Divides in the Guardians of Religion Organization
The Guardians of Religion Organization arose out of several battalions and military groups that had adopted the ideology of Al-Qaeda and Salafi jihadism. It was formed after Jabhat al-Nusra announced its dissociation from Al-Qaeda, changing its name to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham and subsequently merging with factions and other entities within Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS).
This transformation was accompanied by a methodological and ideological revamping of the group’s leadership – which had been part of al-Nusra – leading to serious internal conflict. The most significant result of all this was the formation of the Guardians of Religion Organization as an Al-Qaeda-affiliated faction fighting on Syrian soil.
Like other groups, the Guardians of Religion Organization is internally divided along various currents, mostly prominently two main ones.
The first of these currents is the Levantine current, which holds power within the organization and has been led by Jordanians such as Abu al-Qassam al-Askari, Bilal Khreisat and Sami al-Aridi as well as others who were killed, including Iyad al-Toubasi or ‘Abu Julaybib’, Abu Khallad al-Muhandis and Faruq al-Suri. Its leaders are intent on containing hostilities as they attempt to follow the Al-Qaeda approach while avoiding clashes with other military components in Idlib, especially HTS.
Although most of the leadership of this current is non-Syrian, there are Syrian elements represented in all positions and no decision is taken without their approval.
The Levantine current is well known for its hostility toward ISIS, which assassinated some of its leaders, and has been joining forces with HTS to fight the spread of ISIS. It steers clear of clashes with Syrian rebel factions while distancing itself from any conflicts between them and Tahrir al-Sham. It also rejects any type of in-fighting, seeking instead to fight alongside the rebel factions against the regime.
Its leaders strongly oppose the Turkish presence in northern Syria – Erdogan’s invasion was in fact one of the major catalysts for the emergence of this current. Nonetheless, it has not launched campaigns against the Turkish military in light of what it calls ‘the interests of the Sharia’, considering Turkey to be the closest ally of the Syrian revolution.
The Levantine current is also the most loyal to Al-Qaeda and enjoys the benefits of this special status. It refuses to make media appearances or disseminate posters bearing its name, preferring instead to keep a low profile and appear as being solely interested in fighting the regime.
While its leaders do not propagandize to society, they do educate their own elements in Al-Qaeda’s ideology, modified in such a way as to be more inclusive of opponents. Their aim is to attract support by avoiding what they see as the mistakes of jihadist groups like HTS, ISIS and Jund al-Aqsa, which clashed with local communities in Syria.
The second current is the Egyptian and North African current, which is composed of administrative, military and Sharia cadres. It launches criticisms against opponents inside and outside of the organization that reflect its practical aim to spread its ideology and agenda by force. The leaders in the organization who broke off to form the Egyptian and North African current accuse the Levantine current of subservience to HTS.
These leaders became the target of assassinations by coalition aircraft, most recently in the al-Mohandessin countryside west of Aleppo. Many were killed, while others were arrested or pursued by HTS forces who accused them of ‘fanaticism’ and collaboration with ISIS.
The future of the North African current
This current leans toward religious extremism to a greater degree than the first current. It seeks to implement Sharia law and fight anyone who stands in the way while attracting those aligned with the ideology of ISIS. Yet its influence has diminished in recent months with Al-Qaeda’s endorsement of the Levantine current as its most effective and faithful proxy in Syria. Al-Qaeda has further called on all dissenting parties to join the Jordanian-led current and renounce the ‘fanaticism’ that has resulted in the organization’s fragmentation.
The fact that there are few Syrians within the Egyptian and North African current has led to a loss of its legitimacy. Its ranks are drawn from cadres that reject the Jordanians, cadres that have defected from ISIS, and HTS leaders who oppose the group’s policies.
Many of the leaders of the North African current have shifted position to lend support to the Jordanians at the helm of the Guardians of Religion Organization in order to promote unity among all factions and advance the cause of ‘jihad’.
They are now faced with a couple of scenarios. HTS could gradually erode their legitimacy by accusing ISIS of seeking rapprochement with the organization’s leadership. Or the current could announce its separation from the organization, perhaps adopting a new approach that tones down its extremism to attract more fighters from other groups.
In any case, the Egyptians and North Africans, given their small numbers, do not currently constitute a force capable of destabilizing Tahrir al-Sham in northern Syria.
Tahrir al-Sham’s relationship with the Guardians of Religion Organization and its internal currents
HTS prefers to deal and coordinate with the Levantine current, which is more flexible in its interactions with other jihadist groups. There are several reasons for this flexibility including, most importantly, the precarious military situation as well as a desire to preserve what remains of the ideological and methodological links the Jordanians shared with HTS prior to its restructuring. The latter was what prompted the dissenting Jordanians to form the Guardians of Religion Organization in the first place.
Tahrir al-Sham seeks to strengthen the Levantine current at the expense of its North African counterpart, which can be done peacefully by attracting Egyptian and North African cadres. However, it faces great difficulty in persuading those cadres to join forces with HTS since, in their view, the organization has oriented itself toward Turkey while coming close to secularism – this amounts to a betrayal of the jihadist cause.
Tahrir al-Sham is now undertaking a pragmatic approach with this current specifically and with the Guardians of Religion Organization more generally to attract or bring its fighters more in line with its current approach. It does not want to forsake the jihadist military cadres in the organization, which can be used in the ranks of its own military wing. Rather, it wishes to hybridize and imprint them with a more moderate and intellectually mature jihadist ideology.
This endeavour faces obstacles from some leaders of the organization, especially al-Zawahiri, who saw the HTS as a stab in the back to Al-Qaeda when it abandoned its pledge by creating a separate group.
If Tahrir al-Sham’s careful plans to attract fighters fail, it may attack and destroy the Guardians of Religion Organization, lending it several advantages.
Firstly, it would eliminate a well-known jihadist competitor born of the same school of thought. This would be a major advantage, especially if there are hostilities between them, as was previously the case between ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra. Once HTS does away with the organization, some of its cadres and elements most loyal to jihadist ideology would be incorporated into the former, giving it greater organizational strength.
Secondly, it would prove to the international community, in particular Turkey, that it is a different group from Al-Qaeda, one willing to fight al-Zawahiri’s forces. This would in turn render HTS safe from coalition strikes.
Thirdly, it would retain exclusive control over northern Syria and send a message to the rest of the factions in Idlib not to deviate from its plans or else face the same fate as the Guardians of Religion Organization.
However, HTS leader al-Julani is not currently willing to risk this confrontation, especially since he knows that the Guardians of Religion is a highly organized military faction. He can use them to help fight against regime forces that are trying to march toward Idlib. Tahrir al-Sham sees the impending war with the regime as one that will determine the fate of Syria and thus calls for jihadist groups to forget their differences. This is why the group has recently strengthened its ties with all factions, including even those in opposition to it.
HTS would also rely heavily on support from the Guardians of Religion Organization as well as Ansar al-Tawhid to fight a common enemy in the event factions backed by Turkey attack Idlib. For this reason, it will favour the strategy of incorporating fighters into its ranks above other options, which nonetheless remain on the table.
The Guardians of Religion Organization and Syrian society
Perhaps what distinguishes the Guardians of Religion Organization most from other jihadist factions is its peaceful relationship with the civilian population. It avoids interfering in the religious affairs of local Syrians – despite the fact that jihadism is at the crux of its ideology – nor does it meddle in the everyday life of the local community. It does not even arrest journalists that criticize it.
It does not interfere in mosques or the marketplace, nor settle disputes or stand in the way of individual freedoms. However, it has established headquarters within areas considered to be civilian zones, which has sparked clashes between the organization and the local population. In the event the organization expands further, its leaders may start imposing their ideology on the local population, but this remains to be seen.
Neither is the group enthusiastic about fighting revolutionary factions allied with Turkey, despite its ideological differences with them. It stood on the side-lines during the war between HTS and factions such as al-Zenki, realizing that this conflict was in the interest of the former and would not benefit the organization. Its leaders recognized how the organization could be used by Tahrir al-Sham as a tool for fighting the factions.