Al-Monitor: Idlib jihadist group uses Syria ceasefire to restructure, expand

The American website of Al-Monitor said Hayet Tahrir al-Sham has announced the formation of three new brigades in what seems to be preparations for an upcoming battle in Syria's northwestern province of Idlib.

According to the American website, Hayet Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) has been restructuring its ranks in northwestern Syria's Idlib, taking advantage of the cessation of hostilities and the relative calm that followed the cease-fire agreement signed between Russia and Turkey on March 5.

Hayet Tahrir al-Sham was designated as a terrorist organization by the United States and the UN Security Council in 2018 and international sanctions were imposed on the group, but it is still receiving support from Turkey which also supports other terrorist groups in Syria.

Al-Monitor said, "Hayet Tahrir al-Sham has made changes in the leadership of the armed formations, intensifying military training in camps scattered throughout the areas in northern Idlib. It is working to attract more recruits exploiting the difficult living conditions in Idlib and unemployment among young people."

It has been confirmed that on April 14, Hayet Tahrir al-Sham's military wing announced the establishment of three new military brigades, led by close associates of Hayet Tahrir al-Sham leadership. The Talha bin Ubayd Allah Brigade will be headed by Abo Hafs Bennish, the Ali bin Abi Talib Brigade will be headed by Abo Bakr Muhain and al-Zubeir bin al-Awwam Brigade will be headed by Abo Mohammed Shura.

Abo Hafs Bennish, from a city of the same name in Idlib countryside, is the most notorious among the appointed leaders of the newly formed brigades. Bennish is the son-in-law of Hayet Tahrir al-Sham leader Mohammed al-Jolani, a connection that has allowed him to take up leadership positions in this group.

Abo Bakr Muhain and Abo Mohammed Shura are members of the group's Shura Council and also al-Jolani’s cronies, but are less known than their comrades since they are from outside Idlib and out of the spotlight.

Hayet Tahrir al-Sham leaders called the decision to create new brigades "a step of paramount importance for pumping new blood into the group."

On April 19, Hayet Tahrir al-Sham's media office issued a statement commenting on the new formations as reported by the group’s Ebaa News Network, "Hayet Tahrir al-Sham constantly seeks to develop and raise efficiency at several levels, including personnel military training and staff preparation in terms of arms, military industrialization and management."

It went on, "These changes are in line with the preparations of the revolutionary forces on the ground for the upcoming stage, which requires the mobilization of all forces and armies to confront the challenges of the revolution and defend the region against the attacks of the occupier and its militias."

Mahmood Talha, a journalist based in Aleppo countryside told Al-Monitor, "Should the cease-fire remain in place in Idlib, these changes would … diminish the role of the more hard-line groups within Hayet Tahrir al-Sham that are dissatisfied with the Russian-Turkish agreement and want the battles to resume in Idlib."

Hayet Tahrir al-Sham is already suffering major defections within its ranks and poor military performance as evident during the recent battles against the Syrian government forces at the beginning of 2020. In an interview with a journalist close to the group in mid-February, al- Jolani said that his group still needs more organization.

The correspondent Hussein Nasser told Al-Monitor, "Hayet Tahrir al-Sham is trying to take advantage of the calm resulting from the cease-fire in Idlib to make changes in preparation for the upcoming period and to pump new blood into its ranks with new recruits after the heavy losses it incurred in battles with the regime’s forces and the Russian airstrikes."

Nasser added, "The group began appointing local leaders and removing those who are considered extremists in the international arena, especially non-Syrian leaders. The newly formed brigades are all headed by Syrian commanders within the group. This is, of course, another scheme of Hayet Tahrir al-Sham since its inception in 2012 to be removed from the list of terrorist organizations.

An opposition military source who asked not to be named told Al-Monitor, "The announcement of the new military formations is merely a show of strength and an attempt to convey a message to the Turkey-backed forces that Hayet Tahrir al-Sham continues to expand and still has what it takes to defend its presence in Idlib."

 Increasing the number of brigades is important in light of the defections within the group and the power imbalance among its military formations. The source concluded that it is very important to have as many leaders that are close to al-Jolani as possible.

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