ALEPPO, Syria — Abu Mohammed al-Golani, chief of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which is designated as a international terrorist group by the United States, the United Nations and others, has lately made public appearances in Syria’s northwestern province of Idlib. On Jan. 23, he was seen touring the camps of internally displaced individuals (IDPs) in Idlib and was photographed with camp officers, who complained to him in regards to the damages completed to their dwellings because of the rainstorms.
The frequent appearances of Golani in Idlib raises a number of questions as to HTS’ plans, and the message its chief is making an attempt to convey.
On Dec. 19, 2020, Golani had visited a camp within the Idlib countryside, the place he listened to the complaints of the IDPs. The go to got here days following the US choice to designate HTS as “entities of particular concern” over its abuses of human rights, and fewer than a month after the US State Department introduced Nov. 24 providing a monetary reward of as much as $10 million for info associated to HTS’ chief.
Golani made a number of public appearances in 2020. In August, he was seen visiting an IDP camp within the city of Halfaya. In the identical month, he toured the Jabal al-Zawiya space, south of Idlib, and on May 2, 2020, he visited a hospital in Idlib.
Back in December 2012, Washington positioned Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian department of al-Qaeda, on its terrorist record. In 2016, Jabhat al-Nusra introduced its disengagement from al-Qaeda and altered its identify to HTS, however this didn’t cease Michael Ratney, the US particular envoy for Syria, to verify on March 12, 2016, that Jabhat al-Nusra was a terrorist entity.
On May 15, 2017, Washington was nonetheless adamant to put the group on its terrorist record. At the time, the US State Department mentioned that HTS was designated as a terrorist group, no matter its names and the teams merging with it.
It seems that Golani is making an attempt to be seen in a distinct mild, presenting himself as a frontrunner who caters to the wants of the folks and who visits camps to supply assist to the displaced. In his current visits, Golani took benefit of the displaced individuals’ wants for assist after their camps have been flooded by the heavy rains.
Some 224 camps have been broken because of the floods because of 4 rainstorms, in response to the estimates of Syria’s Response Coordination Group, which is an area group working within the Syrian opposition-held areas in northwestern Syria.
Golani is making an attempt to current his group as an area jihadist group that’s effectively accepted by a big portion of the Syrian inhabitants, in a bid to have the group’s identify faraway from the worldwide terrorist record.
Hisham Eskif, deputy head of the political bureau of Liwaa al-Salam (Peace Brigade) affiliated with the Free Syrian Army (FSA), informed Al-Monitor, “The HTS leader is trying to promote himself as a popular leader, caring for Syrians and their revolution. He is also trying to present his group as part of the social, revolutionary and the displaced communities.”
He added, “He is sending a message that his organization is different from other fundamentalist jihadist groups. I believe that Syrians in Idlib realize that Golani is a chameleon who only runs after the interests of his organization and that his tours to the camps and meetings with people is nothing but a lame act.”
Al-Farooq Abu Bakr, deputy commander of the FSA’s Al-Motassem Brigade, told Al-Monitor, “HTS is presenting itself as a moderate group in order to reach settlements that would preserve its survival and presence in Idlib. It is making every effort to [present itself as] a reliable partner in any future political solution locally or at Syria’s level. Golani’s public appearances serve this end and clean up his image among Syrians in order to portray himself as a leader of a local organization who shares their aspirations and concerns.”
He mentioned, “Golani is trying to absorb the increasing popular anger against HTS in Idlib. People are angry because of the policies of HTS members and its security apparatus, as well as because of the policies of the Syrian Salvation Government affiliated with HTS, which impose taxes and control all vital sectors in Idlib.”
Abu Bakr added, “Golani’s strategic attempts to get closer to the people and to market himself as a popular leader will fail. No one will believe this deceitful man who has been the partner of the [Bashar al-] Assad regime in oppressing the revolution and waging wars on the FSA factions more than once during the past years.”
Bilal Sattouf, a researcher in political science who is based in Azaz in the countryside of Aleppo, told Al-Monitor, “Since it has controlled most of Idlib and excluded the Islamic Ahrar al-Sham movement, HTS has been following a policy based on achieving stability and domination. It has taken a few steps to remain the largest factional force in Idlib.”
He famous, “This was evident at several levels, such as its decision to share power with other groups that are ostensibly independent but tacitly affiliated with HTS. This is not to mention the Syrian Salvation Government, which is portrayed as a civil government working on managing the Idlib areas and providing basic public services. It also provides HTS with a political cover at the regional level at least. The existence of the Salvation Government thus prevents the emergence of any other executive and administrative body that is not approved by HTS in Idlib.”
According to Sattouf, HTS is making an attempt to turn into nearer with the biggest segments of Syrians living within the areas beneath its management, by forming native councils in each city and village.
“These councils manage the areas and make sure to control the situation so as to prevent the emergence of any group that would oppose HTS’ policies. This is done through intimidation practices. HTS is also trying to interact with the people by presenting its leader as the sponsor of Syrian interests, who follows up on the suffering and hardships of Syrians, to demolish the psychological barrier between HTS and the people in Idlib by playing on solidarity sentiments with the residents,” he mentioned.
Satlouf concluded, “This is why we see Golani making a [public] look with each event or occasion. He needs to be [seen as] the chief who’s near his folks and who stands with them of their sorrows and their joys, in a bid to extend his reputation and draw extra members to his group.”