CATF Reports Feb. 14, 2017, 3:28pm

For the first time since the establishment of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) on January 28, its leader Hashem Al-Sheikh Abu Jaber made his first video appearance on February 9. Naturally, Abu Jaber called on the radical and moderate Syrian rebel groups that merged into Hayat Tahrir al-Sham to join forces towards Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s ouster, and announced an imminent military escalation against the Syrian army and its allies. More importantly, his statements shed light on the nature and agenda of the new umbrella group. Hayar Tahrir al-Sham arose from the ashes of Jabhat Fathah al-Sham (JFS, the former al-Nusra Front), al-Qaeda’s most prominent affiliate in Syria, and is purported to have largely inherited its predecessor’s strategic approach as well as a conspicuous number of JFS ranking members against Abu Jaber’s claims that the new entity is “not an extension of previous organizations or factions”.

Al-Nusra’s affiliation with al-Qaeda has always been perceived as particularly problematic for the powerful Syrian actor. Their acknowledged link at once directly countered al-Qaeda’s efforts to minimize international attention and posed stringent legal obstacles to al-Nusra’s financiers, who had to turn to creative solutions to funnel material and financial support to the terrorist designated group. In an interview with Aljazeera, Abu Jaber himself reiterated that the al-Qaeda-Nusra connection brought unwanted scrutiny that hampered revolutionary efforts, a concern that triggered al-Nusra’s rebranding operation in July 2016. Yet JFS’s fundamental continuity with al-Qaeda remained, and allegedly persists in HTS. Foundation for Defense of Democracies Senior Fellow Thomas Joscelyn reported that Abu Jaber has overtly professed his belief in a “popular jihad” centered on a grassroots approach towards the establishment of jihadi governance in Syria. In striking contrast with ISIS’ authoritarian methods and “elite jihad”, al-Qaeda has often preached the necessity to gradually engage the population in order to win their hearts and minds, thereby rendering al-Qaeda a much more difficult player to marginalize, and its appeal harder to corrode. It is also indicative that Abu Jaber previously served as the former emir of Ahrar al-Sham, a Salafi militant group that was never formally affiliated with al-Qaeda yet heavily permeated by Qaedist forces.

HTS leadership’s alignment with the Qaedist line is further corroborated by the natural confluence of most JFS fighters in the HTS ranks. HTS reported last month that six prominent jihadi theorists have joined the organization, including U.S. terrorist designated al-Qaeda cleric Abdullah Mohammed al-Muhaysini, who also served as a representative, advisor and fundraiser for al-Nusra. Notably, Muhaysini organized and supported the Qatar-based fundraising campaign Mahdid Ahl al-Sham, one of the most effective crowd-funding efforts on behalf of the terrorist group in Syria.

Hayat Tahrir al-Sham’s Qaedist legacy seems to suggest that the very establishment of the new group was instrumental to further consolidate JFS’s influence in Syria and to advance al-Qaeda’s agenda in the Levant in the long run. Especially through al-Nusra and marginally through Ahrar al-Sham, al-Qaeda has pursued a deliberate attempt to establish itself as a competitor for ISIS and remains committed to offer a credible governance alternative form as ISIS faces mounting military pressure and its safe haven shrinks. Arguably, HTS’s commitment to the Assad ouster could contribute to the removal of a major obstacle to al-Qaeda’s ultimate goal of the establishment an al-Qaeda-led Islamic emirate in Syria.

From The Long War Journal:

“Abu Jaber begins his speech by mentioning the many “difficulties” the insurgents in Syria currently face, including “military, political, [and] civil” challenges. He says that HTS was formed “to safeguard the gains of the revolution and the land that was liberated” with the blood of thousands of “martyrs.”

He emphasizes that HTS “is an independent entity and not an extension of previous organizations or factions.” Instead, he claims, “it is a merger where all factions and titles were dissolved and disintegrated.” With these lines, Abu Jaber undoubtedly intends to distance HTS from the legacy of al Qaeda’s official arm, which he and others now argue no longer exits.

The creation of HTS “ushers in a new stage in the life of the blessed revolution” and seeks to unite the various insurgent groups under the banner of “one entity,” with a “unified leadership” that “will guide the political and military work of the Syrian revolution toward achieving its goal.” Their chief mission, Abu Jaber stresses, is to topple Bashar al Assad’s regime. And HTS will be begin its “military work” against the regime in short order. This “war of liberation” will “achieve great victories,” he promises.”

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