IDLIB, Syria — Abu Mohammed al-Golani, the leader of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, was recently interviewed by American journalist Martin Smith in Idlib, sparking controversy among the Syrian opposition and activists, especially since he was not wearing his traditional shami sirwel (loose pants) or his turban or carrying his rifle.
Smith tweeted a picture Feb. 2 with Golani with a caption saying, “Just returned from three days in Idlib, Syria with Abu Muhammad al Jolani [ Abu Mohammed al-Golani], founder of al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra. He spoke candidly about 9/11, AQ [al-Qaeda], Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, ISIS [Islamic State, or IS], America, and more.”
The next day, the US State Department’s Rewards for Justice Twitter page posted a sarcastic comment saying, “Hey, handsome Golani, what a sweet suit. You can change your outfit, but you will always be a terrorist. Don't forget the $10 million reward.”
Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, also known as HTS, is designated as a foreign terrorist organization by the United States, the United Nations and others. In 2017, the US State Department announced a reward of up to $10 million for information leading to the identification or location of Golani.
Following this controversy over Golani's attire, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham's public relations office issued a statement saying, “Golani’s photo in a suit, which is far from the usual, was part of his hosting of the American journalist, Martin Smith, in Idlib for a period of three days. The visit included a field tour and an official meeting [with Smith] in which he [Golani], with his long experience, dealt with the most important milestones and shifts, in addition to trivial questions about the current situation and the future.”
The statement added, “We must break the isolation [of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham] and convey the situation with all available legitimate means, with the aim of communicating this to the peoples of the region and the world in a way that contributes to achieving our interests and pushing away those spoiling our blessed revolution.”
“Since the first day of the 10-year Syrian revolution, we have always been proud of it and all the victories and defeats it went through because it is a people's revolution and a modern experience in which a bright future for the Syrian people will emerge,” the statement added.
In this context, Orabi Abdel-Hay Orabi, a Syrian journalist specializing in the affairs of Islamic and jihadi groups and residing in Turkey, told Al-Monitor, “The picture caused an uproar because Golani seemed to be doing exactly what he had always criticized. He used to say that anyone who meets with Western media or builds ties with the West is an infidel, but here he is getting closer to the West.”
He added, “Many activists expected that Golani would reach this stage and change all of his principles on which he fought the factions, claiming they had connections with the West. Today, their expectations came true.”
Orabi noted, “Golani aspires to establish a political party that will have a role in the future of Syria. He wants to show that he has a military force on the ground, that he has legitimacy through the Salvation Government and that he enjoys popularity, all with the intention of being recognized internationally. He also worked to restructure the HTS, to make it more centralized, and tried to convey an image of himself as a strong, popular man in control. Golani succeeded in deflecting his opponents and exploiting some files in his favor, such as the fight against the Islamic State. Golani has a powerful media machine, which portrays him as a shrewd man with experience in politics and as someone who can turn cards in his favor.”
For his part, Mustafa Sejari, director of the political bureau of the Mutasim Brigade affiliated with the Free Syrian Army (FSA), who is based in the Aleppo countryside, told Al-Monitor, “The uproar caused by Golani’s meeting with Smith is a natural result given Golani’s suspicious behavior in recent years. The Syrian street sees Golani as a bloody, volatile and pragmatic figure who quickly shifts his behavior to achieve his goals. I think that Golani seeks to promote himself internationally after he extended his control over Idlib by force of arms. However, one cannot tell to which extent the West will respond to him. Oftentimes, such matters are not linked to principles and values, but rather to special interests.”
Sejari added, “Golani’s entourage is made up of extremists who are completely loyal to him. They will not budge, no matter the changes. The other jihadi groups, such as Hurras al-Din and IS, are trying to weaken Golani's position and question his jihadi history and intentions, but they are too weak to be able to affect Golani's plans.”
Meanwhile, Mohammed Omar, an activist close to Hayat Tahrir al-Sham in Idlib, told Al-Monitor, “Those criticizing Golani’s recent appearance are jealous and hateful because with his cunning and intelligence, Golani reached a stage of global respect that the moderate opposition, the [US-led] coalition and the FSA, had always dreamed of. The difference is that the opposition presented itself as a servant and fell into the arms of Western supporters, while Golani's actions, control, organization and strength led him to this stage. Golani spared no effort to appear anywhere that would improve the situation of the liberated areas in north Syria. We sometimes find him with the children of the martyrs, and sometimes with notables and tribal sheikhs, and at other times with activists and the media. Golani wants to break the isolation and siege of the liberated areas in north Syria and he wants to tell the world that Idlib is open to all media channels.”
Activist Hazar Hashemi, who lives in Idlib, told Al-Monitor, “The world is accustomed to seeing jihadi leaders hide in mountains and caves, with little media exposure, so in principle the leader should be in disguise, wearing certain clothes and speaking in a certain way; in complete isolation from people, even from his own soldiers. An exception is happening today with Golani, the leader of the largest faction in northern Syria. He broke all stereotypes about the leaders of jihadi organizations, and he wants to show openness to the world. At this stage of the Syrian revolution, a military solution to the Syrian crisis has become unlikely, as neither the regime nor the factions is capable of resolving it militarily, meaning a political solution is inevitable.”