Below is how I think Hayat Tahrir al-Sham may now be fighting the Syrian regime’s forces, as the latter push deeper into rebel-held Idlib. Hayat Tahrir al-Sham seems not to be mounting a valiant, heels-dug-in last stand, but rather a fighting, attritive retreat paired with asymmetric insurgent tactics.
The text I’ve translated is a set of posts from a Telegram account called “Sina’at al-Fikr” (Producing Thought), which, per one description, is a channel for “programmatic guidance in order to produce right-minded consciousness.” In practice, it seems to function as a Hayat Tahrir al-Sham-aligned outlet that offers short pieces of ideological and strategic advice and instruction, like a sort of jihadist think tank publishing in bite-sized installments. (There are several Sina’at al-Fikr accounts currently on Telegram. The one that is currently active and being referred to by other accounts describes itself as a reserve account.)
These posts were originally from May 2017, but they’ve recently been published again, both by the current Sina’at al-Fikr account on 17 January 2018 and by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham media official Muhammad Nazzal (Abu Khattab al-Maqdisi) on 17 and 23 January 2018. They come in the wake of Tahrir al-Sham’s loss of the eastern Idlib countryside – including the Abu al-Dhuhour airbase – and amid complaints from other opposition constituencies about Tahrir al-Sham’s successive retreats ahead of the regime’s ongoing offensive.
If the thinking outlined below is what’s behind Tahrir al-Sham’s repeated withdrawals and its judicious use of manpower and resources in defense of insurgent-held territory, I think it’s probably the smart move for the group. As Tahrir al-Sham itself apparently recognizes, it can’t prevail in open battle with the regime and its allies, particularly against Russian airpower.
But the smart strategic move for Tahrir al-Sham – which is probably better equipped than other factions to resort to a rural insurgency – is not good for Idlib’s other, locally grounded rebel factions, or for civilians.
When Sina’at al-Fikr tells “the mujahideen” they shouldn’t aim “to prevent the enemy from reaching the areas he wants” – those “areas he wants” are cities like Saraqib and the provincial capital Idlib, where civilian Idlibis live. Realistically, there’s probably no way to defend these areas. But Tahrir al-Sham’s strategic shift means these cities and towns’ civilian residents will need to run, or otherwise fend for themselves.
Translation follows. (Note: The repeated ellipses are in the original Arabic.)