AMMAN: One of the largest factions of Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham (HTS) in Idlib province announced both its defection from the hardline Islamist coalition and its own independence on Thursday, citing HTS’s unwillingness to put a stop to this week’s deadly rebel infighting.
Harakat Nour e-Din a-Zinki, one of the five main battalions in HTS, with an estimated 7,000 fighters as of February, announced its defection from the hardline coalition on Thursday afternoon in a statement circulated on social media. HTS largely controls Idlib province’s northern countryside and south-central region.
In the statement, Tawfiq Shahab a-Din, the head of Nour e-Din a-Zinki, cited “the absence of sharia governance” in HTS-controlled territory and “the decision to fight Ahrar a-Sham,” a rival Islamist coalition that controls large sections of northern Idlib, as reasons for withdrawing from the rebel alliance.
“The compass has lost its path, and the rifle has strayed from its target,” read the Zinki statement.
Nour e-Din a-Zinki was one of the five original factions that formed Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham in January 2017 alongside former Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat Fatah a-Sham, Syria Direct reported at the time.
The Zinki militia was once considered a moderate rebel group affiliated with the Free Syrian Army and has previously received funding as CIA-vetted battalion through the MOM, a Turkish-based joint operations center.
But the battalion’s funding was cut off in 2015 after a series of abuses by Zinki, notably a video that surfaced online showing fighters beheading a young Palestinian boy in Aleppo accused of being part of a pro-regime militia.
Nour e-Din a-Zinki fighters in Aleppo province, July 2016. Photo courtesy of Harakat Nour e-Din a-Zinki.
Nour e-Din a-Zinki was one of the main opposition groups fighting in besieged east Aleppo, and many of their fighters left the encircled enclave for the city’s western countryside and nearby Idlib province in a December 2016 surrender agreement.
The following month, the rebel battalion merged with four other Islamist groups in Idlib province to form Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham.
Nour e-Din a-Zinki’s defection from the Islamist coalition points to fractures within the administrative and military structure of Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham.
"The Shura Council of HTS overstepped its boundaries in deciding to fight Ahrar a-Sham,” said Tawfiq Shahab a-Din in Thursday’s defection statement, “considering that the formation of HTS was built upon interfactional unity.”
Zinki’s defection comes after three days of clashes between HTS and rival rebel alliance Harakat Ahrar a-Sham because of a dispute over Ahrar a-Sham’s use of the flag of the Syrian revolution, Syria Direct reported on Wednesday. Rebel infighting in Idlib province on Wednesday killed 12 people, including fighters and civilians, with both sides reportedly using heavy artillery.
On Wednesday night, three jurists in Idlib province—one aligned with HTS, the other two independent—released a statement on social media calling for both sides in the conflict “to put an end all hostilities.”
The three jurists detailed a proposed initiative in which both of the rebel coalitions would send three delegates to peacefully resolve the inter-rebel dispute alongside mediators.
Ahrar a-Sham agreed to the proposed peacekeeping initiative within hours of its release in a statement posted on their official social media accounts, adding that they retained the right to “respond to any [HTS] transgressions.”
Nour e-Din a-Zinki issued its own statement—independent of HTS—on Wednesday evening in support of the initiative to end the inter-rebel clashes.
"In light of the saddening infighting and bloodshed,” the statement read. “We call on our brothers in Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham to stop the current infighting between them…and reply to this initiative.”
Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham did not issue a response until Thursday afternoon. But the statement released through encrypted messaging app Telegram did not express clear support or refusal of the initiative.
“The statement did not reject the initiative,” Emad a-Din Mujahid, the head of media relations for HTS, told Syria Direct on Thursday. “We accepted it with conditions.”
“We don’t want temporary solutions…a total solution would to stop this fragmentation and division,” he added.
But HTS’s perceived lack of willingness to end infighting with their rivals has resulted in the defection of thousands of Nour e-Din a-Zinki fighters.
“We cannot remain with a group that does not want to reconcile, and we decided to leave for this main reason,” a media spokesman for Nour e-Din a-Zinki, who asked to remain anonymous, told Syria Direct on Thursday.
Nour e-Din a-Zinki will not merge with Ahrar a-Sham or another coalition after the defection, several members of the rebel battalion announced over social media on Thursday.
“Nour e-Din a-Zinki will be a force independent of these two sides,” Sheikh Ibrahim, the head cleric for Zinki, said on Thursday in a voice recording released on Telegram shortly after the defection statement was issued.
In the voice recording, Sheikh Ibrahim said that 8,000 fighters from Nour e-Din a-Zinki were defecting from Islamist coalition HTS.
Syria Direct asked the Zinki media spokesman about the figure. He said that at this time he could not confirm that number.