It is evident that Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) has shown increasing openness to meeting with international press organisations and the NGOs in order to convey its viewpoints to the outside world. Last month the group hosted a delegation from the French-Swiss newspaper Le Temps, which published on 3 September 2020 a report by Edith Bouvier about the visit. A part of that report deals with a meeting with HTS' Abd al-Rahim Atoun (Abu Abdullah al-Shami) and it has aroused some controversy. I translate that relevant section in full below, with my own parenthetical insertions in square brackets:
'The shadow of Covid:
Like him, Sheikh Abd al-Rahman [sic: should be al-Rahim] Atoun, the person in charge of the Sharia council with HTS, underlines the necessity for the local population of obtaining more support. 'We are currently trying to present our true image. The goal is not to make a portrait darker or prettier, but just to show the reality. The people, here, are not like those of Raqqa in the time of the caliphate of IS [Islamic State].' He adds: 'Our group is not a threat to the West. The region needs international aid to reconstruct itself. We are the last to be fighting against the regime and its allies, but we will not succeed to eliminate it without aid.'
At the end of August, a first inhabitant of Idlib died as a result of coronavirus. Currently, some sixty inhabitants might be infected. If the pandemic should spread in the region, the situation could very quickly become catastrophic. As also Ahlam Rachid underlines, amid the tents of the displaced: 'How do you wish to put in place a quarantine? The population already must try to survive.'
Personally speaking, I would have preferred to see a full interview with Atoun published in raw format of questions and answers- something that is my usual practice. It may also be that many people did not read the words attributed to Atoun as contained in the original French-language report. In any case, the controversy generated has meant that Atoun has issued a clarification on the meeting. Note the following main points of that clarification:
. The press delegation that visited Idlib was positively surprised at the level of security and administration. The ethical values and social customs of the (Sunni) Syrian people coming from various areas bind them together and allow for ease in administration, but also the institutions built up have played an important role.
. HTS' aim is to bring down the Damascus-based government, however long it takes and whatever the cost. No compromise on this issue. It also fights foreign allies of that government as they are perceived to be occupation forces to be expelled from Syria. There is no problem with other states that do not participate in the occupation, and HTS is prepared to have dialogue with them to explain its viewpoint.
. There is no desire to pursue 'external operations' as they are outside the priorities of the revolution. This point has been affirmed repeatedly.
. The French people should understand the Sunni Syrians' desire for freedom.
. In a future Syria where HTS/Salvation Government controls more areas, there would be a more comprehensive project to include greater representation of other peoples from those areas. Non-Muslim minorities are to be dealt with justly as Islam requires.
. Atoun/HTS did not venture to discuss the people of al-Raqqa themselves in contrast with the people of Idlib. The point was to contrast the state of al-Raqqa under Islamic State rule with the state of Idlib under Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham/Salvation Government rule. Further, Atoun/HTS did not touch on discussion about other factions, nor did Atoun/HTS touch on the issue of designation as a 'terrorist' organisation and a desire to have that designation removed. Nor did Atoun/HTS beg for anyone's help, and there was no discussion of issue of 'reconstruction.'
. There was no expression of a desire for 'normalisation' of relations.
The point about not begging for help goes contrary to the picture suggested in the report of seeking aid to bring down the Damascus-based government. What I think Atoun was probably trying to convey in that discussion was that HTS welcomes the operation of NGOs in Idlib and its environs- something HTS has said since 2017. The same point applies to the issue of 'reconstruction.'
In any case, here are Atoun's remarks translated in full with the original text.
In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful
The meeting with the 'Le Temps' newspaper:
Praise be to God and prayers and peace be upon the Messenger of God, his family, companions and whoso is loyal to him. As for what follows:
We met with representatives from the paper 'Le Temps' on date 23 Dhu al-Hijja 1441 AH corresponding to 13 August 2020 CE.
And the likes of these interviews with the press is to explain our general reality in the revolution and the liberated areas, to whoso asks that from us from West and East: a good thing helping to get others to know the truth of the situation, not as sometimes portrayed in the media space that does not reflect the picture of reality.
And as statements attributed to us have been issued and commentary on them by various sides have occurred, we would like to clarify the summary of what we said during the discussion, and verbatim more or less.
The press delegation spoke about the dominant perception among them in Europe that Idlib is living through a state of great chaos and spread of killing, acts of theft and crimes, in what one cannot live with!!
And they were surprised- on their visit to the liberated areas- at the great extent of organisation and the state of stable security despite the flare up of the fronts and despite the great cases of displacement.
And from this basis the delegation expressed its surprise in view of the great difference between the picture they had about Idlib and the positive impression that was formed in their view after their visit and field tour in Idlib and the liberated areas.
And they tried to understand how the liberated areas are managed amid the predominant state of war, and amid the presence of great numbers of those who have become displaced from the general areas of Syria towards Idlib and its environs.
Then they asked about our principal aim towards the regime after ten years of battle.
And likewise they raised a question about the political project for the Syria of the future from our point of view.
And they finished by saying: what is your message to the French government and people, that you would like to be conveyed?
We made clear during our response to the questions put forward that the good ethical values and societal customs that the people in Syria in general bear, and which derive from their religion, are among the most important aspects of what helps in ease of administration of this society, and these values make them a closely knit fabric despite the cases of displacement from multiple areas, without neglecting the role of the institutions that have been built during the recent years and their great efforts in this context.
Thus came the talk about the inhabitants here in the context of talk about the means of administration and our dealing with the inhabitants, and we did not venture to talk about the inhabitants themselves in the noble city of al-Raqqa or other regions of our blessed land, in view of the fact we do not see a difference between them, for all of them in general are Muslims from the Ahl al-Sunna.
Also there occurred discussion about the state of gradual building of the institutions operating currently in the liberated areas under the authority of the 'Salvation Government.'
And as for our main aim towards the regime and after ten years of battle, it is epitomised in working to bring it down whatever that costs and however long that takes, and this issue is not subject to discussion and bartering, and half solutions are not to be accepted, and we are prepared to continue in fighting the regime, even if the battle were to continue for 100 years.
In light of the preceding designation- and embodied in the stance towards the regime- there arises our political vision and our view towards the states. For we consider it to be of our right to resist any occupation forces that have intervened, aided the regime, occupied the land, displaced the people, bombed, killed and done what they have done. So we here and our Syrian people in general consider Russia and Iran as invading occupiers and the resistance against them must continue until they are expelled from Syria and land is liberated from them.
As for the rest of the states, there is no problem between us and them, and we do not bear any agendas towards them, and we have no objection to having discussions with the states to get them to know of our cause, directives and reality likewise, and the French state is considered among these states.
And in the same context we made clear that we since the beginning of our work of jihad in the shade of the Syrian revolution affirmed that we do not bear any agenda of external operation, so our words today are to repeat the same words of ours of old, and it is the matter that Sheikh al-Jowlani- may God protect him- expressed clearly in his interview on al-Jazeera channel in 2015.
This means confirming that Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham does not bear any agendas for external operation outside the priorities of the revolution and jihad in al-Sham, and embodied in focusing on fighting the regime and the forces of occupation.
To be added to the preceding- and on the internal political level- is that the means of administering any areas seized in the future will not differ much from the means and mechanism of administration except through broadening the proportion of representation from those areas- in that they are represented currently within the representation of the displaced areas.
And as for the minorities of different religion, we will deal with them as per the instructions of our Hanif religion based on justice.
And we summarise the preceding that the ideas that come above are of the features of our political project and do not represent a comprehensive political project as is clear.
As for the French people, we have made clear that they are a people who love freedom and sing the praises of it, and therefore they must be understanding of our demands represented in bringing down a criminal repressive regime, and working to be liberated from it.
For we here in Syria want to obtain our freedom- as Muslims of the Ahl al-Sunna- far removed from this regime and its imposition, and this must be known and understood by the French and Westerners and other peoples.
And we concluded our dialogue with our hope for the visiting delegation- after the delegation asked us about our message we wished to be conveyed to the French people for example- that it should explain what it saw in the liberated areas from reality and means of administration, and that it should mention the truth that it saw during its tour in Idlib and the liberated areas around it, without beautification and whitewashing contrary to the reality on the one hand, and without distortion or blackening on the other hand. And we mentioned that there are those who strive intensely to portray Idlib as being like al-Raqqa as it was under the authority of the 'Dawla organisation.' So we asked the delegation to mention what it saw only without increasing or diminishing, and it is sufficient in giving a clear impression about the great difference between the state of Idlib and the state of Raqqa when it was under the authority of the 'Khawarij.'
It must be mentioned that we note that we did not touch on discussion about the factions, just as we did not speak about the issue of reconstruction, for we are sitting with a press delegation and not an official political delegation representing states, and further we did not beg for anyone's help. And this revolution- as we consider it- is more glorious than to beg for anyone's help, whoever that person may be. And likewise we did not touch on discussion about classification, even if its removal is a positive thing without doubt.
We also affirm that no expressions were issued by us of the likes of normalisation of relations or striving to whitewash the picture, but rather transmitting the truth of the picture as it is in our liberated areas.
And praise be to God the Lord of the Worlds.
Written by: Abu Abdullah al-Shami.