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US officials challenge Turkey’s claim to have killed Islamic State leader

US officials suggest that the Syrian jihadist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham really was behind the death of Islamic State leader Abu al-Hussein al-Husseini al-Quraishi.
RAMI AL SAYED/AFP via Getty Images

LONDON/WASHINGTON — The Islamic State confirmed the death of its most recent leader, Abu al-Hussein al-Husseini al-Quraishi, on Aug. 3. The jihadist group said its self-styled “caliph” had been killed in clashes with the rival Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the al-Qaeda offshoot that is dominant in Syria’s Idlib province, and not by Turkey back in April, as Ankara previously claimed. IS said HTS, which it called "Turkey's tail," had handed his body over to Turkish intelligence in a recorded message posted on the Telegram messaging app.

Biden administration officials speaking to Al-Monitor not for attribution confirmed that the IS leader had not been slain by Turkey. “Turkey lied,” one of the officials said. One US military official phrased things more diplomatically, telling Al-Monitor this week that there was reason to doubt Turkey’s claim, adding that IS’ allegation of HTS responsibility was seen as credible.

IS said it had named Abu Hafs al-Hashimi al-Quraishi as its new leader, the fifth since the founding of the group. It did not specify when his predecessor had been killed. Typically IS does not confirm the death of its leader until the group has selected a new one. A senior US military official speaking on condition of anonymity at the Pentagon earlier this month said Washington was aware of the leadership change before it was announced.

In June, the United Nations Security Council aired members’ doubts about who was responsible.

Its committee charged with monitoring al-Qaeda and IS noted that on April 30, Turkey had reported killing its leader, “subsequently identifying him as a Syrian-born individual, holding the alias of Abdul-Latif.” It continued, “Member States could not confirm the leader’s death, with one identifying the deceased as only the security leader in the group’s Syrian branch. Some Member States dismissed the possibility of a non-Iraqi overall [IS] leader.”

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that Turkish intelligence forces had killed the IS leader after a long pursuit in Syria’s Afrin, a Kurdish-majority enclave that was occupied by Turkey in 2017. “This individual was neutralized as part of an operation by the Turkish national intelligence organization in Syria yesterday,” Erdogan told the state broadcaster TRT.

Coming only days before landmark presidential and parliamentary elections, the announcement raised many eyebrows, with members of the opposition dismissing it as yet another electoral ploy.

IS’ rebuttal has revived debate over the veracity of Erdogan's claim. It has also refocused attention on the opaque relationship between Turkey and HTS amid Ankara’s professed desire to restore relations with the Syrian government. The al-Qaeda offshoot is alongside the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces the most influential armed opposition group in Syria and is designated as a terrorist organization by the United Nations, the United States and Turkey.

'A marriage of convenience'

Turkey has an estimated 10,000 troops in Idlib, its second-largest overseas deployment after Northern Cyprus. The deployment began with a few hundred soldiers in 2017 when Turkey, Russia and Iran agreed to set up a de-escalation zone in Idlib. Turkey’s role was to monitor a cease-fire between government forces and the rebels and to weed out and disarm the more radical elements among them.

In practice, Turkish forces provide a security umbrella for HTS and its so-called “Salvation Government.” The number of Turkish forces dramatically increased since February 2020, when Russian air force jets killed at least 37 Turkish soldiers in Idlib and Syrian troops prized away territory from the rebels inside the de-escalation zone. Turkey retaliated, killing hundreds of Syrian government forces but desisted from confronting Russia directly.

Jerome Drevon is a senior analyst on Jihad and Modern Conflict at the International Crisis Group. “Any military move [against HTS] is prevented by Turkey,” he told Al-Monitor. “Turkey is the reason Idlib still exists in its current form.”

Drevon said it was highly unlikely that Turkey had killed the IS leader, not least because the group would never entrust the top job to a Syrian. IS “is a very Iraqi organization,” Drevon observed. However, it is likely that Turkey and HTS exchange information that leads to the elimination of extremist elements within the opposition ranks, he explained. “It’s a marriage of convenience.”

Orwa Ajjoub, a senior analyst at the risk assessment consultancy COAR Global who specializes in Syria and jihadism, agrees. “Cooperation between HTS and Turkey, especially regarding the security situation in northern Syria, is no secret," he told Al-Monitor. "While it is difficult to tell the nature of their information exchange and the extent to which Turkey might assist HTS in targeting IS figures, both parties view IS as a shared enemy.”

Ajjoub explained that since 2013, HTS “has undergone significant ideological shifts, distancing itself from the global jihadism ideologies of IS and al-Qaeda, respectively.” He went on, “Consequently, both IS and al-Qaeda perceive HTS as a 'murtad,' or apostate group. This perception largely stems from HTS’ divergence from IS’ interpretation of Islam, in which Turkey is seen as an infidel state.”

In IS eyes, Turkey’s defense of Idlib — and effectively of HTS — since 2017 serves as proof that “HTS has transitioned from being an adversary to acting as Turkey’s pawn,” Ajjoub added.

The group has secured a degree of stability unseen in other opposition-held areas where Turkish-supported factions are accused of massive corruption and violence amounting in some instances to war crimes against the Kurds. Most importantly, HTS serves as a gatekeeper for millions of internally displaced Syrians living in the province who would likely flood the Turkish border should the government mount a large-scale offensive.

Turkey is seized by rising anti-immigrant hysteria that is hurting Erdogan’s standing ahead of local elections in March, giving HTS leverage. Sam Heller, a Beirut-based fellow at the Century Foundation, reckons that the leverage may be overrated. “If the Turks wanted to cut off commercial traffic to the border, that would be a huge problem for HTS and the millions of people living in Idlib,” Heller told-Al-Monitor. “Turkish security forces’ violence against attempted migrants at the border has been pretty well documented. If they really wanted to seal up the border, it’s more doable than people typically assume,” he added.

Drevon argues, however, that while “you can shoot people at the border, you can’t shoot millions of people at the border.” This may explain HTS’ muted reaction in the face of Erdogan’s talk about wanting to bury the hatchet with President Bashar al-Assad. The Syrian strongman says he won’t sit down with Erdogan until all Turkish troops leave Syrian territory, in effect clearing the way for a government onslaught against Idlib.

Meanwhile, Syrian Kurdish officials are quick to point out that in its previous iteration as al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch, Jabath al-Nusra, the group fought Syrian Kurdish fighters on Ankara’s behalf. At the same time, Turkey did little to prevent thousands of foreign fighters from crossing into Syria to join IS and other jihadist groups in the early years of Syria’s civil conflict, thus earning the title of “the jihadi highway” and the ire of its Western allies.

Old dog new tricks?

Turkey has since doubled down on reversing that image, arresting hundreds of suspected IS members and busting numerous IS cells inside Turkey. In May 2022 Turkey reported the arrest of Abu al-Hassan al Hashimi al-Quraishi, the group’s third leader since its founder Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi killed himself by detonating a suicide vest during a raid conducted by US forces in 2019 on his safe house in Idlib. US officials said they could not confirm Turkey’s claim.

HTS has in parallel sought to project a more moderate stance under its leader, Abu Mohammed al-Jolani, part of a sustained bid to gain international legitimacy and to shed its terrorist designation. The group has moved against numerous extremist groups in northern Syria, allowing it in turn to consolidate its own grip. Its unabashedly iron grip over Idlib helps keep the province stable.

Killing the "caliph" would “undoubtedly enhance HTS’ reputation as a valuable ally of the international coalition against terrorism,” Ajjoub said. However, its relationship with Ankara "is paramount," hence allowing Turkey to claim Quraishi’s killing “would elevate their collaborative dynamic.”

HTS wants more than anything to strike a strategic relationship with Ankara. “They want strong economic and military ties, a real partnership,” Drevon said, adding that he believed that the group had “changed.” “They have committed to international security. They don’t carry out terrorist attacks abroad. For me there is no reason for them to be listed,” Drevon asserted.

A legitimized HTS, despite its abysmal human rights record and rigidly Islamist views, could potentially emerge as a credible actor if and when meaningful talks resume between Damascus and its opponents, its sympathizers within the Turkish bureaucracy contend.

Others go as far as to envisage an alliance between HTS and the Syrian Kurds that would pose a serious challenge to the government, forcing it to make some concessions that would lead to a more sustainable peace.

For now, though, it's more of a pipe dream. Delisting is a hugely complicated process. For example, it took 13 years for the United States’ top Iraqi Kurdish allies who share power in northern Iraq to get off the State Department’s list of terrorist organizations.

In any case the United States shows no signs of being swayed by Jolani’s purported tameness. In May, the US Treasury announced that it had designated two financial facilitators of HTS “in joint action” with Turkey.

In a recent interview with the French daily Le Figaro, former head of France’s external intelligence service Alain Chouet suggested that HTS was mainly interested in profit and power and was being aided by Turkey. “HTS has settled into a profitable economy, powered by international aid and by the Turks,” Chouet observed. “I don’t think they have any long-term plans, including jihadist ideology. You have to dress up your predatory instincts with [foils] like religion.”

That view is known to be shared by some of Turkey’s top brass who oppose any furthering of cooperation that would allow HTS to expand its control beyond Idlib to areas deemed critical to Turkey’s national security. Their wariness was in evidence in October when HTS forces moved against its rivals and entered Afrin. While Turkey did little to stop the advance — presumably to discipline its unruly Sunni allies — it then threatened HTS with airstrikes to force the group to withdraw.

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