PARIS — Hours after five Kurdish civilians were shot and killed by Ankara-backed Syrian National Army (SNA) fighters in Jenderes city during a dispute over a fire lit to celebrate Nowruz on the night of March 20, the victims’ families headed to nearby Atma city, controlled by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), seeking protection and accountability for the perpetrators.
HTS leader Abu Muhammad al-Jolani and other commanders rushed to Atma to meet with the Jenderes residents, after they chanted “we want HTS.” In a video taken upon his arrival in the city, al-Jolani vowed to those there that “this is the last day you will be attacked,” telling them they would return to their homes “strengthened and honored.”
In the early morning of March 21, HTS forces deployed in the streets of Jenderes and seized control of headquarters belonging to the military police and the SNA’s Eastern Army, the faction to which those accused of killing the five Kurdish men belonged.
It was the second time in six months that al-Jolani’s forces pushed outside his sphere of influence and into northern Aleppo. In October 2022, HTS backed the SNA-affiliated Sultan Suleiman Shah Division (locally known as al-Amshat) and the Hamza Division (al-Hamzat) in an armed confrontation between the divisions and the SNA’s Third Legion after both were implicated in the assassination of a media activist in the northern Aleppo city of al-Bab.
The latest intervention, while short-lived, underscores al-Jolani’s efforts to expand in the northern Aleppo countryside, taking advantage of an apparent lack of Turkish resolve to limit his ambitions. The circumstances surrounding the HTS commander’s response to the Jenderes killings also raise the question of whether al-Jolani is attempting to promote himself as a protector of religious and ethnic minorities in the region in the service of his designs on territorial expansion.
Areas of control in northwestern Syria, 13/4/2023 (Syria Direct)
Turkey stands in the way
Days after intervening in Jenderes, HTS forces withdrew from the city under Turkish military pressure. A similar scenario played out in October 2022, when Ankara forced HTS to pull out after its forces seized most SNA-controlled areas in the northern Aleppo countryside, particularly in and around Afrin, and portrayed them as being under HTS administration.
Despite withdrawing from Jenderes, HTS has retained an indirect security presence there, as it did after pulling out from SNA areas captured six months before. This security presence is under the cover of other SNA factions that are loyal to HTS, such as al-Amshat and others, three military and civilian sources told Syria Direct.
“HTS increased the number of security forces it has in the area, bringing in new reinforcements following the Jenderes incident,” a military police commander in Afrin told Syria Direct. He asked to remain anonymous for security reasons. “The new and previous reinforcements are stationed at the headquarters of military factions associated with the HTS current, such as Ahrar al-Sham, al-Amshat, al-Shahba Gathering and others,” he added.
HTS “security forces are preparing for the decisive moment,” the commander said. He expected “al-Jolani will put everyone—the Turks, the SNA and the Interim Government—under a fait accompli and announce the merger of the two governments [the Syrian Interim Government (SIG) and the HTS-backed Syrian Salvation Government (SSG)] and the SNA with its military institution.”
Read more: Interests over ideology: Why al-Jolani is expanding into northern Aleppo, and how Turkey might respond
The minority card
In late August 2022, the people of al-Yaqoubiya, a Christian village in the HTS-controlled Jisr al-Shughour area west of Idlib city, opened the St. Anna Church and held religious rites in it for the first time in around 10 years.
In June of the same year, al-Jolani appeared with a number of HTS commanders and Salvation Government officials in the Druze-majority Jabal al-Sumaq area of the Idlib countryside, during the inauguration of a well serving the area. During the event, al-Jolani met with a number of Druze notables and promised to increase efforts to improve services and public facilities in the area.
Al-Jolani’s appearance provoked a wave of anger from hardline jihadist currents within HTS, as well as those defected from it, such as former HTS commander Abu al-Alaa al-Shami. “The shape-shifting al-Jolani enters as a trafficker and beggar on the doorsteps of Western intelligence through the doorway of minorities,” al-Shami said in a post on Telegram. “It is a wide door through which dictators and tyrants beg for foreign acceptance and satisfaction.”
Earlier, HTS areas saw the celebration of Christmas by remaining Christians at the start of 2021, years after they stopped practicing their religious rituals in the area or were deprived of doing so.
Despite the criticism directed at al-Jolani, he has continued an approach of making use of religious and ethnic minorities to polish his image, a Syrian researcher in Turkey told Syria Direct on condition of anonymity. The HTS commander has “tried with the Druze and Christians in Idlib and the coast [areas of Latakia held by HTS], and now the Kurds,” he said.
This “does not mean a change in al-Jolani’s mentality towards minorities, but only a change in his policy,” the researcher said. He called the commander’s overtures nothing more than “an attempt to exploit this issue in the context of his attempt to appear in a new image.”
When people in Jenderes chanted for al-Jolani after the five young men celebrating Nowruz were killed in March, “it was what he wanted to achieve with his policy of exploiting the minority card, which he has been working on for a long time,” said Muhammad al-Halabi (a pseudonym), a journalist living in the Afrin countryside.
“We Arabs in Afrin are subjected to violations by the SNA, like the Kurds, but al-Jolani only came to champion the Kurds, because they are an ethnic minority and he is trying to exploit this,” al-Halabi told Syria Direct, speaking on condition that his real name not be revealed for security reasons.
Is al-Jolani popular?
“We want any third party to rid us of the injustice and violations of the factions, and to stop the crimes against us,” Umm Muhammad, a 29-year-old Kurdish woman in Jenderes who volunteers at a humanitarian organization in the city, told Syria Direct.
“Abu Muhammad al-Jolani is not an ideal option for us, given his long track record of violations in Idlib,” but he is “better” compared to Turkish-backed SNA factions in the Aleppo countryside, she said. “He has real security, service and judicial institutions,” she added. “Nobody comes after you” in HTS areas “unless you cross the red lines.”
Journalist Khaled al-Khateb, who lives in the northern Aleppo countryside, agreed. “Ordinary people, especially those who have been subjected to violations by SNA factions in Afrin, welcome any party that gives them their rights and rids them of injustice,” he told Syria Direct.
This is not true of all SNA-held areas, al-Khateb added. In parts of northern Aleppo captured by Ankara-backed factions during Turkey’s 2016 Operation Euphrates Shield, “there is a greater awareness of the danger of al-Jolani, and that HTS entering means a black mark on the area.”
The call by Kurdish residents of Jenderes for HTS intervention “expresses the popular mood in Afrin, Arabs and Kurds [alike],” Afrin-based journalist al-Halabi said. “They have come to support the idea of al-Jolani coming in for the sake of a safer life. People view HTS areas of control as more secure and law-abiding, not to mention that they are controlled by a single party.”
“Certainly, when we came out to demonstrate 12 years ago, al-Jolani was not our demand. But today, he is the best of those that exist,” compared with SNA factions, al-Halabi said.
Al-Halabi lives in a small camp in SNA-controlled territory, a few kilometers from HTS-controlled Atma. When he visits Idlib, “the first HTS checkpoint stops me at the entrance, and then I can move about to the farthest point in the west or south, and no other checkpoint stops me,” he said. “I don’t see armed manifestations inside cities and towns, unlike here in SNA areas.”
The comparison between the two areas, in al-Halabi’s mind, is not only military. He believes HTS areas are administratively better off, citing “the process of controlling the markets, public life, monitoring food quality and supply, which are tasks performed by Salvation Government institutions.”
He regularly buys what he needs from HTS-controlled Atma, preferring that to going to Jenderes city, which is closer to him, because of the “difference in prices and quality,” the journalist said. “In Atma, prices are cheaper and the product is better, because of the Salvation Government’s oversight of the markets.”
Such attitudes, alongside other factors, prompt a segment of the population of the Aleppo countryside to accept Jolani. This is true for al-Halabi, although he fears HTS, given its record of violations against civilians and journalists in Idlib. “I console myself a little that HTS is trying to change,” he remarked.
Still, a wide segment of the population rejects HTS expansion into northern Aleppo, and this cannot be overlooked, the Syrian researcher in Turkey said. He pointed to “popular demonstrations” that broke out in October against HTS’ entry into northern Aleppo. The SNA may be bad, but “al-Jolani is still rejected by many, because of his project.”
Ever since HTS first stormed the northern Aleppo countryside in October 2022 and kept a security presence there after it withdrew, it has become easier for HTS and Salvation Government leaders to move between the two areas of control, journalist al-Khateb said. “Many HTS figures visit the area continuously and easily, amid SNA factions’ negligence towards that.”
Al-Jolani has succeeded in “curtailing al-Jabha al-Shamiya [the main force in the SNA’s Third Legion], which once had the same plan [to be the sole party in control of] northern Aleppo, after intervening months ago and imposing a new reality on the area with two small battles,” researcher Manhal Bareesh told Syria Direct from his residence in Turkey. “It continues to threaten invasion and force,” he added.
Although HTS does not have a formal military presence in Jenderes and the rest of the northern Aleppo countryside—only security forces and figures indirectly affiliated with it—the presence it does have “comes along with the constant threat of military intervention,” Bareesh said. “Al-Jolani was able to play smart, and through this policy he will be able to impose his control over the area as time goes by.”
Read more: Is Hayat Tahrir al-Sham withdrawing from the Aleppo countryside, or staying in the shadows?
Journalist al-Khateb expected that “al-Jolani will continue his efforts, and if he receives a green light or regional directives to complete his plan, this will be translated on the ground” as part of “his main goal of increasing the geographical area [he controls], with the political and economic gains that come along with that.”
The SNA’s Third Legion is the main party opposing HTS. But since its confrontation with it six months ago, and the military readjustments in its ranks that followed as a result, “it cares more about internal housekeeping,” al-Khateb added. “It no longer seeks confrontation with HTS, and does not have the ability to do so.”
When HTS stormed SNA areas of northern Aleppo last October, Turkish forces played the decisive role in “forcing it to retreat” and withdraw its convoys, researcher Bareesh said. “The Turks don’t want HTS, but meddling with the alliances being formed in northern Aleppo plays into al-Jolani taking control,” he added.
Recent military alliances formed between SNA factions are no longer linked with Turkey so much as in response to the threat of al-Jabha al-Shamiya. In this context, al-Hamzat and al-Amshat have formed an alliance with al-Jolani, while the latter helped “found and support the new al-Shahbaa Gathering,” Bareesh explained. “I believe they are strategic alliances that will shape the future of the area.”
So far, Turkey’s stance seems “clear, which is the rejection of al-Jolani’s presence,” the Turkey-based Syrian researcher said. “But whenever negotiations between Ankara and [al-Jabha] al-Shamiya become tense, al-Jolani comes out and says ‘I’m the alternative, and I’m popularly accepted.’”
In the latest Jenderes operation, “al-Jolani sent two messages to the Turks,” the researcher said. “First: ‘I am capable of controlling the area in terms of security, and managing it, compared to the SNA factions.’ And second: ‘People want me.’” While these messages met with limited Turkish rejection, “this could be due to the fact that the al-Jolani issue is tied to other files that are unresolved,” he added.
“The Turks have allowed some figures, like Abu Amsha [commander of the Sultan Suleiman Shah Division (al-Amshat)], to coordinate with al-Jolani. This means that, for Ankara, the matter is linked with what shape the final solution takes, and other regional variables,” the researcher said.
Given the HTS commander’s attempts to extend his influence into northern Aleppo and his practice of playing on minority issues to portray himself in a positive light, speculation about his possible involvement in the Jenderes killings followed the incident. Activists circulated a picture of the commander of the Eastern Army group that carried out the killings standing next to al-Jolani, claiming it was taken days before the incident. Syria Direct could not confirm the authenticity of the image or when it was taken.
Citing the photo, and HTS’ swift intervention in Jenderes hours after the killings, the Syrian researcher in Turkey did not rule out the possibility of HTS involvement, noting that “the criminals who were arrested were hiding in headquarters of Ahrar al-Sham, which is affiliated with HTS.”
This report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Mateo Nelson.