Interview with Dr Azzam Al Kassir

7 months agoANALYSIS


By Idris Siwayli


KCCRC interviewed Dr Azzam Al Kassir in mid-November. Al Kassir is a Syrian researcher based in London. He holds a PhD in Politics from the Department of Politics at Birkbeck, University of London, and a master’s degree in Middle East politics from the University of Exeter. His research interests are centred on modern political Islamic thought and radical Islamism.

KCCRC: What is the state and distribution of armed Islamic groups in Syria now?

Azzam Al Kassir: Today, there are a number of armed Islamist organizations active in some areas of Syria, but in general they appear to be weaker than they were five or six years ago, for example. The most prominent organization deployed in areas beyond regime control is Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which controls most of Idlib province. There is also Hurras al-Din, an al-Qaeda Salafi-Jihadist organization, as well as a number of small jihadist organizations such as the Turkestan Islamic Party and others. Reports indicate that a number of ISIS cells continue to be present in Syria's badiya, but it is difficult to estimate their effectiveness and size accurately. Previously, Ahrar al-Sham, a Salafist organization, had a strong presence in rural Aleppo, Idlib and Hama, but after the confrontation with Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham and a series of defections within its ranks, Ahrar al-Sham became weak and limited to some areas of rural Aleppo. Ahrar al-Sham's weakness has strengthened other Armed Islamist factions under the banner of the Turkish-backed National Army, particularly the Shamiyah Front.

KCCRC: What is the relationship between HTS and al-Qaeda’s Hurras al-Din?

Azzam Al Kassir: It is a relationship of domination and manipulation. HTS is much stronger than Hurras al-Din and can eliminate it if there is an open confrontation between the two parties. But HTS deals with Hurras al-Din as a card in its hands to use it in its attempts to gain local and international legitimacy and to appear to be an acceptable and more moderate player than other jihadist organizations. This is the strategy of Abu Muhammad al-Jolani since he announced the disengagement from al-Qaeda in mid-2016. HTS wants to emerge today as the only party capable of curbing extremist organizations and controlling the security situation in northwestern Syria to ensure a political and military role in the coming period.

KCCRC: HTS in Idlib seems to have some sort of an independent administration, how do you evaluate its experience of managing the region?

Azzam Al Kassir: Al-Jolani and other leaders of HTS say that their organization is solely responsible for military and security matters and that it does not interfere in the work of the "Salvation Government" and its civilian bodies. But, in fact, all sectors are subject to HTS and any talk of a wide margin of freedoms in its areas is a kind of misinformation. HTS does not directly interfere in the daily lives of the population, but controls vital and strategic sectors such as banks and border crossings and imposes its vision and ideology on society through the exercise of control over the educational process, religious institutions and the media. The importance of the transformations that HTS has undergone in terms of its discourse and the way it manages the areas under its rule cannot be denied. Today, it seems more open than it was before, but it would be wrong to rush to make a final judgment on HTS, negatively or positively. HTS should be pressured to increase the margin of freedom in its areas, stop restricting civilian activists, share administration and governance with Syrian opposition parties and deal with the issue of fighting extremism seriously, not as a negotiation card.

KCCRC: Does the Taliban's victory in Afghanistan affect HTS and other Islamist groups in Syria? And how?

Azzam Al Kassir: Certainly, in fact, the Taliban influenced HTS’ strategy long before its recent victory in Afghanistan. The leadership of HTS was monitoring and taking note since negotiations between the Taliban and the Americans began in Doha two years ago. The key lesson HTS has learned from the Taliban experience is that if moving away from Al-Qaida and refraining from terrorist operations abroad leads to international acceptance, so be it. Based on my analysis of the discourse of HTS, this approach is not only internally perceived as strategically profitable, but also presented as legitimate religiously under the principle of "bringing interests and warding off harms" and the need to preserve the essence and presence of Islam and others.
I believe that the future is open to bolder pragmatic steps that the leadership of HTS can take, taking the form of cooperation with Turkey and the Ankara-backed Syrian National Army. In terms of propaganda and symbolism, HTS has recently begun using what happened in Afghanistan in propaganda and recruitment campaigns and in its attempts to regain the support of jihadist leaders and ideologues who question the effectiveness of al-Jolani’s approach which is based on reassuring the West and denying the charge of terrorism.

KCCRC: How do you see the future of Idlib and HTS in light of the expected offensive of the Syrian regime?

Azzam Al Kassir: The Syrian regime cannot end HTS by a military campaign. Unless we are talking of sweeping military action by land and air, adopts a scorched earth strategy, with Russia participating directly and with a Turkish and Western green light, a scenario that I rule out. The human cost of such an action would be very high and would cause a major wave of displacement and migration that would have global repercussions, which would stop the regime, Russia and Iran from doing so, especially since the military and security situation seems stable on various fronts. The regime and Russia are likely to continue to launch attacks on the Idlib perimeter to pressure Turkey into further cooperation and make concessions on other issues. In addition, if the regime launches a large-scale ground offensive, HTS is likely to extend its hands to factions of the Syrian National Army, which in turn also have an interest in expanding their operations and sharing a stake in Idlib rule. That scenario would hamper efforts to isolate HTS, one of the top priorities of Russia's strategy in Syria.

KCCRC: In the past years, ISIS has retreated in the Syrian arena, do you think ISIS is over or is it coming back and controlling a geographical area?

Azzam Al Kassir: The risk of ISIS returning exists. There are indications that ISIS cells continue to operate at many points in the Syrian desert from the countryside of Homs and Hama to the borders of Iraq. It is unlikely that the organization will return directly and immediately, but any change in the current situation may allow the organization to rearrange its ranks, activate its cells and increase the frequency of its operations. A large-scale Turkish campaign in northern Syria, for example, will mean the preoccupation of Syria’s Democratic Forces and the rest of the parties, thus giving greater room for the movement of ISIS cells. Also, although a sudden U.S. withdrawal is unlikely, this scenario will alter the balance of power, which ISIS will use to expand its presence. ISIS grows in conditions of war and instability, and the increasing frequency of its operations is an indication of the state of alert and anticipation of local and regional developments in the coming weeks. Arguably, the main objective behind the group's repeated operations in Iraq and Syria is to use it in the organization's propaganda campaigns to prove its existence and continued ability to cause a great deal of harm. If there is no significant imbalance in the existing control map, the organization's operations will remain limited and will not pose an existential threat to any of the parties to the conflict. But it is likely to remain a chronic problem in Syria and Iraq. 

KCCRC: Turkey threatens Kurdish forces with attack, if the attack occurs, will this be reflected in the strengthening of the influence of Islamic groups close to Turkey?

Azzam Al Kassir: Although most Turkish-backed factions are Islamist, it should be noted that there are different ideological and political trends among the National Army factions. In any case, if Turkey launches a large-scale military campaign, it will not happen without an agreement with Russia and the regime.
Turkish pressure on Kurdish factions will push them to get closer to the Syrian regime and accept its conditions, especially since the current U.S. administration does not pay much attention to the Syrian issue. On the other hand, Turkey seems to have no problem with the redeployment of regime forces in areas bordering Turkey, but it wants to get a price for it. That price may be that the regime and Russia will accept a greater role for the National Army factions, currently in Aleppo countryside, and possibly in Idlib in the future.


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