Yesterday, Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham- the dominant insurgent faction in Idlib and its environs- released a video featuring a visual speech by its leader Abu Muhammad al-Jowlani entitled 'The war of liberation and independence.' The video lasts slightly over ten and a half minutes. In his speech, Jowlani makes the following points:
. The Syrian government has already been defeated by the revolution in a number of respects, for the revolution has weakened its security forces, destroyed its economy and taken away its legitimacy.
. Instead, the revolution is in a new stage of fighting the foreign occupiers supporting the Syrian government: namely Russia and Iran, both of which seek to revive their past imperialist glories in different respects. Iran, for example, is accused of pursuing a plan of 'demographic change'. Both actors essentially play with the Syrian government as their puppet. To achieve their aims, they have no problem with committing the most horrific crimes against the Sunnis (Ahl al-Sunna)
. The battle the insurgency is waging in Syria against the occupiers is a great battle representing the entire Ummah of Islam, but also the interests of those who once had interests in destroying the Soviet Union and confronting Iranian expansionism. Essentially, Jowlani portrays the insurgency is a key obstacle to the expansion of Russian and Iranian interests and should thus concern the peoples of the wider region who will bear the consequences of this war, such as the peoples of the Arab Gulf countries (in particular Saudi Arabia). Given this picture, God has ennobled the mujahideen in al-Sham with a very great responsibility. Our only choice is confrontation, and we can either achieve victory or martyrdom.
. History and divine providence show that the people who take up arms against the occupier will be victorious in the end, whereas one that expends no effort in fighting the occupier lives. Consolation is also to be found in the Qur'an with the directives of God, the stories of past messengers, and the battles of the Prophet. We must fulfil our covenant with God and He will surely fulfil His promise to the one who fulfils his pledge.
. Commendation of the efforts of the mujahideen of all factions for standing together as one rank against the enemy. The mujahideen must also help the displaced people and those who are suffering, not allowing the battles to distract them from helping the people.
. At the present time, jihad with one's life (i.e. fighting) is an individual obligation on every Muslim who is capable of bearing arms.
It is apparent from this speech that Jowlani continues prior talking points and broader themes of the direction of Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham (e.g. no longer fighting the Syrian government, a jihad of the masses rather than an elite vanguard). While it is easy to ignore the religious discourse in the speech and just focus on geopolitical analysis, in my view this approach is mistaken and the speech should be considered as a whole. For instance, some have seen a more 'moderate', nationalistic-tendency in Jowlani's more recent discourse, supposedly because e.g. he has avoided using disparaging terms in reference to minorities (e.g. 'Nusayris' for Alawites and 'Rafidites' for Shi'a).
In my view this analysis is mistaken. Even though Jowlani does not use such terms in this speech either, it is apparent he still conceives of the battle as representing the entire Ummah of Islam against its enemies, and for him that Ummah is synonymous with the Sunnis. Indeed, I find no trace of 'nationalism' within Jowlani's discourse: nowhere does he use nationalistic terms like 'watan' ('homeland') but instead speaks of al-Sham as encompassing the entire Levant region.
Below is the full translation of the video with footnote references for Qur'an quotations. Parenthetical insertions in square brackets are my own.
In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful
The war of liberation and independence
Sheikh Abu Muhammad al-Jowlani
Praise be to God, and prayers and peace be upon the Messenger of God, his family, companions and whoso is loyal to him. As for what follows:
Indeed the fact that the blessed land of al-Sham is facing today a campaign of extermination and liquidation at the hands of the criminal Russian occupation is not a new aim, but rather has been a continual war lasting for around nine years, and endurance has been on the verge of being followed by victory. Indeed the regime in its prior form has gone forever by God's permission, for the revolution has been victorious over it in a number of aspects: it has dismantled its army, shown the weakness of the security forces, destroyed its economy and brought together a consensus of public opinion against it, as well as popular and international isolation except the one whose sight has been confounded by God. It [the revolution] has also overcome it [the regime] in the field of values, ethics and principles, such that it has lost suitability to administer the land, in addition to its legitimacy.
But today we are confronting a pure Russian occupation, for Russia as a state has ambitions to recover its Soviet glories at the expense of the blood of the Syrian people, and it employs for that the ugliest means, for it kills the innocents, displaces them, destroys their hospitals and schools, burns the farms of the farmers, destroys the factories of the workers, and strikes the markets, villages and localities, and tries to prevent even the humanitarian aid from reaching its people. We are also confronting an Iranian occupation, which aims to destroy the Ahl al-Sunna and recover its Persian imperial glories, under the cover of the Shi'ification proselytization and madhhabist extremism, replacing this people with a people that answers to its expansionist desires that are not content with al-Sham only, but also Iraq, Yemen and the Arabian Gulf, not to mention its projects in East Asia and Africa.
And the regime between the two of them has become like the puppet with which the two sides play. For Iran strives to seize land and real estate by means of demographic change in the areas of the Ahl al-Sunna. And on the other side, the Russian occupation strives to secure a strategic place for itself along the waters of the Mediterranean coast, subsequently to be used in plundering the resources of the region, and playing an active role in the conflicts occurring in it. And in the path of securing those aims of theirs, the two sides have no objection to committing the most horrific massacres against the Ahl al-Sunna, from bombing, destruction and razing to the ground, after they were unable to subjugate the revolution in terms of politics or security. So facing these challenges, we can say that we are standing in the face of a very great battle, representing the entire Ummah of Islam in its first degree, and representing the hypocrite world, which was once upon a time interested in destroying the Soviet Union and standing against the Iranian ambitions in the region.
Indeed the story of a great state seeking to be strengthened at the expense of an oppressed people has repeated itself much throughout history, and its outcome has become known by necessity, now and forever. Indeed the people of the land who endure and are steadfast who have made the choice of confronting the occupier, and have expended their lifeblood in the path of their liberation, so God will realize for them victory, might and glory to the extent that they expend their efforts: it is a cosmic Sunna that does not know partiality. Oh defiant, enduring people, we have now overcome the stage of bringing down the regime, and we have entered into a war of liberation and independence from an evil Russian-Iranian occupation, targeting our religion, our land and our resources. On this basis, we must put in place our plans, conceptions and view for the current conflict, for we have no choice except to confront the occupiers and be steadfast before their oppression and tyranny, for either we realize victory and triumph and see that with our own eyes, or we realize martyrdom in the path of God. And what is happening today from massacres and calamities, is a part of this war in which we have no choice but to confront, and the days are states day by day, while the battles are measured by their seals.
For the occupation is a temporary state of affairs that will then disappear and go out with disgrace and shame, even if after some time, and the heroes today gain the distinction of defending their land, honor and blood, whereas the fearful submissive Ummah that expends no effort in defending its security and resources is an Ummah that lives in lowliness as a blemish, the consequences of whose failure are laid bare over the passing of time. And from this, we know that the reasons of victory and defeat lie within us, within our essence, our faith, our continual readiness to engage in sacrifice, ridding ourselves of acts of disobedience, and our repentance to God and returning to Him. So victory, God brings it to life and makes it attainable for whoso desires it and strives for it in truth.
Indeed the peoples of the region and the entire world will bear the results of this war, and its political, economic, security and military consequences. For the peoples of al-Sham, from Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine and the peoples of Iraq and Yemen and the Arabian Gulf- in particular, the two Holy Sites- and the Turkish people: all of them will bear the consequences of this war, and the results will be reflected upon them and their livelihood, whether positive or negative, for what will result from it from the shuffling of the international cards and redistribution of the centers of powers in the region. From this point, it becomes clear to every person of understanding the size of the great responsibility placed on the shoulders of the mujahid in al-Sham, the people of al-Sham and every individual living on this blessed land, and the historical importance of the stage we are passing through today. And indeed that from another angle, it is a great honor by which God has ennobled His servants in the land of al-Sham, that He should choose them for this great mission. So that blessing necessitates continual praise and thanks, because it is from the type of selection that God designates for His servants who are close to Him.
Our dear people, indeed it is from your steadfastness and standing firm that we draw inspiration for our determination, and from your sacrifices and expending effort we draw the path of our might and glory. For we are a victorious Ummah by the permission of God, and falsehood will not endure however much it gains supremacy and however numerous its helpers and supporters are. And God will not make us go to loss, and we request and seek from Him on every occasion. For we are but today in one of the blessed days, in which we attack our enemy, and repel him from our people and Ummah in the entirety: indeed it is the source of victory and guarantee of success. And this position of yours is a sign of pride and defiance. And in the Qur'an is what consoles us from the precedents of those sent and the prophets, and what they went through from difficulties, hardships and tribulations; and likewise in the battles of the Messenger of God (SAWS) is what reassures our mind and consoles our thoughts: indeed God tests His servants, so He distinguishes them and ripens them and brings down His victory upon the one who deserves it from those who endure and the mujahideen and takes up from them martyrs: for those who have migrated and have been expelled from their abode and have been harmed in My path and have fought and been killed, I will surely remove from them their misdeeds, and I will enter them into the abodes of Paradise beneath which rivers flow as a reward from God, and with God is the best reward.[i]
Indeed the first expression that was applied in the face of this criminal regime and which bore this great message written in blood was: death and not humiliation. And our defiant people have been aware of the value of these words, and have offered sacrifices from the beginnings of this blessed revolution, and they continue to offer what is precious alongside their mujahideen sons in the path of attaining glory and dignity. For God says in consolation to you: Do not weaken in pursuit of the enemy people: if you are in pain, they are in pain just as you are in pain, and you expect from God what they do not expect.[ii]
My mujahideen and murabiteen [manning frontlines] brothers, God has honored us with fighting under a banner whose pact is hundreds of thousands of martyrs, prisoners and displaced. And it is a trust whose right will not be fulfilled except by the one who is of those who are enduring, do right and are chivalrous, having pledged to God to proceed on what those who have preceded have proceeded, and faithful to the exalted message for whose sake they sacrificed. So we pave the road of glory and might for an entire generation of our sons, so they may live a life in which there is no servitude or servility. So expend what you can in the path of that, for it is a profitable business and abundant good if God wills. The Almighty has said: What is the matter with you that you do not fight in the path of God? And the oppressed of the men, women and children who say: Our Lord, get us out from this village whose people are oppressors, and make for us from Yourself a protector and make for us from Yourself a supporter.[iii]
My dear brothers, upon your abode has come great good, so do not forget your share, for here has come your enemy, wanting your land and abode, and subjugation of your people, so by God in yourselves is good, and remember that God the Exalted in Loftiness has pledged to you and contracted with you the covenant above the Seven Heavens, so fulfill the pledge of God who fulfills your pledge. The Almighty says: indeed God has purchased from the believers their lives and wealth in that for them is Paradise, as they fight in the path of God so they kill and are killed, a true promise upon Him in the Torah, Gospel and Qur'an. And who is truer to His covenant than God? So rejoice in your transaction you have contracted, and that is the great attainment.[iv]
So we value and thank the efforts of all the mujahideen from all the factions whose standing together and unity as one rank in confronting the aggressor enemy we have witnessed. We also bless the special targeting operations behind the enemy lines and in the heart of its economy like the oil refineries and the gas fields and its military depth such as the operations that target the airports from which the criminality aircraft comes out. For the enemy no longer knows from where the strikes come and what the hands of the mujahideen will reach in the coming times by the permission of God Almighty.
We also direct thanks and regards to all who have offered the hand of help to our displaced people and all who have opened their homes to them and helped to lighten the situation of the displacement and the harshness of the cold of the winter from them. And I counsel my mujahideen brothers in general and the soldiers of the Hay'a in particular to offer all they can to help their people, preserve their security and facilitate their affairs and not to be distracted by the battle from serving them and helping them.
And in conclusion, whoso believes in God and the Last Day, and is capable of bearing arms let him arise and take up his arms and join the ranks of the mujahideen, for jihad by the life is an individual obligation on every Muslim so we may continue on the path of liberating our land and our people, for indeed the battle is continuing and long, and requires from us endurance and patience, for even if its form and balance change, our aim in it is nonetheless one, and victory is our certainty and model by the permission of God Almighty, and praise be to God the Lord of the Worlds.
Do not forget us from the best of your prayers.
Rabi' al-Akhir 1441 AH.
[i] Qur'an 3:195.
[ii] Qur'an 4:104.
[iii] Qur'an 4:75.
[iv] Qur'an 9:111.