Al-Jolani: The one-man rule

Four civil and military bodies control the joints of life in the city of Idlib in northwestern Syria and large parts of its countryside, including parts of the rural areas of Aleppo and Latakia, and the al-Ghab Plain northwest of Hama. Represented by the Syrian Salvation Government (SSG), the General Shura Council, the General Security Service, and the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), these entities share services, economic, security, and military responsibilities. Meanwhile, the HTS imposes itself as the strongest voice and leader in most files.

In the city, which escaped the grip of the Syrian regime in 2015, the Salvation Government and the Shura Council emerged, two civil bodies established with a push from the HTS, which have remained associated with it at least in service, economic, and even educational matters. They did not distance themselves (willingly or otherwise) from bestowing on their leader, Abu Mohammad al-Jolani, the forefront of the scene and granting him titles such as “sheikh” and “brother”, besides the title of “leader of the liberated areas.”

These entities and their resultant smaller circles and formations govern Idlib today with extreme centralization, clear hierarchy, local control, superficial structures, a discourse that has abandoned its harsh tone for years, and a diplomacy in dealing with political files. Today, they face an unprecedented movement and demands to overthrow the head of the pyramid, al-Jolani, and to prevent monopolizing decisions.

In this lengthy report, Enab Baladi sheds light on the civil and military entities in Idlib, discussing with officials their tasks, their work mechanism, and ways to access them. It also discusses with experts and specialists the governance mechanism in Idlib and the prospects for decision-making in the files.

Idlib liberation and faction exclusion

In March 2015, the city of Idlib fell out of the control of the Syrian regime by the hands of several factions that formed a joint operations room called the “Fatah Army.”

Following the end of the battles of Idlib and reaching the fringes of the Syrian coast, the Fatah Army quickly disintegrated at the end of 2015, and all subsequent attempts to repair it failed, despite the efforts of some factions to find an alternative to it.

Disputes arose between the factions of the Fatah Army, most notably the accusations directed at Jund al-Aqsa of cooperating with the Islamic State organization, countered by Jund al-Aqsa with accusations of treachery against some factions of the Fatah Army.

The faction Jund al-Aqsa then withdrew from the group at that time, allowing the rest of its elements to head towards areas controlled by the Islamic State, followed by several months by the Sham Legion declaring its withdrawal from the Fatah Army, leading to the dissolution of the formation with the factions’ exit.

Disputes continued between several factions, most notably confrontations that took place in the city of Idlib between Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly al-Nusra Front, currently Hayat Tahrir al-Sham) and armed opposition factions, notably Ahrar al-Sham, in 2017. HTS continued fighting factions under the pretexts of “splitting ranks, affiliation, betrayal, and wanton aggression,” and it restricted the movement of foreign fighters until it emerged as a major force.

The roots of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham go back to the end of 2011 when it emerged under the name “Al-Nusra Front for the People of the Levant,” a faction distinguished by its emergence from the womb of al-Qaeda, one of the most prominent “jihadist” factions on the world stage. It later declared its separation from any organization and considered itself a local Syrian force.

Tahrir al-Sham imposes its control

Tahrir al-Sham lost vast parts of the countryside of Idlib and Hama, most notably the towns of Khan Sheikhoun, Morek, Maarat al-Numan, Kafr Nabudah, Qalaat al-Madiq, Kafr Nabl and Saraqib, due to military operations by the regime forces and Russia between 2018 and early 2020.

Military operations in the area stopped, and now it is subject to the Moscow agreement or the cease-fire agreement signed between Russia and Turkey on March 5, 2020, between the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, and his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, despite violations of this agreement as the area is subjected to nearly daily bombardment.

Tahrir al-Sham aimed to further solidify its rule in the region starting in 2017. In August of that year, it issued an initiative and a statement calling for the formation of a civil administration for the “liberated areas,” then worked to attract supporters and integrate them into a general body to undertake the declaration of the civil administration.

It tried to communicate with a number of personalities opposed to it to persuade them to revise their stance towards the HTS and join the project. Then, it pushed for the formation of the Salvation Government, followed two years later by the emergence and establishment of the Shura Council, which was likened to a parliament.

Salvation Govt and Shura Council as political cover

The Salvation Government was formed with a push from Tahrir al-Sham on November 2, 2017, with 11 ministerial portfolios, led by Mohammed al-Sheikh. It did not gain legitimacy to lead as it emanated from the HTS, which was engaged in combat with opposition factions amidst the complications the region was going through and amidst international interventions and internal power struggles.

Despite not winning the confidence of the people of Idlib, the government began to impose its control over the region, and on December 12, 2017, it issued an ultimatum to the Syrian Interim Government (SIG) giving it 72 hours to close its offices in the Idlib governorate in northern Syria and leave the area.

Mohamed al-Bashir has been heading the Salvation Government since January 13, after being “granted confidence” by the General Shura Council, which said its members voted by an absolute majority for al-Bashir after presenting his biography and his plan for the new term. Al-Bashir was given a 30-day deadline to form his government.

The deputy head of the General Shura Council, Abdul Karim Barakat, told Enab Baladi that the mechanism to choose the head of the government is through nominations by council members, and the conditions for a nominee to enter the voting process is to be presented by ten or more members.

If more than one person achieves this, voting takes place within a session held by the Shura Council, and the candidate who wins among the nominees gets the confidence.

If there is only one candidate, they are voted for by the members of the Council, and if they manage to obtain the votes of the majority (two-thirds of the members), they are granted confidence and charged with forming ministerial portfolios within a maximum period of 30 days.

According to Barakat, other conditions for granting confidence, both for the head of the government and his ministers, include the nominee being Syrian, married to a Syrian, not holding any other nationality, and having to have a “revolutionary character,” with a revolutionary history before January 1, 2015. They must also possess at least a university degree and live within the Syrian territories.

The nominee must enjoy a good reputation and not have been previously convicted of any disgraceful crime, and their spouse or any of their children should not reside in areas controlled by the Syrian regime.
11 Ministries

After 46 days of al-Bashir’s inauguration, the Shura Council granted confidence to 11 ministerial portfolios he presented, witnessing a change in only two ministries. The Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research was granted to Abdel-Mun’im Abdel-Hafez instead of Saeed Adel Mando, and the Ministry of Health to Dr. Mazen Dukhan instead of Hussain Bazzar, with Fadi al-Qasim becoming the Minister of Development succeeding the previous minister, Mohamed al-Bashir (the current head of the government).

Over the past years, the positions in the Salvation Government did not witness radical changes, whether at the level of ministers or the head of the government, as most faces continued to appear in the ministerial lineup.

The director of Public Relations in the Salvation Government, Jamal Shahoud, told Enab Baladi that there are criteria set by the laws that must be met by those nominated for ministerial portfolios, such as academic qualifications, age, among others, without specifying what exactly they are.

He added that the selection of any minister for a portfolio is done through consultative sessions with the Shura committees, community committees, elites, and syndicates concerned, noting that the nomination process from these committees is open, and interviews of the nominees are conducted by the commissioned head of government, who chooses whoever he deems the most competent and suitable to be presented to the General Shura Council for confidence.

On the other hand, the deputy head of the General Shura Council, Abdul Karim Barakat, stated that the council’s internal system specifies the government’s tenure to be only one year, which is a trial period; whoever proves their competence can gain confidence for a second and a third term.

Barakat added that the shortest governmental period in the world is four years, “but we are in exceptional circumstances, that’s why the term of the government was brief.”

In addition to the Salvation Government, there is the “Administration of the Liberated Areas,” which is considered a service entity parallel to or of a lesser degree than the Salvation Government. It administratively divides the controlled areas into eight administrations: Central, Northern, Sarmada, Harem, Jisr al-Shughour, Ariha, Atmeh, and Idlib.

Shura Council as parliament

In February 2019, the Salvation Government proposed the idea of forming a Shura Council within a general conference named “The General Conference of the Revolution,” held at the Bab al-Hawa crossing with the sponsorship and organization of Tahrir al-Sham. Civil actors within the region refused to engage in the elections, considering the move to be incomplete and driven by the military entity.

The head of the General Conference of the Revolution, Farouk Keshkesh, said at the time that the council would determine the future shape of the government in the province, whether by changing its form or nomenclature, and the foundations it is built upon. The president of the Shura Council (2019–2020), Bassam Sahyouni, told Enab Baladi earlier that “there is a pre-prepared plan for managing the liberated areas to involve all regions in the founding body considered equivalent to a parliament.”

On March 30, 2019, the election organizers announced the election of 107 council members, including 55 from northern Syrian regions, 23 displaced people, and 29 from tribes, camps, and unions.

The deputy head of the General Shura Council, Abdul Karim Barakat, told Enab Baladi that the council currently comprises 77 members, including the council’s presidency, pointing out that the members represent all segments of Syrian society (residents of the north, displaced people, unions, tribes, activists, and media professionals).

He added that each societal segment is represented by 15 members from the region’s dignitaries and leaders, different geographically, or from unions or Syrian tribes, and each segment elects its representative in the council through elections if there is more than one candidate, or through endorsement otherwise. According to Barakat, the elections are conducted according to a law prepared by a committee formed before the Shura Council elections.

The Council is tasked with various duties, including preparing, enacting laws and regulations, granting or withdrawing confidence from the head of the government and his ministries, accepting the resignation of the government or any of its members, and ratifying the government’s general plans.

Its duties also include monitoring the work of the ministries, supervising them, and holding them accountable if necessary, through specialized committees within the Council, ratifying general amnesty decrees, receiving citizens’ complaints, referring them to the competent authorities, and following them up, according to Barakat.

A new Shura Council did not see the light yet

On March 24 of the past year, the city of Idlib witnessed a third workshop to discuss the amendments to the General Shura Council system, to achieve wider representation of all segments of society and to increase the council’s powers in comparison with executive institutions, with about 30 academics and activists participating.

One of the main outputs of the session was forming the “High Election Committee” and adopting the form of the Shura Council based on the geographical division of the Syrian governorates to represent all Syrian geography, and several theses related to the election mechanism, criteria for nomination and candidacy were discussed.

On April 4, the High Elections Committee stated that it had determined the representation mechanism in the “new Shura Council,” based on representation from all governorates, with each governorate being divided into two categories and a special ballot for tribes, without clarifying the exact nature of this representation or the nature of the division.

The head of the High Elections Committee, Issam al-Khalif, said that the committee would distribute electoral districts in areas according to population density, which ensures easy access to the districts, and rely on nominating committees in each area and subsidiary election committees, noting that the High Elections Committee oversees the electoral process.

He mentioned that the elections would start within no more than 20 days, while the maximum period for completing the formation of a new Shura Council is by the upcoming June.

Widely circulated items were reported as outputs of the High Elections Committee, taken from one of the meeting photos published by the Shura Council, which included:

Changing the name “Shura Council.”

Changing the general representation ratio according to the population number.

Military representation in the “Council.”

Women’s representation.

Minorities representation.

Local councils’ representation.

A source from the Shura Council (not authorized to speak to the media) clarified to Enab Baladi that the outcomes are still preliminary and under discussion, but they are agreed upon to a good extent.

Since February 26 of the past year, Tahrir al-Sham has faced peaceful movement and protests from civilians, activists, soldiers, and legal scholars, demanding the fall of its commander al-Jolani and rejecting the policy of monopolizing decision-making and the domination of power.

The spark for the protests was the torture operations in Tahrir al-Sham’s prisons and the case of killing and disappearance (later revealed) of a member of a military faction at the hands of Tahrir al-Sham.

The protests were met with promises, reforms, and intensive meetings by al-Jolani, the Salvation Government, and the Shura Council, including a general amnesty for detainees with conditions and exclusions, forming committees to listen to families, canceling fees on buildings and exempting part of them under conditions.

Afterward, a package of promises was made, and work began on implementing them, including the restructuring of the General Security Service within the Ministry of the Interior in the Salvation Government, forming a higher consultative council to consider public policies and strategic decisions in the region, calling for elections for the General Shura Council in the area, forming a grievance and accountability bureau, forming a higher supervisory body, reviewing economic policies, combating corruption and preventing monopolization, and activating the role of local councils and professional associations.

General Security Service: Formal independence

Despite the existence of the Ministry of the Interior, the General Security Service has been active since 2020 in Idlib as the responsible entity for pursuing security wanted individuals, announcing periodically the capture of wanted “sleeping cells” or “regime agents,” and Tahrir al-Sham’s communication office previously denied to Enab Baladi any affiliation of the service to it. However, over time, it appeared as its security arm.

A year after its formation, the spokesman for the General Security Service, Diaa al-Omar, told Enab Baladi that the General Security Service is independent and not affiliated with any military faction, consisting of several units and offices, with functions including “gathering information about criminals, monitoring and following events and surveillance, and carrying out arrests and investigations,” indicating that the Security Service is an “executive body,” and it is not its job to determine the penalty, which is the jurisdiction of the judicial authorities.

As days passed, the General Security’s operations cemented the fact that it was HTS’ stick for controlling the area. Besides its mentioned tasks, the General Security pursued critics of Tahrir al-Sham, imprisoned them, and pursued others who did not align with its policy, practiced torture according to testimonies and images of those recently released on charges of “collaboration with the enemy,” and the question about the fate of those held by the General Security Service remained unanswered.

On March 20 of last year, the Salvation Government issued a decision to create the “General Security Administration,” to operate under the supervision of the Ministry of the Interior, and the director was appointed based on the decision of the head of the government, upon the recommendation of the Minister of the Interior, and expenses arising from the decisions are covered by the funds allocated to the Ministry.

The Minister of the Interior in the Salvation Government, Muhammad Abdul Rahman, clarified to Enab Baladi that the new administration is not an alternative or an update to the General Security Service, pointing out that it is a restructuring of the General Security within the Ministry.

He stated that this administration is the competent authority for the tasks previously assigned to the General Security as a specialized aspect in terms of pursuing Islamic State cells, as well as “regime agents” and kidnapping and armed robbery cells, etc.

Abdul Rahman mentioned that all these acts are now under the Ministry’s supervision in the security aspect, within the new administration.

The researcher in jihadist groups, Orabi Orabi, told Enab Baladi that Tahrir al-Sham denied the General Security Service’s affiliation to it when it was formed because it was among the demands of the phase, and it was a natural behavior, especially with other factions in the area such as “Ahrar al-Sham or the National Front or others,” and announcing the General Security’s affiliation to it would cause problems and accusations of monopolizing the decision, therefore, it was required to announce it as an independent device.

Regarding the restructuring of the General Security Service within the Ministry of the Interior in the Salvation Government, Orabi believes that Tahrir al-Sham would not lose its security power and will remain its striking hand, as it has a strong presence and control over the Ministry of the Interior.

Prince al-Jolani: Complete centrality enveloped by entities

It became clear that Tahrir al-Sham focused on establishing its pillars in Idlib, and after the year 2020, al-Jolani, who is still listed as wanted by the United States with a reward of up to ten million US dollars for anyone who provides information about him, intensified his appearance in most cases and files, from inaugurating a well and road or strolling in the markets or promises to support bread and the educational process along with visits to the region’s notables.

Al-Jolani repeatedly appeared as one of the individuals responsible for the resources and affairs of the people in northern Syria and spoke about the food security problem, proposing solutions and promises of economic improvement and gradual recovery, and he constantly spoke of Tahrir al-Sham’s achievements and the strength of the revolutionary project.

Tahrir al-Sham did not neglect the external aspect, as al-Jolani’s approach to the West began to emerge in late 2019, when he announced the beginning of a new phase based on fighting Iran and Russia. It followed an interview with the International Crisis Group, in which he mentioned renouncing his trans-border jihadist ambitions and focusing only on governing the region under his control.

On September 3, 2020, a prominent religious figure in the HTS, Abdul Rahim Atoun, called for the normalization of relations with Western countries during his talk to the Swiss French-speaking newspaper “Le Temps.”

The defected leader from the HTS, Jihad Issa al-Sheikh, previously spoke to Enab Baladi about al-Jolani’s monopoly on developing the HTS’ strategies, changing its discourse, and its communications with external parties, describing al-Jolani as “the sole leader”.

During al-Jolani’s meeting on March 12, he said, “There are demands that are not permissible now, and they will affect people’s lives, and there are red lines that everyone should know, we will not allow anyone at all to harm the liberated areas”.

“The liberated area cannot go on without leadership (…), if you are willing to choose someone now I am ready (…) the liberated cannot last two hours without leadership (…) whoever sees in himself the competence should stand (…) there is no disagreement on power, you can agree on a person who listens to you most, by 60 to 70%, and I am with him, and I hand over everything I have, let him lead the liberated area and take it to safety, and if you agree on him in this meeting then I am with him, and if we agreed on what we have talked about then it is our duty to continue our journey without obstruction”.

The leader of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, Abu Mohammad al-Jolani

The second man was killed and the third defected

Since last year, a crisis of “collaboration and communication with internal and external parties” hit the HTS, which marked a major bump and a turn in the face of Tahrir al-Sham, resulting in the arrest of the second man in it, Abu Maria al-Qahtani and senior first-line leaders.

It led to the defection of the third leader, Jihad Issa al-Sheikh (Abu Ahmad Zakour), who later revealed issues under al-Jolani’s responsibility, including bombings and cooperation with foreign intelligence.

The issue calmed down in the media, and al-Jolani remained in power while Abu Ahmad Zakour defected, and al-Qahtani was killed on April 4 with an explosive belt inside a guesthouse on one of Sarmada’s farms, after being released a month after six months of arrest.

The HTS said that a person blew himself up and was among three individuals, the other two managed to escape, and they belong to the Islamic State organization, but the organization did not claim responsibility up to the moment of this report release. Meanwhile, al-Jolani appeared in a video recording next to al-Qahtani’s body, promising revenge and retribution for his blood.

Abdel Rahman al-Haj, a researcher on jihadist groups and religious movements, told Enab Baladi that al-Qahtani’s assassination represents a precious gift for al-Jolani, and although several parties have an interest in revenge against al-Qahtani, it is clear that the biggest beneficiary is al-Jolani.

Even though Abu Maria al-Qahtani’s death occurred with fingerprints of the Islamic State, the context of events points fingers towards al-Jolani, which is beneficial for the latter, even though he may not be the perpetrator, according to the researcher, who considers al-Jolani to be the biggest winner from the killing of the man who represented a real threat to him.

The researcher believes that thinking al-Jolani is the perpetrator, despite evidence to the contrary, positions him (al-Jolani) as the attacker, and instills fear in his opponents, while he reckons that al-Jolani’s opposers might be next targets, in case the latter was behind al-Qahtani’s assassination.

Presidential system in Idlib led by al-Jolani

Maan Talaa, a political researcher and the Research Director at the Omran Center for Strategic Studies, said that the authority in Idlib, in legal terms, is considered a de facto authority, and this type of authority is characterized by being very centralized, and the decision-making stages in it are very rapid and centralized, as the relationship between the political body and the executive body is smooth and fast.

Talaa explained to Enab Baladi that, considering the logic of no solution as the general logic in Syria, new governance patterns that are controlled by parties and groups in a specific area began to appear, considering that the adopted pattern in Idlib is a governance model that takes into account having forms of legislation, execution, local administration, and also economic management, so that there is somewhere a system through which citizens interact with these centers.

Talaa sees that the logic of freezing the fighting helps de facto authorities be controlling all these interactions while taking care of their security in the first place, and secondly, gaining legitimacy through their productions in governance frameworks.

“We can describe the general governance system in Idlib as a presidential system in all executive, legislative, and military channels, rooted in the person of Abu Mohammad al-Jolani, who tries to build these authorities, and it is clear that he holds the threads of the game entirely in terms of decision-making”.

Maan Talaa, Political Researcher

“Leader reference”

Dr. Bassem Hatahet, a governance affairs researcher and an expert specialized in managing civil society organizations, told Enab Baladi that extremist Islamic groups build their vision on establishing their own state, and through the experiences of many of these groups and wherever they existed previously, they built state institutions which ultimately belong to a very narrow vision and to a very narrow frame of reference.

Hatahet noted that this frame of reference may appear, publicly, to be a person, but surely, there is what is known as the Shura Council or the leaders who surround the commander who is considered their Imam and whose opinion cannot be contradicted.

“All Islamic groups build their state vision on what is known as total centrality, which is what is called in legal systems the de facto authority”.

Bassem Hatahet, Governance Affairs Researcher

Hatahet believes that al-Jolani has somewhat evolved in this context, by creating the vision of the “civil dictatorial state,” that is, the civilian state that belongs directly to him, or to his vision, or to his ideological comprehension in the state management process.

Through this vision, al-Jolani established the Salvation Government and the Shura Council, local councils, and other entities that give the impression of building a civilian state, moving somewhat away from the idea of “the direct Prince,” although this idea is evident, especially since he controls all decisions of these entities, according to the researcher.

All these institutions, administrations, and committees operate directly by order of al-Jolani, even if he granted them some powers and freedom in general management, not central management, as he linked central management to himself or to the small council he manages

Centralization in favor of authority

Centralization is defined as the consolidation of power in the hands of a limited number of individuals, without the administrative units having the autonomy to make administrative decisions away from the central authority in the regions. It is the opposite of decentralization, where governance is not limited to a specific individual.

The binary of centralization versus decentralization may not be applicable in environments such as the contemporary Syrian context, as they are still subject to the logic of de facto authority, according to political researcher Maan Talaa.

Talaa pointed out that the de facto authority will cling to centralization of decisions, as it is not in its interest to have decentralization, which could delay decision-making, and thus delay all kinds of intervention, whether it be political, social, or security.

In this sense, the matter cannot be considered positive or negative according to Talaa, as this is usually the case with most de facto authorities formed in Syria, especially Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), in which one cannot expect to witness a rotation at the top of the hierarchy unlike other authorities.

Researcher in governance affairs, Bassem Hatahet, sees several negative and positive aspects arising from this form of governance, pointing to two main negative aspects in this context.

The first negative aspect is that this type of governance is not acceptable regionally, locally, or internationally, referring to the state or region that is unstable or inflamed, which is prone to being contested by the surroundings, the region, or the international project as a whole.

The second negative aspect relates to the fact that the systems, laws, regulations, and constitutions in the region governed by de facto authority are subject to change at any minute, and decisions may arise that do not belong to the concept of a state project built on valid grounds.

Al-Jolani’s departure may weaken the HTS

For a year, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham has witnessed disputes on the background of the “treason” file, with significant breaches in the group’s ranks, dealing with external and internal parties, including the Syrian regime and Russia as well as the International Coalition.

These disputes reached the top men of the faction, leading the HTS to suspend the powers of Abu Maria al-Qahtani, who was arrested and then released after six months. The third man, Abu Ahmad Zakour, declared his defection from the HTS and disavowed it, revealing files and issues for which he held al-Jolani responsible.

HTS contained this issue both media and security-wise, and it has not reached the stage of HTS disintegration.

Researcher Maan Talaa believes that the governance system will be affected by the departure of al-Jolani, as he holds all powers and is a major part of HTS, especially after the rifts he himself created through the arrests of members belonging to currents opposing him in governance.

For his part, researcher Bassem Hatahet pointed out that despite the complete centralization of the governance system in Idlib related to al-Jolani, there are many such jihadist groups and movements like al-Qaeda or the Islamic State which have been associated with one person until his death. When he is gone, a replacement is found for him.

Hatahet believes these groups think with narrow centralization, but always have an alternative. He clarified that Hayat Tahrir al-Sham is entirely linked to the person of al-Jolani, but his death or elimination does not necessarily mean the absence of the HTS, as he could be followed by a person who possesses the same approach and management.

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