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Uzbek fighters complicate makeover campaign by jihadi group in Idlib

Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the dominant jihad group in Idlib, is seeking distance from the actions of Uzbek foreign fighters.
Jihadis of former al-Qaeda affiliate Hayat Tahrir al-Sham block demonstrators from approaching the Bab al-Hawa crossing.

ALEPPO — Uzbek jihadis affiliated with Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) in Syria’s northwestern province of Idlib have repeatedly attacked the positions of Syrian government forces on the Idlib fronts and killed a number of their elements.

HTS has yet to officially claim responsibility for these attacks, which raises many questions about the numbers and capabilities of these jihadis and the extent to which HTS controls their decisions and movements.

On Aug. 6, a group of Uzbek jihadis infiltrated a Syrian regime post in the village of Hantoutin in the southern countryside of Idlib and clashed with members of the regime forces, killing 10 and wounding others, according to sources on the ground. The three perpetrators of the attack were killed.

Meanwhile, Telegram accounts close to HTS, which controls Idlib, stated that the operation was carried out by Uzbek jihadis affiliated with HTS.

Local pages loyal to the government mourned the deaths of both Milad Namour and Miqdad Issa, who are believed to have been killed in the Aug. 6 operation.

On Aug. 7, the Russian WarJournal Telegram account claimed that four soldiers and two officers of government forces were killed in the Aug. 6 attack and six others were wounded. Three of the perpetrators, who were from the Katibat al-Tawhid wa al-Jihad (Jihad and Tawhid Battalion), were killed.

The Idlib fronts and their surroundings have witnessed several similar operations over the past few months, most of which were carried out by Uzbek jihadis affiliated with HTS. One example is the attack carried out by four Uzbek jihadis on a government post in the village of Miznaz northwest of Aleppo in July.

Post-2012, dozens of Uzbek jihadis entered Syrian territories and joined the ranks of Islamic factions to participate in the military operations against Syrian government forces.

The Imam Bukhari Jamaat is considered one of the most prominent Uzbek groups fighting in Syria. It was founded by Salah al-Din al-Uzbek in 2013. He was assassinated with three of his companions in April 2017.

Of note, the United States placed the Imam Bukhari Jamaat on its list of terrorist groups in 2018. The group is still deployed in Idlib in limited numbers after a number of its fighters left it and joined the Jihad and Tawhid Battalion affiliated with HTS, which also includes Uzbek jihadis. Currently, the Imam Bukhari Jamaat does not belong to any military command.

At the end of 2015, the Jihad and Tawhid Battalion, which includes Uzbek members, joined the ranks of HTS. Uzbek jihadis are deployed in the mountainous regions of northwestern Syria.

The Jihad and Tawhid Battalion continues to attract more Uzbek jihadis, as evidenced by photos published by accounts affiliated with HTS in Idlib. The account of the military correspondent of HTS in Idlib declared in July the graduation of 16 newly affiliated Uzbek jihadis, while on Aug. 15 tribute was paid to a number of leaders and fighters who pledged allegiance to HTS.

The Uzbek attacks in Idlib coincided with the continuous HTS bombing campaign on the positions of government forces in the vicinity of Idlib in response to the escalation in the southern province of Daraa, which is besieged by Syrian government forces.

However, there is another possibility whereby the Uzbek jihadis do not fully abide by the orders of HTS and sometimes carry out operations without the knowledge of their leadership, such as their attack on the Idlib Museum in June.

Al-Monitor asked HTS military commander Abu Muslim al-Shami about the bombing campaign in support of Daraa, about the attack carried out by HTS-affiliated Uzbek jihadis on the positions of government forces in the Idlib countryside, and why HTS did not claim responsibility for the operation. Shami said, “The campaign [against government forces in Idlib] was launched by HTS in support of the Daraa uprising in light of the attacks of the Assad militia against our civilians in Daraa. The campaign achieved its goals and hit enemy sites and operations rooms, and more than 30 sites were targeted, most notably the operations room of the Russian occupier in the city of Khan Sheikhoun.”

Shami refused to comment on the Uzbek jihadi attacks.

Mohammed al-Sukari, a researcher of jihadi groups at the Jusoor Center for Studies based in Istanbul, told Al-Monitor, “HTS has fully imposed its control over Idlib province, which infers its monopoly of the military action and [the decision-making process]. So it is difficult for any faction to launch any quick military operation without its knowledge. The biggest evidence is Hurras al-Din (Guardians of Religion Organization), which cannot act except as HTS deems appropriate.”

Sukari added, “HTS leader Abu Mohammed al-Golani recently announced he is preparing for a military operation against the Syrian regime, without specifying its type, in what suggested that such attacks could be quick, similar to those carried out by Uzbek elements. The important question that arises in this context is why doesn’t HTS officially carry out this type of operation? HTS is working to be removed from the terrorist lists, which prevents it from embarking on such operations. On the other hand, it does not want to upset its local supporters, and this is why it is working on defusing the mounting anger against it by investing in some groups without officially announcing it. Official announcements are often aimed at conveying messages to regional and international players and not local ones who know full well by now who is behind such operations.”

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