Changing order in northeast Syria

Ahmed Kamel Al-Beheiri , Friday 25 Sep 2020

The constellation of Turkish-backed militias and jihadist organisations in northeast Syria is changing, with Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group stepping up attacks on rival groups

Turkish soldier
FILE PHOTO: A Turkish soldier walks next to a Turkish military vehicle during a joint U.S.-Turkey patrol, near Tel Abyad, Syria September 8, 2019. REUTERS

After the last Russo-Turkish agreement on arrangements in Idlib and northeastern Syria, extremist organisations, especially those affiliated with Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS) group, began to escalate attacks against Turkish and Russian targets in Syria, compelling the Turkish-backed Levant Liberation Organisation or Hayaat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) to confront them.

HTS arrested Saraj Al-Din Mukhtarov (aka Abu Salah Al-Uzbaki), commander of the terrorist Ansar Al-Din organisation, and Abu Malik Al-Tali, founder of a new faction called Liwa Al-Muqatileen Al-Ansar. If these arrests attest to anything, it is that HTS leader Abu Mohamed Al-Jolani is afraid that the newly established “So Be Steadfast” (SBS) operations group, which consists of four Al-Qaeda affiliates, is part of a conspiracy, conceived mostly in the Gulf, to pull the rug out from under his feet and also counter the Turkish-Qatari influence in Idlib.

IS has been increasing its attacks against HTS and the Qatari and Turkish order in Idlib, and fears of its attempts to penetrate Idlib prompted Al-Jolani to accept a Turkish-Qatari plan, still in the process of formation but with Russia’s approval, to redraw the map of jihadist organisations and militias in Idlib in a manner that will secure Al-Jolani’s control over other groups and preclude the encroachment of outside forces into the Turkish sphere of influence in Syria.

Since its emergence some years ago, IS has rarely been critical of the Qatari and Turkish regimes, and when it has been the criticism has been mild or indirect. In the IS publication Al-Naba, for example, it has referred to Qatar only in the context of the Gulf regimes or the Gulf order that it disapproves of.

Only recently has IS lashed out at Qatar and Turkey more directly, against the Qatari-Turkish order in Idlib, and against their roles in the region in general and their relations with the US and Iran. In his last speech, broadcast on social-networking sites in May 2020, IS Spokesman Abu Hamza Al-Qurashi said that “we have not forgotten that the Al-Udeid Airbase built by the tyrants of Qatar to host the US army was and remains a command centre for the crusader campaign against Muslims in Khorasan, Iraq, the Levant and Yemen.”

“We have not forgotten for a day that the tyrants of Qatar were the ones who planned, executed and financed the transfer of fighting factions from Iraq to the Sahwat proxies of the rejectors and crusaders [a reference to the militias of Sunni clans in Mosul and Al-Qaeda in Iraq], whose sole purpose is to kill the true believers.”

“We have not forgotten for a day that they funded the Sahwat project in Syria [non-IS militias], which they directed by means of the apostate Muslim Brotherhood and the clerics of evil at their command [a reference to preacher Yusuf Al-Qaradawi] with the collaboration of the Turkish regime in order to divert the factions’ guns from the chests of the Nusayriya [a derogatory reference to the Alawi community in Syria and the regime in Damascus] towards the backs of Muslims,” Al-Qurashi said.

On Qatar’s relationship with Iran, the IS spokesman said that “we have not forgotten for a day that the tyrants of Qatar have supported and funded the rejectionist government [the Iraqi government in Baghdad] in its war against the Sunnis and that they paid the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and the Popular Mobilisation Forces more than a billion dollars so that they could continue to slaughter Muslims, destroy their land and violate their honour in what was known at the time as a deal to hand over the city of Al-Zabadani to the Nusayriya.”

He concluded with a thinly veiled threat, saying that “we will never forget the crimes of the tyrants of the Qatari regime. Every life has its destined end.”

Putting the passages in this speech together, it is obvious that Qatar, Iran, Turkey, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Popular Mobilisation Forces in Iraq and the Houthis in Yemen now form a single axis in official IS discourse.

The Turkish regime has also been the object of vehement attacks in recent editions of Al-Naba, in which IS describes the government in Ankara as an “apostate regime” that should be fought.

Since the Al-Nusra Front split off from former IS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi and then Al-Qaeda, the hostility between Al-Jolani and IS has been intense. One side of this antagonistic relationship was voiced by Abu Mohamed Al-Adnani, a former IS spokesman, who warned Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri of Al-Jolani’s deceitfulness.

Addressing Al-Zawahiri in a recording made in May 2014 entitled “Sorry, emir of Al-Qaeda,” Al-Adnani said that “you have made yourself and your organisation a joke and a toy in the hands of a treacherous and ungrateful apprentice who renounced an allegiance that you have never seen. You have let him play with you like a child plays with a football.”

IS rhetoric has repeated this theme in recent broadsides against Al-Jolani and HTS in Al-Naba. When the Khattab Al-Shishani Brigade launched two attacks against the joint Turkish-Russian patrol force in Idlib, this was the final straw that convinced Al-Jolani to assent to the Russian-approved Turkish-Qatari plan to restructure HTS and the other Turkish-backed jihadist factions in Idlib.

The plan calls for HTS to formally dissolve itself and rebuild under a new name with new features that would make it more open to similarly minded militants, thereby permitting new alliances between HTS and other radical militias and jihadist organisations in Idlib.

Although there are two main camps within HTW towards the Turkish-Qatari proposal, the most likely scenario is that HTS (Al-Nusra Front) will announce the creation of a new organisation arising from a merger. The purpose would be to give it more room for manoeuvre and to shed the terrorist stigma that has continued to cling to it. This camp most likely includes members closer to the HTS military command, especially the leaders of brigades that recently joined the Al-Nusra Front.

To help pave the way for the makeover, a fatwa (religious ruling) by Al-Nusra Front ideologue Abu Mohamed Al-Maqdasi has been circulated on the organisation’s websites and social media stressing the importance of not becoming too attached to names that could be used to turn people against fighters, undermine their struggle and mobilise enemies against them.

Names such as Al-Qaeda and the Al-Nusra Front were “not decreed in heaven,” Al-Maqdasi said, and they should be subordinated to the fighters’ tactics, especially if a name becomes an obstacle or an invitation to attack the group’s members. In such cases, changing the name is not a form of treachery or compromise, but rather a necessity, and the fatwa is one of the strongest arguments cited by the HTS faction in favour of renaming and restructuring the HTS.

The entire constellation of Turkish-backed militias and jihadist organisations in Idlib have entered a phase of sweeping change. How Al-Jolani’s HTS handles this will not only affect its internal cohesion, but will also and more importantly change its position in the map of terrorist organisations in Idlib.

That map may shift radically in the event of continued internal disputes and indecisiveness, especially at a time when IS is pushing to enter Idlib and increasing its attacks against Turkish forces there and the Turkish-Qatari role in the region as a whole.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 September, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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