At the end of July 2018, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad announced his intention to regain control of Idlib. Speaking to the Russian media, al-Assad said that after “we have liberated Ghouta, we will finish the liberation of the south-western part of Syria.” Adding that “Idlib is our goal, but not just Idlib,” the president clearly pointed toward a potential military escalation in the area, which was confirmed by the moves and reactions of external powers, such as Russia, Turkey and Iran (Syria Direct, August 16; Al-Monitor, August 4, Haaretz, August 29; Gulf News, August 25). In the wake of this escalation, Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani, the leader of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), released a rare video message calling on militants to resist the military offensive in the only Syrian town still controlled by rebel forces.
In the video, al-Jawlani said that both enemies and allies recognize that his group is now the most important defender of Sunnis in Syria, calling on militants to shun compromise with the regime and avoid agreements similar to those reached in Daraa and Quneitra (Al-Jazeera, August 22, 2018, Al Araby, August 22). These words confirm al-Jawlani’s ambition to strengthen his position as the defender of local interests, which is consistent with the strategic direction that HTS has undertaken over the years. Indeed, while Western media still misleadingly describe al-Jawlani as the leader of al-Qaeda in Syria, he has severed ties with the organization (NYT/AP, August 22). Al-Qaeda in Syria went through a significant process of reorganization, actually initiated by al-Jawlani himself in June 2016, when his group was still known as Jabhat al-Nusra. He moved to untie himself from his bay’ah (pledge of allegiance) to al-Zawahiri and thus al-Qaeda. Al-Jawlani wanted to reinforce his local position, uniting under his control different local groups. He initiated a clampdown on members of the organization, particularly foreign fighters, considered too close to al-Qaeda. In response, a new movement emerged in Syria—Hurras al-Deen (the Guardians of Religion) led by Abu Hamam al-Shami. This group considers itself the real representative of al-Qaeda in Syria (see TM, Vol: 16 Issue: 16, August 10, 2018). Al-Shami pledged bay’ah to al-Zawahiri, but the group has yet to receive the formal acceptance from the al-Qaeda leader.
Another critical point of al-Jawlani’s speech was his warning to Turkey. Al-Jawalani described Turkey as an unreliable partner, since its positions may shift at any time. This remark is significant, as it may signal that al-Jawlani’s positions towards the Turkish role in Idlib are shifting. HTS accepted the establishment of Turkish observation points near Idlib, part of the de-escalation zones agreed in Astana (Hurriyet, Oct 10, 2017; Suriye Gündemi, May 25). The group’s al-Qaeda base perceived the acceptance of these de-escalation zones, as well as the Turkish presence, as illegitimate. At the time of the split with al-Qaeda, this was one of the most significant elements of friction. Al-Jawlani’s words confirm his focus on the local dimension of the conflict, and his ambition to fight the Near Enemy (the Syrian government) and defend Syrian Sunnis, rather than focusing on the Far Enemy and the international dimension of jihad, which is instead the primary concern for al-Qaeda and its leadership.