Recently the analyst Charles Lister wrote on Twitter that he has been told he is on the 'hit-list' of Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham, which is currently the main insurgent group in Idlib and its environs.
Lister mentioned this claim in part to rebut the frequent attacks on him as a 'pro-jihadi' analyst and apologist for Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham. The critics partly seized on Lister's comments that Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham is evolving "into a more politically mature and intelligent jihadist movement."
As it happens, the attacks on him in this regard are very unfair. In reality, many supporters of Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham strongly dislike Lister because they see him as a purveyor of unreliable information.
But is Lister really on Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham's 'hit-list'? This is a serious matter that merits scrutiny and a response from Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham. Indeed, I asked Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham's media contact director to respond to this allegation and I will present this response below.
In my view, Lister is definitely not on some 'hit-list' of the group. After all, Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham has so many other more important things to care about: the humanitarian and services situation in the wider northwest, the fierce military campaign in south Idlib in particular. Why would the organization concern itself with assassinating an external analyst who has no demonstrable impact on events on the ground? As noted above, many supporters of Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham dislike Lister because they think he relies on bad sources and does not convey an accurate picture of events on the ground. This is not the same as being on an organization's 'hit-list'.
Besides, it would not be in Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham's interest to assassinate Lister- a point that ties in with some of the broader debate about the group's evolution over time. There is a misconception of Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham as a clandestine organization shying away from engagement with international media and external analysts. On the contrary, the group wants to convey its perspectives to international media and external analysts, and is even happy to invite them into Idlib for visits and meetings. This approach fits in with Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham's desire to be accepted as a legitimate actor that the international community should engage with, rather than being seen as merely some al-Qa'ida affiliate under a new name. By contrast, one will not find the same willingness to engage outsiders from the likes of Hurras al-Din (the main al-Qa'ida-loyalist faction in the northwest) and the Turkestan Islamic Party, an Uyghur-led group that is an important ally of Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham.
In terms of policy, I do think there needs to be more honesty in the debate about addressing the Idlib situation. Any talk of 'saving Idlib' (i.e. keeping the greater part of the region out of Damascus' control for the foreseeable future) actually means reaching an accommodation with Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham .This point, which ought to be openly admitted by those who wish to make the case, should have been evident a while ago. Indeed, it became all the more apparent when it became clear that Turkey did not want to fight the group as it began setting up military observation posts in the northwest as part of Turkey's desire to enforce 'de-escalation' in the region. The setting up of those posts was mostly done in cooperation with Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham.
Anyway, below is the exclusive full response that Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham's media contact director Taqi al-Din Omar provided to me regarding the allegation that Lister is on Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham's 'hit-list'. In short he denies this claim and makes the same point I highlighted above about Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham's willingness for engagement with international media and external analysts. Any parenthetical insertions in square brackets are my own.
"In truth, when I read Charles' tweets I was very surprised for reasons I will mention subsequently. So I contacted him personally and denied to him the matter out of surprise. So he said: he had not been threatened personally [here Taqi al-Din Omar quotes Lister's original English]- 'I have not been threatened personally'- but there are people in contact with him in Idlib and he trusts them. They told him that his name is on the list, and the like.
Why was I surprised by his words? Because this matter is not of the etiquette of 'Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham', and this is what I told Charles. For we have not done such things with another person before him, and he is not a target for us. Then I asked him: why would we- 'the Hay'a'- put you on the list? Praise be to God, we are people of a just cause and we defend it by all legitimate means, and we have discussions with all, and the door of contact with us is open. And I will quote to you my words to him exactly:
"Thirdly, if you disagree with us, I can say that we have willingness to listen mindfully and listen openly and to react honestly to the messages of others
You can comunicate with media teams that entered the free territories (Idlib) with whom we sat, such as Sky News, CNN, ITV News, CBS News and others.. to hear from them and make sure of that."
But regrettably, I did not find from him a follow-up comment to his tweet."