By accepting Turkish intervention in Idlib, Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham has avoided one confrontation but thrown itself into a conflict with its ideological comrades in the Salafist-jihadist camp, with whom it already has tense relations.
HTS resisted accepting a Turkish intervention to implement a deal reached at the latest round of Astana talks, establishing a new de-escalation zone in Idlib, until the last moment. But the consequences of opposition – a war with Turkey and the pro-Turkish rebel force known as the Euphrates Shield – were took grave for it to hold out.
HTS now must face up to new internal setbacks on top of the string of problems the group already faces. The Nour Al-Din Al-Zinki brigade and Jaysh Al-Ahrar split from HTS over its attack on the Ahrar Al-Sham Islamist movement in July. Then several key figures quit the alliance because of leaked audio recordings in which several leaders expressed disrespect towards the organization’s former head and its Sharia Council. With all this in mind, the group took into account the fact that acquiescence to Turkish intervention would prompt further defections, albeit in small numbers.
But what worries HTS more than the likely prospect of further defections is the possibility of a major ideological backlash. Accepting cooperation with the (secular) Turkish government is seen by the Salafist-jihadist community, to which HTS belongs, as a clear violation of that ideological school’s teachings. Many of the most prominent Salafist-jihadists had already expressed their dissatisfaction over decisions by Jabhat Tahrir Al-Sham (formerly Jabhat Al-Nusra), since it cut ties with Al-Qaeda in July 2016, to integrate factions from outside the jihadist sphere and to form HTS in January 2017. These moves prompted anger from ideological heavyweights such as Abu Mohammad Al-Maqdisi, as well as several symbolic internal defections.
The HTS leadership can sell its line on Turkish deployments in its main areas of control as taking place under its own conditions (first and foremost, that no Euphrates Shield rebel group is to enter Idlib) and argue that the deal avoids a military campaign that would cause huge military destruction in a governorate that today hosts more than 2.5 million residents and displaced people. In exchange, it would be allowed to continue dominating the governorate’s administration.
This idea was presented by former Sharia Council member and Saudi preacher Abdullah Al-Mohaisini, one of the group’s most charismatic figures, as a ‘justification for altering a fatwa based on the outcome of negotiations’. His statement was issued in the context of his expectation that Tahrir Al-Sham would change its position on the issue, which indeed it did as soon as pictures emerged of elite Turkish forces entering Idlib accompanied by HTS members. HTS clerics then quickly moved to promote religious rulings confirming that the position was acceptable, just after ruling that it was prohibited.
However, the principle will not be easy to sell to rank and file fighters who are ideologically driven to battle Turkey. And although there was no major mutiny in the ranks of HTS over the agreement, who continued to follow commanders’ orders, the decision was not without consequences.
An attack by the ISIS on the HTS-controlled the Al-Rahjan district of the Hama countryside the day after Turkish forces entered Idlib was one such consequence. ISIS, which is waging a fierce battle with HTS as well as Al-Qaeda in the struggle to represent international jihad, would not have carried out such an attack, given its extremely difficult situation on the ground, if it had not realized that HTS was in an embarrassing position within the Salafist-jihadist community after the deal with Turkey.
ISIS was not the only group that took the opportunity to undermine its rival’s position within the jihadist world. The following day, a statement emerged from an unknown source, announcing the creation of a new faction in Syria called ‘Ansar Al-Furqan’. That was followed by another statement detailing the nature of the group as a Salafist-jihadist organization. That added to suspicions that it was set up by defectors from Jabhat Al-Nusra, under the leadership of the Jordanian faction led by Sami Al-Uraidi, who appears to have been encouraged to play a more prominent role following that development.
Ansar Al-Furqan published a third statement prohibiting cooperation with the Turkish army, but it did not pledge allegiance to Al-Qaeda. HTS had previously, if unofficially, said that it would not tolerate the creation of any other faction loyal to the network.
In this context, Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri condemned what he described as ‘efforts to oust Al-Qaeda from Syria to please America’, without specifying who was behind such efforts.
All these are indicators that relations have deteriorated between HTS and the Salafist-Jihadist community. Having lost much of its popularity by launching a string of attacks against other rebel groups this year on the grounds that they had supported a Turkish intervention in Idlib, losing the support of the global jihadist community will denude HTS of any other refuge, especially as the situation becomes more complex in Syria. It may not have much of a future.
Akil Hussain is a Syrian journalist. He studied Media at University of Damascus. He writes for several e-newspapers, and he worked as military correspondent in Syria for some TV channels until 2015.