On December 15, eleven commander of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda) announced in an official statement that they left the group to join al-Qaeda in Syria. In the statement, the commanders justified their decision by saying that they were only “returning to their origin” and that they will not betray their oath of allegiance (bayat) to al-Qaeda.
Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri said in an audio message on November 28 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”.
The defection of these eleven HTS commanders could be an evidence that al-Qaeda is indeed establishing a new branch in the Syrian province of Idlib under the eyes of HTS.
On October 11, a report of the UK-based Al Quds Al Arabi newspaper said that a new branch of al-Qaeda under the name “Ansar Al-Furqan Fi Bilad al-Sham” is being formed in Idlib province by Osama bin Laden’s Son, Hamza bin Laden. Several al-Qaeda-linked radical Islamist scholars like the Saudi Abdullah al-Muhaysini didn’t deny that al-Qaeda is forming a new branch in Idlib, when they were asked about it.
The relationship between HTS and al-Qaeda witnessed a breakdown during November when HTS arrested several leaders of al-Qaeda in the province of Idlib. HTS released all the leaders only weeks later after huge pressure from its own fighters and commanders.
The bad relationship between HTS and al-Qaeda could explain why al-Qaeda is looking to establish a new branch for it in Syria. With the support of most HTS fighters and commanders, the new terrorist group could take over Idlib and eliminate HTS in the near future.