With each new political and field development in the Syrian arena, Abu Muhammad al-Julani, the leader of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) (formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra and its allies), seeks to carve out a space for himself. He does so by implementing changes in the structure of armed groups deployed in northwestern Syria, which falls under his control, or by altering their overall appearance.
In this context, Al-Akhbar newspaper highlighted the HTS’s campaign against Hizb ut-Tahrir in Idleb and Aleppo. The HTS worked towards dismantling the organization and arresting several of its members. The newspaper noted that this campaign followed three months of efforts to undermine Hizb ut-Tahrir’s standing among the public and in the media. Various scandals involving its members were published, making the subsequent arrests predictable and without any significant consequences.
According to sources quoted by the newspaper, the HTS operation was carried out at the direct request of Ankara. This request was prompted by the active involvement of Hizb ut-Tahrir members in organizing demonstrations against Turkey’s inclination to engage with Damascus. These demonstrations raised concerns in Turkey that its military bases and positions might become targets, particularly as some protesters wrote slogans rejecting Turkey’s role on the walls of certain observation points.
The sources also revealed that HTS’ action against Hizb ut-Tahrir represents a final step to suppress any dissent against Turkey’s normalization efforts with Damascus. Al-Julani aims to position himself as a partner to Ankara in this regard. He leverages several supporting factors, including the presence of numerous displaced people camps near the Turkish border within areas under HTS control. Additionally, Turkey and HTS are involved in joint construction projects to resettle Syrian refugees. These endeavours, along with the prevention of any disruptions in the relationship between Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham and Turkey, provide Julani with a broad range of auxiliary advantages.
The sources also highlighted Julani’s objective with his campaign: to persuade the West to remove his group from the list of terrorist organizations. This is because Hizb ut-Tahrir has gained influence in various countries and aspires to establish a broad Islamic emirate. In contrast, Julani, a former al-Qaeda member, has repeatedly stated that his group’s activities are confined to Syria. He has been promoting a shift in governance mechanisms in the areas under his control, advocating for greater freedom for minorities. Al-Akhbar quoted these statements.
In a related report, the American agency “Associated Press” confirmed that Julani is actively working to distance his group HTS from its parent organization, al-Qaeda. He aims to convey a message that promotes acceptance of pluralism and religious tolerance. As part of this transformation, Julani has dismantled extremist factions, disbanded the notorious religious police, and, for the first time in a decade, allowed a mass to be held in a church that had long been closed in the Idleb governorate. In a recent meeting with religious and local officials, Julani expressed that Islamic law should not be imposed, emphasizing the avoidance of hypocrisy and the need for societal continuity even when his group is not present.
Regarding these developments by Julani, the US agency noted that they occur at a time when the isolation of the HTS is growing and countries that previously supported opposition factions in the Syrian war are reestablishing relations with the Syrian state.
This article was translated and edited by The Syrian Observer. The Syrian Observer has not verified the content of this story. Responsibility for the information and views set out in this article lies entirely with the author.