The leader of Hay’at Tahrir al Sham (HTS), al Qaeda’s joint venture in Syria, has released a seven-plus minute message to commemorate the sixth anniversary of the Syrian uprising. The video was uploaded online late on Mar. 17 and then disseminated via social media channels the following day.
Abu Jaber (also known as Hashem al Sheikh), the former head of Ahrar al Sham, was selected as the overall leader of HTS (“Assembly for the Liberation of Syria,” or the Levant) in January. He has long advocated for a strategy of “popular jihad.” [For more information on Abu Jaber and his population-centric approach to jihad, see FDD’s Long War Journal report: Hay’at Tahrir al Sham leader calls for ‘unity’ in Syrian insurgency.]
And Abu Jaber continues with that theme in his new message, as he seeks to portray HTS as the defender of the Syrian people in the face of Bashar al Assad’s murderous regime. Abu Jaber also tries to rally other rebel factions to his cause, arguing that HTS has a plan for the future that could succeed.
“We will escalate our operations in the coming days,” Abu Jaber promises, according to a translation obtained by FDD’s Long War Journal. “Our troops will reach the very heart of their fortifications. Let them not forget the recent operations in Homs and Damascus.”
In late February, an elite HTS team infiltrated the Assad regime’s defenses in the city of Homs and killed one of Assad’s most senior military intelligence officials. Earlier this month, HTS launched twin suicide bombings in Damascus, killing a number of civilians at Shiite shrines. (HTS denied responsibility for another recent suicide attack in the Syrian capital, but its denial may be a self-serving fiction.)
Along with its allies, HTS launched a new offensive in the Jobar district of Damascus just hours after Abu Jaber’s speech was released. Earlier today, the group quickly claimed credit for two “martyrdom” operations in the area. This is undoubtedly part of what Abu Jaber meant when he said they would “escalate” their operations.
Abu Jaber uses the war crimes of Bashar al Assad’s government as part of his appeal for popular support. He refers to Assad’s “criminal machine” and the trail of devastation it has left behind. Abu Jaber specifically mentions the homeless, widows, orphans and prisoners in Syria, saying many nations have turned a “blind eye” to their plight.
The Syrian “revolution” has now “entered its seventh year,” Abu Jaber notes, despite encountering many problems along the way. He underscores the fact that the Syrian people face overwhelming odds, especially in the face of the Assad regime, Russia and Iran. He uses the extensive Iranian presence in Syria as part of his appeal for more Sunni support for the jihadists’ cause.
HTS was announced in January, after much squabbling between jihadist, Islamist and other rebel factions delayed its formal establishment for many months. Abu Jaber appeals to the Syrian people by saying that they’ve had to suffer through the “plight” of “numerous factions” fighting and competing against one another. This circumstance “worsened” after Aleppo fell to the regime late last year, Abu Jaber says, because the war became a “military stalemate” and the “factions” were rendered “politically” incapable of serving the people’s interests.
Abu Jaber portrays HTS as a response to the people’s demand for an “alignment of the ranks” and an end of “titles,” especially in the wake of the insurgents’ failures in Aleppo. He claims that HTS’ constituents have dissolved into this “new body,” which is the “nucleus” for true “unity.”
Al Qaeda has consistently called for “unity” in Syria. It is a theme that Ayman al Zawahiri, his deputy Abu al Khayr al Masri (killed in a drone strike in Syria last month), Abu Jaber and others have repeatedly emphasized. In fact, Abu Jaber says in the new video that HTS’ unity is due to “our abdication,” which is likely a reference to the rebranding of al Qaeda’s guerrilla army in Syria last year.
Abu Jaber calls for even more rebel unity, saying the “blood of our martyrs” demands a “single leadership” for all of the factions. He urges every group to join HTS’ “caravan of unity” and claims that this would thwart the designs of the “enemies of our revolution,” who seek to divide and conquer the insurgents.
The HTS chief wants to reassure people that the revolution will continue, in spite of the problems of the past. Abu Jaber says that HTS has “control” over its “ranks,” meaning his group seeks to avoid infighting. And HTS believes in “partnership” between its constituents, having built a robust “organization and administration” for the future. Therefore, Abu Jaber argues, HTS is well-prepared to relaunch the battle for “liberation” and “revive the spirit of revolution and jihad.” He calls on rebels who have abandoned the cause to return to Syria, so that they can “start a new page in our revolution and history of jihad to protect and build our country,” according to a translation obtained by FDD’s Long War Journal.
Abu Jaber praises humanitarian workers, such as the White Helmets.
And he calls on Sunni “elites” and “scholars” to view HTS as their “vanguard,” which is fighting “the Persian [Iranian] tide that is invading” Syria. The Iranians have sent “thousands” to “fight us,” Abu Jaber says, so Sunni nations should do the same in order stymie the Iranians’ designs.
In a direct appeal to journalists, Abu Jaber says the international media should “visit the liberated areas,” so they can see the “truth” of Assad’s “crimes” for themselves.
Abu Jaber’s talk echoes the language contained in a statement issued by HTS in response to US Special Envoy Michael Ratney earlier this month. The two-page original was posted in Arabic and translated into English. Ratney wrote that HTS is just another front for al Qaeda. In its response, HTS said it does not “represent any foreign body or organization” (al Qaeda itself isn’t a foreign entity) and argued that its establishment “symbolizes a new phase of the Syrian revolution.”
“In late 2016” — that is, after the fall of Aleppo — “the Syrian people marched in massive protests demanding a merger of all revolutionary forces and a complete unity,” HTS claimed. “The decision to form HTS was a direct response to these demands and came after careful consideration of the sensitive phase that we are going through in this great revolution.” HTS said that it was a “new body” and the “collaborative nucleus” of a “unified project” that would “act as a shield for the revolution.”
Abu Jaber uses very similar language in his new message and he even repeats some of the same key phrases.
Al Qaeda will continue to portray itself as the vanguard of the Syrian revolution in the months to come. That has been the organization’s plan all along.