Foreign fighters in NW Syria invested by Turkey, HTS 

IDLIB, Syria (North Press) – Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS, formerly al-Nusra Front) continues to use foreign fighters as political leverage in coordination with Turkey, as well as a tool against government forces and opposition factions, taking advantage of the large number of foreigners who cannot leave areas under their control.

In 2012, foreign fighters from different countries began entering Syria through Turkey. Turkish intelligence reportedly guided the militants into different factions, the most prominent of which are the Islamic State (ISIS), al-Nusra Front, Jund al-Sham, and Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad.

Locations of Deployment

Exclusive sources from HTS’ Office of Foreign Fighters told North Press that there are “over 7,500 fighters” not of Syrian nationality affiliated with HTS in Idlib. “Almost 6,200 – including Uyghurs, Caucasians, Tajiks, Chechens – are the vanguard in the HTS frontlines, whereas non-Syrian Arabs, mostly from north Africa, hold administrative, security, and military positions.”

Foreign fighters who left HTS or refuse to be affiliated with it, whether in combat or ideology, are not included in official statistics. They live with their families in the towns of al-Fu’ah, Kafraya, and Sarmin, in the northeastern countryside of Idlib, as well as in Ariha, Jisr al-Shughur, and various other villages. HTS’ prisons hold 340 foreign fighters under charges of joining ISIS or espionage, according to the source.

A military source of HTS, affiliated with the Red Bands, one of the most brutal faction in its ranks, said they hold between 900-1,200 foreign fighters from Chechnya, Tajikistan, and East Turkestan [China], in addition to Moroccans, Algerians, Libyans and several from Iraq and Egypt.”

The most prominent foreign faction affiliated with HTS is the Bukhari Jamaat, which is composed of Chechens and Uyghurs, as well as Russian Caucasian groups. Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad has Uzbek, Turkmenistani, and Moroccan members. It also harbors fighters from Gulf countries, in addition to numbers of Syrians, and an Uzbek group, which holds over 550 militants.

One of the most loyal foreign factions to HTS is the Turkmen Islamic Party, which holds the largest number of foreign fighters, specifically Uyghurs, and is directly supported by Turkey because of their members’ Turkic origins. They also undergo training and security courses within Turkish territory and have a hospitalization center in Antakya. Turkey has facilitated their entry into the country, according to the source.

The same source noted that there is also an Iranian faction, named the ‘Sunni Youth in Iran’ under the command of ‘Abu Muhammad al-Irani’, a former commander of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. ‘Abu Yahya al-Asfehani al-Irani’, another high-ranking member of the faction, holds around 150 Iranian fighters, and is affiliated with HTS on the frontlines in Idlib.

HTS also harbors prominent leaders from al-Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, as well as Iraq, who “have the greatest influence on [HTS leader] al-Jolani’s military approach,” according to the source.

Abu Ayub al-Maghrabi is the emir in charge of borders and border crossings and was a former al-Qaeda leader in Pakistan, before heading to Syria. Abu Abdulrahman al-Qahtani, one of Jolani’s top men, was a colleague of Abu-Zaid al Kuwaiti, an al-Qaeda leader in Afghanistan and the “most distinguished student of [al-Qaeda leaders] Osama bin Laden and al-Zawahiri.” Additionally, there is Mazhar al-Ways, the most notable member of HTS’ Shura Council, who operated under the command of ISIS between 2013 and 2014 in ISIS’ so-called ‘Wilayat al-Khair’ province in Deir ez-Zor.

There is also Musleh al-Alyan, one of the “most famous lawmakers of HTS from Saudi Arabia,” together with ‘Abdullah al-Mehisani’, a Saudi national and “the most prominent jihadi agitator,” who currently works covertly from his residence in Sarmada, in north Idlib.

The Uzbek faction within HTS includes Abu Salah al-Turkistani and Khattab al-Shishani, students of Saifullah al-Jazrawi, one of al-Qaeda’s emirs in Afghanistan during al-Zawahiri’s rule. Many of those who fought under al-Qaeda’s banner are currently in the ranks of HTS, but “avoid publicity for fear of assassination,” according to the source.

HTS and Turkey’s most notable investment

Abu Shihab al-Yamani, one of the foreign fighters operating in the Bab al-Hawa border crossing in the north of Idlib, said that foreign fighters are “the most notable investments of HTS and Turkey.”

They are used as “political leverage against certain states and as a marketing tool to promote the idea that Turkey is protecting the world from terrorists by limiting their presence to Idlib, in northwest Syria. In addition, the HTS is able to whitewash its own image in the eyes of the international community by conducting arrests against foreign fighters and handing them to Turkey as part of a common security file.”

The HTS has handed over more than 180 foreign detainees to Turkish authorities through its security apparatus. Most of them belong to Asian nationalities; some are also European. HTS has also provided Turkish intelligence with precise information on all foreign fighters and their families, especially those who are not affiliated with HTS, according to the source.

HTS uses foreign fighters as a card with Turkish authorities to guarantee its presence in the military and political process, especially as Turkey’s approach towards Syria’s opposition has begun to shift to the benefit of Russia and the Damascus government.

Reporting by Hani Salem