The Idlib-based group’s decision to hand over several jihadis to Turkey, including two men affiliated with the Islamic State, come as part of HTS’s attempt to present itself as more moderate.
Reports about Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) handing over foreign jihadis to Turkey in exchange for being removed from international terrorist lists has sparked anger from jihadis opposing the group in Syria’s northwestern province of Idlib.
Saleh al-Hamwi, a former jihadi leader, revealed in a tweet April 18, “What it used to do in secret has become public today. Today, [HTS] handed over 50 foreign detainees to Turkey, and previously it submitted terrorist files to Western intelligence services, which prompted the International Crisis Group and the Syrian Dialogue Center to call for removing it from the terrorist lists and make it a partner in the fight against terrorism.”
While the International Crisis Group has not directly called for de-listing HTS, in a February 2021 report they argued that Washington, in cooperation with Ankara and European allies, should press the group to address “key local and international concerns, and to define clear benchmarks which (if met) could enable HTS to shed its ‘terrorist’ label.”
Several media sources who are in the know on HTS’ activities in Idlib told Al-Monitor that HTS has recently handed over 50 militants of foreign nationalities to the Turkish authorities, which HTS arrested over the years, as part of its many campaigns against rival jihadis in Idlib, where it kept them in its prisons to decide their fate within the framework of negotiations between the movement and the intelligence services of the prisoners’ countries of origin.
According to these sources who refused to reveal their names, most of those who were handed over were affiliated with the Islamic State (IS), while others belong to Hurras al-Din, which is opposed to HTS. The detainees are of French, Moroccan, Saudi and Turkish nationalities, they noted.
On April 18, Turkish authorities announced that they arrested two Turks in a security operation in Idlib, saying that they were planning to carry out terrorist acts inside Turkey.
They added that the two “terrorists” identified as Orhan Moran and Mustafa Kilicli, who hold Turkish citizenship, were transferred from Syria to the province of Hatay in southern Turkey.
However, the media sources who spoke to Al-Monitor said that Turkey did not carry out a security operation in Idlib, but rather received the two IS operatives from HTS.
Meanwhile, sources close to HTS confirm that the two individuals belong to Hurras al-Din and not IS.
A leader close to HTS, nicknamed Abu Khaled al-Homsi, told Al-Monitor, “HTS has handed over as many prisoners as its opponents are claiming. But it is only normal to hand over individuals of Turkish nationality to Ankara, even those belonging to IS.”
He said, “HTS has its own law and prisons and does not need to hand over any detainees to any country. It only does so in case they were Turks and were fighting alongside IS and are allegedly planning to carry out attacks against HTS or against Turkey.”
Amid these conflicting reports, Taqi al-Din Omar, director of HTS’ media office who resides in Idlib, told Al-Monitor, “The two people that Turkey said had been arrested belong to Hurras al-Din. They served their sentences [in HTS prisons] and then went out to the northern countryside of Aleppo, where Turkish intelligence arrested them again, in cooperation with Free Syrian Army [FSA] factions.”
Omar Abu Hafs, a former jihadi leader based in Idlib, told Al-Monitor, “HTS has always cooperated with Turkey in all fields, and it has handed over many operatives to the Turkish authorities. It has its own political goals, namely seeking to have its name removed from the terrorist lists. Turkey could help HTS achieve this through its relations with the United States. This is why HTS is keen to strengthen its ties with Turkey.”
Khalid al-Muqdad, a Syrian researcher on jihadi groups based in Qatar, told Al-Monitor, “HTS has most likely handed over the jihadis who refuse to recognize it and to join its ranks. HTS is seeking to cooperate with Turkey in a bid to present itself as a moderate group wanting to fight terrorism.”
He said, “It also wants to show that it can commit to anything that is required of it. Meanwhile, Turkey — through its cooperation with HTS — is implementing the Astana understandings with Russia, whereby it is requested to separate moderate militants from extremist ones. This would give Turkey some leverage with Russia, allowing it to expand in the areas of the East Euphrates under the control of Kurdish forces [in north Syria] that antagonize Turkey.”
Muqdad noted, “HTS’ relations with Turkey are good in general. HTS is trying to abide by Turkey’s demands from it. There are no longer jihadi groups [in Idlib] threatening HTS, except from some IS cells trying to carry out retaliation attacks against it. However, IS is currently busy with battles against the Syrian government forces in the Syrian desert. What’s more, IS does not wish to see any alliance between HTS and factions of the [Turkish-backed] FSA against its security cells.”
Muqdad believes that IS’ operations against HTS and the FSA are limited to the scope of its cells’ presence in those areas. “These cells are few and operate in secret, facing restrictions and attacks by HTS that have been ongoing for the past few years,” he added.
Abu Yahya al-Shami, lawyer and activist outspoken against HTS based in the northern countryside of Aleppo, told Al-Monitor, “The HTS leadership is wooing the West and trying to assert its control on this narrow geographical space with international consent. This would bring a lot of gain to HTS, as all countries are interested in arresting jihadis.”
He said, “Relations between Turkey and HTS continue to develop but not based on equal footing. HTS leader Abu Mohammed al-Golani had previously said that Turkey was America’s ally in the region and it is implementing its policies in the region. What Golani seeks is for HTS to become Turkey’s ally in Idlib.”
Shami added, “Jihadis are not followers of a certain sect and are not disciplined within one organization. According to my reading, most of them are inclined to individual violent acts and harsh confrontation with HTS. Meanwhile, IS responses are violent, relentless and uncompromising, by accusing its opponents as infidels. They take hostages and retaliate and carry out its threats.”