Leak Reveals Jihadists’ Weakening Grip in Syria’s Idlib
For more than two years, a Syrian jihadist group and neighboring Turkey have had a sort of murky accommodation, as each has sought to safeguard a rebel-held Syrian enclave harboring millions of civilians. Now, by the private admission of one of that group’s leading figures, that understanding has been unbalanced. The fate of this corner of Syria — and its multitudes of civilians — may depend on what each side does next.
Jihadist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) claims it used to be able to dictate terms to Turkey as the latter deployed troops to enforce a ceasefire inside Syria’s HTS-dominated Idlib governorate. Now HTS says it has lost control. In order to convince its members to keep fighting, it has apparently had to persuade them they aren’t dying for a Turkish occupation.
A newly leaked recording of a pep talk by HTS figure Abu al-Fateh al-Farghali to the group’s rank and file provides a unique insight into what HTS was telling its members as they defended Idlib from a Syrian military offensive earlier this year. Idlib is the Syrian opposition’s last real stronghold, still outside Syrian government control, but also free of the more hands-on tutelage Turkey has imposed in ostensibly “opposition-held” areas elsewhere in northern Syria. HTS has dominated Idlib since mid-2017, bringing other rebel factions to heel and installing a so-called Salvation Government to administer the area.
The al-Farghali recording suggests, though, that HTS’ grip on Idlib has slipped. Al-Farghali talks an assemblage of HTS fighters — precisely when and where they met is unclear — through the group’s dealings with Turkey and the terms he says HTS set for the Turkish military’s successive deployments inside Idlib. The relationship is a complicated one — al-Farghali makes explicit to his audience that HTS considers the Turkish army an “infidel,” “apostate” institution, and that the group conditioned Turkey’s deployment on that basis.
But now, as HTS-led rebels have lost more ground to the Syrian army and Turkey has injected more forces into Idlib unilaterally, al-Farghali says the terms the group originally imposed on Turkey from a position of strength are “void.”
Turkey has since made new promises to counter HTS, per the March 5 protocol it agreed with Russia to halt Idlib’s latest bout of violence. And if this leaked recording is to be believed, the modus vivendi that had existed between Turkey and HTS has been destabilized.
Turkey’s Deepening Involvement in Idlib
Syria’s northwestern Idlib governorate is the last major bastion of the Syrian opposition. This rebel-held pocket is home to nearly 3 million people, mostly civilians, including almost 2 million people displaced from elsewhere as the Syrian government has retaken more of the country. Idlib is also Syria’s last substantial concentration of jihadist militants, penned in with the area’s many needy civilians.
Turkey has been intent on preventing the collapse of opposition-controlled Idlib, which could push a huge new wave of refugees — and, mixed in, some of Idlib’s militants — across its border. To that end, it has struck a series of agreements with Syrian government allies Russia and Iran to forestall attacks on the rebel enclave.
Turkey, Russia, and Iran first agreed to designate Idlib a “de-escalation zone” in May 2017 in Kazakhstan’s capital, Astana. Then, in September 2017, the three guarantors announced they would station observer forces along the edge of the Idlib zone to prevent new hostilities and monitor ceasefire violations. Turkey massed Turkish and Syrian partner forces along its border with Idlib in October 2017. As HTS did the same on the other side, a confrontation seemed imminent. In addition to the Astana deal’s other provisions, the agreement had also committed the three signatories to combat “the Nusra Front” (Jabhat al-Nusra) and other U.N.-designated terrorist groups. HTS is the most recent iteration of Jabhat al-Nusra, which was Syria’s al-Qaeda affiliate before splitting with the transnational organization in 2017.
Ultimately, though, Turkish troops entered Syria on Oct. 8 in apparent coordination with HTS. The Turks then established three observation posts along the HTS-controlled Idlib zone’s northern edge.
For Turkey, a head-on confrontation with HTS has always seemed like it would be a costly mess, potentially sparking retaliatory attacks inside Turkey. But HTS was not created originally to fight Turkey. Since Jabhat al-Nusra’s leaders formed “HTS” in January 2017, the group has evidently sought to impose itself as a necessary interlocutor for any country interested in a solution for Idlib and the area’s millions of civilian residents. With Turkey’s Idlib deployment in October 2017, HTS’ strategy seemed to pay off.
As HTS defended against a Syrian military offensive bearing down on Idlib’s populous center in January 2018, the group allowed Turkey to establish an additional three positions on the zone’s eastern perimeter. Through May 2018, HTS then permitted Turkey to set up observation posts around the rest of the Idlib zone, for a final total of 12 points.
Late that summer, Russia escalated its rhetoric, threatening to back a Syrian “anti-terrorist” offensive on Idlib. That was forestalled by a new agreement reached by Turkey and Russia in September, which saddled Turkey with new commitments to deal with “radical terrorist groups” and reopen the strategic M4 and M5 highways that crisscross Idlib. Turkey did not deliver. Amid the relative calm, HTS only further consolidated its control of Idlib. Still, Turkey continued to man its Idlib observation points, rotating troops through HTS-controlled territory. Meanwhile, tit-for-tat attacks between the Syrian military and Idlib militants gradually ticked up.
The Syrian military launched a Russian-backed offensive on the Idlib zone in April 2019, cleaving off the area’s southern periphery. After a several-month pause, Damascus resumed its attack in December, seizing the length of the M5 highway. As the Syrian military advanced around Turkey’s observation points, Turkey set up new positions to complicate its progress, imported Syrian rebel fighters from other Turkish-controlled areas, equipped its Syrian partners to counterattack and eventually attacked Syrian government forces directly with a barrage of artillery and drone strikes. HTS and other jihadists continued to lead on the front lines, but Turkey’s direct involvement became increasingly crucial to the defense of Idlib. Dozens of Turkish soldiers were killed in the process, including at least 34 Turks who died in a Feb. 27 airstrike on a Turkish convoy.
On March 5, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin met in Moscow and arrived at a new deal that halted the fighting and staved off more rebel losses. The agreement locked in the Syrian military’s territorial gains. It also required the establishment of a “security corridor” along the east-west M4 highway through the center of Idlib’s remaining rebel-held zone, to be patrolled by Turkish and Russian forces. Of Turkey’s original 12 observation points, all but four had been stranded behind the Syrian military’s new forward line.
Even as Turkey had previously assumed compounding counter-terrorism commitments as part of its agreements with Russia and Iran, Turkey had nonetheless argued that the really problematic “terrorists” in Idlib did not include the whole of HTS. It pointed instead to a smaller, more manageable set of mostly foreign militants. Still, after Turkey and Russia’s September 2018 agreement, which referenced only unnamed “radical terrorist groups,” the March 5 deal more specifically committed the two countries to “eliminate all terrorist groups in Syria as designated by the [U.N. Security Council].” That includes HTS. The Russian government has subsequently emphasized that Idlib’s “extremists” and “terrorists” must be neutralized, and that further attempts to rebrand HTS, in particular, will do no good.
HTS’ Version of the Story
In the leaked recording, Abu al-Fateh al-Farghali narrates to his HTS audience how Turkey’s moves in Idlib since 2017 were negotiated with HTS, and how HTS justified those steps internally.
Al-Farghali shares the audio recording on his Telegram channel. (Photo by Sam Heller)
The leaked audio was circulated online by anti-HTS Syrian rebel personalities at the end of March. On April 1, al-Farghali published the full audio recording himself on the messaging app Telegram. He said it was taped about two months earlier, which likely places it in early February, as HTS was reeling from two months of successive losses and as Turkey was escalating its direct involvement in Idlib. He wrote on Telegram:
The audio recording is basically a lesson and discussion with the mujahideen, because of the reluctance of some to fight and the flagging of their morale, when the people who typically engage in suspicions and demoralization spread the idea that the battle that was ongoing was paving the way for a Turkish occupation. So I clarified to them that that wasn’t the case, and that if there were an occupation — hypothetically — we would fight any occupation, because we don’t expend our blood in order to replace one occupier with another.
Al-Farghali (real name Yehya al-Farghali) is an Egyptian member of HTS’ supreme Jurisprudential Council, responsible for ensuring the group’s decisions are religiously compliant. Along with the group’s other religious commissars, he also delivers motivational and spiritual guidance to the group generally. (For more on al-Farghali, see my 2018 article for War on the Rocks.)
Al-Farghali opens the session with a morale-raising introduction, including a recounting of the victory of the greatly outnumbered armies of Islam following the Prophet Muhammad’s death. But he quickly turns to audience questions, and to the question he knows is on these fighters’ minds: What to think about this latest Turkish deployment inside Idlib?
Al-Farghali explains to the assembled HTS fighters that, first, any religious ruling needs to stem from an understanding of reality. And the reality in this instance is that, while the Turkish people are Muslim, the Turkish military is not. According to the Turkish Constitution, he says, Turkey’s army is a secular institution, and secularism amounts to “infidelity” and “apostasy” from Islam. Government by the people instead of by religion is rebellion against God’s rule, as is defining community and solidarity on the basis of Turkish national identity, rather than brotherhood in Islam. Anyone who espouses these ideas might as well be saying that God doesn’t govern him, says al-Farghali. “With anyone who says this, there’s no doubt of his apostasy,” he tells his audience, “because he’s violated the condition of submission [to God], among the conditions of ‘There is no God but God.’” When one HTS fighter asks about the verdict on individual Turkish soldiers, al-Farghali replies that while some Turkish soldiers may be forced to serve or ignorant of the spiritual implications of their service, the Turkish military as an institution is an infidel one and Turkish troops are assumed, in the main, to be apostates.
Working from this premise, al-Farghali then asks rhetorically why HTS allowed this secular military into Idlib. He tells his audience that HTS had rejected the Astana agreement’s terms, but at the time it was also fighting a battle on four fronts against the Syrian military, the so-called Islamic State, and another rebel faction. Al-Farghali says: “It was at that time that the Turk came and said, ‘Either you let me enter and take control of this area, as I’ve taken control of [the Turkish-managed area] ‘Euphrates Shield,’ or I’ll fight you.’ It would have been difficult, to start a battle with him. I’d have a fifth front.” Still, HTS rallied forces on the Turkish border, prepared to resist a Turkish incursion. But a compromise solution was proposed: Turkey would establish three observation points, which it could then present as progress to its Russian partner. Al-Farghali’s Jurisprudential Council debated internally and decided it could justify Turkey’s deployment as the lesser evil, and per the conditions of “recourse to the infidel against the infidel” (al-isti’ana bil-kafir ala al-kafir), which Islamic jurisprudence licensed in situations of “necessity.”
So HTS agreed to allow the Turkish military to take positions inside Idlib, al-Farghali said, but in line with those conditions. Of them, the most important was that HTS would retain “al-zuhour” (the upper hand) over Turkish forces militarily, so that it could expel them if need be. Second, that the Turks would not meddle in Idlib’s governance, including its courts, as they were then doing in Turkish-controlled sections of northern Syria. And third, that the Turks would not interfere in Idlib militants’ “jihad” by telling them when and where they could fight. These latter two conditions were effectively guaranteed by the first — al-zuhour.
These stated conditions are consistent with what al-Farghali and other HTS figures said contemporaneously. What HTS seems not to have spelled out so explicitly was the group’s Islamic jurisprudential rationale for letting the Turks in — al-isti’ana bil-kafir — premised as it was on deeming Turkish troops apostates.
Initially, HTS allowed Turkey to set up its first three observation points along only the Idlib zone’s northern edge. But HTS continued to reassess what necessity dictated, as rebels lost more ground to the Syrian military. After previously refusing Turkey’s request circa January 2018 to deploy in eastern Idlib and halt the Syrian military’s advance, HTS reversed itself. HTS and a Uighur jihadist faction managed to take several key positions, after which, al-Farghali says, “we brought the Turkish [military] and put it in” three more observation points. Al-Farghali says HTS subsequently agreed that Turkey could set up the remaining six points after HTS had been weakened in fighting with other rebels.
Still, al-Farghali says, HTS’ conditions held for two years. Turkish forces did not interfere in Idlib’s governance or prevent militants from moving and fighting as they saw fit. HTS rejected new Turkish reinforcements in mid-2019, as it also rejected Turkey’s request to establish new positions along the M4 highway.
Then came the Idlib rebels’ most recent “defeat,” al-Farghali says, which began last May. In referring to the defeat, al-Farghali uses the word “inkisar,” which also equates to being “broken” or “shattered.”
Since that inkisar, al-Farghali concedes, the basic condition of al-zuhour has lapsed — HTS no longer has the upper hand over Turkish forces. When Turkey asked to bring in new forces, al-Farghali says, realistically HTS could not stop it. At the same time, because HTS was not voluntarily bringing new Turkish reinforcements into Idlib — the Turks were sending in new forces, without HTS’ say-so — that meant the original conditions of al-isti’ana bil-kafir are moot. “I don’t have the strength now to prevent [the Turk] from coming in,” al-Farghali tells the gathered fighters. “I’m telling you with all frankness.”
Al-Farghali adds that the original Turkish observation points that HTS justified and permitted, which are now marooned behind Syrian military lines, did not enable these new Turkish reinforcements. “Whether he had [observation] points or not,” he says, “[the Turk] wanted to come in.”
Al-Farghali tells his audience: “Keep this in mind: If God permits, and we can hold fast in our zones and retake these other areas — and that will happen, with God’s permission — the easiest thing is that [the Turkish military] leaves. If it doesn’t leave, it’s an occupying force, we’ll fight it as we would any other.”
For now, though, al-Farghali says HTS is “broken,” although it still possesses some leverage. Al-Farghali recounts an episode in the past few weeks in which he accompanied a combat-ready HTS unit to confront Turkish troops as they attempted to take up a new position in a particularly strategic area. After negotiations, they agreed that the Turks would set up elsewhere.
“But it’s no longer a matter of ‘necessity,’” al-Farghali says, “because I’m not telling him, ‘Come in.’ He’s coming in, without my say-so.” The Turks may ask to enter, for appearances’ sake (“shakliyyat”). But, al-Farghali says, “I can’t tell [the Turk], like I did in the past, ‘No, go into this area, don’t enter that point, bring in ten, bring in twelve, bring in three points, bring in six points — I can’t do that, at this time.”
Al-Farghali then moves on to the next question he anticipates from his audience: In these circumstances, is it religiously permissible to fight against the Syrian military alongside Turkish forces and Turkish-backed Syrians? After all, al-isti’ana bil-kafir is premised on Muslim forces accepting infidel support for their own fight, with their own agency, and under their own Islamic banner. If they instead become adjuncts to the infidel and fight under its standard, jihadists concur that is apostasy from Islam.
Al-Farghali tells the HTS fighters it is in fact permissible to fight, if only because Turkey and its Syrian partners are not waiting for HTS’ permission. Turkey is in Idlib and acting regardless, so the conditions for al-isti’ana bil-kafir are irrelevant. Better for HTS and hardline allies to participate, lest Turkey and HTS’ non-jihadist Syrian rivals hold any victory they win over them.
Still, al-Farghali says that HTS members will die before they allow the institution of secular law: “So, brother, suppose that after the battle ends, [the Turk] comes and says, ‘I want to institute secular law, I want to institute Syrian Arab law, and if you don’t do this, I’m going to fight you,’ and so on. We won’t allow that, even if we’re all obliterated.” Al-Farghali fears the example HTS would set if a group that has presented itself to the Islamic nation as one that cares about God’s rule permits the establishment of manmade law. According to al-Farghali: “I say no: We’ll die, before that happens. Or if we can’t fight, we have other options, other than being governed by [secular law]. Okay? We can withdraw, and so on.”
In closing, al-Farghali appeals to HTS fighters not to give in to disillusionment and frustration:
Please don’t let someone come in and tell you, ‘I’ve stopped fighting. The secularists have come in to fight, so we’re done fighting.’ So you stop fighting — where will you go? … Are you going to wait for the Russian, or the Nuseiri [derogatory, Alawite], to come on top of your head [i.e., take control of you]? To humiliate you, and put you in prison, or kill you? Or will you wait for the secularists to take credit for the battle, and to also come on top of your head? And to govern as they please, because you didn’t fight and defend your religion? Whoever tells you he’s stopped fighting, what does he intend to do? You want to stop fighting, then do what?
A Less Indispensable HTS?
The leaked al-Farghali audio offers a new angle on a Turkey-HTS relationship that has — understandably, for all involved — remained ambiguous.
Since Turkey’s first deployment inside Idlib in October 2017, HTS has taken an increasingly amicable tone toward Turkey in its public statements. The group has mostly hailed the Muslim Turkish people and “Turkey” generically — not the Turkish state, which according to jihadist doctrine is a false idol and an affront to God. Still, in a statement in response to Turkey’s March 5 deal with Russia, the group went so far as to thank “the Turkish government” for “its clear, supportive stance alongside the Syrian revolution, and its participation in defending and protecting civilians in this last battle,” even as it rejected the deal’s specific terms.
This sort of rhetoric is a far cry from Jabhat al-Nusra’s original announcement in January 2012, in which al-Nusra leader Abu Muhammad al-Jolani (and eventual head of HTS) said “the Turkish regime” was “America’s bludgeon.” “The form of the Turkish regime’s Islam has no content,” al-Jolani said at the time. “It’s an image with no meaning, and a body with no soul.”
Now it appears, however, that as recently as this February HTS leaders were still telling the group’s membership that the Turkish state was an “infidel” institution and that the Turkish soldiers deployed inside Idlib were “apostates.”
We don’t know, of course, that this rhetoric accurately represents the thinking of HTS’ core leadership, which may be more flexible ideologically but feels it needs to cater to a rank and file that has been acculturated to jihadist doctrine. The group’s mostly Syrian leaders have acquired a reputation for “pragmatism,” although a pragmatic approach doesn’t necessarily mean they have abandoned their base principles. We also don’t know that this rhetoric reflects the attitude of all the group’s foot soldiers. Some may have more extreme beliefs, while others may have no real beliefs at all, if they were drawn to the group by a paycheck or by personal links with other members.
Still, we know this is what HTS leadership told this collection of fighters to hold the group together and motivate them to fight. Al-Farghali apparently judged these ideas — the ungodliness of the Turkish state, the conditions for dealing with Turkish “apostates” — salient to at least part of the group’s rank and file. His speech appears to be a particularly clear example of how jihadist theory, which might otherwise seem abstract or dubiously relevant, can directly figure into an armed group’s morale and effectiveness in battle.
We also know that, in the moment, al-Farghali told the group’s own men HTS had lost control inside Idlib. The idea that HTS ever really had al-zuhour over the Turks may just be a story the group is telling itself, a self-serving rationalization. But whatever the reality was in the past, by February al-Farghali was telling HTS’ ideological membership that the group had been depleted by its successive losses and was no longer capable of imposing on the Turks.
Since the March 5 ceasefire, Turkey has only continued to multiply and reinforce its positions inside Idlib, even after an attack by what Ankara called “radical groups” killed two Turkish soldiers.
Previously, Turkey has taken the unconventional approach of executing its Idlib deals — which have stipulated both cessations of hostilities and steps to dislodge jihadist militants — consensually with HTS, an internationally designated terrorist organization that insists it will not lay down arms. Turkey’s implementation of these agreements seemingly contravened the intent of their other guarantors, something Russia has stressed.
The al-Farghali leak, however, suggests Turkey’s presence in Idlib is no longer consensual. That could mean Turkey does not have to reconcile the anti-HTS commitments it has made to Russia with the need for HTS’ cooperation on the ground. The situation inside Idlib remains complicated — Turkish reinforcements and troop rotations still transit zones of HTS control, as they enter from the Turkish border — but Turkey may now be newly free to act.
For Turkey and others motivated to save Idlib, HTS has long seemed like something unpalatable but also unavoidable. If that is no longer the case, that may open space for new Turkish-Russian arrangements — arrangements made at HTS’ expense — that could satisfy Russia and avert a Russian-backed Syrian military offensive for what’s left of rebel Idlib.
As ever, it is debatable whether the elimination of HTS and adjacent jihadists in Idlib would actually be enough for Russia. Moscow might just go on to insist that all militants who resist Syrian state authority are terrorists who must be crushed. Still, Russia continues to insist publicly on steps to combat HTS and other internationally designated terrorist groups, and to extract promises from Turkey to that effect, including the new March 5 protocol. Now this leaked al-Farghali recording may indicate that this type of Turkish-Russian accommodation is more viable than at any time in the past several years.
For the sake of Idlib and its residents, then, we have to ask: Is a post-zuhour HTS still indispensable? Or, as the original conditions on which the group insisted have become “void,” has HTS rationalized its way to obsolescence?
Sam Heller is an independent researcher and analyst focused on Syria and the broader Levant. He is based in Beirut. The views expressed here are his own. Follow Sam on Twitter: @AbuJamajem.