On November 28, al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri accused Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda) and its leader Abu Mohammad al-Julani of betraying their oath of allegiance (bayat) to al-Qaeda in an official 35-minute audio message.
Al-Zawahiri also said in the audio message that the al-Nusra Front, the core of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) wanted its allegiance to al-Qaeda to be a secret when it was first formed. However, the al-Qaeda leadership refused that because it saw it as a “deadly mistake”.
The Al-Qaeda leader added that al-Qaeda didn’t release HTS from its allegiance to it yet and called on the supporters of al-Qaeda to form a new Jihadi group in Syria.
“We have given them [HTS] a chance for more than a year now, but we saw an increase in the infringement of sanctities,” al-Zawahiri said in the audio message.
The Al-Zawahiri word comes only one day after HTS arrested several al-Qaeda leaders in Idlib governorate. Iyad al-Tubasi, Sami al-Aradi, Abu Humam al-Suri and Abu al-Qasim al-Urduni were among the arrested persons. All of these al-Qaeda leaders worked closely with al-Julani to establish the al-Nusra Front back in 2012 and HTS in 2017.
In an official statement released on November 27, HTS claimed that al-Qaeda leaders who had been arrested were working against “the establishment of a united Sunni body” in Syria. A poor excuse according to many experts who believe that HTS arrested the leaders only to please Turkey and the US.
The Turkish-backed National Coalition for Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces quickly released a statement blessing the arrest of al-Qaeda leaders in Idlib governorate and calling on the US to remove HTS from its terror list. The statement also suggested that HTS made the arrests only to distance itself from al-Qaeda, hoping that the US and Turkey might resume their military support for it.
However, many experts believe that the arrest of al-Qaeda leaders in Idlib governorate might impact HTS negatively. Many foreign fighters controlling large areas of Idlib were against the arrest. Several foreign and local commanders of HTS announced on November 29 that they are freezing their work with HTS until it releases the detained persons.
If al-Julani refuses to release the al-Qaeda leaders, some commanders and fighters of HTS may make an attempt to defect from the group. On the other hand, HTS could gain additional supplies and support from Turkey if it’s able to distance itself further from the terrorist group.