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Syrian jihadist group in Idlib purges hard-liners

A prominent Egyptian resigned from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham’s Shura Council as the group sidelines hard-line members.
OMAR HAJ KADOUR/AFP via Getty Images

Egyptian Abu al-Fath al-Farghali, a prominent Hayat Tahrir al-Sham hard-liner, resigned via Telegram from the group’s Shura Council.

As a religious scholar on the council, Farghali issued a fatwa calling on HTS members to kill anyone associated with the Free Syrian Army-affiliated National Front’s factions, according to a leaked 2018 recording. Giving instructions to HTS’ fighters, Farghali was heard to say, “Kill whoever is fighting," "Kill them in support of your religion," and "Kill them even if they are withdrawing.”

An HTS source who declined to be named told Al-Monitor, “Farghali was dismissed from his post in the religious council due to his intransigence. The decision to dismiss him was made after he rejected the leadership’s decision to transfer him to another position within HTS. HTS’ goal behind the decision to dismiss him is to prevent the internal divide or instability that Farghali was creating.” 

The source added, “Farghali may go to Turkey or stay in Idlib, because he cannot go to the northern countryside, which is held by the Syrian National Army’s factions, against whom he issued the fatwa.”

Oqba Salloum, an Idlib-based close associate of HTS’ senior leadership, told Al-Monitor, “There are many reasons pushed HTS to dismiss Farghali, most notably his accusation that HTS deviated from its Islamic approach. He contacted HTS leader Abu Mohammad al-Golani and told him about a change in the curriculum that is being taught to new recruits. He is against the religious curriculum that HTS is teaching its members and considers it no longer in line with HTS’ founding principles. Other leading figures of the Shura Council, such as al-Zubair al-Ghazi, a Palestinian, will also be dismissed.”

Salloum added, “It is unlikely that Farghali and other dismissed figures will create their own group, because HTS issued a circular saying that no military entity shall be established in its stronghold and that it will use military force against it if attempted. HTS has no hard-liners who would be angered at the dismissal of these religious scholars.”

Mohammed Omar, an Idlib-based journalist close to HTS, told Al-Monitor, “Farghali left HTS’ religious council but he did not leave HTS as a whole, which means that he is still an HTS member. HTS is serving today as an institutional state, which means that the departure of any person, regardless of his position, will not have consequences. HTS does not dismiss any member unless he refuses to abide by its institutional decisions. There are no wings or movements within HTS. HTS is a unified body and has a clear vision to which all leaders and members are committed. Any decision to dismiss a person issued by the Shura Council is binding to everyone.” 

Sweden-based researcher Orwa Ajjoub told Al-Monitor, “Farghali’s exit was no surprise to the observers following the Syrian file. This development is part of a wide effort to get rid of the hard-line wing within the organization. The Egyptian wing in particular lost its last well-known men in the organization after the dismissal of Abu Yaqzan al-Masri and Abu Shuaib al-Masri for the same reason, which is their lack of commitment to HTS’ policy. Although Farghali did not publicly criticize HTS, he expressed dissatisfaction with its behavior in private meetings and on closed Telegram channels. He criticized HTS’ approach in accepting new fighters in particular, which in his opinion involves major Sharia violations.”

He added, “When looking at HTS’ foreign fighters, we will find that with the exception of leading figure Abu Maria al-Qahtani, foreigners do not have a role in the decision-making. Most foreigners today do not have the authority to change HTS’ behavior. But it does not matter whether they are Syrians or foreigners when it comes to control over the religious sphere in Idlib. There is no doubt that Farghali and other foreign members, especially the scholars, played an important role in consolidating HTS’ rule, but things are different today. HTS is dealing with Turkey, and there is no place for those who oppose Golani’s pragmatism, whether they provided the group with support in the past or are doing so now. They have become a burden. It is difficult for anyone to form a jihadist group today in Idlib given HTS’ security grip.”

Firas Faham, a researcher at the Jusoor Center for Studies and Development, told Al-Monitor, “HTS has abandoned Farghali and will abandon others similar to him because these figures have become a problem for HTS at this stage. HTS is now focusing on communicating with other factions and presenting a different image. Farghali was not a leader of the first rank. He may be seen as a leader of the third rank, and a media figure that HTS used in the fight against the factions previously.”

He added, “HTS is cohesive today and does not include any radical movements or wings. Its strength is founded on an authoritarian, interest-based basis, not on a systematic thought as was the case before, and which was represented by its ideological movement. There are no longer any objections to the leadership’s policy and pragmatic behavior by any of its members or leaders.”

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