Tahrir al-Sham's 'Syrianisation' causes war of words with Nusra

Tahrir al-Sham's 'Syrianisation' causes war of words with Nusra
Comment: A series of tweets by HTS commander Atrash called on rebel groups to dissolve and join an opposition interim government, angering many hardliners, writes Mona Alami.
4 min read
08 Jun, 2017
Rebel fighters of the Tahrir al-Sham alliance in the central Syrian province of Hama [AFP]

Fresh debate among members of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) on the issue of the Syrian interim government has triggered a wave of criticism from former hardliner members, such as HTS' mother organisation, the Nusra Front.

The debate attests to the swift evolution and the "Syrianisation" of al-Qaeda's former subsidiary, positioned as an unavoidable player on the northern war theatre.   

When the Nusra Front (JN) decoupled from al-Qaeda last August, rebranding itself as Jabhat Fateh Sham, and then as HTS, contenders called it a hoax. Yet various indicators showed otherwise, as underscored in this article published at the time.

Last week, a comment by the HTS commander Houssam Atrash, previously affiliated to the Zinki Brigade, was decried by jihadists as "apostasy". In a series of tweets, Atrash called on rebel groups including HTS to dissolve and join an opposition interim government that would rule over rebel areas.

The tweets were vehemently criticised by former members of HTS' mother organisation JN, who defected when the group broke from Qaeda. Such was the case of Jordanian Jihadists Abou Khadija, Abu Juleibib and Dr Sami Uraydi.

According to a telegram page called Wareeth Zarqawi, posting the writings of Qaeda and Nusra ideologues, relations between former Nusra hardliners and HTS soured to the point that the organisation is prosecuting Abou Khadija and Abou Juleibib.

Atrash's statements are unprecedented because they clash with HTS' hardliner belief in an Islamic Sharia form of government

The telegram channel also published a piece by Dr Uraydi, an influential cleric within the former JN, condemning HTS' mute response to Atrash's statement. On its telegram page HTS underlined that Atrash statement was an "individual opinion".

Dr Uraydi denounced his "brother's" reaction in reference to HTS military commander Mohamad Joulani and HTS member Sheikh Abdel Rahim Attoun, adding that in a previous discussion with both men, Joulani said when asked what he would do if new members of HTS endorsed a democratic form of government, that "he would kill anyone who advanced such a proposal".

  Read more: Nusra-vs-IS: Jolani reaps the fruits of Baghdadi's jihadist bandwagon

Uraydi argued that either Joulani had changed his mind, or had lost control over his organisation. In addition, al-Qaeda ideologue Sheikh Mohamad Maqdessi condemned HTS' response to Atrash as shameful, labelling the latter's statement as apostate.

For Sheikh Hassan Dghaim, a veteran of the Syrian Islamic scene, Atrash's statements are unprecedented because they clash with HTS' hardliner belief in an Islamic Sharia form of government. "This statement is also coming from a high commander within HTS", adds the cleric.

The spat between HTS and its former members is the latest in a long series of controversies and disagreements. Two months ago, al-Qaeda's propaganda arm, As Sahab, released an audio message by Zawahiri. In his message, posted by the Long War Journal, Zawahiri warned that the Syrian war shouldn't be considered an exclusively "nationalist" effort, because this is what the Sunni jihadists' enemies want.

In another statement, Sheikh Maqdissi also indirectly criticised HTS for "diluting" the Syrian jihadi cause.  

Islamic clerics attribute the growing rift between former Nusra hardliners and realists, to the progressive "syrianisation" of JN into HTS.  

HTS has been increasingly embracing an all-Syrian brand and nationalistic agenda

Sheikh Ramy Dalati, another veteran of the Syrian Islamic scene concurs: "HTS leadership is now mostly comprised of Syrians", contrary to Nusra, which was previously dominated by foreigners, including many Jordanians. Dalati emphasises that HTS has been increasingly embracing an all-Syrian brand and nationalistic agenda, one that undoubtedly clashed with al-Qaeda's international jihadist ideology.

"HTS cannot be compared anymore to Nusra, no doubt there are radical changes within the group. The hardliners such as Uraydi who defected are in competition with Joulani. HTS is endorsing a more moderate and nationalistic agenda. I believe the moderates will win, and more HTS hardliners will be leaving the organisation," predicts Sheikh Dghaim.

Mona Alami a non-resident fellow with the Atlantic council covering Middle East politics with a special interest in radical organizations. Follow her on Twitter: @monaalami

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.