reconciliation agreements, that is, surrender on the part of the rebels, or by means of all-out war until it triumphs. Following these declarations, the regime is unlikely to allow Al-Joulani and HTS to remain in areas under regime control.  

Recently, Turkey, which has been inconsistent in its position vis-a-vis HTS, announced that it considers HTS a terrorist organization; this move was interpreted by many as a green light to the Syrian regime and to Russia to attack in the region. This is likely to leave HTS with no significant support. Its options for retreat are very limited, in light of the possibility that Turkey will close its gates to it, and in light of the fact that the Syrian regime and its allies control most of the Syrian territory.

On the internal front as well, HTS is facing complex challenges. Turkey is protecting its rival factions, and recently merged some of them into a new umbrella organization in Idlib: the National Front for Liberation, which, from HTS's perspective, is somewhat of a wild card. Even though to date the Front has coordinated with HTS, the latter cannot rely on its loyalty and be certain that, at the moment of truth, the Front will not seek a reconciliation agreement with the Syrian regime, on Turkey's orders. In addition, Al-Joulani must deal with the many Al-Qaeda-supporting activists who continue to attempt to undermine his leadership, after he announced, in July 2016, that he was splitting with that organization. It should be noted that despite his efforts to prove that he is no longer part of the global jihad movement and has adopted a Syrian agenda, Al-Joulani remains on U.S. and U.N. terror lists.

It is hard to estimate how long Al-Joulani will manage to hang on in the face of pressure from the Syrian regime, and especially the Russian air attacks and the pressure from the local population.

As of today, at least on the declarative level, Al-Joulani and many factions have rejected the Syrian regime's reconciliation arrangements and are declaring their willingness to fight it and its allies. In a Ramadan speech, on August 21, 2018, Al-Joulani declared that he had no intention of surrendering and laying down his arms, as have many other factions in southern Syria.[1]

In light of this position, the factions in the north of the country, headed by HTS, are preparing intensively for the anticipated attack. A joint operations room has been set up by HTS and other factions, among them the National Front for Liberation. The factions are conducting training and also holding military training as well as religious and morale-boosting courses for the fighters, and fortifying frontline positions. HTS informational conferences are also being held, to encourage local residents to support the fighters, morally and monetarily. The factions are also publishing photos and reports, in media and social media, about the forces, showing them getting ready for battle.

This report will review the preparations being made by HTS and other factions in advance of the anticipated battle for Idlib.

Preparations In The Field

On July 29, 2018, HTS, the Front for Liberation of Syria, and the National Front for Liberation announced the establishment of the Jaysh Al-Fath operations room, saying that it was for the purpose of "repelling the aggression of the criminal regime against the liberated regions under a united military body."[2]

In a speech marking the holiday of 'Eid Al-Adha, Al-Joulani said that the operations room "assigns tasks and has formulated a plan for fortifying and defending the region."[3]


Al-Joulani visiting the operations room. (Source: T.me/GLEATHKJ, August 21, 2018)

From the outset, the operations room has kept the 3,000-plus followers of its Telegram channel informed about military activity in which it is involved, such as shelling regime forces, blowing up bridges connecting liberated regions with regime-controlled regions,[4] and so on.

Sending Reinforcements To The Fronts

Over the past few weeks, the news outlets of the rebel factions in the north have reported that reinforcements are being sent to the fronts. For example, the Medaad Press opposition news channel reported, on August 29, 2018, that HTS had sent "a large military convoy including car bombs, artillery, tanks, and hundreds of activists" to the fronts in Hama and the coast.[5]

 
Tanks of the joint operations room armored brigade on the front (Source: T.me/GLEATHKJ, September 2, 2018)

It was also reported that long-range missiles were being moved into position and were "ready to strike the bases of the Nusairi [i.e. Alawite, i.e. Assad] regime at Hmeimim airbase."[6]

Recruiting New Fighters, Stepping Up Training

As part of the preparations, the various factions have in recent weeks been publishing recruitment announcements, in an attempt to attract new recruits.[7] HTS has also called on medical professionals to join its medical teams and "fulfill the duty of jihad."[8] Additionally, the factions have stepped up training for their activists, and have circulated photos of the training, as part of the information campaign aimed at the local residents and their enemies. These have included, for example, photos of training by the Ansar Al-Islam movement and Uzbek fighters from the Al-Tawhid Wal-Jihad Brigades.[9]


Ansar Al-Islam training


Uzbek fighters training

HTS recently published photos of training by the Red Headband force, an elite brigade tasked with operating across enemy lines, including by carrying out suicide bombings.[10] 

Reinforcements and Entrenchments

In addition to training, the factions are reinforcing frontline positions, particularly in western Idlib, the Jisr Al-Shughour, and the Latakiya regions.[11]

Strengthening The Internal Front

With the understanding that the internal arena's unity and steadfastness are no less important, HTS and the factions cooperating with it have worked to dispel hostile and rival elements from the area. Thus, in recent weeks, they have been waging all-out war against ISIS operatives in the region,[12] and against the residents and dignitaries suspected of supporting reconciliation agreements with the Syrian regime. Dozens of alleged reconciliation supporters have been arrested, and the leaders of HTS and the factions cooperating with it have spoken harshly against the reconciliation agreements.  In his Ramadan speech, Al-Joulani even called them "traitors."[13] Telegram channels of supporters of HTS and other factions posted a photo of a gallows set up in Idlib for the supporters of the reconciliation agreements.[14]


The gallows in Iblib

Informational Activity, Preaching To Fighters And Local Residents

In addition to the military preparations in the field, sheikhs and preachers are encouraging and boosting the spirits of both fighters and civilians, in advance of the anticipated battle. This activity is carried out on social media and in the field. Thus, Sheikh Abd Al-Razzaq Al-Mahdi, a prominent Syrian jihadi sheikh wrote on his Telegram channel: "Idlib is the fortress of the Sunnis in Al-Sham. It will, Allah willing, be the graveyard of the invaders. Oh valiant jihad fighters of Idlib... the entire world is watching you... Do not weaken and give up... Today, you represent the Sunnis... You are fighting the Nusairis, the Russians, Iran, and the all the Rawafid [i.e. Shi'ites] on behalf of the Sunnis... Your victory is the victory of the Sunnis, and your retreat is the retreat of the Sunnis..."[15]

Likewise, sheikhs and faction commanders visited the fighters on the various fronts.


Al-Joulani in the rural northern region of Latakia (Source: T.me/AbuMuhammadHmwi4, August 21, 2018)


Sheikh Abu Al-Fath Al-Farghali and members of HTS's Supreme Supervision Committee at the Jabal Al-Akrad outpost (Source: T.me/rehab_alshamm, September 5, 2018)

The HTS preaching bureau held gatherings for locals to explain the importance of the battle and urge them to extend moral and financial support to the fighters. Many such gatherings were held throughout the north, attended also by children, to encourage the locals to join the jihad and withstand the regime's attacks.[16]

In addition, donation drives were held in various areas to collect money for the fighters and fortification operations.[17]

On September 7, 2018, as the presidents of Russia, Iran and Turkey convened in Tehran to discuss the future of Syria and the Idlib battle, thousands in Idlib attended a rally of support for the fighting factions, under the heading "We Choose Resistance."[18]


Poster by the National Front for Liberation commando forces announcing the rally: "September 7 – We Choose Resistance" (Source: T.me/magaert, September 5, 2018)


The Idlib rally (Source: T.me/Ebaa_News, September 7, 2018)

In various areas posters were hung exhorting the commanders of the various factions to continue fighting and not to surrender to the regime. One of them said: "A message from Idlib the brave to the commanders: even if you see us lying dead, do not stop the war until victory [is achieved]." [19]

Egyptian Sheikh: Thousands Of Fighters Are Waiting In Idlib, As Well As Women Prepared To Carry Out Martyrdom Operations

In an attempt to boost the factions' morale, and as part of the psychological warfare against the enemies, various elements conveyed messages regarding the factions' readiness for war. Some of them emphasized that women would take part in the fighting as well, as martyrdom bombers. Syria-based Egyptian sheikh Abu Al-Yaqthan Al-Masri threatened in a July 27 sermon: "Today, Idlib talks about its assets... It has thousands and thousands of those who have migrated from East Turkestan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Europe, and America, from the lands of the non-Arabs and Arabs. They have left their children, their homes, their jobs, and their positions, seeking what Allah has for them and desiring martyrdom…

"By Allah's name… we have taken a vow about this, and we will crucify whoever surrenders his weapon in this liberated land which has been liberated by means of the blood of those brave martyrs, with whom I ask Allah to unite us in Paradise."

He then praised the young men in Idlib, saying that they are competing for assignments to various brigades, including the martyrdom brigade; he praised the mothers who urge their sons to become martyrs, and the young girls who "by Allah's name... have requested [permission] to carry out [martyrdom operations] in Aleppo, Ghouta and Hamah, but we say [to them that] there are still men in Syria local and foreigners who love death as much as they [the enemies] love life."[20]

An Al-Qaeda supporter wrote in a similar vein on his Telegram channel: "Oh Russians, Rawafid and donkeys of the Jews, we say to you that we are eagerly await your arrival in Iblib, for, by Allah, we have prepared for you things that you cannot imagine. Seeing is much better than hearing. You will see lions that have sworn fealty to death and martyrdom-seeking women who are waiting for your arrival... The jihad fighters are waiting to drink you blood, and the dogs will feast on your corpses. We will turn Idlib into a graveyard for you... We say to you: Whoever wants his mother to lose a son, his children to be orphans and his wife to be a widow is invited to come to Idlib."[21]

A Telegram channel of supporters of the Ahrar Al-Sham jihadi group published a poster captioned "Idlib, the Holocaust of the Invaders," showing an armed fighter standing over the dead body of the Russian president, who is dressed as a prisoner, and over the Syrian president, who is likewise dressed as a prisoner."[22]

Apparently also as part of the informational efforts and psychological warfare, a post on this channel stated that "The National Front for Liberation has prepared 1,000 fighters who are ready for battle following intensive military and religious training. HTS has 20,000 fighters ready for battle, 500 car bombs and 3,000 martyrdom-seekers for operations behind enemy lines..."[23]

The Challenges Facing HTS

The Relations With Turkey And Fears Of Losing HTS's Main Supporter

In addition to its military inferiority vis-à-vis the Syrian regime and the air force of its ally Russia, HTS faces several additional problems, chiefly in terms of its relations with Turkey, which have been turbulent, especially since the latter joined the Astana process alongside Russia and Iran. One of the expressions of the deteriorating relations between the two sides was Turkey's decision to establish the National Front for Liberation as an alternative to the HTS, since the latter did not always comply with Turkey's demands. This umbrella organization was founded in August 2018 and includes pro-Muslim Brotherhood factions. Some speculated that one of its goals is to fight HTS if the latter refuses to disband.[24]

HTS leader Abu Muhammad Al-Joulani himself said that Turkey is not to be trusted. In a speech on the occasion of Eid Al-Adha, he said: "Our people must realize that we cannot count on the Turkish observation points in the north to repel the enemy.  Do not be fooled by promises and statements to the media. Political positions can change. We can trust nobody but Allah, and our sons, the mujahideen, to defend our land and our people and preserve our faith and our honor."[25]

Reports from the recent months indicate that Turkey has been exerting heavy pressure on HTS to disband and join the more moderate rebel factions that obey its directives, such as the National Front for Liberation. So far, it seems that the HTS has not succumbed to this pressure, but that may change in the future,. In statements he made to HTS's news agency Ebaa, an HTS official denied reports of the group's imminent dissolution, but did not reject this possibility out of hand. "We at HTS are acting to find an effective solution [to the situation] in the liberated north," he said, "that will protect our people from possible aggression by the regime... The issue of the organization's dissolution, if there is any truth [to the rumors about it], is an internal matter that will be discussed by its Shura Council in a way that will ensure that the goals of the revolution and the jihad are realized. [This issue will not be decided] by internal or external dictates."[26]

On August 31, 2018, Rueters reported, citing the Turkish Official Gazette, that the Turkish presidency had designated HTS as a terror organization.[27]  This decision may be a response to HTS's refusal to disband and a message that, if it does not comply with Turkey's dictates, Turkey will completely withdraw its support from it. HTS, for its part, did not officially respond to this report, perhaps in order to avoid straining its relations with Turkey any further, especially in light of the upcoming battle for Idlib. HTS supporters sought to downplay the importance of the Turkish move and clarify that Turkey continues to support the organization. A post on a Syrian opposition Telegram channel stressed that the Turkish decree banned only financial contacts with several figures and bodies, including HTS, but did not designate HTS as a terror organization.[28] A post on another opposition channel stated: "Warning: [the report about] Turkey's designation of HTS as a terror organization is fake news."[29] Yet another channel posted that the move was meant to pressure HTS and meet certain Russian demands, "but the reality is that the Turkish military positions [in Syria] are protected by HTS, and the channels of communication between it and Turkey remain open..."[30]

Controversy And Division Within HTS

Amid the tension ahead of the battle for Idlib, and despite HTS's attempts to present a united front, it seems that the organization is plagued by disagreements and internal strife. Against the backdrop of Turkey's demand that it disband, there have been reports about tension between more radical elements within it, including Sheikh Abu Yaqzan Al-Masri and Sheikh Abu Al-Fath Al-Faghrali, and more moderate elements that wish to end HTS's international isolation.[31]

Furthermore, in the recent weeks there have been growing tension and disagreements between HTS and Al-Qaeda supporters in Syria. It should be recalled that HTS's precursor, Jabhat Al-Nusra, headed by Al-Joulani, was Al-Qaeda's affiliate in Syria. (In a 2015 interview with Al-Jazeera Al-Joulani admitted that he received  instructions from Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri).[32] However, in 2016 Al-Joulani announced that his organization had severed its ties with Al-Qaeda and changed its name to Jabhat Fath Al-Sham.[33] This move was probably motivated by the realization that affiliation with the global jihad movement exposed the organization to danger and international isolation, and by a desire to rebrand it as a patriotic Syrian organization that could gain international acceptance. However, Al-Joulani's move sparked harsh criticism from Al-Qaeda and its supporters in Syria,[34] criticism that has resurfaced and intensified lately. On August 15, 2018, the pro-Al-Qaeda Al-Bayan Telegram channel posted a letter signed by 22 activists castigating HTS for what they called its oppressive and unjust treatment of fighters and activists in the region.[35] On August 19, it was reported that 'Omar Diaby aka Omar Omsenm, the leader of Firqat Al-Ghuraba (FG), an Al-Qaeda-affiliated group of French-speaking mujahideen in Syria, had been released from an HTS prison. Although a statement by FG said that the initiative for his arrest had not come from HTS, and that the two organizations would continue to coordinate, there were speculations that the move was intended to warn FG not to join the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Hurras Al-Din organization but to remain loyal to HTS.[36]

In addition, pro-Al-Qaeda Telegram channels reported recently that several groups in Syria have joined Al-Qaeda;[37] the report is apparently an attempt to undermine the show of unity that HTS seeks to present. Although some of these reports were denied,[38] it cannot be ruled out that some activists are indeed leaving HTS due to their dissatisfaction with it – a situation which could detract from its ability to control the fighters in the field.

* N. Mozes is the director of MEMRI's JTTM Project.

 


[2] T.me/GLEATHKJ, July 29, 2018.

[4] T.me/GLEATHKJ, August 31, 2018.

[5] T.me/medaad_press, August 29, 2018.

[6] T.me/GLEATHKJ, September 2, 2018.

[9] Telegram.me//: Shabakat Al-Fidaa Al-Islamiya, September 3, 2018.

[11] T.me/jeehadTahrer, September 2, 2018.  

[14] T.me/AEHOAS, September 2, 2018.

[15] T.me/Ebaa_news, September 3, 2018.

[16] T.me/Daawa_Ershad, August 28, 2018.

[17] T.me/Ebaa_News, September 5, 2018.

[18] Syriahr.com, September 8, 2018.

[19] T.me/gzbir5, September 6, 2018.

[21] T.me/Al-somoud, August 24, 2018.

[22] T.me/AEHOAS, August 31, 2018.

[23] T.me/AEHOAS, August 15, 2018.

[24] Enabbaladi.net, August 5, 2018.

[26] Ebaa.news, August 28, 2018.

[27] Reuters.com, August 31, 2018.

[28] T.me/Sham_News_Agency, August 31, 2018.

[29] T.me/algnob99, September 1, 2018.

[30] T.me/AEHOAS, August 31, 2018.

[31] Enabbaladi.net, August 27, 2018.

[38] T.me/ogn55, August 22, 2018; .me/AEHOAS, August 29, 2018.