Rival factions: Reasons HTS refrains from dismantling Guardians of the Religion
Since the February 2018 launch of the Guardians of the Religion terrorist organization, which presents itself as a wing of al-Qaeda in Syria, it is never mentioned except without also mentioning Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) as the group’s number one enemy, which it is preparing to destroy.
The tense relationship between the two factions has not calmed or settled in favor of one of them within the two years that have passed since the Guardians of the Religion appeared on the Syrian scene. The relationship has continued to fluctuate between the Guardians of the Religion accusing HTS of negligence and the latter promising to dismantle the former.
Despite the many threats and ease of implementation due to HTS’s numerical and military superiority over the Guardians of the Religion, which is classified as a small faction in Idlib, HTS still has not yet taken this step, which raises questions about the reason causing HTS to keep the Guardians of the Religion in tact despite the skirmishes between them and the inconvenience caused by the Guardians.
The city of Armanaz in the northwestern countryside of Idlib witnessed a high level of security tension between HTS and the Guardians of the Religion, after HTS attempted to close the headquarters of the Guardians in a number of cities and towns in the countryside of Idlib. This latest clash between the two factions caused elements of both parties to spread in the vicinity of the city.
The Guardians of the Religion has said that HTS is exceedingly concerned with restricting and harassing the Guardians more than other factions in the areas where it is deployed. Guardians military commander Abu Muhammad al-Sudani said via Telegram, "The methodology and slogan of the Guardians of the Religion since its foundation has been to resort to God’s law to resolve disputes. Unfortunately, these days, we see the abundance of incitement and pitting against this group by some who are disinterested and indifferent to the fate of the field."
"We call on the wise of the struggling factions to intervene to stop this recklessness, and we also call on the wise people to come together to arrange the internal ranks and devote themselves to fighting the regime," Sudani added.
While Sudani’s call was not very intense, it alludes to the possibility of the Guardian of the Religion resorting to military escalation if HTS continues to harass it. Shebl Osama, a leader within the Guardians, said, "If things get complicated, then the evil will be paid in self-defense. I wonder, why do people insist on continuing the warnings?"
"We have been and continue to warn of the danger of internal fighting breaking out in the Levant, which only brings forth division and ignites the fire of strife, serving the interests of the Russians, Alawites and Turks, who desire for internal fighting to occur," he added.
In the same context, incitement also came from Abu Abdul Karim al-Gharbi, a leader likely close to the Guardians of the Religion but not affiliated with them, in which he proposed the idea of killing HTS leader Julani in order to calm the conflict between the two terrorist groups, although he also asked both groups not to stir discord.
A portion of his speech was addressed to the Guardians of the Religion, urging them to slow down and not judge HTS elements through the mistakes of their leaders. In the same context, he also demanded that HTS elements get rid of Julani.
Although these calls are the first of their kind that raise the level of hostility between the Guardians of the Religion and HTS to the point of calling for the assassination of Julani personally, HTS did not react at all to these calls. At most, HTS limits its dealings with the Guardians of the Religion to harassing it from time to time.
Nehad al-Jariri, a researcher concerned with terrorist groups, said in an article that HTS is unwilling to pay a knockout blow to the Guardians of the Religion despite all its military capabilities and its numbers that distinguishes it from the al-Qaeda organization.
Jariri pointed out that HTS believes that keeping the Guardians of the Religion in Idlib and other HTS areas is important for putting pressure on the international community.
Julani, who leads the largest fighting group in and around Idlib and controls millions of dollars from oil and taxes, needs the presence of the Guardians of the Religion to serve as a pressure card against the international community, Jariri added.
In turn, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said in a recent report that HTS eliminating the Guardians of the Religion is not easy for the former, because it is afraid that this will either cause internal splits within its ranks or unite jihadist organizations into a bloc against HTS in revenge for the Guardians of the Religion.
The Observatory pointed out that HTS prefers to work according to a policy of weakening and tightening so as to gradually kill off the group, considering that this policy will bear fruit because of its ability to strip the organization of its capabilities and elements in the long run.
From time to time, HTS opposes the Guardians of the Religion by stealing weapons, killing leaders or detaining elements, while the Guardians face this with criticism and skepticism about the religiosity of HTS.