Interview with Harakat Taliban
Turkish fighters in Syria under allegiance to the Taliban in Afghanistan
Syria is known for having a plethora of minor rebel factions that have little to no media spread, and the faction in question can be counted amongst them.
I first noticed Harakat Taliban (which used to go by the name Katibat Taliban) after researcher and drones expert Nick Waters remarked that the type of drone bomblets they used was like the ones that attacked Russia’s Hmeimim Air Base.
After I tweeted about the faction, a member reached out to me willing to be interviewed regarding their group, why they joined Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham in 29th January 2017 and later left, their current relations with the various rebel factions, and importantly, how they view the Turkish army presence in the Idlib/Aleppo area.
Note: The interview was conducted via telegram and have been slightly edited for fluidity and readability. The interviewee membership was confirmed through one of their official channels.
How would you say the situation where you are now?
The situation is good, as you know Turkey launched their operation in Afrin which improved the situation, all the while we’re still active against the regime.
You previously joined Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, why did you leave and what’s your relationship with them now?
Answer: We left HTS after having merged with them, and our intention with the merger was militarily.
From the beginning when we announced the merger, we met with the leaders of HTS, we told them we wish to work with you military wise (in battles and ribat etc.), administration wise we have our own structure aligned with the Taliban (in Afghanistan).
After we joined them, HTS launched their Hama battle which they wanted exclusively to be their own operation. So we went and met some of their military leaders and informed them that we have around 30 brothers, all foreigners, that wishes to participate in the battle, and before this battle we hadn’t been active in that front and thus we didn’t know the terrain.
We asked that for every small platoon HTS had consisting of 30–40 fighters we would add 5 of our own so that they could be guided around in the unknown terrain.
One of the HTS military leaders responded and said if you haven’t pledged allegiance (bay’a) to HTS then you are not allowed to participate.
We tried persuading them to let us join the battle but HTS flatly refused, stating that this battle was exclusive to HTS and no other factions can join.
After this the trouble began between us and we were only with them for approximately 2 months, now we have no contact or relation with them at all.
This is the biggest issue we have with them, we repeated to them that we are mujahidin with no ulterior motives, we wish to help in accordance to Allah’s religion, so let me be of benefit for you and that I can benefit Allah’s religion. We only work for Allah’s sake, we don’t ask anything from you, neither weapons, ammunition, vehicles or gasoline, but to no avail.
Question: I wish to know more about your group, I understand that some things might be sensitive to tell security wise, but if you’re able please tell us about your group, when it was established, how many members do you have, do you receive aid or arms from anywhere?
Answer: We first came to Syria around 2011–2012, and as you know at that many mujahidin used to come to Syria. So, we had in our group at that time muhajirs (foreign fighters) from all sorts of nationalities, but after the fitnah (tribulation) of al-Dawla (ISIS), most of the muhajirs overall went with them, likewise the majority of the muhajir in our group went with them, but a large portion stayed as well.
At our largest we were around 300 muhajirs and 300 ansaris (native Syrian fighters), and thanks to our large numbers we would be very active as well.
After the fitna of al-Dawla, approximately 80 muhajir mujahids stayed with us, and around 100 ansaris. And that’s the current number as well, in addition to family members. Our members consist of Turks, Syrians, Arabs and other foreigners.
Recently we were active on the Afrin front with PKK, but independently, not with Euphrates Shield nor Turkey. We had our own frontline positions we held active with our own arms and force, not receiving any military aid nor support. After the Afrin area became mostly under Turkish control, we retreated from it and are now in the process of positioning ourselves at the Sahel (in Latakia) and Aleppo fronts, hopefully after Ramadan, Allah willing.
We worked in the Aleppo area for 4 years, as well participating in the Idlib and Hama battles and some activity in the Sahel before we went to the Afrin front where we station for 7 months before the troubles with the Turks entering began, leading to our aforementioned retreat.
On the issue of receiving any support, militarily or financial, I stress that we have never had anything of that, not from any countries nor any of the rebel factions. All our work is from our own capabilities and means, and Allah is the sole supporter, no other.
We chose our name because our leaders were in Afghanistan and had pledged allegiance to Mullah Umar, and after arriving to Syria they formed this faction. And our leader has decreed that we will not interfere in any in-fighting between the factions.
Question: What is your groups stance on the Turkish incursion in Idlib, and what kind of impact do you see the Turks have in Idlib? What kind of future do you see for Idlib, will it be like the Euphrates Shield area or will it just consist of Turkish military bases at the frontline areas?
Answer: Firstly, the decision on dealing with Turkey’s incursion into Idlib is left with the larger factions, not us. We’re a small group working independently, meaning we don’t have any means to fighting them alone.
Secondly, I see the decision lies with HTS or the Turkestanis (Turkestan Islamic Party, TIP), whatever stance they take, we’ll take as well. They’re consider the largest group in the area, for example TIP at the moment have around 2000 fighters, and that’s just the Turkestani muhajirs.
In our view, Turkey will suffice with only establishing military positions, nothing more. If they wish to come here and try to establish a government like in Euphrates Shield or elsewhere, then that’s something impossible and we’ll be unable to accept this.
We didn’t leave our families and lands just so that a Turkish-propped government to be established, so that’s nothing we would accept.
Turkey do have positions in Hama and Aleppo, but if they wish to enter Idlib city then the people themselves wouldn’t accept this. Perhaps the displaced Syrians that recently entered idlib would be fine with it, but the original inhabitants wouldn’t.
The people generally want Islamic rule, but some see for example the Euphrates Shield area where the day to day life has become easier with no airstrikes or shelling, while there’s more employment and money all around. This will lead to many of the inhabitants from our area will move there seeking a better life. But as for us, we’ve been active here for 7 years now, all the while sacrificing many martyr, and will continue to do so, for this land, so will never accept this.
Question: What do you see the future being for Idlib? Do you think the Turkish military position will hinder the regime from attempting to enter Idlib further, or will they do so anyway? Additionally, what do you see the future being for The Syrian Salvation Government that’s linked to HTS, do you think they’ll manage to establish themselves further?
Answer: Right now, Turkey has around 8 military positions in the idlib, Aleppo area, but this hasn’t impacted us in any way. For example, they have positions in Aleppo, Tel al-Eis and the new one in Khan Shaykhun, those areas right now don’t have any battles in them. And this is the agreement between HTS and the Turkish government, even if we wanted to begin some activity at those frontlines, we are forbidden to do so.
So right now, Turkey is blocking the path for the regime, though airstrikes and shelling is still occurring. About a month ago I went to Aleppo area for visit, and near us was Tel al-Eis where the Turkish army are stationed, and just 500–600 meters away there were airstrikes taking place. I think that any large battles will not take place in those areas due to the agreement between Turkey and Russia, and if the regime tries to advance in that area then there will be problems between them and Russia due to above mentioned agreement.
For now, the Turkish presence in Idlib haven’t affected us in any way, they don’t patrol around the markets or towns and we barely see anything of them except when they enter from the border to their bases. They enter without any announcement and head straight to their military positions without leaving them except for troop rotations.
That’s the situation for now in Idlib, as you know Erdogan is now talking about entering Idlib, how he will do so I don’t know, but for now there’s a very strong agreement between HTS and the Turkish government, so in my view I don’t think any fighting between them will occur.
But there are some recent news emerging saying that the regime is amassing themselves at the Sahel region near the Jurin military base to attack Jisr al-Shughur, where Turkey don’t have any military positions in, there’s only mujahidin there, muhajirs and ansaris. So that’s the general situation.
[Note: Turkey has as of 11th May established for now one military position there.]
Question: What’s your reply to people saying due to your allegiance to the Taliban, you’re basically al-Qa’ida and a danger to the West and Turkey. Do you have any enmity towards the West and Turkey or any intentions of fighting them?
Answer: For now, the biggest objective is fighting Bashar al-Assads regime, after that Iran, and after that Russia. These three are our priority. When our leaders were in Afghanistan they used to fight all the western countries, but today’s situation doesn’t allow for anything like that, rather the utmost priority remains the Syrian regime, if they’re ended then we ask Allah to open for us a path to another place to continue the jihad.
Question: You have an allegiance to the Taliban, and there’s likewise other factions that are aligned with the Taliban like the Uzbek Katibat al-Imam al-Bukhari and the al-Qa’ida group Hurras al-Din. Why haven’t you merged together to be one group instead of several individual groups?
Answer: From the beginning when we first came to Syria in 2011, there was only one organized faction, which was Ahrar al-Sham, there exited some other factions but the were more like local populations that had taken up arms in the name of freedom, but the only Islamic group at the beginning of the revolution was Ahrar al-Sham. After that, Jabhat al-Nusrah emerged which became very strong and had a large number of muhajirs in their ranks. As I mentioned before, our leaders have allegiance to the Taliban, and likewise as you mentioned there are groups like the Uzbeks and Hurras al-Din, but even Hurras al-Din they don’t any permission as of now to announce their allegiance to al-Qa’ida, they might refer themselves as al-Qa’ida but they still haven’t received any permission for doing so from above, i.e. Shaykh Ayman al-Zawahiri.
And regarding the Uzbek brothers, they still have their Afghanistan faction active thus they follow their leaders there that are under allegiance to the Taliban. Our main problem right now here is that if two of these factions joined together they would eventually grow bigger than HTS, and HTS do not want any faction to be bigger than them nor would they let that allow to take place. They’ll say, “you will be targeted and there will be problems all around” and similar arguments like that.
End of interview.