By Uran Botobekov*
The US State Department announced on May 31, 2018, that it has amended the terror designation for Sunni Jihadi group Al Nusrah Front (also known as Jabhat al-Nusra) to include the “alias” Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS).It should be noted that Al Nusrah Front is primarily known for being the Syrian unit of Al Qaeda and the militant leader of the Central Asian Islamic terrorist groups Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad, Katibat al-Imam Bukhari, the Turkestan Islamic Party and Katibat al Ghuraba al Turkistani.
The State’s statement says that «in January 2017, al-Nusrah Front launched the creation of HTS as a vehicle to advance its position in the Syrian uprising and to further its own goals as an al Qaeda affiliate». Since then, the “group has continued to operate through HTS in pursuit of these objectives.”
Ambassador Nathan A. Sales, State’s Coordinator for Counterterrorism, noted that “today’s designation serves notice that the United States is not fooled by this al Qaeda affiliate’s attempt to rebrand itself. Whatever name Nusrah chooses, we will continue to deny it the resources it seeks to further its violent cause.”State’s actions notify the U.S. public and the international community that Hayat Tahrir al-Sham is an alias of al-Nusrah Front.The United States’ decision put a firm end to the speculative “games” between two leaders Ayman al Zawahiri and Abu Muhammad al Julani to hide their criminal ties and to present HTS as a new independent revolutionary movement in Syria, not related to the terrorist organization al Qaeda.
As is known, Salafist Jihadist group Al Nusrah Front after announced its formation in 2011, rapidly grew in influence and played the central role in the dynamics of the conflict in the Syrian Civil War. Al-Nusra was partly the product of Qatari funding and Turkish logistical support that were directed to Syria on the basis that jihadism would be the quickest way to topple the Assad regime.Al Nusrah was and remains an official branch of al Qaeda. Therefore, the counterterrorism officers described Al Nusrah Front as al Qaeda in Syria or al Qaeda in the Levant.
On December 12, 2012, the United States designated Jabhat al-Nusra as a foreign terrorist organization, followed by the United Nations Security Council. In July 2016, to avoid US sanctions the group was rebranded as Jabhat Fath al-Sham, as a new pro-Sunni player in the Syrian Civil War. Julani, the leader of Al Nusrah/JFS, said at the time that his organization has split from al Qaeda. He argued this step that the move was intended to remove the pretext used by powers, including the US and Russia, to bomb Syrians. Because of tactical considerations, alQaeda supported the split. Ayman al-Zawahiri vaguely added: “The brotherhood of Islam is stronger than any organizational links that change and go away.”
The US authorities never believed the speculative game between al Qaeda and Al Nusrah Front. They responded by saying it saw no reason to change its view of the group as a terrorist organization. Furthermore, in May 2017, the State Department announced a reward of up to $10 million for information on Julani’s whereabouts. The notice referred to Julani as the “senior leader” of Al Nusrah Front, the “Syria branch of al Qaeda.”
And finally, as we at the beginning of this article said, following the firm logic to fight against al Qaeda, the US recently has updated the designation of the Al Nusrah Front despite the its decision to split from the al Qaeda and rebrand.
The Hayat Tahrir al-Sham’s objection to the US
June 1, 2018 HTS promptly responded to US authorities.The official statement of the HTS in Arabic, which is called “The New American Designation: The Double Standards Against the Syrian Revolution”, was distributed by the political department of the group.In its statement, the HTS accuses the US of the fact that “the American policy of non-interference allowed Russian occupiers to bomb Syrian cities and played into the hands of Iran and its militias.”
Further, the statement says that “instead of the renewing its policy in the region (the Middle East) and improving it for the better, the American leadership has proceeded to designate the HTS, the Sunni revolutionary entity, as international terrorism, which infringes upon the Syrian revolution again in favor of the Bashar regime and Iran.”HTS once again denied any connection with al Qaeda.At the same time, the group described itself as “a sword that protects the Islamic pro-Sunni Ummah from the criminal regime of Bashar Assad and his Iranian patrons.”HTS directly appealed to the US administration: “At the same time we are sending a message to the new U.S. administration, do not repeat the mistakes of the previous administration in establishing Iran and its militias in the Sunni Arab regions. Giving Iran the political green light increases their brutality and criminality in the region which has a negative effect on the Syrian people and their revolutions’ last bastion in the liberated North.”
In a statement HTS tried to assure the international community that “it aspires to have balanced relations built on cooperation with the neighboring countries which realizes stability and security in the region, it is not an organization that threatens the exterior or represents a danger to it”. This shows the growth of the international ambitions of HTS and his dream of taking power into his own hands.Therefore, the HTS’ statement turned out to be balanced, without unnecessary emotions, without empty promises to build the Caliphate, without calls to wage jihad against “American crusaders”, “unbeliever regimes”, “devil countries”. It is not characteristically to ISIS, al Qaeda and other jihadist groups’ statements.According to the tone and nature of the statement, it can be concluded that HTS strongly desires to become a party to international negotiations on the Syrian problem.In conclusion, the HTS appealed to the residents of the liberated territories (Sham) “to protest against the U.S. decision by standing protest and popular demonstrations”.
The HTS appeal was supported by the so-called Syrian Salvation Government (SSG) in Idlib, which decried the United States’ enlisting of the opposition group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) as a terrorist organization. The SSG said in a statement that the HTS is a faction of the Syrian Revolution factions, which stand with Syrians against criminals. The SSG claims that Washington is “silent” about other terrorist organizations, such as Hezbollah and Iranian and Iraqi militias, and accused the United States of supporting the “terrorist” Kurdish People’s Protection Units.
HTS is the combat mentor of Central Asia’s jihadist groups
The US State Department’s decision to include HTS in the list of world terrorist organizations will influence the future destiny and reduce the fighting capacity of the Central Asian jihadist groups that are under the al Qaeda’s umbrella. Because HTS from the very beginning of the Syrian war was and remains a combat mentor for Katibat al-Tawhid wal Jihad, Katibat al-Imam Bukhari and the Turkestan Islamic Party.In their unification, not only the ideology of al Qaeda but also Turkey, which conceived the idea of creating a broad pro-Sunni coalition against the Bashar Assad’s regime, played a huge role.Uzbek and Uighur jihadist groups have much in common with the Al Nusrah Front.
Al Qaeda backed Uzbek and Uygur jihadist groups, who fighting in Syria against the government forces of Bashar Assad, closely integrated into the ranks of HTS.At the same time, they managed to maintain their relative freedom.That is, they retained the name of their organizations, separate financial sources, have their own budget and their own material and technical base.
As is known, the affiliation of the Central Asian jihadist groups with the Al Nusrah Front occurred in 2012-14 on the recommendation of al Qaeda.They share the common ideological doctrine of al Qaeda and, on its call, did hijrah (the migration or journey of Muslims for Jihad)from Afghanistan and Central Asia to Syria to wage jihad against the “enemies of Islam.”The Uzbek and Uighur groups were stationed in the territories controlled by the Front-An-Nusra, in particular in Idlib, Aleppo, DeirezZor, Homs and Hama.They have a common enemy of the Bashar al-Assad regime and have a common goal to build in the Middle East a Shariah state.After the conquest of Sham and Afghanistan, they plan to apply their combat experience in Central Asia and establish a Caliphate with the ideology of al Qaeda in the Ferghana Valley and in Chinese Xinjiang.
During the tough struggle for leadership in the jihadist world between ISIS and al Qaeda, they all supported the position of Ayman al Zawahiri and Abu Muhammad al Julani.As a result, for the Central Asian Jihadist groups affiliated with the Front-An-Nusrah, another front of the war with the Muslim brothers of the Islamic state opened. On April 27, 2017, during the evening prayer in the mosque of a Syrian city of Idlib, the leader of Katibat al-Imam Bukhari Sheikh Salahuddin was killed based on orders from Al Baghdadi by an Uzbek militant from South Tajikistan, who was a member of ISIS. The Islamic State distributed the following statement via Telegram messenger in this regard, “The emir of detachment of the Katibat al-Imam Bukhari, Sheikh Salahuddin, was punished according to Sharia law for all the betrayals he committed.”
Unlike ISIS, which used jihadists from Central Asia to commit extreme forms of violence, al Qaeda backed HTS recommended that Uzbek and Uighur armed groups treat the local population more favorably.As a result, they had good relations with the local Arab Sunni people, some of them established family ties with the Syrians.As a result, they had good relations with the local Arab Sunni people, some of them established family ties with the Syrians.According to the Dubai-based Arabic Al Aan TV, around 20 000 Uyghurs from China’s Xinjiang established their village in Zanbaq and Jisr al Shughour, which has been substantially changed the demography of Idlib province. They are linked to the military wing of al Qaeda, HTS.But at the same time, Central Asian militants do not participate in local civilian management institutions that operate on the HTS controlled territory.This gives them the opportunity not to interfere in the everyday and economic problems of Idlib Province, such as tax collection, disputes in the Sharia court, which allowed them to bypass conflict situations with the local population.Therefore, the local Sunni population perceives them as defenders against repression by the Alawite army and Shiite militias of Iran.
The HTS backed Central Asian Jihadists groups adhered to the doctrine of al Qaeda’s leader Aman al-Zawahiri, who said that “We adapt to the practical reality wherever it is. We would take into account the circumstances of each jihadist arena and what achieves its interests.” As a result, they managed to maintain the fighting efficiency of its factions.The HTS backed Central Asian Jihadists groups adhered to the doctrine of al Qaeda’s leader Aman al-Zawahiri, who said that “We adapt to the practical reality wherever it is. We would take into account the circumstances of each jihadist arena and what achieves its interests.” As a result, they managed to maintain the fighting efficiency of its factions.
Iran’s multi-faceted strategy in Syria
Undoubtedly, the United States’ enlisting of the HTS as a terrorist organization aims to reduce a significant long-term threat to the West from alQaeda. While the West was busy with ISIS, HTS has quietly laid the groundwork for al Qaeda’s resurgence by using the potential of Central Asia’s Salafi-Jihadi groups. As a failed state on the Middle East, Syria remains the ideal staging ground for al Qaeda to rejuvenate its global campaign of terrorism through HTS.
However, along with this, the US decision can strengthen Bashar Assad’s position in the internal civil war and increase the influence of pro-Iranian Shiite military formations in the Middle East.Because the HTS militants are a serious obstacle against the military expansion of Iran’s Shiite mercenaries in Syria.Today HTS is fighting not only against the regime of Bashar Assad and its ideological opponents ISIS but also against the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps.
Iran’s influence in the Middle East is growing not only due to the participation of the Iranian military in the Syrian war but also due to the increase in Shiite settlers.The Guardianand Chatham House wrote that Iran managed to settle hundreds of thousands of Shiite settlers in Syria, where the Sunnis fled from the Civil war or were expelled.Tehran is building an arc of control stretching from its borders to Israel. The Assad regime granted citizenship to about two million Shiites from Iran and Lebanon in order to prevent the return of millions of displaced persons and refugees to their homes.Changing the demographic situation in Syria is the most serious threat to American interests in the region.Therefore, after HTS was designated on the list of global terrorist organizations, the US should develop additional levers to contain Iran’s ambitions in the region and support the Sunni majority from the attacks of Russia and Iran.
It should be expected that in order to avoid American military, economic and diplomatic persecution, the HTS will continue to portray itself as the vanguard of the Syrian revolution, and not as al Qaeda’s puppet.But after the State Department’s decision, it will be difficult to reformat HTS into a serious political player on the Syrian stage.
The U.S. has achieved some strategic successes in the fight against al Qaeda, ISIS and the global jihadist movement as a whole, but the war is far from over.Today, the US is breathing down the enemy’s neck, and the frontline against Islamic radicals is currently being limited to the Middle East, Central Asia and the African continent. Thanks to the professionalism of the US special services, jihadist lone wolves have not recently managed to penetrate inside the country under the guise of refugees and commit acts of terrorism, as it is happening on a monthly basis on the streets of European cities.
To prevent the future threat of al Qaeda, the United States must put an end to the multiple ways that al Qaeda and its puppets attempt to gain a foothold in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.
About the author:
*Uran Botobekov, Doctor of Political Science (PhD), expert on Political Islam
This article was published by Modern Diplomacy.