The town of Mas’ade resides on one of the most northern peaks of the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights. It is one of the largest of the Druze settlements located in this region, though it remains dwarfed by the hilly settlement of Madjal Shams. The place, and indeed the area as a whole, remains distinct from the more central lands of Tel-Aviv and Haifa. These towns on the Golan are reminders of a bygone era, a frontiers land that celebrates its uniqueness in a host of ways. One cannot escape the feeling that the northern Golan is something in stark contrast to the Israeli heartland. Druze flags hang proudly amongst the winding streets of these towns and signs are marked in Arabic with only a sprinkling of Hebrew here and there. Nearly all of the stores in both Madjal Shams and Mas’ade were opened on the Sabbath and one would be astounded by the feeling of life one is privy too when entering and walking around these places.
Tucked away in Mas’ade is a small convenience store, one whose name is written in Arabic and hard to locate even from the main street. There presides a man, a store owner who will, for the sake of ease, be called Salah. Salah is a man of pride, an individual who illuminates when asked about what it means to be a Druze, a person who refuses to hesitate when talking about his people, his identity, and his allegiance. In my conversation with him, Salah presented an air of wisdom and passion that could not have been matched by any other thus far. What he told me came in two categories. His words were on one hand shining bits of insight into the dynamics of the region and the prowess of his people. The other aspect however were lamentations of the ongoing unrest and uncertainty that has come to characterize the Israeli-Syrian border. One of the most interesting points that Salah presented was on the connective strength that the Druze maintained with one another.
“Today, we are five fingers, separated from one another. This finger may be an American Druze, this one might be a Syrian Druze, and this an Israeli Druze, but when one is attacked, each finger closes, forming a fist.”
After his poetics, Salah discussed more specifically on a recent attack on a nearby Druze village, the settlement of Hader. It was located no more than five kilometers from Mas’ade and yet was in many ways a world apart; Hader was a Syrian village, an area only tenuously controlled by the regime of Bashar al-Asad. Where Mas’ade and Majdal Shams were safe places that had restaurants, pizza parlors, and a ski resort, just a few kilometers over an arbitrary border was a country broiled in civil war, violence, and terrorism. Where these Druze villages maintained a relative sense of peace and stability, Hader was surrounded on all sides by a plethora of rebels, from FSA-derivatives to hardline Jihadist/Salafist organizations.
Hader, Salah explains, had just recently defeated a contingent of Jihadist militants. Men, teenagers, and women all took up arms against the assault, taking losses but inflicting many more back. It was a harrowing point to consider, knowing that such heavy fighting had occurred in a place no more than three minutes away by car. It was an incident that occurred “approximately three kilometers from the Israeli border [and included] a car bomb that killed at least nine people and injured 23.”
When considering the nature of Mas’ade and Majdal Shams, this attack seems almost unimaginable. Yet when considering the dichotomy that exists between the Israeli-Syrian border, a different picture emerges.
Flanked on both sides by “rebels,” it becomes clear as to how this little village came into conflict. It is important to understand that the conflicts here are complicated, myriad, and that one narrative is not the end-all-be-all. To this end, Salah establishes a key point:
“We are farmers first. It is only after we have been attacked do we become soldiers, but until then, we are farmers.”
As the Islamic State begins to falter, many have begun to look at the Syrian conflict as something that is beginning to wind down. This belief is a dangerous fallacy, one that creates a false sense of security for a country that is still very much divided. The fighting in southern Syria for the village of Hader is a reminder of this fact, and to that end, it is important to reiterate the current nature of the Syrian Civil War. The principle actor today is no longer the Islamic State of the early 2010s. At the same time, the hopes of democracy under the banners of the Free Syrian Army are long dead. The war in its current state is now moving away from the Syrian Desert and towards the north, to the city of Idlib. There lies the might of Tahrir al-Sham, an organization who have cemented their strength after forcing the retreat of Ahrarm al-Sham.
It was this organization, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, otherwise known as the Nusra Front or Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, that attempted to defeat the Druze of Hader. While many know the name of the Islamic State, few have probably heard of Tahrir al-Sham (HTS for short) or the fact they are now the strongest militant force in the Syrian Civil War besides the Syrian Democratic Forces and the Syrian Arab Army.
Just What is HTS?
In short, HTS is a militant organization rooted in Salafism, Sharia, and Islamism. They emerged as part of a merger between various militant rebel groups in northern Syria, including notable entities such as al-Nusra/Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, the Ansar al-Din Front, and the Jayash al-Sunnah. In addition to this was the defection of prominent Ahrar al-Sham leader Abu Jabair, who would go on to lead the new organization. Indeed, formed in January of 2017, it was declared that “the groups would dissolve themselves and ‘merge fully’ into the new entity, the statement added. That was further reiterated by Abu Jabir’s recent message, which described the new body as a “melting pot for all factions.”
While some analysts have used this merger as an opportunity to look away from the roots of its founding organizations, others have reiterated a need to look deeper into the history of each entity. The Ansar al-Din Front was a noted Jihadist organization from 2014-2015 who had, for the most part, attempted to remain neutral with the Islamic State and did little to denounce the violence perpetrated by the group. The Nour al-Din al-Zenki Movement was known for being a Sunni Islamist group with several human rights charges, one of which involved the beheading of a pro-regime soldier. This particular incident sparked waves of controversy, with some reports calling for international investigations and condemnation:
A Palestinian-Syrian boy was beheaded by a rebel group on Tuesday, opposition activists have reported. The child is estimated to be younger than 13, and was said to be a fighter with the Palestinian pro-regime Liwa al-Quds militia. He was allegedly murdered by members of the Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zinki rebel group in Syria’s Handarat district, just a few miles north of Aleppo. A video emerged showing five fighters surround the child as one held a knife to his throat… Earlier this month, an Amnesty International report accused the group – among others – of abductions, torture and summary killings in and around Aleppo.
Most notable of the founding groups was Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, or more commonly known by their previous name as al-Nusra. Al-Nusra was formed as an al-Qaeda affiliate that was to operate in Syria. It took advantage of the Syrian Civil War in a manner similar to al-Qaeda in Iraq, but did not engage in renegade behavior as was noted in Zarqawi’s organization. The Nusra Front did not engage in genocide, nor did it make a conscious effort towards furthering sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shias. Despite this, Al-Nusra has been accused of countless human rights violations, terrorist attacks, and bombings.
When considering the history of these groups, a somber picture emerges. HTS represents not another “rebel” faction fighting against the Syrian regime, but instead is an Islamist Jihadi organization that has been implicit in numerous terrorist attacks and human rights abuses. Those who label the entity as such do a disservice and fail to recognize the murky past the organization is involved in. Indeed, many others continue to accuse HTS of having links to al-Qaeda still, though other commentators make the distinction that only some factions of HTS can be safely considered al-Qaeda affiliates. Regardless, it becomes clear that the Jihadist elements of HTS are nothing to throw out.
The Southern Front
The south of Syria was once the bedrock of the resistance against the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Asad. The first protests began in the capital of Damascus and would later spread throughout the country. As the protests erupted into civil war, many militias and organizations emerged in response. Of these was the Free Syrian Army, who at the time comprised many defected officers and soldiers who had nationalist aspirations for a democratic Syria. As time went on, the Free Syrian Army was beaten back and many groups in the south banded together into what is known today as the “Southern Front.”
Today, the Free Syrian Army is mostly dead. Though the Southern Front and its affiliates remain, their influence has been crippled and many have argued that the FSA can no longer be considered a central figure in the Syrian Civil War. During this time, Islamist organizations were able to abuse the faltering of the FSA and gain control of their own territory. The Islamic State was able to carve a pocket around the city of Tasil, an area that they continue to control today. At the same time, pushes by the Nusra Front were starting to be felt in the south. This was known as early as 2014, where one FSA spokesperson had noted that a “lack of funds and quality weaponry may cause the opposition’s Free Syrian Army to lose control over Syria’s southern province of Daraa to the Islamist Al-Nusra Front.” Such sentiments were echoed again in 2015, where it was revealed that “Western-backed fighters in southwestern Syria, the one part of the country where they are still strong, have spoken out against al-Qaeda.” It was already clear by this point that the secular militias of the early days of the civil war were gone.
The most powerful opponents of Assad in Syria’s civil war are Sunni Muslim jihadists from two groups: the Islamic State, also known as ISIL or ISIS, and al Qaeda’s Syria branch, the Nusra Front. Western and Arab countries which oppose both Assad and the jihadists aim to support what Washington calls “moderate” rebels. Although such Western-backed fighters control comparatively little territory, an alliance known as the Southern Front has an important foothold near the borders with Jordan and Israel. It has seized a border crossing and a government-held town in recent weeks after weathering a government offensive. But this week, Southern Front groups issued a strong statement condemning Nusra’s ideology, rejecting any cooperation with it, and declaring themselves the “sole military force representing the Syrian revolution” in the south.
In recent days, the Islamic State has begun to face defeat after defeat. They have lost key cities such as Raqqa, Deir-e-Zor, and Hawijah. Iraqi and Syrian forces were able to carve a continuous path between their two borders and much of the on going campaign revolves clean up and counter-insurgency. While the media has focused its attention on the more attractive Islamic State, few have paid attention to the strength of the Idlib rebels in Syria’s northern territory. The victories that al-Nusra was able to secure in the south was matched by key territorial gains in the north. Today, the city of Idlib and the surrounding regions have become stalwart fortresses for Tahrir al-Sham.
An important event in the history of Idlib however lies in the recent defeat of Ahrar al-Sham in July 2017. To many, Ahrar al-Sham was the spiritual successor to the Free Syrian Army. They were not secular, but they did consider themselves as moderate Islamists and in favor of democratic institutions. They were supported by many countries, such as Turkey, and were not listed as a terrorist organization by the United States. On paper, Ahrar al-Sham was the more supported and well liked organization, especially in comparison to the alternatives besides the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces. Yet, “the swift defeat of Ahrar al-Sham by its one-time ally Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) was shocking to many people – Ahrar was, until that moment, considered one of the strongest Salafist factions in Syria. It had more manpower and, theoretically, more support, locally and regionally, than HTS.”
With this defeat, Ahrar al-Sham fled to Turkey and has since remained a relatively minor power in the Syrian Civil War. Tahrir al-Sham on the other hand has been able to assert itself as the most dominant organization in the region, and today the most dominant opposition force in the conflict. Tahrir al-Sham is unique as it follows Nusra’s formula of ground engagement. They promote a strong commitment to social services and civil society in a way that is reminiscent to the strategies employed by Hezbollah and Hamas. This stands in stark contrast to the overtly dramatic state-building strategum of the Islamic State and many scholars assert that this is one key dimension for Tahrir al-Sham’s stability in this phase of the war.
Revisiting Salah’s Words
With these points in mind, the battle Salah had discussed takes on new dimensions. It becomes evident that the battle was a momentous achievement. The Druze villagers of Hader were able to beat back the advancing forces of the strongest militant organization in the Syrian Civil War, taking relatively few casualties in the sortie. What Salah describes to me is an uplifting tale, a feeling further reinforced by his other words. Indeed, one key point he highlights to me is:
“The difference between us and those Jihadists is that our cause is righteous. We do not kill or harm others for our religion. We only fight when we are attacked. When you hurt my brother, whether he lives in Lebanon or in Jordan, it does not matter. When you hurt my brother, I go to grab my sword.”
And again he highlights the fact that:
“We are farmers first, but when you attack us, we become soldiers.”
Talking to Salah was helpful in recontextualizing the Syrian conflict in a manner that I had not considered. It was a legitimate encounter with an individual whose personal life was affected by the conflict. The village of Hader had much more in common with Madjal Shams and Mas’ade than those villages had with much of Israel. Salah recounted how many individuals had ran to the border fence just to watch the villagers of Hader fight off Tahrir al-Sham. Understanding this personal narrative was insightful into examining why analyzing the Syrian conflict has remained so difficult. For individuals like Salah, the Syrian Arab Army was not a legion of human rights abusers and murderers, but rather an army made up of civilians who have only sought to protect the Syrian people. To Salah, the SAA answered not to Bashar al-Asad, but instead to the Syrian populace. The defeat of Tahrir al-Sham in Hader was a confirmation of his conviction, that his God had approved and agreed to the victory of the Syrian regime.
As the conflict continues on, one must be hesitant to say that is nearing its end. The battles at Hader are microcosms on conflicts and battles that are still being waged today. While it might be easy to say that the war is over based off of colored maps and vibrant infographics, one only needs to have a simple discussion with a single individual from the region to see how that is completely wrong.