Fatah a-Sham cleric on why he defected: ‘I had to announce my innocence’

Five opposition factions in Idlib province, including the former Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat Fatah a-Sham, announced a merger on Saturday, forming a new alliance known as Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham (“Committee of the Liberation of the Levant”).

The move, announced in a statement circulated online, follows weeks of infighting between various rebel groups in the opposition-held western Aleppo countryside and neighboring Idlib that drove at least six FSA-aligned groups to join forces with Ahrar a-Sham last week.

The two separate mergers come amidst heightened tensions between JFS and other opposition fighters, as the former “attacks other factions without any real reason,” Abu Hassan al-Kuwaiti, a JFS religious cleric who defected last week tells Syria Direct’s Osama Abu Zeid.

Originally from Kuwait, the cleric announced his defection from JFS after its fighters attacked FSA-linked militia Jaish al-Mujahideen, “a crime,” al-Kuwaiti says from an undisclosed location in Syria.

“As a consequence, I announced my innocence and my defection from JFS.”

Al-Kuwaiti is not alone. At least four other JFS religious clerics and commanders have defected in recent days, activists on the ground tell Syria Direct.

 Saturday’s statement announcing the formation of Hay'at Tahrir a-Sham. Photo courtesy of Tahrir a-Sham.

The defections come as JFS has found itself under increased pressure in recent weeks from an intensified bombing campaign led by the United States. US military officials claim that strikes by “manned and unmanned” aircraft have killed “more than 150 Al-Qaeda terrorists” since January 1.

A three-week-old nationwide ceasefire brokered by Turkey and Russia does not include JFS, and the group was not invited to attend last week’s peace talks in Kazakhstan.

Q: When did you decide to defect from JFS and why?

When JFS attacked Jaish al-Mujahideen and other groups, this constituted a crime. As a consequence, I had to announce my innocence and my defection from JFS, as did other good people like myself.

[Ed.: Inter-rebel clashes came to a head last Monday when JFS, formerly known as Jabhat a-Nusra, attacked headquarters and positions belonging to the Free Syrian Army (FSA)-affiliated faction Jaish al-Mujahideen in the opposition-held western Aleppo countryside and neighboring Idlib province.]

Additionally, I chose this path because no good can come from associating with those who deny the opinions of religious scholars. This will cause despotism to prevail and repeat itself, as with the Islamic State, who deny the rulings of the sharia court.

[Ed.: The JFS attack drew condemnation from opposition-affiliated jurists. A statement posted online by four independent clerics last Tuesday, including the prominent Saudi Salafi cleric Sheikh Abdullah Muhammad al-Muhaysini as a signatory, urged JFS to “withdraw” and bring any quarrel with Jaish al-Mujahideen to a religious court.]

When you stay silent about injustice, you cannot find peace. Peace is when you find God through doing good deeds.

Q: Why did Jabhat Fatah a-Sham attack military opposition factions in northern Syria?

JFS attacked other factions without any real reason. They claimed that their fighters, commanders and clerics were mobilizing against various other opposition factions who had called for fighting JFS at the Astana conference—which, according to our intel, they did not actually call for.

[Ed:. Representatives from the Syrian government and armed opposition convened last week in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, for talks organized by Turkey, Russia and Iran. JFS posted a statement online accusing several rebel groups in attendance, including Jaish al-Mujahideen, of conspiring against them during delegations. Kazakhstan’s Foreign Minister Kairat Abdrakhmanov read a final statement by Turkey, Russia and Iran at the conference’s closing saying the three guarantor states “reiterate the determination to fight jointly against ISIL-Daesh and al-Nusra [the former name of JFS].”]

JFS spreads these rumors to cause the various factions to fight one another.

Considering this, JFS needs to demonstrate their legitimacy through a fatwa issued from sharia authorities, who are widely accepted by other jihadists on the scene.

Q: The Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham alliance, which includes Fatah a-Sham, Nour e-Din a-Zinki, Liwa al-Haqq, Ansar a-Din and Jaysh a-Sunnah, announced its formation just days after number of opposition factions merged with Ahrar a-Sham. What is your reaction to the new mergers and their timing?

Ahrar a-Sham was a key player in Syria since the outbreak of the revolution and the jihadist movements. On the other hand, there is nobody who denies the contributions of JFS through its victories and sacrifices.  

However, recent days have brought violent clashes that seemed like they would never end. Then the initiative [to form Tahrir a-Sham] arose and brought relief that stopped the fighting.

[Ed.: Since Saturday, when participating armed groups announced Tahrir a-Sham’s formation, there have been far fewer reports of inter-rebel clashes across Idlib province and the western Aleppo countryside.]

Today we bless the formation of a new alliance under one unified banner, and we call on the various armed groups to gather and understand one another so perhaps we may live in harmony and confer with one another on military matters.

Anyone who is sane and righteous should support this merger, which is beneficial and brings an end to the infighting, and halts the attacks of [JFS leader] Abu Mohammad al-Jolani. There must be a high sharia court that everybody will follow without any exceptions. And we ask God that we will all be under one banner very soon.

Osama Abu Zeid

Osama Abu Zeid is a native of Homs, where he served as a media activist and founding member of the Homs Revolutionary Council after the Syrian uprising began in 2011.

Madeline Edwards

Madeline Edwards graduated from the College of Charleston with a bachelor’s degree in International Studies and Political Science in 2016. She was a Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) recipient in Arabic in 2013. Her studies have brought her to Jordan, Palestine and Turkey.