Hundreds of frontline foreign fighters have been told to fall under the direct control of the main rebel group leading the Syrian civil war in the Idlib region or get out of the country. The blunt order was issued by Hay'at Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) amid some of the heaviest Russian bombardment seen in north-west Syria.
The timing of the directive has bewildered Middle East observers. There are fears of an internal backlash among the foreign fighters who simply have nowhere else to go, having been forced to abandon or relinquish their citizenship of their native countries.
The main rebel fighters faced with the Catch22 situation are from the Egyptian-dominated Sahaba and Khataab groups, and the Chechen Ajnad Al-Kavkaz groups. They all operate in Sahel Alghab in the Jabal Al-Zawiya region.
Rebel leader Muslim "Abu Waleed" Shishani is one of those issued with an ultimatum by the head of HTS, Abu Mohammad Al-Jolani, a few days ago. The offer to fall under the leadership of HTS was rejected when it was put to Shishani's group made up predominantly of Chechen fighters. Shishani carries a huge amount of respect in some quarters as a veteran fighter with 20 years of experience in Chechnya and Syria. There were similar reactions from the other groups who have no option, they say, but to stay in Syria and fight.
On the Ground News (OGN) journalist Bilal Abdul Kareem, who himself has fallen foul of HTS, has been following the unfolding drama. "These foreign fighters came to Syria to protect the Syrian people in their fight against Assad's brutal regime," he told me. "Naturally there is a lot of unrest because of the uncertainty of their future status. None of these fighters can return to their home countries, many have given up their citizenships or had their citizenships revoked and they have trust issues with HTS. They are now exploring their options, but the one thing that hasn't changed is their commitment to the Syrian peoples' cause."
The American journalist moved recently from Idlib to the Euphrates Shield area in northern Syria. He was held in an HTS prison with neither charge nor trial for six months after he reported for OGN on allegations that the militant group tortured detainees. His detention followed a string of arrests by HTS of aid workers and journalists in Idlib province throughout 2020. "Most of the prominent scholars and people of Islamic knowledge have left HTS and this vacuum has created some trust issues so there is a reluctance to accept an invitation to fall into their ranks," he added.
A media spokesman for HTS dismissed much of Abdul Kareem's observations. He accused him of "slander and spreading lies" now that he is out of the group's reach in the Euphrates Shield area.
HTS will certainly not like the American's latest broadcast on YouTube from his new media base. In his first Q and A session for OGN since his release, the controversial journalist discusses the dilemma facing foreign fighters in the region.
Other observers have been more direct than the co-founder of OGN, claiming that the HTS leadership resembles a "criminal mafia". Speaking on condition of anonymity, one told me: "This is turning into a very ugly, nasty game. The fighters who have given up their countries of origin are now living in fear of HTS and have no place to go. This is a very dangerous mix of armed people who have nothing to lose. Bad things can happen."
Hay'at Tahrir Al-Sham was formed by Abu Mohammad Al-Jolani in 2017 from a number of groups, including some Al-Qaida affiliates. He founded Jabhat Al-Nusra in 2011, maintaining links with Al-Qaida after the latter's highly publicised split with Daesh, whose own leader at the time, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, was said to have been instrumental in Jabhat Al-Nusra's creation.
However, by late July 2016, Al-Jolani said that he was establishing a new group called Jabhat Fatah Al-Sham which would no longer have "external ties" with Al-Qaida. The response from Al-Qaida leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri was said to be terse. A year later Al-Jolani rebranded his group yet again, merging with several others — Harakat Nour Al-Din Al-Zinki, Liwa Al-Haq, Jaysh Al-Sunna and Jabhat Ansar Al-Din — to establish HTS.
Al-Zawahiri opposed the mergers and described HTS as an independent Salafi-jihadist group that had split illegally from Al-Qaida by breaking its oath of allegiance. Keen to distance himself and HTS from Al-Qaida, it is thought that Al-Jolani has even tried to rebrand himself by swapping his fatigues for suits and promoting himself as a political leader rather than a rebel fighter. However, his attempts to legitimise himself in the eyes of the US, where his group remains on a terrorist register, and other key Western countries has so far failed.
The group's biggest support comes from Turkey, but even Ankara appears keen to keep its distance while it plays more of a pragmatic role in the rebel-held territories. The Turkish military is entrenched in these territories, but the real power struggle over Syria is being played out elsewhere between Russia and Turkey. Unlike Libya, Idlib has no oil or natural wealth, but it is a useful bargaining chip nonetheless.
It is clear that Russian leader Vladimir Putin is more than happy to watch the Syrian conflict grind on rather than return the last of the territories back to the Bashar Al-Assad regime. Turkey, meanwhile, is much more invested in keeping control over strategic territories in Syria close to its own border.
Quite what this all means for HTS and the future of the other rebel fighters in Syria remains to be seen. However, the thought of hundreds of heavily armed veteran foreign fighters with nowhere else to go must surely be a major concern.
I imagine that the situation was part of the discussion on Wednesday between Turkey's Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu and his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov. The two met in the Mediterranean resort of Antalya. According to Çavuşoğlu, Ankara and Moscow have each made significant contributions to the establishment of ceasefires in both Syria and Libya.
However, with news of demands being made by HTS on rival rebel groups, there appears to be a time bomb ticking away in the free Syrian territories with potentially deadly effect. It would be reassuring to know that serious attempts are being made to find a solution instead of allowing tensions to rise among the foreign fighters.
Of course, as usual in matters such as these, the real losers are the Syrian people who've endured, rebelled and fled from the Assad regime while their children have known nothing else but conflict and war. A split between HTS and the foreign fighters may be a blip in the wider Russia-Turkey scheme of things, but the consequences for the people of Syria could be deadly and long-lasting.
I hope that Bilal Abdul Kareem's claim that the foreign fighters went to Syria "to protect the people" still holds true. Anything else doesn't bear thinking about.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.