Al Qaeda-linked operations room calls for another mediation effort in Syria

In recent weeks, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) has clashed with one of its former partners, the Nur al-Din al-Zanki Movement. HTS has reportedly advanced on Zanki in northern Syria, capturing some or most of the territory it once held. The infighting is the latest in a series of clashes between various jihadist and Islamist groups in Syria. Despite the widespread animosity for Bashar al Assad’s regime and its allies, the insurgent groups have frequently found themselves battling one another.

With this context in mind, an al Qaeda-linked operations room in Syria has called for yet another mediation effort to quell the fighting.

“Incite the Believers” was formed in October by several jihadi groups that operate independently from HTS. Its founding groups include Hurras al-Din (“Guardians of the Religion”), Ansar al-Din Front and Ansar al-Islam. Others have likely joined or cooperate with the joint venture as well.

In a short statement disseminated online yesterday (Jan. 7), “Incite the Believers” warned that “international plots” had been “woven” against Syria’s Sunni population “to eliminate their jihad and their revolution.” The operations room called “on the factions present in the liberated areas, to resolve their differences through a Shari’a Court that is agreed upon by all the factions and that specializes in conflict resolution, leading them to what Allah wants.”

“Incite the Believers” also called on all “scholars, sheikhs, students of knowledge, and the mujahideen, to adopt this initiative and implement it.”

Within hours, several high-profile jihadi clerics in Syria did just that.

Dr. Abdullah al-Muhaysini, a Saudi whom the US has designated as a terrorist, and Sheikh Muslih al-Ulyani issued a statement supporting the initiative. Their endorsement was spread on their individual Telegram channels, as well as via other social media. Along with a third ideologue, Muhaysini and Ulyani have operated a fatwa committee that regularly issues religious rulings. The two were also featured in a Taliban video honoring Jalaluddin Haqqani.

Other clerics who have endorsed the statement by “Incite the Believers” include Abu Mohammed Sadiq (a former Ahrar al-Sham official) and Abdul Razzaq al-Mahdi. Along with Muhaysini and Ulyani, both joined HTS after it was formed in early 2017, but later broke away from the group.

Calls for reconciliation efforts among the insurgents in Syria are hardly new. The contentious environment has seen one dispute after another in their ranks.

In early 2014, Muhaysini was involved in a last ditch effort to resolve the feud between the Islamic State and its jihadi cousins, including Al Nusrah Front. That effort failed, as the Islamic State ended up pursuing its own caliphate-building agenda.

Since then, there have been countless other disputes. Al Nusrah Front went through a rebranding in mid-2016 and, along with the Nur al-Din al-Zanki Movement and Ansar al-Din Front, formed HTS in early 2017. However, both Zanki and Ansar al-Din left the HTS coalition.

Eventually, the remaining HTS group (comprised mainly of Al Nusrah’s rebranded arm) turned its guns on Zanki, seizing a number of outposts and villages that were held by its former ally. HTS went after Zanki after another independent sharia body, headed by a judge from Ansar al-Din, failed to deliver an arbitration decision that was acceptable to both groups. (Naturally, they disagree over which party is to blame.)

Hurras al-Din (“Guardians of Religion”) has had its own heated disagreements with HTS. A few independent committees have been set up to resolve their differences since early 2018.

Most recently, in late 2018, a body known as the “Holding Fast Committee, ” which was headed by a jihadi known as Abu Abdul Karim al-Masri, mediated some disagreements between the two sides. Other members of the “Holding Fast Committee” included Abu Muhammad al-Sudani, who served as the representative for “Guardians of Religion,” and Abu Malik al-Shami, who served as the representative for HTS. As a result of the committee’s efforts, a young girl named Yasmine was returned to her mother, who was living in France. The girl’s father reportedly died while fighting with the jihadis in Syria.

The “Holding Fast Committee” said in its founding statement, which was posted on Telegram in late November, that it was formed “to bridge the gap and eliminate the hurdles that exist between the brothers of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham and the brothers of the Guardians of Religion.”

All of which is to say that disagreements among the jihadists and Islamists in Syria are nothing new, though it does appear that HTS has made significant gains at the expense of its rivals in recent weeks.

The “Incite the Believers” operations room wants all parties to remain focused on Bashar al-Assad’s regime and its allies. “We also call on the factions to fear Allah and maintain the capabilities of the Ummah [worldwide community of Muslims] and the blood of its children and direct the fighting against the assaulting enemy,” its statement reads.

But in the Syrian war, unity between the various insurgent factions has been fleeting.

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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