On 7 August 2018, Hayyat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) media channels announced the publication of a new propaganda piece, the first since the collapse of opposition forces in southern Syria. A military campaign spearheaded by the Tiger Forces, vanguard elements of the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and affiliated militias resulted in the complete capture of all the Dara’a and Quneitra governorates. This heralded the end of rebel control over the southern half of the country by the end of July.1.“After a whole month of military operations, the regime forces control the entire Daraa Province” : SOHR With the loss of all positions in Quneitra, the opposition forces have been confined to Idlib and western Aleppo provinces, which are now likely to be targeted as part of a new military campaign by Damascus.2.SAA 5th Corps social media imagery.
If the military forces of HTS are concerned about the imminent offensive, they have not shown it. The newest propaganda piece, titled “Lan Narkaa illa li-llah”, or “We Kneel Only to God”, is not only a challenge to government forces but an insult to other rebels, questioning their dedication and undermining their legitimacy. The short analysis of the propaganda piece that follows examines the core messaging, and how HTS is chastising other rebel groups in an attempt to assert their own power. An analysis of one of HTS’s previous major releases can be found here.
Recovering from Defeat
In terms of imagery and narration, the video’s content is typical of HTS visual media. Echoing the stylistic choices seen in an earlier release, “100+ Days”, the “We Kneel Only to God” piece acknowledges the defeats and losses suffered at the hands of government forces, while also asserting that there will be no “reconciliation” or surrender. The piece begins with a series of images and brief video clips showing the progress of Dara’a’s collapse to government forces. The narrator acknowledging these losses yet justifying them by promising that the Assad regime bled heavily in their campaign.
The video goes on to show a variety of well-armed and camouflaged, HTS ‘special forces’ fighters engaging in a variety of live-fire combat exercises, set up in multiple venues designed to provide specific obstacles. One group practices assaulting an earthen fortification, while another practices firing at targets in cover. Yet another showcases urban assault tactics, moving as a team through a mocked-up house and firing at targets set up against the walls. Heavy weapons are utilised in several scenarios and the special forces are even shown training alongside tank crews, demonstrating combined arms operations in a contained practice range. This montage is purposefully arranged to demonstrate that HTS is prepared to defend its territory in Idlib, as the narrator asserts, and continue to fight the regime until it is no longer possible to do so.
In terms of tone and theme, “We Kneel Only to God” is somewhat less distressing and apocalyptic than “100+ Days” was. However the theme of defeat is still prominent. Loss and defeat are central to the message of continued resistance, by continuing these productions HTS underscores a willingness to continue to fight, regardless of the outcome. Unlike “100+ Days”, the theme of defeat is treated in differently, as HTS seeks to avoid responsibility for the losses and instead shift blame elsewhere.
While keen to raise their status, HTS takes the opportunity in “We Kneel Only to God” to bring its opponents down, and in this case it focuses on the defeated opposition forces who surrendered the East Ghouta pocket in April and Dara’a city in July. The highlight reel at the beginning of the video shows several still images of weapons, ammunition, and armoured vehicles surrendered recently by the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and Jaish al-Islam. Jaish al-Islam, in particular, is singled out twice, the most prominent example of which is seen below. HTS lays blame at the feet of the rebels, accusing them of ‘yielding’ to the regime and giving up on the battle. This accusation is punctuated by the following three minutes of footage showing preparations made by HTS fighters, including a large gathering of “inghimasiyeen” or “those who plunge deeply into the enemy” meant to intimidate and impress those who see it.3.Image shown here.
These accusations of “yielding” come on the heels of months of on-and-off fighting between rebel forces, with the heaviest of the fighting costing the lives of hundreds during late March and early April.4.“Two of the largest factions in Syria’s northwest merge, challenge HTS dominance” – Syria Direct The division between HTS, its allies, and the bulk of the opposing forces united under the “Jabhat Wataniyah lil-Tahrir” banner has been mediated somewhat by several ceasefires and agreements, but the peace is fragile. As this most recent production clearly illustrates, the defeat in Ghouta and the loss of Dara’a and the surrounding countryside has only heated the bad blood between the opposing groups. A recent speech by the military commander of HTS, Abu Mohammed al-Jolani, only further cements this theory by showcasing the group’s power projection strategies with clarity. Within the speech, Jolani not only criticises Turkish forces for attempting to intervene but also criticises the Southern rebels for their reconciliations, a strategy which he strongly rebukes.5.https://twitter.com/hxhassan/status/1031996923614584832 Jolani asserts that there will be no reconciliations of HTS-held territory, and that any who attempt to reconcile their own territory will be swiftly rebuked. It would appear that the long-lasting grievances between HTS and smaller opposition factions have not only failed to heal, but have grown deeper in the past months.
In recent weeks, HTS has cemented its position in Idlib and made it clear that they are preparing to fight to the bitter end. The erection of sandbag defences and additional checkpoints has been noted by local sources in several towns along the frontline, and HTS has put out public advertisements on Telegram feeds calling for civilian support and fresh recruits.6.https://i.imgur.com/KP8k0Ug.png HTS has also cracked down on “reconciliation” promoters, seeking to root out any dissenting opinions and arresting dozens of people that the group considers to be harmful to their imminent military campaign.7.“The crackdown by rebel military factions against the ‘reconciliation’ promoters north of Syria expanding” – Nedaa Any dissenting voices, civilian or military, are quickly shut down, showing how little HTS considers alternative opinions on important matters.
As government forces advance on Idlib, it is certain that rebel groups will put up resistance in order to save themselves from complete defeat. Whether or not they coordinate, and whether or not the inter-rebel civil war resumes, is yet to be seen. One thing is certain, though: HTS wants to make it clear that they are ready to continue fighting, and intend to fight effectively.
Due to concerns about the dissemination of sensitive material, the video will not be shared within this article. Academic and journalistic inquiries may be sent to the author.