Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zinki fighters prepare to behead an 11-year-old Palestinian boy accused of fighting for the Syrian regime last summer.
Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zinki (The Nour al-Din al-Zinki Movement: NZM) – an Islamist faction originating from Aleppo that once received support from the CIA's program of backing 'vetted' Syrian rebels that now seems set to be phased out – gained a widespread reputation as being representative of the 'not-so-moderate rebel' trend in Syria when a video emerged from Aleppo last year of some members beheading of a youth accused of being a fighter for the regime. While a beheading in itself is not so indicative of ideological 'moderation' considering how widespread war crimes and brutality are in Syria, a legitimate concern was NZM's close working relationship with Jabhat al-Nusra/Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, which was probably a key reason why the group was cut off in 2015 from the program of support for 'vetted' groups.
The reputation of being 'baddie rebels' was compounded by NZM's subsequent joining of the Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham merger in January 2017, which came amid infighting in Idlib and Aleppo provinces that saw a number of factions join Ahrar al-Sham in seeking protection from Jabhat Fatah al-Sham. NZM had been touting the idea of of a grand merger between Jabhat Fatah al-Sham and Ahrar al-Sham, but as became apparent from comments from Turki Abd al-Hameed, a member of NZM's political office, the support for a merger was not indicative of a supposed NZM ideological affinity with jihadism. Rather, the merger hopes came from a belief that Jabhat Fatah al-Sham in particular was an effective military actor that in a merger initiative could help uphold the interests of the 'revolution' militarily and politically in a stage of crisis following the regime's recapture of Aleppo in December 2016. NZM's hopes were likely derived from the close working relationship it had developed with Jabhat Fatah al-Sham. Ahmad Hamamer of NZM explained to me the rationale for joining Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham as follows:
The necessity of the stage [of the 'revolution'/civil war] required the existence of a strong body in all its components, and Ahrar al-Sham was among those to merge but it withdrew in the last period before the announcement of the merger.
As for NZM, Hamamer insisted that "We were a revolution [faction] and continue to be so." Yet the idea that Jabhat Fatah al-Sham in a merger initiative could help uphold what NZM perceived as the 'revolution's' interests was naive. Abu Muhammad al-Jowlani, the leader of Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, and Hashim al-Sheikh, who headed a more hardline contingent of Ahrar al-Sham that unsuccessfully tried to push the whole group into a merger with Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, have come to wield the real reins of power and direction in Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham as the military and general leaders respectively.
There are certainly questions to be raised about the nature of Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham's exact relationship with al-Qa'ida: the speed at which the Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham merger took place suggests that al-Qa'ida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, with whom correspondence takes considerable time, was almost certainly not consulted, even as the transition from Jabhat al-Nusra to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham through the official dropping of the 'external entity' affiliation with al-Qa'ida in July 2016 insisted Ayman al-Zawahiri and al-Qa'ida's leadership would remain an exemplar and that the general directives had been followed to carry out the rebranding. Further, although the idea of Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham could fit in with an al-Qa'ida conception of embedding more deeply within the insurgency to advance the interests of the jihadist project, there is currently a sharp strategic divergence as Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham has sought to expand its administrative reach and power base, whereas Ayman al-Zawahiri, likely out of a realistic view of the current trends in Syria's civil war that have gone against the insurgency, advises a guerrilla approach that does not focus on controlling territory. A rapprochement here will probably require Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham being forced to pursue guerrilla tactics through loss of territory on account of a major offensive against it by a party pushing into Idlib from the outside.
Nonetheless, these questions of the relationship with al-Qa'ida do not alter the fact that on the ground, Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham has not softened its conduct, whatever overtures it might make towards the 'revolution' in its statements and rhetoric that al-Qa'ida loyalists and Ayman al-Zawahiri might consider to be nationalist dilution of the jihadist project. In fact, Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham's approach towards other insurgent groups and civil society in the form of local councils, as well as its treatment of the officially ex-Druze community in Idlib, have become more hardline. This probably reflects the dominance of the jihadists in the entity, and certainly the overall direction could not have sat well with many of the NZM members who had joined, even if they felt Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham could ultimately be the 'winning horse' – so to speak – for the 'revolution'. For example, Hussam al-Atrash, an NZM official who joined Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham and wrote extensively on the backstories behind the rebel merger initiatives, caused considerable controversy within Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham in suggesting through comments on Twitter that 'liberated' areas needed to be handed over to the interim government tied to the opposition-in-exile.
NZM leader Tawfiq Shahab al-Din
Internal tensions through the presence of NZM in Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham have now developed into NZM's split from Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham in a statement from NZM's leader Tawfiq Shahab al-Din. The immediate context and cited causes of the split are a new round of infighting in Idlib between Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham and Ahrar al-Sham, partly coming amid increasing talk of the possibility of a Turkish intervention into Idlib that may target Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham. Each side accuses the other of aggression, and an initiative emerged to resolve the conflict between the sides, to which Ahrar al-Sham agreed but Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham only under certain conditions, whereas Tawfiq Shahab al-Din himself had agreed to it.
What of the future for NZM? For now, Hamamer says that "God knows best" as to whether NZM will remain an independent group, with things depending on the circumstances. NZM's history does provide a lesson that the moral judgement of whether a group is ideologically 'moderate' – sometimes derived from mere observation of one event that gains media traction – is not always a useful measure for assessing why some groups shift affiliations over time. Ideological differences cannot be overlooked in the wider Syrian civil war, but in NZM's case, its relationship with Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham was more driven by naivety and a bet on the supposed 'strong horse' to uphold what it saw as the interests of the 'revolution' (sentiments that had arisen from the close cooperation in the field with Jabhat al-Nusra/Jabhat Fatah al-Sham) rather than a newly found love for jihadist ideology.
Below is Tawfiq Shahab al-Din's statement translated in full.
In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful
Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zinki had been a forerunner for the merger and unity projects in the Syrian revolution, and did not have regard for the deviant voices on the inside and outside that called to prevent that merger, even as all that was for the sake of unity of rank and finding an entity that could bring together the Sunnis in al-Sham to implement the ruling of God's law. But now the compass has deviated from its path and the rifle from its target, so:
Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zinki announces its separation from Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham for the following reasons:
1. Lack of applying the ruling of Shari'a for which we expended our lifeblood and what is precious to implement its ruling. That became manifest as follows:
a) Neglecting the fatwa committee in the commission [Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham] and the issuing of a statement from the Shari'i council without the knowledge of most of its members.
b) The lack of acceptance of the initiative that the virtuous 'ulama launched last Thursday night.
2. Neglecting the Shura council of the commission [Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham] and taking the decision to fight Ahrar al-Sham despite the fact that the commission's formation was built on the basis of not committing aggression against the factions.
Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zinki pledges to the Syrian people in revolt to continue towards realizing its aims in bringing down the criminal regime and implementing the ruling of God's law on the Syrian lands.
Tawfiq Shahab al-Din
Published on 26 Shawwal 1438 AH/20 July 2017 CE.
Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi is a research fellow at Middle East Forum's Jihad Intel project.