Syrian jihadis hail Taliban ‘conquest’ despite their own effort to rebrand

The Taliban’s rapid takeover of Afghanistan was widely welcomed by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which offered sweets in the streets of Idlib.

Islamists of various shades have hailed the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan as a major victory for global jihad. Leaders of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the powerful extremist Sunni group that rules over broad swathes of the northwestern province of Idlib and used to pay fealty to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS), are no exception, airing hope that a similar scenario will unfold in Syria with the ouster of President Bashar al-Assad and his “criminal regime.”

“With utmost joy and delight, we received the news of the conquest of our people in Afghanistan and their land’s [liberation] from the occupation and its agents at the hands of the Taliban,” HTS said in an Aug. 18 statement.

“Perhaps in this victory witnessed today is a lesson and opportunity for the international community and other sides silent about the crimes of Bashar and his aides, as it should encourage them to support the will of the peoples and repeat their demands and not stand alongside the flayer in confronting the free peoples,” the statement added.

Iraqi HTS leader Abu Maria al-Qahtani was even more bullish. “At a time when the massacres committed by the military against those who raised peaceful slogans among Muslims were being commemorated, good news started flowing from Afghanistan. Victory does not come through concessions or euphemisms. Victory come through sincerity, in the roar of canons and the staccato of bullets,” he tweeted. Others composed poems to convey their pleasure.

Taqi al-Din Omar, the Idlib-based head of the group’s media office, told Al-Monitor, “The developments in Afghanistan are similar to those in Syria. The Syrians are calling for freedom from the oppression of the criminal regime and its allies, Russia and Iran. Any liberation movement in the world gives us hope that there are still free people out there who to intend to live in freedom of dignity.” Omar added, “This position does not apply to HTS alone but to all of the Syrian people.”

The jubilation displayed by HTS has raised eyebrows at a time when its leader, Abu Muhammad al-Jolani, has been determinedly seeking to refashion himself as a statesman-like figure, a moderate harboring no ill feelings toward the West. The makeover is intended to persuade the United States and the United Nations, among others, to take HTS off their respective lists of terrorist organizations. In 2018, the group’s principal enabler, Turkey, classified it as such as well.

The celebratory mood was felt in mosques and other religious institutions in Idlib. Local preachers seized the moment to recount the history of the Taliban and to laud its success. The HTS organized marches to mark the occasion and offered sweets in the streets of Idlib.

Yet the effusion is neither as surprising nor as contradictory as it seems. “There’s a pretty solid consensus among Islamist movements in the Middle East that the Taliban have waged a legitimate struggle against a foreign occupation. That sympathy actually extends far beyond the Islamist sphere. For HTS members not to be overjoyed by the Taliban victory, well that would have been surprising,” said Aron Lund, a Middle East researcher at the Swedish Defense Research Agency. It often goes unnoticed in Western debate “that the Taliban are not seen as an especially extreme group within the jihadi-inspired Islamist milieu that HTS belongs to. To the contrary, they are seen as a locally rooted, authentic group HTS aspires to be, leading a locally rooted, big-tent Islamist movement that can be politically flexible but remains unrelenting in its pursuit of religious rule,” Lund told Al-Monitor. “It’s an example of how you play the long game, how strategic patience pays off,” Lund added.

“They see themselves as representing something like the Taliban in Syria. That they are a local force that has Islamic flavor. That they are trying to create a more just and religious society locally and that hopefully one day from their perspective, they’ll be able to not only take over Damascus but the entire country of Syria,” concurred Aaron Zelin, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and founder of jihadology.net. “And like the Taliban, they too now are focused on the local fight and have no interest in doing external operations,” Zelin told Al-Monitor.

But the similarities go only so far. To be sure, HTS is, alongside the Kurdish-led and US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the most influential and cohesive armed opposition group in the country. Both have been seeking to varying degrees to shed their more radical roots. The SDF has thinned out some senior figures, notably Kurds from Turkey, from the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), who helped the US-led coalition defeat IS and build the Syrian Kurds’ autonomous administration but are designated as terrorists by the United States. Washington was seeking to humor NATO ally Turkey, which has been unsuccessfully seeking to stamp out the PKK’s armed insurgency since 1984.

HTS has gone to further extremes, declaring war on and subduing the remaining al-Qaeda offshoots in its territory. However, Washington remains unswayed. A senior administration official speaking on background to Al-Monitor confirmed that the United States was “not open to normalizing or engaging or changing our posture toward that group.”

Besides, HTS has not been in action as long as the Taliban. Geographically and politically, it is far more constrained. “HTS is only able to maintain a territorial entity owing to Turkish protection of Idlib, while the Taliban are in control of an entire country,” observed Elizabeth Tsurkov, a researcher who has written extensively on armed opposition groups in Syria. “The Taliban’s ability to withstand 20 years of a US military campaign is what led the US to eventually negotiate with them directly to enable a US withdrawal,” Tsurkov told Al-Monitor. Moreover, the Taliban was never formally designated as a terrorist group. And its ties to Turkish intelligence are nowhere as deep and far reaching as those between Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence and the Taliban.

Mohammed Sarmini, director of the Jusoor Center for Studies and Development, an Istanbul-based think tank focused on Syrian affairs, said, “The Taliban is deeply rooted in the Afghan fabric through religious and national tools. HTS’ presence in Syria, however, is confined to a narrow group and a small geographic spot.”

“The only possible effect of what happened in Afghanistan in Syria is Iran’s possible regression to focus on securing its borders in the event there is a Western tendency to exploit the Taliban’s expansion against Iranian influence,” Sarmini told Al-Monitor.

What both groups do share is the West’s deep skepticism of them. The Taliban’s pledges to allow women to keep working and for girls to go to school are being greeted with bitter laughter. Similarly, the suit-wearing Jolani’s dovish overtures fly in the face of his iron grip over Idlib.

“While HTS’ periodic crackdowns on al-Qaeda and [IS] in Idlib could be perceived as signs of goodwill to the international community, these actions largely serve to consolidate its rule by eliminating its sworn enemies and quashing local dissident voices, making it no different from other authoritarian regimes in that regard,” wrote Orwa Ajjoub, a researcher at Sweden’s Lund University in a policy brief for the Middle East Institute.

“The group’s repressive and exclusionary approach in Idlib is likely to exacerbate radicalization as it marginalizes, excludes, and represses many who are not necessarily convinced by the ideology of [IS] and al-Qaeda, but are pushed by their grievances and shared enmity of Jolani to join such groups,” Ajjoub added.

“I don’t believe they have become more moderate. Nobody buys these attempts, me included,” said Karam Shaar, a non-resident Syrian scholar at the Middle East Institute. “However, we do know that Jolani has proven time and again to be an extremely pragmatic person. The reason he is still in business is that Turkey is supporting him,” Shaar told Al-Monitor. That said, “If you look at the human rights abuses in other parts of northwest Syria, you can see that HTS has not been quite that bad,” Shaar added. He was alluding to the gross violations committed by numerous Turkish-backed Sunni rebel factions, which the UN has labeled as war crimes.

Back in Idlib, which is home to over 1.7 million internally displaced persons and where more than 90% of people live below the poverty line, according to the UN, residents have more immediate worries. “We do not care who controls Afghanistan, be it the Taliban or any other party,” said Mohamed Jaber, a refugee from Saraqib who ekes out a living working in a local restaurant. “What concerns us is the high cost of living in Idlib and the regime’s bombing. What will the Taliban offer us? Will they take us back to our cities and villages? Will they provide us with support to defeat the regime’s forces?” he asked.

Sarah Khaled, another internal refugee, told Al-Monitor, “I have heard about the Taliban from people’s conversations, but I don’t know anything about them. What I care about is waking up and baking in the morning so I can feed my children. What interests us is the monthly aid we receive to secure our needs.”

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