Not too long ago the leadership of Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS)- the main insurgent faction in northwest Syria- held meetings with Patrick Haenni and Dareen Khalifa, two monstrous analysts from the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue and International Crisis Group respectively. Khalifa wrote a summary of the meeting with HTS leader Abu Muhammad al-Jowlani, in response to which HTS senior official Abu Abdullah al-Shami (Abd al-Rahim Atoun) has written a clarification regarding the meeting held with Haenni and Khalifa. It was first written on 26 February 2020, but recently recirculated on the Telegram channel of HTS official al-Idrissi.
In sum, Shami makes the following main assertions:
. The stances HTS has expressed are consistent with its direction and positions since the days when it was Syria's al-Qa'ida-affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra. This is not an incidental matter dictated to the group by pragmatic positions as some like to interpret and imagine.
. In this regard, military efforts have always been solely focused on bringing down the Syrian government (which is not a matter of sectarian war). The group has not worked and is not working towards making Syria a launchpad for 'external operations'. The groups of foreign fighters that have joined HTS and are allied with it have agreed with HTS on this general policy and comply with it, and HTS will not abandon them. Similarly the al-Qa'ida-loyalist group Hurras al-Din is complying with this policy.
. In a similar vein, HTS and its predecessors have worked to minimize the number of enemies it faces at once, even if it means keeping some sides neutral for a temporary period.
. In pursuing the policies of focusing on bringing down the Syrian government and minimizing the number of enemies, one can draw a comparison with how the Taliban has focused its efforts on fighting the American occupier in Afghanistan while pacifying neighbouring countries that share an interest in removing the Americans, such as Pakistan, Iran, China and even Russia. This is so even as the Taliban does not overlook e.g. Russian actions against Afghanistan and Muslims in past decades, Iran's assistance in the original U.S. invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and Pakistan's cooperation with America and arresting Taliban leaders.
. Shari'a (Islamic law) remains the sole reference authority for HTS.
. There can be no kind of integration of the liberated areas into a system of rule with the present Syrian government in Damascus. The struggle will continue until Damascus is liberated, however difficult matters become.
. The meeting with the delegates from Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue and International Crisis Group was a chance to clarify these positions.
Whatever one thinks of Shami's general portrayal of continuity in positions with the original Jabhat al-Nusra (for one thing, it was not very plausible to imagine a meeting with Western think-tanks in the days of Jabhat al-Nusra), there are some important insights to draw here. For instance, the insistence on Shari'a as the sole reference authority is consistent with the reaffirmation of HTS principles by Abu al-Fatah al-Farghali (an Egyptian Shari'i official in the group), who made clear the group rejects democracy and secularism (contrary to those who imagine HTS is going in a more 'secular' and 'nationalist' direction).
Also contrast the insistence that the war is not one of sects* with the more sectarian rhetoric in Hurras al-Din leader Abu Himam al-Shami's recent speech (even as Hurras al-Din complies with the general regulations set by HTS). Even so, HTS presents itself as a force standing up for the Sunnis.
As for minimizing the number of enemies and noting the Taliban's policy in Afghanistan, one analogy here is clearly HTS' relationship with Turkey. Although Turkey is a member of the NATO alliance and has arrested suspected members of HTS inside Turkey, it is not within HTS' interest to seek a confrontation with Turkey and fight its deployments in northwest Syria as some more hardline jihadists advocate. Indeed, HTS sees in Turkey's deployments a protective umbrella that can at least prevent further Syrian government advances, even if the goals of actually 'liberating Damascus' are a rhetorical pipe dream.
Third, the insistence on protecting the muhajireen (foreigners who have joined the insurgent side) is consistent with HTS' prior principles. In addition, the obligation for the muhajireen and Hurras al-Din to comply with the directive of keeping the fight within Syria and respecting the system of administration put in place is consistent with what Khalifa reported (indeed, there are no complaints in this text that Khalifa misrepresented anything, much to her credit). For comparison, note that more hardline break-offs from Hurras al-Din- such as Abu al-Yaman al-Wazzani and his Jama'at Ansar al-Haq- have been subject to HTS crackdowns and monitoring.
Finally, note that Shami's insistence on the gap/fissure between the Syrian government and the insurgent-held areas excludes for the foreseeable future the possibility of returning the northwest to government control through softer 'reconciliation' agreements as some have hoped could be devised for the northwest. In truth, realistically speaking, the best HTS can hope for is a de facto partition and trying to wait out a total internal collapse of the Syrian government-held areas in the distant future or the imminent prospect of it, such that the group's persistence will lead to the wider international community thinking more seriously of negotiating with the group and taking it seriously just as the Taliban in Afghanistan is taken more seriously.
Below is Shami's text translated in full (any parenthetical insertions in square brackets are my own).
*Update note 10 March 2020: Sam Heller argues that when Atoun says that HTS' war is not with the tawa'if, he is not referring to ethno-religious sects but rather he is referring to the Tawa'if kings of Andalus who were petty and fought each other. On reflection and after consultation, I think Atoun's use of the word tawa'if can mean both sect and group simultaneously: that is, not only ethno-religious sects but also other factions in the war like the 'Free Army'. Avoiding the idea of sectarian and factionalist war seems to be a lesson drawn from prior jihadist experiences. All that said, I agree with Heller that the group is still sectarian, because Atoun also frames HTS as upholding the cause of the Sunnis in Syria.
In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful
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:
A meeting was held that brought together recently representatives from the leadership of HTS, and a delegate from the Swiss Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue (HD), and a female delegate from the International Crisis Group, and the group published an article including ideas of what occurred in the meeting, and to clarify the meeting and the article we make clear the following:
1. General Introductions
HTS today does not stand on the margin of the Syrian field and margin of events, as the fate of a great part of the field is bound after God in it in one way or another, so it bears a great responsibility, especially in these challenging times.
This responsibility has meant it has been necessary to declare its directives and principles, and to convey the messages to all interested in the issue of the field both Islamically and internationally speaking.
For HTS today not only bears the responsibility of organizing the field, but rather the responsibility for an entire people, as the fate of the Sunnis stands at a great historical crossroads.
The war in al-Sham has transformed to become an international and regional war, and in it are much interweaving, complication and mixing, as the interests of Russia and Iran are interwoven and they use the regime as an instrument to realize them, while the Turks have their interests connected with their national interests and behind them are the European and Western interests, and the interests of America are not hidden.
And as for internally and locally, there are a number of sides likewise, beginning with the criminal regime and passing through with the separatist Kurdish parties in addition to the spectrum of factions of the revolution of their different orientations.
Since the establishment of Jabhat al-Nusra work has arisen through agreement on a group of important 'work principles', and among them has been that we should define the enemy- namely, the criminal regime- and we should focus on it, and we should keep neutral as many enemies as possible, and that our war should not be with the sects [/groups], and al-Sham should not be a launch pad for external operations, and we should work in the shade of a popular revolution and so we should work within its priorities represented in bringing down the criminal regime and keeping neutral as many enemies as possible even if only temporarily.
Our policy also- and since the beginning- arose on reducing the enemies as much as possible, for in the time in which Russia and Iran is waging war on us with the regime what is the regime in another war- at the same time- with this side or that from the West or East, or any of the states of the region?! But that does not mean aligning with the plans of this side or that.
And among our directives in this context likewise: having regard for the habits and conceptions of the people.
And thus: that we should not transmit the jihadist experiments that arose in another land in their entirety here to al-Sham, for every circumstance has a place, except what the reality dictates in its conformance in some aspects or in its resemblance.
In 2015, the leadership of Jabhat al-Nusra, represented at the time in Sheikh Abu Muhammad al-Jowlani- may God protect him- made clear through an interview on al-Jazeera satellite channel (and we were at the time still affiliated with the al-Qa'ida organization) that we are not concerned with any external operation, and we are concerned with focusing on the criminal regime.
HTS- and since its establishment- has transacted a group of mutual understandings with all of the muhajir blocs that come under its banner or are allied with it, on the necessity of complying with the general policy, and this has been welcomed by all.
Then the Syrian revolution has been waging for years a fierce war against the Russians, Iranians and regime militias, and it has been preoccupied with fighting these alliances, which gives weight to the soundness of the policy of working to keeping neutral the one who can be kept neutral.
2. The Most Important Contents of the Meeting
What was mentioned in the article that the International Crisis Group published is a summary of the meeting with a delegate from the Swiss HD 'Patrick' and a female delegate from the American Crisis Group centre 'Dareen.'
And in the meeting there occurred the discussion about a number of matters concerning the aforementioned angles and policies. And the leadership of the Commission [HTS] made clear its position regarding the most important matters for them, and in what concords with our religion, policy and priorities.
The Commission made clear that the fate of the muhajir groups and the general masses of the muhajireen are of its fate, and it will not abandon them, and they do not constitute a danger to their countries, and they comply with the general policy that the Commission has outlined previously.
Also it made clear that the 'Hurras al-Din' group works to fight the regime, and it agrees with us in avoiding external operations.
As for the internal fighting- between the factions- this is not of our policy and general directive, and it is a matter outside the general context were it not for compulsion to it.
For we have fought some of the thieves in one of the stages, and we were compelled to fight some in another stage in self-defence, as some of the factions entered into fighting with us in a battle that was not with them originally.
And this does not mean we are free of error here or there, and indeed the field in its division without the existence of an authority respected by all makes the outbreak of a state of dispute a matter that will arise in a circumstance like this.
And we make clear in this context: the current state of affairs is a state of coalition and closing rank in confronting the present campaign, and the stage of fighting has become something of the past we hope will not return.
As for the Syrian Salvation Government, it is a process of joint participation and integration between us and a wide portion of academics and societal sections representing the revolution in the liberated areas.
And we have made clear that we are not in a war with the sects [/groups], and our battle is with the criminal regime.
We also spoke about the great suffering that the Syrian people are suffering amid the repeated waves of displacement and the humanitarian situation and terrible living state that millions of refugees and IDPs are suffering, as well as facilitating the work of humanitarian aid organizations in in what lessens the suffering of our people as far as possible.
And we made perfectly clear that the principle of rule among us is the Shari'a of Islam, and this Shari'a is our reference authority in all matters whether internal rule or in building alliances and establishing relations. This is far removed from any negative connotation caused by the experience of the 'Dawla' group, and the bitter and erroneous application of it to the understanding of establishing the religion and applying the Shari'a. For we set out from Islam and its law in what is agreed and the principles of the Sunnis.
As for the future, we made clear we are continuing in our battle by the help of God until the liberation of Damascus, however hard the situation becomes, and we have made clear that the areas liberated from the control of the criminal regime are indeed administered by the Salvation Government and its cadres. And we made clear that in the event that Damascus is liberated by the permission of God, the administration of the land will be with more wideness, capacity and participation in what concords with that state of affairs. We also made clear that HTS and the Salvation Government are only stages and means to facilitate matters all the way to complete liberation by God's permission.
And we emphasized the state of complete fissure between us and the regime in that the liberated areas cannot be part of a state of joint participation that unifies with the regime through any form of rule.
It should be noted here that it did not occur to us to ask the delegates if they had Israeli nationality or not, as there is no occasion for this in the context that concerns us, and what we know is that one of them is that one of them has Swiss nationality, and the other has Egyptian nationality only.
And before concluding, we would like to note what the 'Taliban'- may God protect them- has undertaken and undertakes even as we acknowledge the existence of differences between the Afghan and Shami states of affairs.
For I see how they assuaged the states neighbouring them and not content with the American presence like Pakistan, China and Iran, indeed also even Russia, and they strove hard to benefit from the positions of those states, as means of leverage increasing their power in terms of reasons for confronting their American enemy in Afghanistan, and of course the Taliban do not overlook what the Russians did to their people and the Muslims some decades ago, ad likewise what the Iranians did in their assisting the Americans during their occupation of Afghanistan and likewise they do not overlook what the Pakistan government has done from facilitating and aiding the American occupier and what it has committed from arresting the rest of their leaders and handing them over to the Americans.
But the obligation of the time and the calm and the balance and distancing from untimely actions, and defining the priorities and reducing the enemies and working to keep neutral even if only temporarily is the essence of what we understand from the Prophetic Sunna and wisdom to be derived from the life of SAWS.
And finally, we would like to point out and affirm that what has come from ideas in the meeting represents a slice of our long-standing policy and points of view towards the generality of the portfolios since the beginning of our jihad on the land of al-Sham since nine years, and there is no incidental matter upon us dictated to us by the pragmatic stances as some like to interpret it. For since we began this jihad, we have limited our military compass to the regime and its allies in response to the priorities of the revolution in bringing down the criminal regime, for all that has come from ideas in the meeting is our long-standing convictions and principles of operation upon which our jihad arose since the beginning. And the meeting was only an opportunity to explain them.
And praise be to God the Lord of the Worlds.
Abu Abdullah al-Shami.