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Syria’s Jihadists Speak the Language of Rebellion

Syria's Jihadists Speak the Language of Rebellion

A Turkish-Russian settlement final month forestalled a probably disastrous Syrian army assault on the nation’s northwestern Idlib governorate, the Syrian opposition’s final main stronghold. But the settlement additionally required Turkey to “remove” the Syrian jihadist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and different hardliners from a lot of the northwest, a attainable first step towards separating them from the relaxation of the opposition. Up to now, outcomes are reportedly combined. Whether or not the group continues to conform, and the way it resolves its personal twin transnational-local id, could possibly be a matter of life or demise for the northwest’s almost three million residents.

A current video launch from Tahrir al-Sham, or HTS, helps present the way it has built-in into Syria’s opposition, and the way it interprets its ideological worldview into the language of Syria’s struggle. The Sept. 17 video contains a roundtable dialogue between three of the group’s prime leaders and members of its advisory Shari’a Council as they expound on what the Syrian authorities calls “reconciliation” — the negotiated give up of opposition-held areas. As they achieve this, additionally they interact in a seemingly unscripted dialogue of politics, struggle, and non secular regulation. They usually repeatedly contact on language, and the way the vocabulary of Syria’s conflict corresponds to their specific religious-jurisprudential lexicon.

For a gaggle that has been designated a terrorist group internationally, HTS’s integration into the Syrian insurrection is vital to its survival. A gaggle that’s flush with its Syrian opposition environment is one that can’t be simply remoted and destroyed. HTS’s fusion of jihadist and Syrian insurgent rhetoric, on show in its current video, evidences the group’s duality. Additionally it is half of how the group frustrates makes an attempt to separate it from its Syrian context, by policing opposition discourse and deterring Syria’s different rebels from turning towards it.

De-Marbling and Reconciliation

HTS’s roundtable, from left: Mudhar al-Weis, Abdurrahim Attoun, and Abu al-Fateh al-Farghali, together with an unidentified host.

Turkey and Russia’s September deal is simply the newest in a collection of worldwide agreements which have excluded Syria’s jihadists, and thus aimed to isolate them.

Since HTS first joined Syria’s civil struggle — initially as “Jabhat al-Nusra,” which later declared itself Syria’s al-Qaeda affiliate — it has protected itself from overseas enemies by embedding in the extra palatable elements of the Syrian opposition. America and the opposition’s different backers endeavored unsuccessfully to “de-marble”  Syria’s opposition and separate the rebels they might comfortably help from the jihadists they feared. One such try in 2016 appears to have prompted Jabhat al-Nusra to start shape-shifting. The group introduced the first of a number of re-brandings and a cut up with al-Qaeda that was initially false however, since the group advanced into HTS in 2017, has virtually definitely grow to be actual.

Moscow has repeatedly complained about Washington’s failure to “disassociate” HTS from the opposition. Now, as half of Russia’s September settlement with Turkey, reached in the Russian Black Sea resort Sochi, it has upped the strain on Turkey to ship the place the United States couldn’t. The Sochi settlement averted a army offensive on Idlib that clearly would have come at a horrible value. However the settlement isn’t essentially good for everybody. Its provisions, together with the “removal” of “all radical terrorist groups” from a demilitarized buffer inside Idlib, appear designed to drive a wedge between hardliners like HTS and their non-jihadist comrades and neighbors.

HTS’s video is billed as the first episode of the collection “The Dialogue,” titled “‘Reconciliations’ in the Balance of Shari’a (Islamic law)”. HTS leaders Mudhar al-Weis, Abdurrahim Attoun (“Abu Abdullah al-Shami”) and Yehya al-Farghali (“Abu al-Fateh al-Farghali,” an Egyptian) recorded the roundtable as Syria’s northwest was bracing for assault. The video was launched, apparently coincidentally, as Moscow and Ankara introduced the Sochi deal.

The “reconciliation” these three HTS officers talk about is one of the few profitable methods the opposition has been “de-marbled,” albeit by the Syrian authorities, not the opposition’s pals. “Reconciliation” (musalaha) is Damascus’s euphemistic time period for the negotiated give up of previously restive communities, their vertical “reconciliation” upwards with the Syrian state and system. Critically for HTS, “reconciliation” offers have sometimes concerned the evacuation of jihadists and others deemed irreconcilable to rebel-held territory elsewhere, principally Idlib. These bus convoys north have excised jihadists from their social base and helped flip Idlib into Syria’s most intense focus of jihadists, in addition to a haven for hundreds of thousands of weak civilians.

Damascus’s model of “reconciliation” has all the time excluded HTS and different jihadists. The group has thus been on guard for “reconciliation” in Syria’s northwest, notably after seeing rebels accede to those offers in Syria’s middle and south earlier this yr. HTS and different rebels have arrested native figures suspected of coping with Damascus. The group sees the have to frustrate makes an attempt by the Syrian authorities and Russia to dealer native settlements that would flip Idlib’s residents towards HTS and deputize them in a Syrian army advance.

“Call Things by Their Names”

“The Syrian arena and the Syrian jihad are a profound experience, a broad course,” says the video’s host in his introduction, “in which events have taken place that are historical, and that we have to consider at length.”

“Arena” (saha) right here refers to a single battlefield in what jihadists contemplate a rolling, international warfare. However these HTS officers are targeted on Syria, and on how you can describe and perceive it. All three are eager to emphasise that “reconciliation” is a rhetorical ploy. And they’re themselves acutely attuned to the significance of language and discourse.

What Damascus’s “reconciliation” actually means, says Abu al-Fateh Farghali, is actually “betrayal.” Farghali refers to reconciliation alongside these strains as “this deformed entity, this dead fetus … this monstrosity.” He continues, “As God’s Prophet, peace be upon him, told us, ‘there will come people ‘who call wine by other than its name,’ in order to thus make it permissible.” His comrade Mudhar al-Weis, in the meantime, says the phrase is only a continuation of a “war of terminology,” which he calls “an old war on Islam and Muslims.” “Jihad” and “revolution” are branded as “terror” and “rebellion,” he says, whereas “betrayal” known as a “truce” or “reconciliation.” “Really, we need to call things by their names,” says Weis.

It’s these HTS figures’ different linguistic factors that give deeper perception into their considering. The best way Weis, for instance, speaks at size about “munafiqoun” (hypocrites) exhibits the extent of his suspicion of a lot of the non-jihadist opposition round him:

Weis relates fair-weather supporters of Syria’s rebellion to “munafiqoun” (hypocrites).

In fact, these [international] political tracks led to many of these [rebel] commanders being mortgaged, many of these factions, so the soil turned prepared, actually, for what occurred in the finish. A illness received in, one talked about in the Quran, and amongst the most harmful of illnesses. In the introduction of Sourat al-Baqarah, there are 5 verses about the believers and two about the infidels, however tens of verses about the munafiqeen. There’s a whole Sourah referred to as “al-Munafiqoun.” These munafiqoun stay inside Muslim ranks, undercover, vacillating. When there’s weak spot in Muslim ranks, these types and kinds seem to play their damaging position. That’s why Almighty God, how did He describe them? He stated, “They are the enemy, so beware of them. May God destroy them! How they are deluded (63:4).” That’s, “When you see them, their forms please you, and when they speak, you listen to their words (63:4).” They are saying, “Raise the flag of your revolution,” however in the finish, they raised the flag of the regime. They stated, “Dara’a won’t fall,” or [the] Houran [plain], “and Moscow will fall instead.” However we’re stunned the subsequent day that …”

One other participant jumps in: “[They’re] the first ones to jump into the regime’s embrace.”

Weis responds, “That’s why, in reality, they’re the enemy. We need to call these things by their names. They are munafiqoun. We need to label them as God Almighty did.”

“Let Moscow fall, Dara’a won’t,” was reportedly what a insurgent commander in Syria’s southern Dara’a governorate defiantly informed Russians in June 2018 negotiations. Solely days later, he and different “Southern Front” rebels acceded to a negotiated give up, beneath withering Syrian and Russian army strain. The Southern Entrance’s factions had been favored recipients of overseas help, and had publicly distanced themselves from Jabhat al-Nusra accordingly. Weis appears nonplussed by the Southern Entrance’s abbreviated resistance.

His reference to “Raise the flag of your revolution” is much more revealing. The slogan started as a hashtag in March 2015, as Syrian opposition protesters embraced the opposition’s tricolor flag in an implicit problem to jihadists and their black Islamic banners. The opposition flag remained some extent of rivalry between the opposition’s so-called “revolutionary” and extra hardline Islamist wings for years. Weis is seemingly conflating these non-jihadist oppositionists who rallied round the revolutionary flag to reclaim symbolic management of Syria’s opposition with former opposition members who surrendered and “reconciled” with the Syrian authorities. His reference seemingly betrays a view that those that challenged jihadists are in reality a fifth column in ready.

Weis had been one of the leaders of Jabhat al-Nusra’s japanese department, in Syria’s Deir al-Zour governorate. Weis, himself from Deir al-Zour, had headed the Jabhat al-Nusra judicial-administrative physique that helped handle the governorate. As the Islamic State closed in on japanese rebels in 2014, native Jabhat al-Nusra took the extraordinary eleventh-hour step of combining with different Deir al-Zour rebels to type the “Mujahideen Shura Council.” It was Weis who introduced the transfer. In 2014, Weis and japanese Jabhat al-Nusra have been built-in into Deir al-Zour’s opposition to a level in all probability unparalleled by the group earlier than or since — no less than till the Islamic State scattered seized Deir al-Zour and scattered its rebels throughout the nation.

Now, in a sign of how Weis and HTS’s view of Syria’s opposition has since darkened, Weis sees “munafiqoun” in all places. His suspicion highlights one of the central contradictions of HTS’s relationship with the Syrian opposition round it: Whilst they declare to steer it, they basically don’t belief it. They’re eager to not be extricated from the surrounding opposition, but they see inner enemies throughout them.

Defying Categorization

These HTS leaders are preoccupied with classifying the Syrian opposition round them, in line with their very own ideological body of reference. By dividing the opposition into classes like “hypocrites,” “apostates,” or the civilian “oppressed,” and by analogizing between Islamic texts and their very own fluid, trendy environment, they will translate Islamic jurisprudence into sensible steerage. But they themselves defy straightforward categorization, as they mix native riot and jihadism in phrases of their worldview, and even their biographies.

Attoun (second from left) lays out rulings on civilians and the “mustad’afin” (weak, oppressed).

Abdurrahim Attoun returns to the theme of “munafiqoun” and “nifaq” (hypocrisy) in discussing how HTS officers categorize and sub-categorize opposition fighters and civilians. On insurgent fighters, Attoun says those that cooperate with reconciliations have to be fought in all situations. Any former rebels who actively be a part of Syrian army ranks, furthermore, are responsible of apostasy from Islam and have to be killed “without honor.” As for “the rest of the Muslim public, what’s called in modern terminology ‘civilians,’” he distinguishes between those that are “mustad’afin” (weak, oppressed) and people who will not be. The mustad’afin upon whom “reconciliations” are imposed are absolved of any duty, he says. Native civilian notables who facilitate “reconciliations,” on the different hand, are munafiqoun — the enemy. “Their name in religion is ‘heads of nifaq,’” Attoun says.

Attoun is one of HTS’s most outstanding public-facing officers, and often its most important spokesperson in place of HTS head “Abu Muhammad al-Jolani.” He sat at Jolani’s aspect as the latter introduced the group’s ostensible break with al-Qaeda in 2016. He could also be the HTS determine most conspicuously embroiled in HTS’s intra-jihadist controversies, stepping into acrimonious public arguments with the Islamic State’s spokesman in 2014 and with al-Qaeda’s prime management late final yr.

Attoun can also be an area. He’s reportedly Idlibi, and, like Weis, a “graduate” of Syria’s infamous Seidnaya Jail. His brother “Abu al-Kheir” was amongst the first-tier management of principally Syrian group Ahrar al-Sham. He’s Syrian, personally, whilst he’s additionally HTS’s champion in a globe-spanning jihadist debate.

Farghali interrogates the definition of “mustad’af.”

The Egyptian Farghali, on the different hand, is clearly not an area. The video’s moderator, enjoying satan’s advocate, asks Farghali about these inclined to be lenient with native rebels who “reconcile.” “The local reality just imposes this on many people,” he poses rhetorically, and any deal is pressured on members of “fasil al-balad” (the hometown insurgent faction) who’re sure up in native communal ties.

Farghali returns to Attoun’s definition of “mustad’af” to emphasise that jihadists’ sympathy has limits. “A mustad’af is an elderly man who can’t participate in jihad, a woman, a child,” says Farghali. “Not a man who’s capable of, what? Of fighting.” Somebody who can go to struggle is remitted — as a person, not a member of some native faction — “to fight on God’s path.” “As for someone mustad’af who goes out and fights alongside the regime, that’s not mustad’af,” he says. “And as for someone mustad’af who goes out and prevents the mujahideen from carrying out jihad, a lion with them and an ostrich with the regime, he’s not mustad’af. Islam doesn’t accept that, nor does reason, nor does religion or logic.”

Right here Farghali relates the concept of a innocent “mustad’af” to, in the host’s phrases, “fasil al-balad,” itself a nod to the principally natural and native character of Syria’s insurgency. HTS and another factions have a selected and outlined ideological character — a dedication to establishing a specific imaginative and prescient of Islamic rule by means of violence, a wrestle that, whilst it might be waged in Syria, is borderless in conception and rejects the worldwide order. Most of Syria’s rebels, on the different hand, are a kind of militarized expression of their native communities. To the extent they’ve a program, it appears to be “revolution” usually, and bringing down the Syrian authorities of Bashar al-Assad. But as their houses and communities, to which they’re inextricably linked, have fallen again beneath authorities management, many have laid down their arms or rejoined the Syrian army.

By one account, Farghali is a longtime jihadist who was jailed in Egypt’s equally infamous Aqrab jail from 2002 to 2011. After arriving in Syria in 2012, he and a number of other different Egyptians shaped a hardline foyer inside Ahrar al-Sham. They ultimately left Ahrar for HTS, turning into some of its most high-profile media personalities. Farghali — not solely ideologically distinct from most native fighters, however a real alien, a non-Syrian — insists on holding Syrian rebels to the similar uncompromising commonplace to which these HTS officers maintain themselves. But that may be a normal that’s probably unimaginable for many who, even after years of struggle, are nonetheless preventing for his or her cities and households, and who haven’t devoted their lives to itinerant militancy as Farghali and his comrades have.

These jihadists’ native embeddedness makes it harder to isolate and remove them. But it additionally means they’re surrounded by fighters who’re weak to communal pressures to give up and “reconcile.”

“Frogs” and “Geckos”

In fact, these HTS figures’ jihadist pedigrees don’t imply they’re wholly distinct from the broader Syrian opposition milieu. Mudhar al-Weis’s references to opposition slogans present how he and others are in dialogue with the opposition round them. However the greatest instance of how the three interact with opposition discourse is their joking riff on a novel piece of Syrian opposition slang: “frogs.”

Since the fall of Damascus’s rebel-held East Ghouta suburbs, the time period “frog” (difda’) has develop into widespread in opposition circles, after an East Ghouta sheikh named Bassam Difda’ who rallied locals in his rebel-held city to assist the Syrian army’s advance. Now it’s used to explain people inside opposition communities who, when the alternative presents itself, will “jump” to the authorities aspect.

Attoun laughs as he discusses ‘frogs.’

Attoun: “Just in this context, we can recall a term that spread lately — ‘frogs.’ (laughs) ‘Frogs,’ as a popular term, or a revolutionary term, there’s nothing wrong with it. As for a religious term, it’s according to the way we explained it. That is, there are frogs who jumped to join the regime, and there are frogs who reconciled with the regime … ”

Host: “So if someone says the ruling on someone is that he’s a ‘frog,’ that’s not enough.”

Attoun (laughing): “That’s not a religious ruling … ”

Weis: “On the subject of frogs: Really, we insult this creature, when we attribute to it these traitors. A frog is among the creatures that glorify God, and we’ve been discouraged from killing it, because it put out the fire on Abraham. As for those people: Really, they’re geckos.”

Host: “Right. Right.”

Farghali: “That’s a new term.”

Weis: “And the gecko … So we call things by their names, and in their right place.”

These HTS officers’ amused use of “frog” is a reminder that, whereas these veteran jihadists are invested in their very own insular references and debates, they’re additionally half of the opposition’s communities and tradition, together with its in-jokes and slang. Their rank-and-file troopers — who grew up inside Syria’s riot, not worldwide militancy — could also be much more built-in into their environment. (On geckos: Weis is presumably alluding to the Prophet Muhammad calling geckos “vermin.”)

The video, then, emphasizes Syrian jihadists’ diglossia: They converse the language of jihadism and the language of revolution, they usually perceive the right way to translate forwards and backwards.

Whether or not HTS is, at base, Syrian or not is a query with large sensible and political significance. The Syrian authorities characterizes its “terrorist” enemies as primarily overseas. They got here by means of Turkey, Overseas Minister Walid al-Moallem has stated, and they’ll depart via Turkey. Turkey, in the meantime, argues that the quantity of really hopeless radicals is far smaller, and that sections of HTS are Syrian, pragmatic, and probably salvageable. If they’re thought-about Syrian, then arguably they must be half of a ultimate Syrian settlement and a reconstituted Syrian society. If they’re aliens, as Damascus insists, the answer could also be expulsion or demise.

For its half, HTS insists it won’t go down and not using a struggle. In the video — once more, recorded earlier than the Sochi deal — its leaders say they completely refuse to put down arms. They’re ready to withstand, they are saying, and Idlib’s individuals are with them. In closing, Weis tells his “mujahideen brothers” they’re at “a historic, decisive moment.” “The Islamic nation expects much from you, so be up to that responsibility and that mission laid on your shoulders,” he says. “As for our [Syrian] people, we say to you, rely on God, and hold fast to him. Trust God Almighty, then trust in your mujahideen brothers and sons.’” In an Oct. 14 assertion, HTS tacitly endorsed the Sochi settlement’s phrases. But it additionally reiterated it will by no means surrender jihad or disarm.

Now, as Turkey endeavors to completely implement the Sochi settlement and save Syria’s northwest from a catastrophic army showdown, HTS’s twin nature is a component of why Turkey might have a troublesome time. HTS’s integral relationship with Syria’s opposition might make it unattainable to isolate the jihadists — or, conversely, it might give the Turks the opening they should interact and demobilize elements of the group.

Whether or not HTS’s personal intertwined identities permit it to be untangled from the opposition could also be what decides Idlib’s future.


Sam Heller is Worldwide Disaster Group’s Senior Analyst on Non-State Armed Teams, as half of the group’s work on Jihad in Trendy Battle. He has researched and written about the Syrian struggle since 2013 and is predicated in Beirut. Comply with Sam on Twitter: @AbuJamajem.