It was 2012 and foreign fighters were pouring in from all around the world to fight against the regime of Bashar Assad. Many of them sold their possessions back in their home countries and purchased their own weapons to enter into the raging battles. Assad’s forces were losing territory quickly. While the Syrian rebel units fought bravely and effectively, the foreign fighters added a unique element. Syrians were accustomed to fighting other Syrians. Their habits and tactics were known to each other. However the entrance of the Muhajireen changed the dynamic. Suddenly there were new tactics Assad forces had to deal with. The Muhajireen fought with a tenacity that Assad’s troops weren’t ready for. To put it bluntly: the Muhajireen weren’t afraid to die. They chose to fight this war of their own volition.
Once a synergy had come about between fierce Muhajireen and their Syrian counterparts, it proved to be a potent mix. Large territories in Syria were outside of the control of Damascus for the first time. In 2012, a large battle was due to take place against regime forces. An attack force was planned and all that was now needed were the fighters. The commander’s car had to take a certain route to the group’s headquarters. All of the fighters knew that the commander was coming to the headquarters to choose which fighters would head to the battlefront. So, they lined the street that led to the headquarters. As the commander’s car was about 250 meters from the headquarters, the fighters flagged down the car. “I want to be a part of the force tonight. Just take me with you and you will see,” one of them said. Others who flagged down the car had a similar message. This was the fervor that had swept the territory. Islam was prevailing, or so the fighters thought.
Fast forward some 10 years later and those same fighters who still have shrapnel stuck in their bodies and have lost their way back to their home countries live in fear. However the fear that they are facing is not that the regime will retake northern Syria and displace them. The worry is that the man they once saw as the one person who understood their difficulties and sympathized with them is now looking to contain them. I’m talking about HTS leader Abu Muhammad Jolani.
Many of the foreign fighters have lost the spirit to fight. “We don’t know what we are fighting for anymore,” says one veteran of the battle that took control of Idlib city from the regime. “We risked our lives to help spread Islam and save the Syrian people but it’s not clear what the fight is about today”. Hiyyat Tahreer Sham (HTS) was once called Jabha Nusra. They branded themselves to be freedom fighters dedicated to the establishment of Islamic rule. However, once opportunities to take over and govern territory began to present themselves, HTS began fighting other rebel groups whom they once shared space with in the trenches on the battlefields against Assad.
Back in 2017 HTS said that the reason for their fighting a bloody battle agains Ahrar Sham, a fellow rebel faction, was because Ahrar was planning to open the doors for the Turkish military to enter northern Syria. Most of HTS’ fighters were in their ranks for one religious reason or another. Jolani seized on that sentiment and told them that they were putting their lives on the line to keep out the “disbelieving army of Turkey”. Less than a year later, HTS had vanquished Ahrar and Turkey had entered those territories accompanied by HTS fighters who were assigned to protect and not fight them, but they also had a new ally against the regime. The Turkish army became an indispensable ally.
By Bilal Abdul Kareem