Hussam al-Atrash used to be a senior official for the Nour al-Din al-Zenki group, a Salafist group formerly active in northern Syria which was also a US-vetted opposition group until early 2015 and known for beheading a boy on video in besieged Aleppo city in July 2016 (which they claim was a fighter, others saying he was just a kid strolling the area). After absorbing several smaller groups, the majority of al-Zinki merged into Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) in January 2017, the most powerful Islamist-Jihadist group active in the greater Idlib area.
During the merger, al-Atrash become a senior official in the new alliance of HTS, more specifically the Deputy of the General Security Official. On the 31st of May 2017, he posted a flurry of tweets with some very interesting thoughts.
أعتقد أن الحل هوأن تحكم الحكومة المؤقتة المناطق المحررة و أن تعلن عن وزارة دفاع وتحل الفصائل العسكرية نفسها وتدخل في وزارة الدفاع بدون إعلام— حسام ابراهيم أطرش (@hossamalatrash1) May 31, 2017
In the above tweet he for example says he thinks all the factions active in greater Idlib should join the "Syrian Interim Government", an alternative government for Syria formed by several opposition groups in 2013, that holds no significant power on the ground in Syria. This statement would of course be viewed as very controversial by the mostly Jihadi figures active in HTS and other factions in Idlib, who view any entity like the Interim Government as un-islamic, since it does not adhere to Sharia or incorporates any Islamic thoughts into their policies and position.
Translation group @GIIMedia translated the full statement made by al-Atrash, as seen above. Link to their twitter. Key takeaways from the statement are the following. First: He suspects that as soon as all "the black on the map terminates [...] and the international metabolism will turn what was green to black"; which means that as soon as ISIS is finished in Syria and all their territory is captured, the areas held by opposition groups (mostly marked green on maps) will be the next black. Second: He says that no country will be pleased with the presence of HTS and Ahrar ash-Sham as they are designated (as terrorist entity). Something like Euphrates Shield is not going to happen with greater Idlib, its going to be captured by either the government (and Russia) or the SDF (and America). 3: He believes the only solution is the dissolution of all the factions and entering the Syrian Interim Government (an alternate government for Syria) "without any banners". A sectarian element, referring to the opposition and their controlled areas as "Sunni" is present in the whole statement. Al-Atrash also says this statement reflects his personal opinion, and not the group he belongs to. It is also to note that while the Interim Government is not outspokenly Islamic in its political and ideological stance, it cannot be called secular either.
Calls like these are not unheard of; in March 2015, the "Shura council of Scholars in the Levant", an influential group of Islamic clerics and scholars in Syria, issued a fatwa calling on all factions to dissolve and unite under a common flag. This council also supported calls for the formation of a National Army, supported by Turkey, aimed at fighting against the government and ISIS when rumours about such a project appeared in early 2017. However, these scholars do not wield significant influence over any armed groups in northern Syria. Perhaps to note is that in a tweet on the 1st June 2016, one of the founding members of Jabhat al-Nusra, Saleh al-Hamawi, should reach an understanding and cooperate with the Interim Government. Al-Hamawi had been expelled from JaN in early 2015. His call was not received well in the opposition and Syrian Jihadi community.
The official telegram channel of HTS posted the above message on the 1st of June 2016. They declare al-Atrash's comment as his strict personal opinion which he is allowed to speak out. However it does not represent the opinion of HTS as an organisation, whose positions are defined by its Shura and Sharia council. HTS thus accepts that its senior officials are allowed to speak out their opinion even if it goes against the political line of the organisation. This reaction was not what many of its enthusiasts expected, calling it weak and demanding a firmer response.
A statement was released on the website justpaste.it on the 1st of June 2017 by Sami bin Mahmoud al' Uraidi, aka Sami al Oraydi, former senior official of JaN, acting as their top religious authority and 2nd in command, where heib reacts to the statements made by al-Atrash. It is to note that al-Uraydi refused to join HTS when it formed in early 2017. In the statement posted on justpaste and shared on his official telegram channel, he laments the weak response by HTS, who allowed the call made by Atrash, but in his opinion should've silenced him as a call like this is a danger to the Jihad in Syria. He also tells of a meeting held during late 2016, when JaN was operating under the name of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. During the meeting, attended by various JaN figures aswell as Abu Mohammad al-Julani, ex-overall emir of JaN and now general military leader of HTS, and Abu Abdullah al-Shami, another senior official in JFS, al-Oraydi apparently raised the issue of merging with a group which accepts democracy as an option (for Jihadis, democracy is unacceptable). According to him, Joulani proclaimed that he would kill anyone ready to merge with these groups. This is probably a reference to the fact that since the Interim Government is recognised by several democratic western countries. If HTS agreed to dissolve into the Interim Government, it would mean tacit approval of democracy and a betrayal of the Jihad.
On around the 6th of June, Zubayr al-Ghazzi, a former senior JaN official, released a statement on justpaste.it aswell. He reacts to some of the allegations made by al Oraydi in the statement I talked about before, specifically the response given by al-Jolani. According to al-Ghazzi, who asked two others who participated in the meeting, al-Joulani made the statement jokingly in order to ease tensions which arose during the debate, both of which is something that regularly happens in these smaller council meetings. This can be taken as an indicator of just how divided the senior members of HTS are regarding democracy, mergers and pragmatism.
Around the 3rd of June, three members of HTS, named Abo Hamza al-Yamani, Abu Issac al-Jabali and Abu Khaled Ma'arzita released the above statement. It is unclear what positions these three individuals hold within HTS. The statement condemns the calls made by al-Atrash, saying it is a betrayal of the achievements of the Mujahideen so far. They also illustrate another important point: there is no guarantee that the Interim Government would adhere to the Sharia, which is of major importance for Jihadists. They want Sharia to be enforced as a legal code in the areas they live in and control. Even if this is possibly an opinion of only three low ranking officials, it echoes a general attitude among the ranks of HTS and probably their senior leadership aswell; Sharia is very important to them and any project which does not incorporates that, they will not accept.
In another instance, a statement shared on telegram channels on the 4th of June calls on the General Sharia Council of HTS to prosecute al-Atrash for his statements. They urge the council, which represents the main legal force of HTS and thus wields significant power, to remove al-Atrash from the organisation and to trial him in court. The statement is stamped by the Idlib section of HTS and signed by 14 shaykhs: Shaykh Abu Muhir Mulahim, Shakh Abu Muhammed Asim, Shaykh Abu Ibrahim Sheikh al-Bahr, Shaykh Abu al-Qassim al-Masri, Shaykh Salim, Shaykh Abu Ahmad al-Shawi, Shaykh Abu Muhammed al-Zahri, Shaykh Abu Ali al-Tunisi, Shaykh Abu Muhammed al-Wahoub, Shaykh Haritah al-Janoubi, Shakyh Abu Abd al-Wahhab, Sheikh Abu Fares al-Najdi, Shaykh Abu Sheikha and Shaykh Jawad. Most of these people are unknown and thus may hold low or mid level positions within HTS or are independent scholars based in greater Idlib.
Just one day earlier, Jaysh al-Nusra, a surname for the former elite forces of JaN, who are now a subgroup active within HTS, released a statement aswell, where they condemn the call made by al-Atrash. His comments are contrary to Shari'ah and firm action should be taken against him. The statement is signed by atleast six figures, which all appear to be senior official in the elite forces branch of HTS. The original statement was posted by a twitter account created in June 2017 and the veracity of the statement cannot be confirmed.
All these demands for action by HTS leadership were answered on the 5th of June, when HTS leadership called on al-Atrash to refer himself to the Internal Judiciary of HTS. This means a trial will take place against al-Atrash. Most members of HTS and jihadists in Syria will likely welcome this move, as their opinion of al-Atrash quickly fell after his - in their eyes - unislamic and non-Sharia conform statements. The Shura and Sharia council, which are the two top decision making entities within HTS, will then take a decision.
Also on the 5th of June, al-Atrash posted an another tweet, quoting the one linked above made on the 31st of May. The tweet says that he never viewed the Interim Government to be a secular one, because if that was what "they" wanted, they wouldn't have risen up against Assad and the government in the first place. This tweet is likely meant to placate some critique directed towards him, which is centered around the fact that he espoused a possibly secular type of government. This tweet is possibly an indicator for Atrash's personal opinion: he himself is also convinced of the Islamic project in opposition-held areas in Syria and has no intention to operate within a secular one; it appears, in fact, to be the major reason why he revolted against the government in the first place.
The core issue of a call like the one made by al-Atrash is that there is a definite need for a major strategic shift for the Syrian opposition, who has had no success in almost a year now in the greater Idlib area, as the government and its allies manage to hold their fronts. However, a conflict arises for convinced Jihadist figures in HTS if any new strategy implies softening their islamic project in Syria and turning towards any sort of secularism, democracy or international recognition. To note is that HTS and former JaN officials still have trouble and tensions over their relationship with al-Qaeda central and Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of al-Qaeda, which further divides HTS internally and creates conflict.
It is unlikely that HTS's Islamic project has a long-term future in Syria; they are always excluded from negotiations and designated as a terrorist entity by extent, since their base group Jabhat al-Nusra is listed as one by the US, the UN and many other states. Even if they have a foothold within the population which supports Sharia and the group and has seen the effects of humanitarian projects conducted by HTS in greater Idlib, without being part of any political solution with the government, it will forever remain a target for it and their allies. They are in a dilemma: it will be hard for them to secure their future without giving up or atleast softening their core beliefs, Sharia and their Islamic project. Maybe the senior members active in the Syrian armed opposition will be able to find a compromise with the Interim Government between Sharia and the international recognition. This is desirable for the opposition as a whole: while HTS actively prosecutes anyone who has fought (or they accuse of fighting) with Euphrates Shield, the operation led by Turkey to expel ISIS from the northern Aleppo border area, a further merger with the Interim Government could open up cooperation with rebels in the Aleppo pocket. This would mean a massive increase in manpower and resources crucial to the survival of the opposition, which has suffered major setbacks in recent times.
While the future is impossible to predict, there is a real chance that the Syrian government will play the military option and decide to take back greater Idlib by force. This would likely entail a very prolonged military campaign on multiple fronts, which would cause huge destruction, casualties on both sides and a lot of new refugees. Backed into a corner, the armed opposition will have to fight united and possibly resist or fall divided; but it is extremely unlikely that all factions in greater Idlib would unite under the green flag of HTS, and, by extent, the black banner of al-Qaeda.