Abu Muhammad al-Julani, the leader of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (formerly al-Nusra Front), about the “Sunni entity project” sparked a lot of controversy, as did most of the statements of this problematic figure, who controls Idlib governorate and other parts of northwest Syria.
In a video recording, which was published by the so-called “Salvation Government,” the civil wing of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, on its official Facebook page, al-Julani appeared, along with a number of officials of that “government,” on the occasion of Eid al-Adha.
According to Al-Julani, “The project in the liberated areas is no longer a project of revolution against injustice and tyranny, but rather has turned into building a Sunni entity, given that Sunnis are exposed to an existential danger in Syria, despite their majority and large number, as the Assad regime is working to change the Sunni identity with another identity. Through the naturalization of a large number of Iranians, Lebanese and others.
Al-Julani added, during the aforementioned recording, that “militarization is the wall that protects the area, but the idea of the revolution is not only military. And limiting the revolution to the military and security side is a wrong description. The goal is to build a Sunni Islamic society and entity that preserves the identity and heritage of the people, and is compatible with its nature and history.”
What are the dimensions of this surprising statement from a leader linked to Al-Qaeda? And what exactly does he mean by the “Sunni entity project” in Syria?
“The project of the Sunni entity is a war emirate for al-Julani”
Wael Alwan, a researcher at the Jusoor Center for Studies, contradicts the analysts who saw in Al-Julani’s statements about the project of a Sunni entity a message to the international community and external actors, as Alwan considers it a “message to the inside, and to the local communities, which are under the control of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham.”
He added: “Al-Julani’s statements about the Sunni project are in the course of moving from the jihad/military project to the project of ruling the region as a war emirate for al-Julani, a project with a specific ideological identity, which the commission is keen on, despite the changes that have affected its orientations, from global jihadist Salafism to local Salafism. Regional.
After his statements about the project of a Sunni entity, the “Amjad” agency, affiliated with Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, transmitted pictures of al-Julani, mediating a number of personalities, during his visit to the villages of “Quniyah”, “Al-Jadida” and “Al-Yaqoubia” in the Jisr al-Shughur area, which is inhabited by the rest of the population. Christian population in the area.
This visit came a month after Al-Julani visited the “Jabal Al-Summaq” area, which is inhabited by a Druze majority in Idlib countryside. This was considered by a number of observers as a message directed abroad about the situation of minorities in the areas under the control of the Commission.
The Sunni entity between “Hezbollah” and “Justice and Development”
Muhammad Nour Hamdan, an academic and director of the Munasha Center for Studies, views al-Julani’s talk about the project of a Sunni entity as an attempt to establish a situation in Syria similar to that of the Lebanese Hezbollah.
Hamdan told Al-Hol Net: “The Sunni Jolani project is an attempt to invest in sectarianism in the current Syrian war situation, as he wants to appear as the protector of the Sunni component, just as Hezbollah does, which claims to protect the Shiites in Lebanon.”
On the other hand, Hamdan considers that “Al-Julani is sending a message to Turkey, asking for protection, given the claims of the ruling Justice and Development Party in it, as the heir of the Ottomans, and thus the protector of the Sunnis in the region. This hypothesis is reinforced by al-Julani’s desire for the presence of the Syrian Islamic Council in his area, to gain legitimacy from this Ankara-backed council.
What is the relationship of the entity project splits within the body?
Al-Julani’s statements about the project of a Sunni entity were not the result of the moment. He had previously called for the unification of the military factions and the establishment of a unified entity representing “Ahl al-Sunnah” and defending them militarily and politically, during his announcement of the formation of the “Fatah al-Sham” organization, and the abolition of work in the name of Jabhat al-Nusra in July/ July 2016, which he confirmed in a television interview with Al-Jazeera in 2016. This prompted many to consider that Al-Julani seeks to monopolize the representation of the Sunnis of Syria.
However, Wael Alwan looks at the statements from another angle, as he sees them as an internal message, directed to the cadres of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham itself.
According to Alwan, “the commission contains several components and currents, and al-Julani, in his statements about the project of a Sunni entity, gave assurances to various currents that he would not abandon the religious and sectarian identity of the commission, and thus preserve its internal cohesion, no matter how he entered into negotiations and bargains with regional and international bodies.”
He stressed that “Al-Julani is keen to secure the stability of his rule in the Idlib region, after his success in neutralizing all other factions in the region, with the exception of some military groups, which he has the ability to control, after forcing them to join the military council that he leads.”
It is noteworthy that al-Julani’s visit to Christian and Druze villages provoked angry reactions from within the HTS camp in Idlib. Issam al-Khatib, a former leader in the North Liberation Committee, described him as “a rooster that is trying to market itself to the international community, by presenting itself as a protector of minorities.”
For his part, Abu Yahya al-Shami, a Salafi dissident from the commission, saw that “Al-Julani’s visits to Christian villages, and before them the Druze, are tantamount to acknowledging the legitimacy of their deviant thought,” as he put it. He asked sarcastically about “the possibility of meeting with Hindu figures, and acknowledging the correctness of their religion.” He stressed that “the West will not accept al-Julani in his place, no matter how flattering he appears, and how much obedience he presents.”
High ambitions and failure factors
The high ambition of the leader of the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham is a major reason for the multiple messages he sends to various parties, according to Muhammad Nour Hamdan. This ambition “aims to control the region completely, so it sends international and regional messages, aimed at removing his name from the lists of terrorism, or with the aim of asking Turkey to empower him in the region. It also addresses the Syrian interior to create a public opinion, which helps it expand its areas of control. After al-Julani was able to rule Idlib, his eyes turned to the Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch areas, which he could only take through politics and address the Turkish side. Therefore, he seeks to obtain full approval from Ankara to include these areas under his control, without neglecting to address the population in Idlib and the jihadists conferring on his order.”
Accordingly, Hamdan believes that “Al-Julani invests pragmatically in every discourse, as he exploits the discourse of minorities, by making visits to the remaining villages, and tries to employ the discourse of the majority to his advantage, by talking about the project of a Sunni entity.”
However, this pragmatism does not seem very effective, as many observers assert. There are no signs of removing the name of the commission from the lists of terrorism, given its history, affiliations, and well-known practices. Nor does Turkey itself seem ready to publicly involve itself with a group of al-Qaeda groups, no matter how they change their names; Moreover, the internal popular protests against the authority’s rule, with all its violations and grievances, have never stopped. On top of this and that, controlling the jihadists residing in the region is impossible and extremely difficult, and Jolani may soon plunge into a war of abolition with his comrades in the curriculum.