Analysis: Jihadists in Syria react to Sochi agreement

For weeks, jihadists in Syria have debated how to respond to an accord between Russia and Turkey. The so-called Sochi agreement, struck in mid-September, called for the creation of a demilitarized zone in the northwestern province of Idlib.

The most powerful single insurgent organization in Idlib is Hay’at Tahrir al Sham (HTS), which evolved out of Al Nusrah Front, a group that was openly part of al Qaeda until July 2016. For nearly a month, HTS has been coy about how it would officially respond to the deal between Turkey and Russia.

On Oct. 14, the group finally issued a two-page statement titled, “The Syrian Revolution Will Not Die.” The message does not contain an explicit endorsement or outright rejection of the Sochi agreement. Indeed, some online jihadists have complained that the statement is too open-ended, leaving HTS’s position unclear. This ambiguity may very well be deliberate, however, as the jihadists have been boxed in by stronger powers.

In its statement, HTS concedes that it decided to “postpone” any declaration on its “stance,” so its leaders could consult with other revolutionaries. The result was a six-point restatement of the group’s commitment to jihad against Bashar al Assad’s regime, Russia and Iran.

The first and sixth points state that HTS will not give up its quest to topple Assad’s regime and its allies, all of whom are supposedly destined to fail, just like every other “oppressive occupation” in history. HTS will continue to pursue the “path of jihad” for other reasons as well, including freeing detainees and “securing” the right of return for Syrian refugees and others who have been displaced.

The second point in the statement was written in the same vein, as HTS thanks all those who have supported its project, including those who have “emigrated to join us.” With these words, HTS seeks to reassure the foreign fighters who have traveled to Syria, implying that they won’t be sacrificed to meet the demands of international actors. The people shall remain united, HTS states, with all enjoying identical rights, while carrying out the same duties.

In the fourth point, HTS emphasizes that it is seeking to provide “security and safety” for all of the people under its domain in accordance with its sharia-based policies.

With respect to the Sochi agreement, the third and fifth points are the most directly relevant. HTS says it will not turn over its weapons, which are necessary to protect the Sunni population. And HTS thanks those “at home and abroad” who have protected the “liberated region,” meaning Idlib, by preventing a devastating invasion. But the group is careful to also state that it doesn’t trust Russia’s “intentions,” as it has been “trying to weaken” the insurgency and undermine the revolutionaries’ “political and military roles.”

HTS vows that it will not “surrender to the Russian occupation” or the Assad regime, claiming its men will “either live with dignity or die as martyrs” while fighting to “reach Damascus.”

No explicit mention of Turkey

While HTS blasts Russia, there is no direct mention of Turkey or President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in its Oct. 14 statement. The closest HTS gets to mentioning Turkey is in its fifth point, when the group thanks those “abroad” for protecting the “liberated” area. No party has done more to prevent an assault by the Russia-Iran-Assad axis on Idlib than Turkey, which has established checkpoints in the province.

Yet, it is not surprising that HTS failed to explicitly reference Turkey’s assistance. Although HTS emir Abu Muhammad al-Julani has explained his organization’s cooperation with Turkey in the past, the issue has continued to stir controversy in jihadi circles.

For instance, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, a pro-al Qaeda cleric, has been especially vocal in condemning any collaboration with Erdoğan’s forces. In early 2017, Maqdisi warned that joint air raids by Turkey and Russia against the Islamic State would only pave the way for future actions against the so-called caliphate’s jihadist rivals. (HTS’s predecessor organization, Al Nusrah Front, split off from the Islamic State in 2013 and has opposed Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s enterprise since then.)

In more recent weeks, Maqdisi has continued to criticize the jihadis’ dealings with Turkey, arguing that the Turks are only using the jihadis to “implement the decisions” made in various “agreements and conspiracies.” Maqdisi also argued that these same jihadis will erroneously “compare their failures” to the Taliban’s retreat in late 2001, or al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s decision to vacate Mukalla, Yemen in 2016. Maqdisi added that the jihadis shouldn’t attempt to justify their “mistake” by “misrepresenting and tarnishing the virtuous people” (meaning the Taliban and AQAP) in this manner.

Although Maqdisi has taken a hard line, at least rhetorically, on the dealings with Turkey, other jihadis (including some within al Qaeda) have been more forgiving in the past.

It is certainly possible that without Turkey the Russia-Iran-Assad axis would already be bombing Idlib into submission. HTS and its leader, Abu Muhammad al-Julani, know this, but they have to dance around the issue given the fierce ideological and tactical disagreements. In addition, the jihadis do not want to be turned into Turkey’s subordinates, given this may restrict their agenda or create other problems. Another major insurgent faction, the Turkish-sponsored National Liberation Front, quickly accepted the Sochi agreement.

Other jihadists rejected Sochi agreement

HTS’s Ebaa News commemorated the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks last month.

Weeks before HTS’s statement, other jihadis had already rejected the Sochi agreement, albeit with some caveats. On Sept. 22, the “Guardians of Religion” Organization (Hurras al-Deen) issued its two-page rejection of the deal.

Ansar al-Din, which was one of HTS’s original constituent member groups, similarly dismissed the Sochi arrangement in a one-page written statement, arguing that previous deals had betrayed the revolutionaries’ cause. Ansar al-Din has had its own al Qaeda links in the past.

Guardians of Religion was formed earlier this year, and is reportedly staffed by al Qaeda veterans and loyalists at its highest levels. It has joined with another group, Ansar al-Tawhid, to form a joint venture named Hilf Nusrat al-Islam.

HTS has publicly distanced itself from al Qaeda. However, the US government and United Nations still consider it an al Qaeda “affiliate.” Turkey has similarly designated HTS as a terrorist organization.

Much of HTS’s propaganda and messaging is focused on matters inside Syria, though the group’s Ebaa News Agency did offer a commemoration of the September 11 hijackings and Osama bin Laden last month. Ebaa’s summary of al Qaeda’s 9/11 hijackings can be seen above.

The insurgency has lost momentum since 2015, when jihadists, Islamists and others swept through Idlib. As HTS’s Oct. 14 statement notes, the Idlib province is the last redoubt for the guerrilla fighters opposed to Bashar al Assad and his allies.

And HTS calls, once again, on the broader ummah (worldwide community of Muslims) to rally to the Syrian revolution’s cause. HTS argues the Syrian revolution is still the “first line of defense against Iran and its militias,” which have been expanding throughout the region.

Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD's Long War Journal.

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