Northwest Syria is being engulfed by renewed tensions following renewed clashes between the Jihadi formations of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the most powerful in the region, and the newly formed alliance led by Al-Qaeda affiliated Guardians of Religion (Hurras al-Din) and an HTS defector Jamal Zeina.
All this, within an already complicated scenario of Syria’s civil war, which has been raging since 2011 and which pits the regime of President Bachar al-Asad against the insurgents under siege in the last stronghold of Idlib province, in northwest Syria. The official power justifies the military action to finish with the resistant jihadist groups in Idlib and to unify the country, with the invaluable aid of its main ally in the international plane, the Russia of Vladimir Putin.
Facing this Russian-Syrian coalition is Turkey. The Eurasian nation intervenes in the Syrian armed conflict through its powerful army and with the support of paid mercenaries from those terrorist groups active in the area linked to Al-Qaeda and Daesh, as various media have been publishing.
The country presided over by Recep Tayyip Erdogan made an incursion into northern Syrian territory under the pretext of harassing the Kurds, an ethnic group that it accuses of carrying out terrorist actions in southern Turkey. After reaching an agreement with the United States government led by Donald Trump, Turkish forces positioned themselves in bases in northern Syria, around Idlib, to control the area and demanding that the Kurds-Syrians leave.
A controversial move because the U.S. was accused of abandoning to their fate the Kurds of the People’s Protection Units (YPG, for its acronym in Turkish), included in the opposing Democratic Forces of Syria (DFS), which were key in the defeat of Daesh in Al-Baghouz more than a year ago.
The aforementioned organisation, Guardians of Religion, emerged from several battalions and military groups that had adopted the ideology of Al-Qaeda jihadism and Salafism (a rigid current of Islam). It was formed after the al-Nusra Front announced its dissociation from Al-Qaida, changing its name to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham and subsequently merging with factions and other entities within Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.
This Ottoman incursion makes Damascus and Moscow uncomfortable, since it is a brake on their advance towards Idlib; even more so when one takes into account the Turkish association with Syrian militiamen attached to groups of the jihadist sphere. In fact, in the face of the bitter situation, Ankara and Moscow went so far as to seal a ceasefire in March which, in theory, is still in force, but which has been broken on several occasions. In a situation like the present one, both Russia and Turkey maintain their checkpoints and practically joint patrols in the area.
This transformation was accompanied by a methodological and ideological renewal of the leadership of the group, which had been part of the al-Nusra Front, leading to serious internal conflicts. The most significant result of all this was the formation of the group Guardians of Religion as an Al-Qaeda affiliated faction fighting on Syrian soil.
Like other groups, the Guardians of Religion is internally divided along several lines, two of which are the most prominent. The first of these is the Levantine current, which has power within the organization and has been led by Jordanians such as Abu al-Qassam al-Askari, Bilal Khreisat and Sami al-Aridi, as well as others who were killed, including Iyad al-Toubasi (known as Abu Julaybib), Abu Khallad al-Muhandis and Faruq al-Suri. Their leaders intend to contain hostilities while trying to follow the Al-Qaida approach, while avoiding confrontations with other armed actors in Idlib, especially HTS. Although most of the leadership of this current is not Syrian, Syrian elements are represented in all positions and no decisions are made without their approval, as explained by the Royal Institute of International Affairs Chatham House, an entity related to international politics based in London.
The Levantine current is known for its hostility towards Daesh, who murdered some of its leaders, and has been joining forces with HTS to combat the spread of the rival terrorist group, as Chatham House reports.
It avoids clashes with Syrian rebel factions while distancing itself from any conflict between them and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. It also rejects any kind of internal struggle, seeking instead to fight alongside the rebel factions against the regime.
Its leaders are strongly opposed to the Turkish presence in northern Syria: Erdogan’s intervention was, in fact, one of the main reasons for the emergence of this trend. However, he has not launched campaigns against the Turkish army, considering that Turkey is an ally for the Syrian insurgent cause outside the Al-Asad regime, as analyst Sultan al-Kanj points out.
The second faction is the Egyptian and North African current, which is composed of administrative and military cadres and follows Sharia law. It launches criticisms against opponents inside and outside the organisation that reflect its practical aim of spreading its ideology and agenda by force. The leaders of the organization who split to form the Egyptian and North African current accuse the Levantine current of submitting to HTS.
Several of their leaders were killed, while others were arrested or persecuted by HTS forces who accused them of excessive radicalisation and collaboration with Daesh, as Al-Kanj points out.
This trend is leaning towards religious extremism to a greater degree than the first trend. It seeks to implement Sharia law and fight anyone who stands in the way while attracting those aligned with Daesh’s ideology. However, its influence has diminished in recent months with Al-Qaeda’s endorsement of the Levantine current as its most faithful power in Syria. Al-Qaeda has called on all dissident parties to join the Jordanian-led current and renounce the fanaticism that has emerged in the fragmentation of the organisation, as recorded by the Royal Institute of International Affairs at Chatham House.
The fact that there are few Syrians within the Egyptian and North African mainstream has led to a loss of legitimacy. Its ranks are drawn from cadres who reject Jordanians, cadres who have defected from Daesh, and HTS leaders who oppose the group’s policies.
Many of the leaders of the North African stream have shifted their positions to support the Jordanians at the head of the Guardians of Religion group to promote unity among all factions and advance the cause of jihad.
HTS prefers to deal and coordinate with the Levantine current, which is more flexible in its interactions with other jihadi groups. There are several reasons for this flexibility, including, most importantly, the weak military position, as well as the desire to preserve what remains of the ideological and methodological ties that Jordanians shared with HTS before its restructuring. It was the latter that led dissident Jordanians to form Guardians of Religion in the first place.
Hayat Tahrir al-Sham seeks to strengthen the Levantine current at the expense of its North African counterpart, which can be done peacefully by attracting Egyptian and North African cadres. However, he faces a great difficulty in convincing these cadres to join forces with HTS since, in his view, the organisation has become oriented towards Turkey while moving towards secularism, which amounts to a betrayal of the jihadist cause, as Al-Kanj explains.
Currently, HTS is taking a pragmatic approach to this trend specifically and to the Guardians of Religion organization more generally in order to attract or further align its fighters with its current approach. It does not want to abandon the organization’s jihadi military cadres, who can be used in the ranks of its own military division. Rather, he wants to lead them into a more moderate and intellectually mature jihadi current.
Meanwhile, recent clashes between different rebel factions have left about ten people dead in fighting between Jihadist groups in northwest Syria. On Wednesday, up to ten people were killed in fighting between radical groups in the province of Idlib, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), amid the increase in the aforementioned tensions between the different radical groups present in this area of the country.
The SOHR, based in London and a wide network of observers in the Arab country, said that five men from Hurras al-Din or Guardians of Religion, the current affiliate of Al-Qaeda in Syria, and four members of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the most important of the groups operating in the province, were killed in the clashes.
HTS continues its efforts to reinforce its positions and checkpoints around the city of Idlib, the capital of the province, while further fighting has broken out between the group and rival factions.
The incidents came a few days after HTS arrested one of its former commanders after he defected to lead a new armed group after rejecting the ceasefire announced in March by Russia and Turkey for Idlib province. This figure is Commander Jamal Zeina, alias Abu Malek al-Talli, who was arrested in the city of Idlib on the orders of HTS leader Abu Mohamed al-Golani.
Al-Talli, who led for a time the activities of the former al-Nusra Front, a former affiliate of al-Qaida in Syria, left HTS in April and formed a new jihadist group that aligned itself with Hurras al-Din, which was created by hard-line dissidents of al-Golani’s group. Hurras al-Din has at times cooperated with HTS, although they are at odds.
Before defecting from HTS, the insurgent expressed his refusal to accept the ceasefire agreement announced on 5 March by Moscow and Ankara that was aimed at ending hostilities in Idlib. An agreement which, as mentioned, still stands, albeit with occasional violations.
The province of Idlib and the city of Aleppo are currently in the hands of these armed groups, HTS being the most important. It is the last remaining bastion resisting the attacks of Bachar al-Asad’s forces, supported by Russian military elements.