Once synonymous with combat fatigues and weapons, Abu Mohammad al-Jolani has undergone an image change, with the Syrian jihadist pictured this month wearing a Western-style suit.
Jolani is the commander of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the Islamist militants who rule the northwestern region of Idlib, the last bastion of revolutionary opposition to President Bashar al-Assad of Syria after nearly a decade civil war.
Her wardrobe transformation is part of a deliberate rebranding by the group, designated a terrorist organization by the United States and Turkey, as the most powerful Islamist militants in Syria since Isis tried to secure a future for themselves. Politics.
Jolani was for many the face of famous Al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, which has since merged with HTS and is no longer officially linked to al Qaeda. HTS wants to convince the international community that Idlib is not – as one American official put it – “the greatest al-Qaeda haven since September 11”.
“They know this is their only chance for survival. . . to become . . . more moderate. . . more acceptable to Turkey and the international community, ”said a European diplomat in Beirut.
Navvar Shaban, analyst at the Omran Think Tank for Strategic Studies in Istanbul, described the rebranding as “a public relations campaign showing that they are more willing to have some kind of international negotiation with everyone.”
This month, International Crisis Group urged Washington is looking for ways for the group to prove it is a legitimate partner and eventually “shed its ‘terrorist’ label.” He argues that the label undermines the ceasefire between Russia, which backs Assad, and Turkey, which backs the opposition, which followed the regime’s advance on Idlib last year.
HTS took control of Idlib almost two years ago after “literally crushing[ing] any competing opposition, ”according to Dareen Khalifa, senior analyst at International Crisis Group.
Thought to have up to 10,000 fighters, the group has since grown into Syria’s dominant jihadist force, “de facto control[ling] more territory than [Isis]Said Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, researcher in the extremism program at George Washington University.
Jolani took a different approach from Isis, whose global terrorist attacks were unleashed from his territories in Syria and Iraq and the brutality of his self-proclaimed caliphate sparked international outrage and a global effort to crush extremists.
Rather than launching international terrorism or creating an Islamic emirate, HTS military efforts “have always focused only on the downfall of the Syrian government,” said Abu Abdullah al-Shami, senior HTS official mentionned Last year. Jolani, a Terrorist designated by the United States, fell out with the former ally Isis and subsequently separated Jabhat al-Nusra from Al-Qaeda.
Under his control, the region “looks like a conservative, Islamist and undemocratic society,” Khalifa said. “But it doesn’t look like a lawless zone controlled by a militia.” During a recent visit, Khalifa said, she noticed that walls bearing jihadist slogans had been whitewashed.
The group did not enforce strict religious rules in Idlib. Women are not required to cover their faces and people are allowed to smoke. It even allowed an investor to spend $ 300,000 to build an entertainment complex named after a uniquely American brand – Disneyland.
Unlike Isis, HTS does not micromanage everyday life. It has contracted out the administration of the region to a civilian-led “Syrian salvation government” made up of technocrats managing civic infrastructure such as courts and leading public health campaigns. NGOs provide services including food aid, health and education in the poor region.
Since the Salvation government restructured governance last year after the takeover of HTS, “there is less chaos than before,” said the owner of an olive oil bottling plant.
HTS does not wield the financial power of Isis, who controlled many oil fields in eastern Syria from 2014 to 2016. But analysts and Idlib residents say he sells foreclosed real estate and collects customs duties at border control points it controls. A bureau de change said that HTS forced foreign exchange firms to pay fees and allow HTS to monitor transfers.
Many accuse HTS of monopolizing the biggest business opportunities. “There are projects that HTS is involved in, for sure, that cost millions of dollars,” such as oil, gas and electricity, said Yusuf al-Sayed, owner of Disneyland in Idlib. But he said, “I don’t think [local business people] here can wear [these] by themselves.
He insisted that he had not been a partner of HTS, but argued that the group was misunderstood. “They have a lot of smart people who have traveled, doctors, engineers. . . No one [from HTS] tells you about jihad, ”he said.
Still, researchers and residents say HTS is autocratic and intolerant of dissent. The The UN recently raised concerns on the detention of civilians, including aid workers, in Idlib. “Nothing is happening in the region without their knowledge,” said an NGO worker, who added that HTS had never interfered with her work as a women’s rights activist.
Despite HTS consolidating power in Idlib, observers doubt outside powers will take it seriously anytime soon.
HTS, who was accused of a series of human rights violations, “Remains dominated by known Islamist extremists and espouses jihadist ideology,” the European diplomat said in Beirut, adding: “The West cannot support this kind of Syrian opposition.”
“HTS should take control of Damascus before the majority of Western countries treat them as a legitimate negotiating partner,” said a Western diplomat with extensive experience with extremist groups. “They should be as integrated into Syria as the Taliban are into Afghanistan.”