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HTS arrests members of little-known Syrian group behind attacks against Turkish army in Idlib

Hayat Tahrir al-Sham announced that it arrested most members of the Ansar Abu Bakr al-Siddiq Brigade, a small, little-known jihadist group that is hostile to HTS and has repeatedly targeted Turkish forces in Idlib.
Members of Syria's top jihadist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.

Hayat Tahrir al-Sham’s (HTS) General Security Service announced the arrest of most members of the Ansar Abu Bakr al-Siddiq Brigade, which it accuses of being behind a series of bombings that targeted civilians and military personnel in Syria’s northwestern province of Idlib.

In a statement published on July 6, the General Security Service said those members were arrested on charges of carrying out several security operations, including the attack on al-Mutlaq checkpoint in Idlib in January 2021 and the detonation of an explosive device near the Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey targeting Turkish army forces in May 2021.

HTS’ General Security Service spokesman Diaa al-Omar said in a video statement that security forces raided most of the Ansar Abu Bakr al-Siddiq Brigade hideouts that were used to manufacture explosive devices.

Omar said they managed to “arrest members inside those hideouts and confiscated the criminal tools they were using to kill innocents and destabilize Idlib.”

He said that “all of the brigade’s remnants will be arrested and referred to justice,” and a video clip covering the details of the security operation is to be published shortly.

The so-called Ansar Abu Bakr al-Siddiq Brigade first appeared in northwestern Syria, namely in Idlib, in August 2020, as it claimed responsibility for a car bomb on a Turkish military checkpoint in the countryside of Jisr al-Shughur west of Idlib, and announced the start of its activity against the Turkish military presence in the area.

The brigade introduced itself as independent and not affiliated with any group, faction or organization, and warned civilians against approaching the bases and positions of the Turkish army in the area

In late 2021, the group claimed responsibility for the bombing of a vehicle belonging to the Turkish army as well as the targeting of Turkish soldiers in the countryside of Idlib. It also claimed responsibility in early January 2022 for a similar attack against Turkish forces in the western countryside of Aleppo.

Omar Abu al-Walid, an Idlib-based former jihadist leader, told Al-Monitor, “Most of the Ansar Abu Bakr al-Siddiq Brigade’s members were former HTS members. HTS has exploited the presence of the brigade to make them feel that many threats lurk around them in Idlib and show them that an alliance with HTS is the only way to protect themselves. HTS has thus politically exploited this group.”

He added, “The group is believed to be close to al-Qaeda and has launched attacks against HTS and the Turkish army in the area. The brigade may be angry at the presence of the Turkish army in Idlib, which it considers an ally of Russia. This group believes that the [understandings] between Russia and the Turkish army have prevented jihadist groups [in Idlib] from targeting the Syrian regime, under the 2020 agreement reached between [President Recep Tayyib] Erdogan and [President Vladimir] Putin.”

Abu al-Walid continued, “By [arresting] the members of Abu Bakr al-Siddiq Brigade, HTS sought to portray itself as fighting terrorism and protecting the Turkish army as part of efforts to inch closer to Turkey.”

Khalil Miqdad, a Qatar-based researcher focusing on jihadist groups, told Al-Monitor, “Abu Bakr al-Siddiq Brigade’s activities remain limited. One cannot say that it is affiliated with HTS, as opponents of HTS claim. Likewise, this group is not affiliated with the Islamic State (IS) or any other faction. It is influenced by the Salafi jihadist ideology, is independent and does not follow any party.”

He added, “HTS is probably handing the brigade’s members over to Turkey because their operations targeted the Turkish forces. This group is mysterious and not much is known about it, but its presence reflects growing discontent among many groups about HTS’ policy, and we may witness the deployment of such groups fighting HTS in the future. There are many IS cells in Idlib, but HTS currently has a strong security grip.”

Omar al-Mohammed, an Idlib-based journalist close to HTS, told Al-Monitor, “This group has been active against the Turkish deployment in Idlib, and all of its operations have focused on targeting both the Turkish army and HTS. But some of its members may be spread in hideouts across Afrin, which is under the control of the [Turkish-backed Syrian] factions."

“This group is a mixture of IS and Hurras al-Din, which share animosity against HTS and the Turkish army and seek to embarrass HTS and push for a clash between the latter and the Turks,” he said.

Mohammed added, “Those claiming that Abu Bakr al-Siddiq Brigade was created by HTS are quite contradictory. How could a brigade fight HTS and kill some of its members while simultaneously being close to it. Such claims are completely rejected. The first group the brigade targeted was from HTS. Also, HTS is the one in control of Idlib and it needs to maintain public security for Idlib and its residents. Anyone who wants to destabilize Idlib is a legitimate target for HTS, which is not looking to convey any messages.”

He continued, “Based on its duty and responsibilities, HTS finds itself obliged to arrest the members of this brigade away from any political motives that HTS’ opponents are trying to promote. HTS’ decision is independent and it will not hand over anyone in the future, nor has it done so in the past. In the presence of a judicial body in Idlib, this body will be the one handling investigations and rulings. The members will neither be handed over to Turkey nor to anyone else. HTS has hundreds of IS members wanted by many international bodies, and by handing them over, it could achieve several benefits, but it just did not.”

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