Rivalry between HTS and Hurras al-Din in Idlib: From Ideological Partnership to Animosity
Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) (Organization for the Liberation of the Levant) and Hurras al-Din (Guardians of Religion) are two effective organizations in Idlib that are important not only with respect to the Syrian crisis, but also in terms of the regional and international security. The main reason for this is that both organizations are effective in the province of Idlib. One of the most critical issues to resolve the Syrian crisis is the Idlib question. The other point that makes the two organizations important is the fact that one carried the flag of al-Qaeda in the past, while the other is still carrying that flag in Syria. These organizations, which were ideological partners before and were fighting under the same roof, have entered an escalating rivalry and a hot conflict process in 2020.
The core al-Qaeda elements of HTS broke up with HTS by arguing that HTS had moved away from the al-Qaeda ideology and had taken pragmatic steps in line with the agreements signed within the framework of the Astana process, and established Hurras al-Din on 27th February 2018. HTS has regarded Hurras al-Din as a threat since its inception and has tried to dissolve this organization because Hurras al-Din has the power to pick militants from HTS. There were many armed clashes between the parties, which eventually ended in a ceasefire. Until the last and major conflict on 3rd June 2020, there had been a tense relationship between the two sides on account of small clashes and mutual arrests.
Criticism by Hurras al-Din of HTS can be gathered under the following topics:
1. HTS accepts and implements the Sochi Agreement and prevents the opposition from starting a war against the regime.
2. HTS does not attack Russian patrols but ensures the security of the patrol mission.
3. Some ISIS militants have been handed over to the International Coalition.
4. HTS is part of international efforts aimed at eliminating Hurras al-Din.
Accusations by HTS against Hurras al-Din are as follows:
1. HTS declares Hurras al-Din to be a “non-believer” organization.
2. Hurras al-Din causes division within HTS and encourages HTS members to join Hurras al-Din.
3. Hurras al-Din hosts all radical militants and gives room for them.
4. Hurras al-Din provides movement area for the ISIS cells in Idlib and facilitates their actions.
Relations between the parties have become more tense with each passing day because of the statements by the leading personalities of the two organizations and the mutual accusations through the media, and eventually, the first major conflict emerged in June 2020.
Causes of Conflict and Conflict Process
The Ansar al-Tawhid group announced its establishment on 3rd May 2020. Shortly thereafter, on 23rd June 2020, Hurras al-Din announced the creation of a new operation room called "Fesbutu" consisting of Ansar al-Din Front, Ansar al-Islam, al-Jihad Coordination (militants that seceded from HTS under the leadership of Abu al-Abd Ashidaa), al-Muqatileen al-Ansar Brigade (militants that seceded from HTS under the leadership of Jamal Zayneye, nicknamed as Abu Malik al-Talli) and Hurras al-Din.
There were some problems going back a long way between HTS's leader, al-Jolani, and Abu Malik al-Talli. Abu Malik al-Talli received USD 8 million in exchange for releasing the captive soldiers of the Lebanese army while he was the commander of the al-Nusra Front (former name of HTS) in Qalamoun, but the money was not delivered to the leadership of the al-Nusra Front. Moreover, Al-Talli continued fighting with the regime forces at a time when he was required to stop fighting in accordance with a decision taken in respect thereof. However, an agreement was reached later between HTS's leader, al-Jolani, and Abu Malik al-Talli. This agreement required that al-Talli would not join Hurras al-Din or form a new organization. Hence, HTS arrested al-Talli as soon as he declared that he had joined the operation room "Fesbutu". Two days before this, HTS had also arrested Abu Salah al-Uzbeki, one of the commanders of the Fesbutu Operation Room who was wanted by Interpol for being responsible for the bombing in Russia.
Hurras al-Din made a statement on behalf of the Fesbutu Operation Room and gave an ultimatum to HTS to release al-Uzbeki and al-Talli. Two days after HTS failed to respond to the warning, the Fesbutu Operation Room began to set up a barricade near Arab Saeed, a small village west of Idlib. In the meantime, Hurras al-Din arrested dozens of HTS members. HTS reciprocated by blocking the roads to the village of Arab Saeed with barricades.
HTS tried to give the following message to Turkey and the international community as an exit strategy in the face of Turkey's pressure on it to abide by agreements: "HTS is the only force that can provide the security of the Turkish-Russian joint patrol, disband extremist groups and prevent their provocative actions against the regime". HTS raided in this regard the headquarters of Hurras al-Din on 24th June 2020 and arrested dozens of their members. Hurras al-Din reached the Central Prison west of Idlib and managed to control the al-Kunsura plant, al-A'laf checkpoint and the entire village of Arab Saeed in retaliation for this action. HTS needed a few days to recover from this shock. The next day, HTS deployed its forces and strove to retake the checkpoints, and besieged the village of Arab Saeed and attacked there with mortar shells and tanks. Consequently, one of the commanders of Hurras al-Din, Abu Zaid Al-Urduni, was killed while HTS lost three militants. Clashes intensified further with the resistance of Hurras al-Din. The rivalry proceeded to a new phase with the expansion of clashes to the areas where members of the Fesbutu Operation Room were located and due to the fight over the al-Yaqubiyya checkpoint.
Madrasah students and some opposition groups started to take steps towards peace as the clashes were continuing, and owing to these initiatives, the Fesbutu Operation Room declared that the clashes had stopped. The statement by the "Damascus Soldiers" led by Muslim al-Shishani and the "Caucasian Soldiers" led by Abdul Malik al-Shishani stated that "they were ready to end the conflict between the two sides and prevent the shedding of Muslim blood". A 24-hour ceasefire was declared following these attempts and then an agreement was made.
The parties agreed on the condition that the Fesbutu Operation Room would evacuate the military and security checkpoints and withdraw its forces. The Fesbutu Operation Room also agreed to draw back its all militants from the village of Arab Saeed under the assurance of the "Damascus soldiers" and the "Caucasian soldiers". According to the Agreement made, all fifty Hurras al-Din militants left the village of Arab Saeed, except those from the village. Hurras al-Din centres in Arab Saeed were also handed over to HTS.
Soon after signing the agreement, HTS raided several centres of Ansar al-Din and the settlements north of Jisr al-Shughur, such as al-Janudiyya, al-Yaqubiyya and Armanaz, targeting Hurras al-Din and Ansar al-Islam. HTS legitimized these operations by arguing that "the agreement signed was only comprising the village of Arab Saeed, not other regions". HTS arrested the militants of the Fesbutu Operation Room as part of the operations, and thus violated, in essence, the agreement. HTS also raided the al-Jihad Coordination Centre led by Abu al-Abd, and arrested the militants in the Centre, seized all ammunition, besieged the checkpoints of the Coordination, and had them evacuated. Moreover, HTS besieged the house where Abu al-Abd was staying and wanted him to surrender, but he managed to escape.
The following stand out when we reciprocally look at the strengths and weaknesses of the two organizations:
Strengths of HTS
1. HTS has heavy weapons, armoured vehicles, tanks, and armoured personnel carriers.
2. It possesses economic opportunities that enable it to continue a conflict for a long time.
3. It has field control and is widely spread over the geographical area.
4. It has a strong leader / leadership and the militants display high loyalty to the leader.
5. It has media power and thus was able to mislead the Idlib public opinion that Hurras al-Din was violating the agreements and corrupting in the areas liberated.
Weaknesses of HTS
1. At least half of HTS militants have refused to fight against Hurras al-Din.
2. HTS is perceived as an organization that follows the instructions of the international community and Turkey.
3. The conflict between HTS and Hurras al-Din coincided with the assassination of the Hurras al-Din leaders by the US.
4. HTS broke the truce after the Fesbutu Operation Room had accepted the attempts to reach a compromise. This was indeed one of the key reasons why a considerable part of HTS militants refrained from conflicting with Hurras al-Din.
Strengths of Hurras al-Din
1. Hurras al-Din does not disown its arrested militants and intra-organizational solidarity is strong.
2. Militants of Hurras al-Din have got the motivation to fight to their last breath with a strong belief in martyrdom.
3. It has military experience and is capable of showing flexibility in manoeuvres and to withdraw when necessary.
4. It has influence over extremist militants in HTS and is able to convince them not to join battle. As an example, we can cite the refusal by Abdul Rahman bin Awf, a militant fraction affiliated to HTS, to participate in conflicts.
Weaknesses of Hurras al-Din
1. It has neither heavy weapons nor economic opportunities enabling it to continue the war.
2. Local commanders in the settlements controlled by Hurras al-Din did not want war in their own regions; hence they opted for signing agreements with HTS. The transfer of the settlements near the Turkish border, i.e. Haram, Koko and Armanaz, to HTS through agreements can be cited as an example in this regard.
3. It follows a jihadist ideology, its objectives contradict the interests of the Syrian revolution, and it considers itself an international organization.
Cost of the Conflicts
The clashes ended at least in the village of Arab Saeed after an agreement was inked between the parties. The parties agreed that the Arab Saeed people would stay at their homes and the Hurras al-Din's quarters in the village would be closed.
The biggest loss of Hurras al-Din was indeed the closure or damage of its quarters in Haram, Arab Saeed, Al-Yaqubiyya, Armanaz and Koko. Moreover, Hurras al-Din had to return the heavy weapons it had seized from HTS. It also failed to rescue Abu Malik al-Talli and Abu Salah al-Uzbeki, who were the reason for starting the war, from the hands of HTS. Lastly, mention should be made that Hurras al-Din remained limited to a narrow geographical area.
Looking at the outcome of the HTS-Hurras al-Din conflict, we can make an assessment that HTS has the edge over Hurras al-Din in terms of military strength. Nevertheless, it seems that HTS has failed to achieve its goals when looking at the essence of the matter. Because arresting all the leading staff of Hurras al-Din and getting the centres and military points of Hurras al-Din in some critical locations under control were HTS's primary objectives. The Hurras al-Din leaders of note continue their activities and the organization maintains its important centres.
Scenarios for the Future of Rivalry between HTS and Hurras al-Din
The relationship between HTS and Hurras al-Din based on mutual threat perception will continue although conflicts between them have been halted for now. The balance of power is in favour of HTS in the fight between the parties. HTS will continue its fight against Hurras al-Din because this organization poses a threat to HTS and to deliver a massage to the international community that "it can be a tool in fighting the radicals". Three different methods can be followed in the fight of HTS against Hurras al-Din.
The first option is that HTS dissolves Hurras al-Din and purges its leading staff of by infiltrating the regions of that organization. The materialization rate of this scenario is low because militants of Hurras al-Din are extremely devout and motivated, and the leadership of the organization attaches particular importance to privacy and takes high security measures.
The second scenario is that HTS unleashes a wide-scale military operation aimed at eliminating Hurras al-Din after pulling it into areas with no civilian settlement. This scenario has a higher probability rate compared to the first one. However, its probability is still not sufficiently high due to the fact that HTS is seen as "the police of the international community and Turkey," it is difficult to limit Hurras al-Din to a geographical region, and Hurras al-Din can significantly harm HTS even though not able to defeat HTS, as it is strong in terms of combativeness.
The final scenario is that HTS continues to raid the regions of Hurras al-Din and follows a strategy that aims at weakening / eliminating Hurras al-Din over time. In this context, HTS can restrict Hurras al-Din over time by small-scale conflicts, arresting the second- and third-degree militants of Hurras al-Din and putting economic pressure on it. Considering the course of rivalry between HTS and Hurras al-Din, we can say that this scenario is most likely to be realized. Reasons for this are as follows:
1. It is the scenario in which the risk of conflict and the loss of militants is minimal. HTS will prefer this scenario.
2. HTS will be able to avoid mediation attempts of mediators, sheikhs, and dissidents to halt clashes.
If we look from the viewpoint of Hurras al-Din, there seems to be only one viable strategy. Hurras al-Din will build a fortification in a geographically rugged terrain and conduct assassinations against the HTS leaders. Al-Jolani will be the primary target of Hurras al-Din because eliminating al-Jolani may bring about the dissolution of HTS.
When we observe the relationship among themselves, we see that organizations with "Salafi jihadist" ideologies often compete and fight against each other. Conflicts among Salafi jihadist groups in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, and Syria are clear examples of this reality. Despite some changes made by HTS in its own organization and its ideological transformation, some of its militants are still extremist, a situation which would trigger more clashes with other dissident Syrian groups in the Idlib region.