Compromise, Concession, and “The Railroad”

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In the late hours of 23 November 2018, a year after the last major combat action between Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and  the Syrian government, the official media production arm of HTS released a full-fledged propaganda feature. The 40-minute production, titled “Al-Sakah”, or “The Railroad”, is as slickly edited and comprehensive as any previous feature. Within its 40-minute timeframe, various  leadership figures are interviewed, previously unseen combat footage is presented, and the organisation continues to showcase its defiant attitude towards any type of concession or compromise with its numerous enemies. This article will provide a detailed analysis of “The Railroad” and will link its central themes back to previous HTS productions.

The Battles of 2017

The film opens with drone footage of the frontline of northwestern Hama province, dating back to the beginning of a weeks-long offensive in September 2017 that saw fierce fighting throughout the rural reaches of northern Hama and southern Idlib governorate.1.“Five factions to thwart attempts to break into Idlib from the countryside of Hama” : Enab Baladi An unnamed narrator, whose voice should be familiar to those who have seen previous HTS releases, introduces the viewer to the current situation and introduces the titular railroad, the transit line  connecting Hama city to the southern industrial districts of Aleppo. It is this rail line, the narrator claims, that has played a crucial part in shaping today’s situation – not because of its transit capabilities, but because of the political repercussions of the demilitarization deal made between Russia and Turkey in September of 2018. The narrator accuses several rebel groups, particularly those aligning themselves with Turkish interests like the National Liberation Front (NLF), of “selling out” and conceding the territory east of the railway. It is here that Abu Suleiman al-Hamawi and Mustafa Bakr, prominent military commanders of HTS, speak for the first time in the production, as the first segment – “The First Station: Initiating the Attack” – begins.

The first segment features intense, previously unpublished combat footage from the September counteroffensive by rebel forces, following the first Astana meetings of that summer and a period of relative quiet. Footage from Atshan, Tall Aswad, and Ma’an is shown, with intensity unparalleled by any of the media productions of the past year. T-72s, BMP-1s, and M46 howitzers are seen as mortar and airstrikes rain down on the advancing HTS forces, making it clear how much was involved in the battles. Abu Husayn al-Shami, another field commander, discusses “injuries inflicted” upon the ranks of the “mujahideen”, as more unseen footage from ash-Sha’ata and Qasr Abu Samrah is shown, with numerous airstrikes seen raining down on HTS positions. The first segment continues with Abu Mohammed al-Jolani, the overarching commander of HTS, discussing the strategic importance of the town of Abu Dali and the regime’s defenses there. These figures – al-Hamawi, Mustafa Bakr, al-Shami, and especially Jolani – are the four personalities featured consistently throughout the video. Jolani’s appearance, in particular, deserves recognition; rarely has the enigmatic leader of HTS shown his face on camera.2.Center for Strategic and International Studies backgrounder. The fact that he appears with such regularity in “The Railroad”, coupled with his fairly inconspicuous surroundings and military attire, seems to be an attempt at cementing his image as a true soldier and a mujahid among the rest.

HTS armor moves into battle as the opening of the 2017 Hama campaign is shown.

From here, the combat footage continues but transitions eastward towards the once-existing Islamic State (IS) pocket in the countryside of al-Saan. Footage of clashes between IS (referred to by the derogatory nomenclature of khawarij numerous times) and HTS fighters is shown, mostly occurring in open desert environments divided by earthen berms and sandbag defenses. In an unexpected turn of events, footage captured from IS fighters is shown, with the death of the cameraman caught on film. This footage is likely meant to emphasize the relative lack of training and low morale of the IS fighters in that pocket, as HTS swept them out of numerous villages and took hundreds of prisoners in the span of a few weeks.3.” عنيف يتجدد في شمال شرق حماة بين تحرير الشام وتنظيم “الدولة الإسلامية” في محاولة جديدة من الأخير للتقدم” : SOHR The IS fighters shown on camera seem disorganized, disoriented, and poorly prepared for combat, evident even in the brief period of time that they are seen. In spite of the seemingly weak position of IS in the pocket, the narration informs the viewer that battles against IS continued into 2018, thanks in part to government attacks and air strikes in the area. Government air power, in particular, is blamed for the ability of IS to hold on for so long.4. The narration also claims that the government and IS were working together to cooperate against HTS forces – a ploy at self-victimisation, but one that would be effective with a significant chunk of the group’s supporters, who are irreconcilably opposed towards both opponents.

The Struggle for Abu Dali and Abu ad-Duhur

“The Second Station: Victory and Defeat” transitions the video into 2018, beginning with old footage of previous cooperative efforts between HTS and the militant Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP). The two fought side by side in the battles of southern Aleppo countryside and the crucial “Victory or Disgrace” campaign on the southern edge of Aleppo city. A fighter from the TIP earnestly discloses how cooperative the two groups were during the January offensive. Jaish al-Nasr, Jaish al-Izza, and the Free Idlib Army also receive honourable mentions, thanks in large part to the effectiveness of their ATGM crews against enemy armor.

The second segment begins to take a darker tone as the memories of victory are sullied by more imposing memories of defeat and loss. Images of dead and wounded HTS fighters are shown, culminating with the death of an HTS cameraman and the crew of a nearby technical in a very accurate airstrike. Jolani returns once more to discuss the difficult situation that the rebels found themselves in throughout January, the many battles they were forced to fight, and the necessity of cooperation between the disparate rebel groups. This segues into the third segment, or the “Third Station: Systems and Stability of the Mujahideen”. This is how Dahr al-Ghozat, the “Repel the Invaders” operations room, is introduced by the video. Jolani details how the situation on the ground made rebel forces realize that enhanced coordination would be necessary to stave off certain defeat, resulting in the aforementioned operations room. The successes and failures of Dahr al-Ghozat are described in the interview with Jolani, with additional comments presented by al-Shami and a reporter presumably with Ebaa News. More combat footage is shown, with SVBIEDS featured and footage from other villages included.

Special attention is given to the government air force as well as the Russian and Turkish government towards the end of this segment. As more combat footage is shown (focusing on the battles in Umm Jurayn, Kuwayn al-Kabirah, and the villages south of Abu al-Duhour), special criticism is directed towards the Russian and Turkish governments for siding with the regime, and government warplanes are shown using incendiary munitions to attack purported civilian targets. These criticisms are leveled as a way of explaining and rationalizing defeat, as the entire segment deals with the inevitable defeat that the rebel forces would suffer by the spring of 2018.

Compromise, Concession, and the Railroad

The last segment of the production, the “Fourth Station”, provide some retrospection on Astana and the aftermath of the battles against the government throughout the end of 2017 and the start of the new year. It begins with more combat footage from Tall al-Sultan, and the highlight of the footage is the downing of a government airplane with a Strela-2 MANPADS system, killing the pilot and obliterating the aircraft.5. Another SVBIED is shown in action at Tall Kalbah, the footage here pared down from a previous short HTS piece, but the Tall al-Sultan footage marks the end of the discussion of military operations against the regime in the film.

The military leader of HTS, Abu Mohammed al-Jolani, makes a rare appearance while dressed in full military gear.

The remainder of the video, with the exception of the footage of the plane being brought down, consists of interviews with Jolani, al-Shami, Bakr, and the Ebaa affiliate, who all discuss their feelings on the Astana process and denounce those who took part in it. Particular disgust is directed towards the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (TFSA) regiments who, having accepted material and financial support from Turkey in exchange for shifting loyalties, have in some way betrayed the “revolution” that HTS wishes to represent. This is where the “railroad” once again becomes important, as the latest Astana meetings and the discussions between Ankara and Moscow have resulted in a “demilitarized zone” surrounding Idlib province, separating rebel and government forces.6.“Syria war: Russia and Turkey to create buffer zone in Idlib” : BBC The military loss coupled with the political loss has made the railroad a symbol of the divisions between HTS and their former allies, and Jolani in particular wishes to make this clear as he censures his once-cooperative comrades. The tone here is not overtly hostile, but it is not at all friendly; it is rather reminiscent of a previous HTS production, “We Kneel Only to God”, where the FSA and Jaish al-Islam were criticised for submitting to the government and yielding territory and weapons in their reconciliation deals. HTS wants to make it clear that they have not forgotten these transgressions, and the railroad boundary serves as yet another reminder of the failings of their allies.

Design Choices

The tone of HTS media productions since “In the Shadow of Victory” from 2017 has remained consistent. Although minor victories on the battlefield are celebrated with gusto, the overall themes have trended towards defeatism and acknowledgement of loss, and the productions even feel at times apocalyptic in tone. The usage of simple anashid, like the prevailing soundtrack found in “100+ Days”, underscores this overarching theme very well. While “The Railroad” is scored with a few different anashid, one of the most outstanding is a simple yet menacing piece that forgoes any kind of speech and instead uses a chorus of chants, overlaid upon the sounds of chaos and combat that accompany the onscreen footage. Two new anashid are used throughout the piece, and a different iteration of the Ahrar al-Sham composition “Bandage Your Wounds, O Mujahideen” is also played.

Slick and professional editing skills are also a hallmark of HTS productions, but the editing tends to be less flashy and more selective than what is present in the average IS or al-Qaida production. As stated previously, simplistic soundtracks play a huge role in the piece, and the lack of flashy visual effects or exaggerated transitions or edits lends to the simplicity. Title cards are muted and use a distinctive and clean layout, on-screen text never becomes visually cluttered, and the entire piece is structured in a fairly straightforward, sensible way, with interviews setting up the general timeline of events. All of this comes together to make a distinct style of propaganda that conveys an attitude of accepting loss and defeat as a necessary part of conflict. At the very end of the video, a unique series of credits rolls by, showing the names of every fighter killed during the battles of Hama and Idlib during the campaign.7. These credits are presented in simple black and white text, with a simple overlaid nasheed, and the names of at least 700 men are shown, if not more.8.

The continuing use of the concept of the railroad is also important in the sense that the progress of the past year, through numerous defeats and losses, can simply be considered a series of “stops” or “stations” along a railroad leading either to victory, or defeat. This metaphor is not played upon too heavily within the video, but the division of the production into four distinct “stations”, with each segment providing narrative for a certain period of time and yielding specific reflections, seems to lend itself to this interpretation. The metaphor is subtle and insinuated but it is there, and while the rail tracks between Aleppo and Hama are only visualized once at the very beginning of the piece, they are mentioned numerous times before the end. The concept of progress through conflict, from one station to another until whatever lies at the end, is one of the lessons that the viewer might take away from the piece.

All told, “The Railroad” is one of the most significant HTS productions to date, thanks to its length, its content, and the appearance of the group’s enigmatic leader for multiple interviews on different subjects. Although it fails to cover other topical issues like the lawless nature of Idlib province or the current tensions between Turkish-backed rebels (under Jaish Wataniyah al-Tahrir) and HTS, it provides unique and crucial insight into the military events of last year, and how the group is reviewing their successes and failures. It also progresses the theme of defeat and loss, so significant in other productions of the past year, even while celebrating individual victories and the losses of the enemy. It also makes clear that HTS is going nowhere – as seen in another production that came out this autumn. Their tenacity is both their strength and their weakness, as evidenced by their spirited defense of Sinjar and Abu ad-Duhur a year ago, and the price they paid for said defense. Jolani’s increased presence may also speak to the need to boost morale and bolster the ranks in anticipation of an inevitable battle for Idlib itself. Once a rare sight even among his own fighters, his interviews on a plethora of subjects in this production suggest a desire to increase his visibility to his fighters and supporters.

It remains to be seen what the fate of Idlib province and the people within it will be, but one thing is certain: a battle for Idlib will be a costly affair for all involved. HTS has dug its heels in and, come what may, they have made it clear that they intend to fight against whoever opposes them. 

Trent Schoenborn
Séamus Malekafzali
International Review