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Syrian opposition lambastes Hayat Tahrir al-Sham leader

Amid little hope left for the recently observed Idlib cease-fire, opposition activists said the latest speech delivered by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham leader Abu Mohammed al-Golani cannot be built upon during the upcoming confrontations.

ALEPPO, Syria — The cease-fire that has been observed in Idlib governorate since Jan. 12, after it was announced by the Turkish Ministry of Defense on Jan. 10, may not hold for long.

The Syrian regime has repeatedly breached the agreement through land and airstrikes on rebel-held areas in Idlib and has committed horrific massacres, the latest of which killed on Jan. 16 more than 100 people.

This return to strikes and possible return to confrontations raises questions about the ability of the opposition, namely Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the largest military force in Idlib, to confront and prevent the advance of the regime forces.

The military spokesman for the HTS military wing, Abu Khaled al-Shami, told Eldorar Alshamia network Jan. 12, “We declare our full readiness to repel any expected aggression.”

This means that HTS expects an imminent collapse of the truce.

These field developments, namely the regime and Russian strikes on Idlib, have reopened a debate within the opposition circles about the video message delivered Dec. 25 by HTS leader Abu Mohammed al-Golani under the title, “War of liberation and independence.”

According to some opposition activists, Golani’s speech was detached from reality and seemed quite peculiar, as he did not adopt the traditional rhetoric that jihadis usually use. He spoke fast using easy and simple words. Part of his speech was directed toward the Arab Gulf countries, Turkey and the United States, and seemingly aimed at conveying certain messages that would eventually lead to interest-based alliances.

Also, Golani did not go into details of the field developments in Idlib, as he merely focused on the geopolitical dimension of the conflict in the region.

The speech came at a time when the regime forces were attacking and seizing several areas in Maaret al-Numan in the southeast of Idlib as part of a military operation that kicked off Dec. 20. In record time, the regime managed to take control of a large number of villages on Dec. 21 in the southeast of Idlib, including the town of Jarjanaz.

Golani said, “[Syria] has overcome the stage of overthrowing the regime and is now in a war of liberation and independence from the Russian and Iranian occupations. The causes behind our success and defeat lie within us — our own selves, our faith and our constant willingness to sacrifice while repenting and staying away from sin."

He continued, “The whole world will bear the consequences of this war and its economic, political and military consequences that will shuffle international cards and redistribute regional powers. The old version of the regime is forever gone, God willing. The revolution prevailed in several ways. It dismantled the regime’s army, proved the failure of the regime’s security forces and shattered the regime’s economy, thus depriving it of its legitimacy and preventing it from running the country.”

He said, “The regime is a puppet manipulated by the Iranian and Russian occupiers who are seeking to secure their positions in the Mediterranean Sea in order to plunder the region's wealth and play an effective role in regional conflicts.”

Golani pointed out that “land owners always bear the consequences because they are the ones who decided to confront the occupier and went out of their way for the sake of liberation. We have overcome the phase of overthrowing the regime and are now waging a war of liberation and independence against the brutal Russian-Iranian occupiers that are targeting our religion, our land and our wealth.”

Syrian National Army media coordinator Yahya Mayo told Al-Monitor, “Golani’s speech is illogical as it mentioned a war of liberation and independence at a time when the Islamic faction he leads is falling short of showing the expected resistance it is supposed to show against the regime forces on the Idlib fronts. These forces are seizing one area after the other. Such resonant speeches are useless and will not stop the progress of the regime’s forces.”

Munzer Toomeh, a media activist from the countryside of Idlib governorate, told Al-Monitor, “HTS and its leader do not care about Idlib. They are not saddened by the fall of the territories in the grip of the regime’s forces. This was made obvious by Golani’s latest speech. People here want someone to defend them and their lands. They want someone capable of reassuring them and providing them with assistance. They do not need constructive speeches. People in Idlib criticized his speech and considered it as a clear expression of the detachment from reality of HTS and its leadership. Such a speech cannot be built upon in the upcoming confrontations with the regime forces.”

Media activist Abdel-Fattah al-Hussein, who works with civil and humanitarian organizations and local news networks he declined to name and is based in the countryside of Aleppo and Idlib, told Al-Monitor, “Speeches aimed at raising the morale of fighters are a good thing but not when they are delivered by the commander of a military faction that controls most of the fighting fronts with the regime forces. People here expected Golani to talk about the reasons behind the loss of areas to regime forces and the supposed defensive and offensive plans. They needed reassurance. The last thing they needed was such an unrealistic speech.”

Hisham Esskeef, deputy head of the political bureau of the Free Syrian Army-affiliated Liwaa as-Salam," told Al-Monitor, “It seems that the title of Golani’s speech — 'War of liberation and independence' — was not random but based on a clear pragmatic shift in this jihadist faction. The speech was loaded with many messages. Chief among these is that HTS is now a national liberation movement and is no longer a jihadist faction. This means that it has come to derive its legitimacy from the resistance people and not from a religious jihadist authority."

Hussein Nasser, media activist and former director of the Center for Combating Extremist Thought in the northern countryside of Aleppo, told Al-Monitor, “Golani referred in his speech to the Russian and Iranian forces as forces occupying the Syrian territories. But he made no mention of other forces, such as the United States and Turkish forces, and he did not mention Israel. This means that he is implicitly willing to cooperate with international powers that have an interest in weakening Russia and Iran.”

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