What does Turkish-backed Hayat Tahrir al-Sham do in Syria’s Idlib?
QAMISHLI, Syria (North Press) – The success of the Taliban Movement in Afghanistan has inspired the radical group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS, formerly al-Nusra Front) to take it as an example, especially since it is backed by Turkey. However, it seems that it has forgotten it is classified as a terrorist organization, and pursued by Russia which reiterates that it should be eliminated in northwest Syria.
Acting US Special Envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS and Acting Counterterrorism Coordinator, John Godfrey, said months ago that the US would maintain the designation of HTS as a terrorist organization, in response to many recent calls for opening a dialogue with the group, which claims to be dissociated from al-Qaeda.
In mid-2018 the US blacklisted the Abu Mohammad al-Julani-led HTS, and all the affiliated factions.
The HTS is an active Sunni Islamist militant group involved in the Syrian Civil War. It was formed on 28 January 2017 as a merger between Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, the Ansar el-Din Front, Jaysh al-Sunna, Liwa al-Haqq, and the Nour al-Din al-Zenki Movement. It then announced its separation from the other organizations, and considered itself a local Syrian power.
It is still classified on the lists of terrorism in the UN Security Council as a terrorist organization, and Russia is taking it as a pretext for advance in northwest Syria.
Observers and politicians believe that the HTS which controls areas in northwest Syria, is seeking to convince the international community that it is not, as Washington describes it, “the largest hub for al-Qaeda in Syria since the events of September 11.”
The Carnegie Middle East Center published a study in which it said that the Syrian Jihadist group, HTS, is attempting to improve its image by turning to local jihad and distancing itself from its former hardline allies; a move that is indicative of HTS’ hope to obtain international political recognition and alter its continued status as a “terrorist” organization.
Furthermore, Turkey has recently made efforts to remove the HTS from the terrorist list by merging it with the Syrian National Army (SNA), a step that analysts described as “semi-impossible.”
However, these Turkish efforts collide with Russia, which is pushing Turkey to speed up the achievement of the “ultimate goal” in Idlib, and asks it to end the issue of the HTS.
Despite this, the HTS military academy announced the graduation of a “group leader” course for fighters of the military brigades a few days ago.
Since the signing of the Moscow agreement on March 5, 2020, which stipulated a ceasefire, the HTS, along with the opposition military factions, have announced the graduation of several military courses.
It also previously announced the completion of several training courses, with different names, such as the “group leaders course”, the “red bands course”, the “level-raising course”, the “field commanders graduation course”, and the “special forces graduation course”.
The graduation of the last course was preceded by developments that the Jihadist group made in terms of its image, in an effort to change its image before the international community.
On September 15, 2021, Abdurrahman Atoun, the HTS general jurist, appeared in a modern outfit in a lecture organized by the Salvation Government, the HTS civil wing, in the city of Idlib, abandoning the stereotypical image of the Jihadists.
It seems that Atoun focused on the changes adopted by the HTS to localize its Jihadist goals and to communicate with the west.
In February, the Financial Times published a report in which it presented Abu Mohammad al-Julani as undergoing an image change, with the Syrian jihadi this month photographed wearing a western-style business suit unlike his previous appearance with combat fatigues.
According to Financial Times, the shift in al-Julani’s wardrobe is part of a deliberate process to re-establish the image of the group, which the US and Turkey have designated as a terrorist group, and an attempt to secure a share in the future of Syria.
Despite all the HTS’s efforts to show a different image, the recent period in its areas of control in northwest Syria has witnessed protests and turmoil as a result of the policy described as “failed” by the HTS in managing the affairs of the region.
Observers in the HTS-run areas argue that no matter how much the HTS changes its policy, it will not be able to achieve even a small part of what it aspires to, especially since all Russian statements reiterate the need to fight and eliminate it in northwest Syria.