AMMAN- The U.S.-led “Global Coalition to Defeat Daesh” carried out two airstrikes in northwestern Syria in July and August, targeting camps run by Huras al-Din and Ansar al-Tawhid extremist militant groups.
It is unusual for the Coalition to conduct airstrikes in northwest Syria, as Russia and the Syrian government are the primary parties carrying out attacks on the area. Further, the area is included in a de-escalation zone created by Russia and Turkey, with Iranian participation, during the Astana Talks.
The August strike on Ansar al-Tawhid was particularly surprising, drawing questions about its timing and motivations. It seemed to validate Moscow and Ankara’s efforts to implement the Astana accords, which excludes “terrorist groups” from the de-escalation zone in northwest Syria, and Turkish attempts to dissolve HTS and absorb them into the Turkish-backed National Front for Liberation (NFL)’s ranks.
Though HTS is typically considered a Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate, it did not have a present at the leadership meeting of Syrian al-Qaeda affiliates which was targeted by the August strike, a source close to the group told Syria Direct.
The meeting was held in a training camp for Huras al-Din leaders and Ansar al-Tawhid recruits.
Ansar al-Tawhid was originally a part of Jund al-Aqsa, a US-designated terrorist group, but broke off from Jund al-Aqsa in October 2016, after the latter joined HTS. The split was precipitated by Jund al-Aqsa’s loss of control over the northern countryside of Hama after the group lost in battle to Ahrar al-Sham.
The group, led by Abu Diyab Sarmin, is made up of “approximately 1000 fighters, the large majority of them not Syrians,” according to the source close to HTS. HTS has targeted the group in its recent security campaign and arrested its religious leader, Abu Hakim al-Jazrawi.
A scapegoat for the Russian-Turkish agreement
Despite Russia expressing displeasure at the Coalition strike within the de-escalation zone in Idlib province—the Russian Ministry of Defense saying it “endangered the truce”—the attack furthers Turkey and Russia’s goal of removing terrorists from the de-escalation zone.
“This strike, in addition to other operations, aims to get rid of those that reject that political solution,” an Idlib-based analyst specializing in Syrian jihadist groups told Syria Direct. “Anyone who stands in the way of the [Turkish-Russian] project and the opening of the international highways will be discarded in any way possible.”
“Al-Jolani [the leader of HTS] will present foreign fighters as a scapegoat to protect his group,” the analyst said, speaking under the condition of anonymity for security reasons.
Foreign fighters realize that al-Jolani is intending “to get rid of them in the case that he reaches a deal with Turkey, thus why they held a military meeting,” the analyst added, referring to the meeting of Al-Qaeda leadership which was targeted by the Coalition airstrike in August.
The source reinforced his assessment of al-Jolani’s intentions by citing an incident in which HTS might have leaked information to the Coalition to eliminate his rivals.
“Al-Jolani welcomed an Al-Qaeda messenger to Syria, who was carrying a plan for the future of [jihadist] groups there. Despite the messenger hiding for four months, as soon as he left his hiding place, he was killed in a Coalition airstrike. Al-Jolani could be behind the leak concerning the [messenger].”
Foreign fighters are close in their ideology to HTS, despite many of them belonging to other jihadi factions in northwest Syria, according to the source close to HTS. Generally, they reject a political solution to the Syrian crisis and follow Al-Qaeda’s instructions.
However, recent internal political disputes have led to a fissure between foreign fighters and HTS.
HTS formally broke with Al-Qaeda in July 2016, changing its name from Jabhat al-Nusra to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, before finally becoming HTS. “Relations between al-Jolani and the foreign fighters shifted since his announcement of the group’s name change from Jabhat al-Nusra to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham,” the HTS source said.
Further, contrary to HTS’s announcement that it refuses Turkey’s proposed dissolution and will continue fighting, the source close to HTS claimed that “al-Jolani is closer to Turkey than ever before,” pointing to the fact that HTS “agreed to open the roads” for Russia, specifically the Damascus-Aleppo highway (M5) and the Latakia-Aleppo highway (M4).
HTS has taken a flexible stance as Russia and Turkey play an increasingly larger role in the region, acting as guarantors for the de-escalation zone and holding talks about the future of the region. HTS gave their protection to the first Turkish tanks entering Idlib, which led foreign fighters to break from the group and form their own factions, among them Huras al-Din.
Coalition strikes against extremist groups thus seem to benefit HTS, as they allow the group to avoid going to war “to uproot the foreign fighters, which might lead to an exhaustion of their forces, in addition to them being unwilling to tolerate the anger of Al-Qaeda’s leadership,” according to the source close to HTS.
Though both sides [foreign fighters and al-Jolani] realize that “confrontation is inevitable, they are delaying it.”
Foreign fighters in northwest Syria
Working independently of HTS, foreign fighters in northwest Syria are dispersed across several groups, carving out individual zones of influence within HTS-controlled territory.
Huras al-Din was created by Sami al-Oraydi and Abu Julaibib al-Urduni (Iyad al-Tubasi) after they were arrested and subsequently released by HTS. They formed the group by conglomerating several smaller militant jihadist groups, such as Jaysh al-Sahel, Jaysh al-Malahem, Jaysh al-Badiya, Saraya Kabul, Katibat al-Battar, Katibat Abu Bakr al-Sediq and Katibat Abu Ubaidah Amer Ibnul Jarrah.
There are between 1000 and 2000 fighters in the organization, the majority non-Syrian, according to the source close to HTS. The fighters are concentrated in the areas overlooking Syria’s western coast, between the northern Hama countryside and Latakia. Their leadership is made up of al-Oraydi, al-Tubasi, Abu al-Humam al-Shami, and Abu al-Qasem al-Urduni (Khalid al-Aruri).
Contrary to Huras al-Din, Syrian fighters constitute the backbone of Ansar al-Din Front, a group that is led by led by Abu Abdullah al-Fajr and made up of 1000 fighters, most of which were members of HTS before Ansar al-Din split from the group.
Ansar al-Din is a participant of the military operation room “Rouse the Believers,” created to resist Syrian government forces on northwest Syria.
Both Ansar al-Din and Ansar al-Islam are limited in their equipment and supplies.
Ansar al-Islam, which first surfaced in Syria in 2014 and traces its roots to Iraqi Kurdistan, is the least populous of the Syrian jihadist groups and is mostly made up of Kurdish Salafists.
Despite disputes, Huras al-Din, Ansar al-Tawhid, Ansar al-Islam and Ansar al-Din are all united in their “opposition to a political solution and Turkey’s or any other force’s invasion,” according to the source close to HTS.