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Horizon of protests against al-Julani's leadership

2024-03-27 10:29

Issam Khoury

#AbuMuhammadAlJulani , #NusraFront , #SyrianSalvationGovernment , #AbuMariaAlQahtani , #JihadIssa , #AbuAhmadZakour , #AbuAhmadHudud , #HizbUtTahrir , #AlAhrarArmy , #BashirAlAli , #AbuAmerAlHalabi , #NationalCoalitionForSyrianRevolutionaryAndOppositionForces , #IdlibProtests,

Horizon of protests against al-Julani's leadership

"Insight into Idlib protests against HTS and al-Julani's rule, focusing on detainee releases and evolving demands for change."

The streets of Idlib, Sarmada, Jisr al-Shughour, and Binnish were filled with protests demanding clear changes in the authorities managing the Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham in Idlib province. Initially, the protesters insisted on two main demands:

  1. Release of detainees: Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham detained a large number of young men on various charges such as collaborating with the Syrian regime, collaborating with Moscow, and dealing with different international parties.
  2. Dissolution of the General Security apparatus: This is the most important security administration under Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham, known for its quick arrests and torture of suspects, sometimes leading to death, in order to obtain confessions proving their collaboration with the Syrian regime, or any international parties.


After two days of protests that started in the city of Sarmada on February 27, 2024, the number grew and demands evolved to call for the overthrow of Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham leader "Abu Muhammad al-Julani," who is listed on the US terrorism lists. Al-Julani, who founded the Nusra Front at the beginning of the uprising in Syria in 2011, he changed shifted his rhetoric from addressing the Islamic nation as Al-Qaeda requires, to a local discourse focused solely on Syria. The Nusra Front focused on fighting all armed groups in Idlib province, until most of them became submissive to it. The Nusra Front was then dissolved by being included in an alliance of several other groups named "Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham," making al-Julani the most powerful military figure in Idlib province.


This influence extended beyond the military wing to the political aspect. In 2017, the organization took control of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces headquarters and announced the formation of a civil government under the name "Syrian Salvation Government." This government evolved from being dominated by clerics to ministerial positions held by civilians with acceptable academic qualifications. Economic monopolies emerged in Idlib related to al-Julani's associates, paving the way for him to establish a security government that dominates the economy and politics, allowing for higher freedoms than those present in areas controlled by the Syrian regime.



Al-Julani, in his mid-forties, is knowledgeable in Islamic jurisprudence. Due to the presence of popular clerical leaders such as Abu Maria al-Qahtani and Jihad Issa, nicknamed "Abu Ahmad Zakour[1]," it was difficult for al-Julani to monopolize power. Therefore, he sought to neutralize these leaders to the extent that he placed al-Qahtani under house arrest, while the leader Zakour fled to the Euphrates Shield areas, revealing many of al-Julani's secrets, the most prominent of which are:


  • Revealing the second most important name after al-Joulani, which is "Abu Ahmad Hudud," the most important security official for the internal security of Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham, whose real name is Ahmad Hussein al-Sharaa, who is the cousin of Abu Muhammad al-Joulani, and he also goes by the alias Wissam al-Sharaa.


  • The truth was revealed that al-Joulani sought in secret to eliminate the National Army in the areas of Euphrates Shield and Peace Spring, claiming that his forces were transferring military expertise to them, and he appointed Abu Ahmad Zakour to lead that coordination. However, in secret, "Abu Ahmad Hudud" was seeking to encroach on areas of Euphrates Shield for the benefit of Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham.



These facts led the leader Zakour to defect from Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham according to the statement he published on December 14, 2023, and in reality, Zakour is very close to the Turks and the Muslim Brotherhood movement, while al-Qahtani is from the Salafi jihadist trend.



The arrests also targeted the Hizb ut-Tahrir party. On May 7, 2023, the General Security apparatus of Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham detained several party leaders in the town of "Deir Hassan", including: the party's media office head Ahmed Abdel Wahab, Nasser Sheikh Abdul Hai, Mohammed Assaf Abu Abdul Rahman, Abdul Hai Nasser Sheikh Abdul Hai, Ahmed Mansour, Engineer Jihad Mansour, Ali al-Bayk with his sons Mohammed and Omar, Mustafa Suleiman, Anad Jabbar, Ibrahim Rajab al-Hassan, Abdul Rahim Rajab al-Hassan, Abu al-Hamam al-Shami, Mohammed al-Hamshi Abu Dhar, Mahmoud Jumaa Abdul Hamid, Hassan al-Husseini Kulli, Abdul Razzaq al-Masri, Maher Sheikh Wali.


As for the al-Ahrar Army led by Abu Saleh al-Tahhan, one of its leaders, Abdul Qadir al-Hakim, known as "Abu Ubaidah Tal Hadiya", was arrested and apparently killed under torture and secretly buried, leading to high tensions among this faction that controls some areas in the villages of Jisr al-Shughour against Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham. These events led to armed groups and small parties actively participating in protest demonstrations, prompting Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham to release some detainees from Hizb ut-Tahrir, as well as releasing "Abu Maria al-Qahtani".



A notable aspect of the Idlib protests is that they did not clash with the security forces of Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham, and these security forces did not use force against the protesters. However, legitimate leaders of Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham mobilized a large number of young men to spread reassuring messages aimed at calming tensions. The Public Relations Office of the Media Ministry in the Salvation Government described torture in prisons as a "major flaw" and characterized the protests as a "natural reaction from the people".


Following this policy, we see al-Jolani as smarter than Bashar al-Assad, who suppressed his people after the 2011 protests. It seems that al-Jolani has learned from Assad's mistakes, so we expect him to take several other administrative measures to show a form of victory to the citizens. Among the prominent steps are:


  • Releasing the largest number of detainees.
  • Expanding freedoms beyond the pre-protest period.
  • Granting some factions economic opportunities that were monopolized by their leaders.



Many expect Abu Maria al-Qahtani to be released and some leaders of Hizb ut-Tahrir to be given positions as a form of concession from Hay'at Tahrir. However, this may give a contradictory image of what Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham is striving for. The organization, through the Salvation Government, seeks to eliminate the labels of terrorism and extremism. It has indeed appointed legitimate leaders, Bashir al-Ali and Abu Amer al-Halabi, to solve the problems of minorities whose properties were seized by the organization and some Islamic factions like the al-Ahrar Army. Therefore, the appearance of leaders from religious parties advocating for Islamic unity, such as Hizb ut-Tahrir, will not be in favor of al-Jolani. Hence, we expect al-Jolani to allow these parties and right-wing currents in its areas to engage in preaching and media activities freely, as long as they do not interfere in sensitive administrative leadership in the Salvation Government, such as the Ministry of Defense, Development, and Information. They may also be allowed to prepare militarily to be in the forefront of fighters stationed on the Syrian regime's borders, as supporters of Hizb ut-Tahrir have long advocated against concessions with the Russians and the Syrian regime.


Furthermore, compensation may be provided for the families of detainees killed in its prisons in the form of financial payments as a way to compensate for the failure of its security management towards detainees. Illegal groups that have seized properties may be granted economic benefits to compensate for the properties they will relinquish to their rightful owners.



These measures will not undermine al-Jolani's authority; on the contrary, they will open up broader opportunities for him to develop his areas to become more stable and civil. His army will be enhanced to better protect the borders of his regions against the incursions of the Syrian regime and Russian air force.




[1] "Jihad Issa Al-Sheikh", also known as "Abu Ahmad Zakour", was born in Aleppo on January 5, 1979. He belongs to the Bou-Assi clan, which is part of the Bakara tribe in northern Syria. Before his defection, he held several positions in the Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham, including commander of the Abdul Rahman Brigade, director of public relations, responsible for the economic file, member of the Shura Council, and prince of the Aleppo sector.

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