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Jihadist group in Idlib vows to keep foreign fighters in Syria

Hayat Tahrir al-Sham leader Abu Mohammed al-Golani says "these foreign fighters are now part of us."
Members of Syria's top jihadist group, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, led by al-Qaeda's former Syria affiliate, parade with their flags and those of the Taliban's declared "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan" through the rebel-held northwestern city of Idlib, Syria, Aug. 20, 2021.

It seems the previous security campaigns to track down foreign fighters carried out by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) in its areas of control in Syria’s northwestern province of Idlib were merely a political show.

Recent statements by HTS leader Abu Mohammed al-Golani show that the group may not be ready to give up on these operatives.

In a Sept. 5 interview with The Independent, in its Turkish version, Golani spoke about foreign fighters and the Islamic State’s (IS) activities in Syria and their impact on the course of military events, as well as about the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan.

Answering a question about whether there is a place for foreign fighters in the future of Syria, Golani praised these fighters’ support for the fight against the Syrian government and promised not to abandon them. 

“These fighters are now part of us. They are part of the people. They are happy with the people and the people are happy with them, too. They do not pose a threat to their countries. They are here under the policy that we established, which is not based on hostility to any country. We have enmity with those who occupied Syria and killed Syrians. We are also fighting them inside the borders of Syria. Our immigrant brothers are now part of us, and we will protect them according to our religion and culture,” Golani said.

The HTS leader believes that IS was the only reason behind the West’s bad view of Islam, accusing the terrorist group of fueling Islamophobia — something that greatly harmed the Syrian revolution.

Foreign fighters fought in the ranks of many opposition factions in Syria and had a role in designating some groups as terrorists, such as HTS, Jund al-Aqsa and Hurras al-Din (Guardians of Religion Organization).

Abbas Sharifa, a researcher in the jihadist groups’ affairs at the Jusoor Center for Studies in Istanbul, told Al-Monitor, “Golani’s statements can be seen in the context of an anticipated battle in Idlib, especially after the recent bombing of Jabal al-Zawiya. HTS would need more fighters in any fierce battle that could break out in Syria. But this does not mean that HTS would allow them [foreign fighters] to establish a strong military formation outside HTS’ control, as this would be an existential threat to the group.”

He said, “Golani wants to keep the foreign fighters’ card up his sleeve and is trying to send a message to the West that he is trying to keep these fighters in check, but could also use this large number of operatives to threaten world peace, if he was faced with an international attempt to eliminate him or not recognize him even. Golani could also use these fighters in the face of other factions that refrain from obeying HTS’ orders."

HTS has been recently cracking down on jihadist groups operating independently from the group, pressuring them to come under its umbrella or dissolve themselves and depart from Idlib. This was the case of the Jundallah group, which was dissolved and its leader, Muslim al-Shishani, requested to leave Syria.

As for the other groups, such as Ansar al-Tawhid, the Turkestan Islamic Party, Ajnad al-Kavkaz and Uzbek groups, they remain loyal to HTS and work under its supervision. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda-affiliated Hurras al-Din, a rival to HTS, was dissolved.

Taqi al-Din Omar, HTS’ media relations office director, told Al-Monitor, “The previous military crackdowns carried out by HTS targeted one group, which is Jund al-Sham, led by Muslim al-Shishani, who refused to hand over some wanted men. It was not a general policy against non-Syrian fighters. HTS’ previous acts were more politically motivated, and do not reflect the facts on the ground. Today, there is an opportunity to correct this.”

While HTS’ sporadic crackdown on jihadist groups in Idlib can be seen as signs of goodwill for the international community, these actions are mainly aimed at further consolidating HTS’ rule by getting rid of staunch enemies and dissenting voices, according to an article in the Middle East Institute Policy Brief by Orwa Ajjoub, a former scholar at Sweden’s Lund University.

“It’s been over a year that HTS has begun its crackdown on extremist groups in a bid to implement Astana’s agendas in fighting radical factions and engage in the political process and understandings with stakeholders in the region, in cooperation with Turkey,” Ajjoub told Al-Monitor.

“These groups rejected HTS’ cooperation and coordination with Turkey. I do not believe that Golani’s latest statements were conflicting. He meant that he would keep the fighters that are affiliated with HTS who agreed to the comprehensive international understandings between Turkey, Russian and Iran. There are many foreign senior leaders that are close to HTS and its leader,” he said.

Ajjoub added, “HTS has been focusing on rearranging its affairs in its governmental institutions and is jumping at any opportunity to present itself, regionally and internationally, as the only group capable of managing the area. HTS is also trying to take advantage of the recent Taliban events and how they managed to take control of the entire state, to present a similar model that would be internationally recognized. The aid [that came into Syria] through the crossings is seen as an indirect recognition of HTS.”

HTS welcomed the Taliban’s control of Afghanistan, 20 years after the group was defeated at the hands of the US forces.

In an Aug. 18 statement, HTS said, “We congratulate our brothers in the Taliban and our people in Afghanistan for this conquest, asking God to grant the Syrian revolution a similar resounding victory, by which the land would be liberated and justice would prevail under the Sharia of the Most Merciful.”

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