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How Zawahiri's death affects Syrian opposition factions

Hayat Tahrir al-Sham did not issue an official statement regarding Ayman al-Zawahiri’s death, although some if the group's leaders expressed condolences on Telegram.
A frame grab from a videotape aired Aug. 5, 2006, on the Qatar-based Al Jazeera television network.

The US killing of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri by drone strike in Afghanistan has evoked expressions of support in areas of Syria's Idlib province under the control of the jihadist group Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS).

On July 31, US President Joe Biden announced Zawahiri's killing in a US raid in Kabul.

Speaking from the White House on Aug. 1, Biden said that the intelligence services had located Zawahiri earlier this year, noting that no one from Zawahiri's family or other civilians had been injured in the raid. He pointed out that Zawahiri had been the mastermind of attacks against Americans for decades, and Afghanistan would never again become a safe haven for terrorists.

Although HTS did not issue an official statement regarding Zawahiri’s death, some of its religious leaders offered condolences on their Telegram channels. Abdul Rahim Atoun (Abu Abdullah al-Shami) wrote, “May God have mercy on Sheikh Ayman al-Zawahiri and accept him, raise his rank among the Mahdis and grant him access to paradise with the prophets, the truthful ones, the martyrs and the righteous.”

Abdel Rahman al-Idrisi, an HTS Tunisian security leader, wrote on his Telegram channel, “Dear God, accept Sheikh Ayman al-Zawahiri and regale him with the prophets, friends and martyrs; a mountain of steadfastness and sacrifice that history will always remember, generation after generation.”

Abu Maria al-Qahtani, a prominent HTS leader, also took to Telegram to praise Zawahiri's courage and his sacrifices for the sake of religion.

An on-the-ground reporter from Idlib who wishes to remain anonymous told Al-Monitor that some jihad members set up a wake for Zawahiri and that many jihad figures believe he is a martyr who died for the sake of his religion.

However, the population in Idlib did not react to Zawahiri’s killing as much as it did to the killing of the Islamic State’s (IS) Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in 2019.

Omar Salem, a civilian living in Idlib, told Al-Monitor, “This news does not mean anything to us in Syria. People die here every day. I do not care about what is happening outside Syria. We have enough to worry about at home.”

Yasser Awad, a university student in Idlib, told Al-Monitor, “I read the news about Zawahiri’s killing on social media, and I sympathized with him because he supported the revolution in Syria and supported our fight against the Syrian regime.”

Several Telegram channels and WhatsApp groups in opposition areas in Syria sympathize with Zawahiri and believe he died defending Islam. Some said he had always supported the Syrian revolution and called on different factions to unite. Others believed he harmed the revolution by supporting Jabhat al-Nusra (Jabhat Fatah al-Sham), so they did not regret his death.

Abu Khaled al-Hamwi, a leader living in Idlib who is close to al-Qaeda, told Al-Monitor, “There is no organization in Syria called al-Qaeda, but there are people who were with al-Qaeda and had a jihadist ideology. One cannot say Zawahiri’s killing affects the situation here because there is no organization in Idlib under his command. Some people certainly sympathized with him and mourned his death, but I do not think that al-Qaeda will have a presence in Syria in the future.”

Meanwhile, Farouk Abu Bakr, a leader of the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) who lives in the northern countryside of Aleppo, told Al-Monitor, “Al-Qaeda affected the Syrian revolution negatively, as Western countries prepared and formed an international coalition to fight it, while these countries were supposed to support the revolution against the regime.”

He added, “Al-Qaeda managed to attract many young people who were fascinated by its project, and this was a loss for the revolution. Had Zawahiri been killed during the days of Jabhat al-Nusra, the FSA would have greatly reacted to his killing, as he supported the FSA’s enemy.”

Abu Bakr noted, “Zawahiri had contacted HTS’s Abu Mohammed al-Golani, calling on him to unite with other factions, but Golani is arrogant and he ignored that call. Some youth from the revolutionary factions believe Zawahiri had it coming, especially since he once praised IS and was sending letters glorifying Baghdadi.”

Hassan al-Daghim, a prominent FSA religious leader who resides in Turkey, told Al-Monitor that the killing of Zawahiri and Qasem Soleimani is not regrettable since they are responsible for major bloodshed.

Because of them, many people’s hopes were shattered, Daghim said, noting that they misinterpreted Islam and the Prophet’s words, enticing youth to be cruel, violent fighters.

Muhammed Elsukkeri, a researcher residing in Turkey, told Al-Monitor, “The remnants of al-Qaeda are still present in Syria, and HTS is fighting this. HTS wants to show that it has cut its ties to its past and left jihadism behind. Meanwhile, some opposition factions are pleased because Zawahiri supported the jihadist movement in Syria, which is an opponent of the Islamic movement represented by some FSA factions.”

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