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Syrian jihadist group ramps up efforts to oust rivals from Idlib

Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which controls Syria’s northwestern province of Idlib, has asked a Chechen jihadist group to either join its ranks or leave the battlefronts, in a move that many consider to be part of HTS' policy to have its name removed from international terrorist lists.
Demonstrators gather during a protest in the village of Maaret al-Naasan in Idlib province, to protest against a reported attack by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, Syria, May 1, 2020.

IDLIB, Syria — Well-informed sources among jihadist groups in Syria told Al-Monitor that Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) has recently asked the Jund al-Sham (Soldiers of the Levant) group to leave its posts in the Latakia countryside and dissolve itself, or join the HTS ranks.

The sources stated that HTS asked the Chechen commander of Jund al-Sham, Muslim al-Shishani, to join its ranks and submit to its policies or to leave its areas of control and go to the areas held by the Free Syrian Army factions close to Ankara.

According to the sources, Shishani rejected HTS’ offer. Instead, he asked HTS to leave his faction to fight the Syrian government forces only, vowing not to interfere in the social and political affairs of Idlib, which is under the control of HTS.

This information was confirmed by American journalist Bilal Abdul Karim, who posted a video on YouTube OGN TV channel June 27, saying that HTS offered Shishani to join its ranks or leave its areas of control without setting a deadline. He continued that Shishani rejected the offer.

Shishani’s original name is Murad Margoshvili, also known by his nom de guerre Muslim Abu al-Walid al-Shishani, and he descends from the Chechen tribes living in Georgia. He is classified by the US State Department as the leader of a terrorist group in Syria since September 2014 and accused of building a base for foreign fighters in Syria.

HTS media coordinator Taqi al-Din Omar responded to the reports about the situation with Jund al-Sham in a statement, a copy of which Al-Monitor obtained June 29. Omar said, “The security services succeeded in controlling security and fighting all kinds of crime, but some perpetrators and wanted persons hid within small groups to cover up their crimes.”

He added, “Disguise is another crime that has negative consequences, and the authorities operating today in the liberated north will not allow it.”

According to Omar, among the groups that take in wanted persons is the Jund al-Sham faction, as it has been proven that some of its affiliates were involved in security and criminal cases.

The statement also noted that HTS has asked the leaders of these groups to cooperate in order to apprehend the criminals and hold them duly accountable. “However, the matter was not met with responsibility, and a rumor was spread that the group [Jund al-Sham] was expelled from Idlib,” Omar said, adding that anyone can join the fighting fronts.

A leader close to Jund al-Sham, nicknamed Abu Khaled al-Shishani, who resides in Latakia countryside, told Al-Monitor, “HTS wants to eliminate all Salafist jihadist groups — even the moderate ones — in its areas of control, in order to promote itself, especially in the eyes of the United States, as a moderate political group that is fighting terrorism in Idlib. But despite these efforts, the United States will keep HTS on the terrorist list."

He said, "HTS will thus lose both at home and abroad since it is now fighting the honorable groups whose only goal is to fight the Syrian regime and its Russian and Iranian allies. HTS wants to swallow up the remaining groups, one after the other.”

He added, “Jund al-Sham is a peaceful group that does not interfere in any official or social affairs. It is not hostile to the West nor Turkey. It is only active on the fronts bordering [the areas under the control of] the Syrian regime. It has been fighting with courage and valor for several years.”

Orabi Abdel-Hay Orabi, a Syrian journalist specializing in Islamic and jihadist groups and residing in Turkey, told Al-Monitor, “Shishani is a seasoned military commander and an expert in military training. He has been active for years in the mountains of the Syrian coast against the regime forces, as he leads a well-trained group that knows how to fight in the mountains. The remaining jihadist groups in Idlib have no choice but to join HTS or leave the area."

He noted, "HTS has adopted this policy to prove to Russia and Turkey that it is more like a state that is fighting the militants. Jund al-Sham will not leave Idlib; it will find a way around this. It has three options: It could either join HTS, join the sleeper cells of Hurras al-Din or head toward the Syrian desert and join the Islamic State. However, leaving Idlib is currently out of the question.”

Orabi added, “By tightening the noose around Jund al-Sham and other groups, HTS wants to show Russia that it is not a terrorist entity as Russia claims, but that it fights terrorism and jihadist groups. Turkey had hinted that if HTS takes action against jihadist groups, Russia would not target it as much. Turkey can thus convince Russia that HTS is a safety valve to fight extremists in Idlib, and is not the extremist group as Russia perceives it.”

An HTS leader told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “The Jund al-Sham group harbors individuals who are criminals and seeking to escape legal accountability. We are not against groups whose only purpose is to fight the Syrian regime.”

He said, “Today, HTS cannot be considered a faction, because it is paving the way to establish a state of its own, with institutions, laws and regulations. Such a move alienates many jihadist groups, so they turn against us and claim we are restricting those who are fighting the regime, but this is absolutely incorrect. Jund al-Sham is a 60-member group, but some are exaggerating its importance in order to rally others against HTS by claiming it is restricting a significantly large faction that is fighting the regime.”

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