HTS future uncertain as group divisions intensify

HTS leader al-Jolani walks back treason accusations against group members, but instead of quelling division and animosity, it has had the opposite effect

HTS future uncertain as group divisions intensify

For months now, the security crackdown by Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) on its own members has been dominating the headlines of local Syrian news outlets.

It is not just the unprecedented scale of the operation or the detention of high-profile figures that keep people hooked; it is also the series of twists and turns that have unfolded since it kicked off in June of last year.

Just when it seemed like the arrest campaign had reached its climax with the detention of Abu Maria Al-Qahtani — an influential figure within the group’s inner circle — another surprising turn came to light. The group announced the release of many of the detained members and commanders, throwing another curveball into the mix.

But the plot thickened even further when the group's leader made a shocking admission earlier this month. Abo Mohammed al-Jolani publicly revealed that those released had falsely accused because of "mistakes" made during interrogations. To put it bluntly: people confessed to crimes they didn't commit under the duress of torture.

Instead of putting the matter to rest, these recent revelations will likely deepen divisions and power struggles within the group, leaving the situation unresolved.

Supporters of the detained HTS members harbour are angry at the group for allowing these injustices to occur.

How it all began

The security crackdown reportedly began following the apprehension of a cell accused of collaborating with Lebanese Hezbollah on  24 June.

Over the span of six months, investigations unfolded, resulting in the apprehension of approximately 500 to 600 individuals associated with the group. Among those detained were high-ranking military leaders suspected of having ties with foreign intelligence, including the United States.

The arrests, particularly of high-ranking figures like al-Jolani's trusted associate Abu Maria Al-Qahtani, sparked internal discord within the group and drew criticism, primarily from its own ranks.

They also prompted notable defections, including Jihad Issa al-Sheikh, also known as "Abu Ahmed Zakour" — the principal overseer of the group's economic affairs abroad.

Beyond tarnishing the group's reputation, the arrests set off a chain reaction that HTS's leadership feared would escalate uncontrollably. Many viewed the crackdown as a manifestation of power struggles between different camps within the group.

It was widely speculated that the Binnish blocs, named after the city where many of its leaders hailed from, instigated the arrests, targeting the al-Sharqiya wing—comprised of individuals from eastern Syria—known to be close to al-Qahtani.

This factional dynamic suggests that the arrests initiated by one bloc will likely continue targeting their adversaries, perpetuating internal discord within HTS. Consequently, the arrests, influenced by the first bloc, were expected to continue targeting their rivals.

Those on the opposing side believe al-Jolani was pressured into releasing them despite their treason.

Damage control

The leader of HTS — whether arriving at a similar conclusion independently or feeling pressured by public demand — eventually intervened to halt the investigation and prevent further escalation.

In a move aimed at quelling tensions, he convened a meeting with the Shura Council and the Salvation Government of Idlib, the legislative and executive bodies in HTS-controlled areas.

During this meeting, he highlighted the flawed practices observed during the investigation, resulting in wrongful accusations based on false information. He emphasised the need for corrective measures to restore the rights of those affected.

Details of the meeting were disseminated by the group's media outlet, al-Amjad, to ensure formal and widespread acknowledgement of the leader's statement.

Concurrently, numerous group members, including prominent military commanders, were released. Al-Jolani reportedly visited some of the released commanders and pledged to hold those responsible for the wrongful detentions to account.

Additionally, the group offered financial compensation ranging from $2,000 to $5,000, depending on the duration of imprisonment and the detainees' positions.

Despite these measures, sources connected to some of the released commanders informed the author that those wronged are determined to ensure that "justice is served, one way or another.

In addition to resulting personal vendettas, the crackdown has reportedly exacerbated rifts and tensions between the military wing, to which many of the detainees belonged, and the security apparatus responsible for their investigation and arrest.

Supporters of the detained members harbour are angry and disillusioned with the group, or some of its commanders, for allowing these injustices to occur.

Conversely, those on the opposing side believe that al-Jolani was pressured into releasing them despite evidence suggesting otherwise.

This sentiment was underscored by the reported resignation of Abu Hafs Binnish, one of the top commanders of this camp, from his position as head of one of the group's main armed factions, the Talha Brigade. His decision was interpreted as a protest against the perceived unjust release of detained suspects.

Regardless of the measures the group's leader may take to address these unresolved issues, the division and animosity between the various blocs within HTS will likely intensify, posing risks to its unity and its future.

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