Once pledging allegiance to al Qaeda, the HTS’s Mohammed al Jolani is rolling up his sleeves to fight his past and convince the world that he’s the man who can save Syria’s Idlib.
A military jacket coupled with a turban isn’t Abu Mohammed al Jolani’s primary choice of clothing anymore. Over the last five years, the Hayat Tahrir al Sham leader’s sartorial choices have gone through multiple updates. First, it went from business-casual with neutral-coloured plain sweaters or buttoned shirts with rolled-up sleeves and a skullcap, to a straight formal Western style look. Nowadays, you might catch him in a suit with no tie or head covering - and definitely no rifle in sight.
“The reality on the ground,” to use his words, is Jolani’s reference for his actions now - seemingly both for his fashion choices, and for his actions in Syria’s Idlib, the last major stronghold the Syrian regime hasn’t captured from rebels.
In Idlib, thousands live in camps for displaced people, others move from one location to another as bombs fall. It is a reminder that a brutal final offensive from the regime and its allies could strike at any moment. Around three million civilians stuck in the region are desperate for a way out.
When the former Al Qaeda affiliate exercised control over circa 90 percent of Idlib in January 2019, locals feared that Jolani’s rule would give the regime the excuse it needed to attack Idlib.
Now, Jolani is on a mission to convince the West and locals, by persuasion or force, that he can save Idlib from that impending showdown.
Determined to consolidate power over Idlib, he’s visiting the displaced, eating with them, taking notes as he listens to people, attempting to take on the mantle of a community leader, and was even welcomed by a western journalist, in a suit.
This is what Suhail al Ghazi, a nonresident fellow at Tahrir Institute, calls a ‘rebranding plan’.
“(He is) showing that the HTS is denouncing the jihad outside Syria, cutting ties with Al Qaeda, not using jihadi language such as Kuffar or Crusaders,” Ghazi says. Having "saved foreign hostages in Idlib and delivered them to their countries,” is also among the steps that are part of a plan to create a moderate international image, he says.
But his rebrand is fraught with inconsistencies, and the shadow of his past has fluctuated more daringly than his rather trivial fashion choices.
The shift, and survival
Jolani, in his early twenties, stood next to those who counted themselves among the world’s most wanted. In his mid-thirties, he slowly tried to distance himself from them. As he reached his forties, he says that those men are nothing but archrivals that he used to know.
“Today, there’s no question if the break between HTS and al Qaeda is real-- HTS has been systematically going after and arresting al-Qaeda offshoots, they have shut down their bases, dried up their resources, and stopped arms dealers from selling them weapons,” a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group, Dareen Khalifa, tells TRT World.
“The spat with the al Qaeda leadership turned into inter-jihadi battles where many on both sides were killed.”
Nowadays, Jolani is going after Al Qaeda’s new Syrian offshoot Hurras al Din, and other small hardline groups, as well as trying to eliminate Daesh cells in Idlib.
Many details about Jolani’s past are still myths that have never been confirmed. He’s young, born in either 1980 or 1981, but his birthplace, rumoured to be either Daraa, Deir Ezzor, Damascus or Israeli-occupied Golan, is still uncertain. What is near-certain is that his real name is Ahmed Hussein al Sharaa and his current name was adapted as a reference to Golan, partially controlled by Syria, partially occupied by Israel.
Jolani completed only two years of open-university education in the media department at the University of Damascus, but people who claim to have met him describe him as knowledgeable, or seemingly educated.
It’s unclear whether his parents — his father used to work in the Ministry of Oil, and his mother was a geography teacher — or his alleged jail time in Iraq and Syria somewhere between 2003 and 2011 impacted his religious education and ideological foundations.
Like his father, who once reportedly sought refuge in Iraq around the dissolution of the Egyptian and Syrian political union in the early 60s, Jolani travelled to Iraq in his early twenties about the time of the American invasion of Iraq in 2003.
In his words, he was “influenced by a Salafi-jihadist milieu that emerged from a desire to resist the US occupation of Iraq” at the time. Jolani joined a radical group that later morphed into the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), the successor organisation to ISIS, or Daesh, that terrorised the region and the world.
But in 2011, three years before Daesh proclaimed itself as a so-called caliphate, Jolani had a fallout with the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. That year, popular civilian protests in Syria were turning into an uprising and the regime responded with a violent crackdown. Jolani thought it was time to go back home.
Some say Jolani was once kept in Syria's infamous Sadnaya prison, and Syrian regime leader Bashar al Assad released him to subvert the peaceful uprising. This way, Assad would be able to claim that he was fighting terrorists, a term the regime deployed to lump all armed opposition rebels, whether moderate or radical, into one monolith.
Regardless, pledging allegiance to Al Qaeda then looked like the most practical solution to Jolani as he founded Jabhat al Nusra in early 2012. His inner circle “couldn’t offer another solution,” but strongly advised him against it, warning him that it could be “suicidal”, he told the Crisis Group last year. They were partially right.
Al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri turned against Jolani in 2016, when he announced that he was cutting ties with Jabhat al Nusra in an effort to rebrand the group as Jabhat Fath al Sham. Zawahiri, apparently, neither knew nor approved Jolani’s move to distance himself from the transnational radical organisation and maintain its focus on the Syrian regime and its allies.
“At that time, HTS leadership feared becoming a target of the international coalition, additionally they perceived their ties to Al Qaeda as a major obstacle to creating alliances with other local factions,” ICG’s Khalifa says.
“In Jan 2017, Jolani sought to cement the break from AQ by declaring a merger with other rebel groups in Idlib and calling the new alliance Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham," she says.
Jolani’s fight with Zawahiri and mainstream opposition groups intensified after the founding of HTS.
Turkey, backing mainstream opposition, reached a deal with the regime’s ally, Russia, as air strikes were pounding Idlib. According to the deal, Turkey would eliminate radical elements, including the HTS, and in return, the Assad regime would scale back any major military offensive and avoid targeting civilians and forcing another exodus to borders.
But instead, HTS captured the majority of Idlib after a fight with Turkey-backed groups - establishing the ground for a future regime offensive.
The local dilemma
“Am I believing that Jolani himself has truly changed? No,” an activist from Saraqib, who wishes to remain anonymous, tells TRT World. “People are afraid to speak out for fear of being imprisoned on any charge. But here, people are forced into this situation. There is no alternative,” he says.
In Idlib, many remain suspicious of Jolani’s sincerity, but without exception, everyone is fearful of Assad.
Still, some activists and locals protest against HTS which they blame for ruining the revolutionary ideals that they hoped would eventually lead to self-determination. They had come a long way until being able to hold independent local elections - and then HTS took control. It’s now up to Jolani’s Salvation Government to rebuild what HTS has destroyed - but that is a tall order and one that depends entirely on the world putting faith in Jolani’s ‘rebrand’.
Perhaps that’s why, Ghazi says, the focus of the plan that HTS is trying to sell to locals is different from its international re-branding focused on a moderate image.
“HTS is trying to show success in providing a working, stable and open system to govern, a stable security situation, and that it no longer stands against other groups,” he says of the group’s local goals.
But sacrifices from within were required for Jolani to draw up his plan. He turned against some of his own hardline followers who objected to his new seemingly moderate ideology, and eliminated them.
“He realised that the old Nusra can't fit in the current situation in north Syria. He would push everyone who could pose a threat to him and his project,” al Ghazi says.
While speaking, Jolani does not shy away from acknowledging previous mistakes, and he says he’s now trying to fix them.
But that doesn’t mean that he isn’t ruling with an iron fist in Idlib, Thomas Pierret, a senior researcher at The Institute of Research and Study on the Arab and Muslim Worlds (IREMAM), says, regarding his local approach.
“There is a very big outreach effort. In a way, they’re distributing aid to say that we're trying to govern in a way that helps people economically. But it always goes hand in hand with a repressive coercive approach,” Pierret tells TRT World.
“It’s not just about winning hearts and minds. He’s only using its hegemony more subtle now -- not always fighting by arms but more focused on playing on divisions within the local opposition groups,” he says.
Now, it is not only the opposition groups, but anyone challenging Jolani’s rule is at risk of facing HTS, or being detained. Some in Idlib see US support to Turkey’s deterrence as the solution, because they don’t trust Jolani.
Jolani is now in a strange position where his behaviour could determine if Turkey and the West are willing to strike a deal and save Idlib - and prevent a mass exodus. HTS is listed as a terror group by the US and Turkey, and at the same time blamed by Al Qaeda for helping the US carry out targeted drone strikes.
It is clear that neither Turkey nor the US (nor most witnessing the rebranding) will buy that Jolani is no longer a radical or a terrorist. The million-dollar question here is whether he can manage to make himself useful enough to these powers so that Idlib’s people are spared from a massive Russian-backed offensive.
That’s unlikely, notwithstanding America’s decision to talk to the Taliban, also listed as a terror group by the US, Ghazi says. Those talks were held because the US particularly cared about Afghanistan.
“The USA doesn't care about Idlib and it won't change completely with the Biden administration - except maybe increasing aid later,” he says.