Some view al-Golani as a Salafi sheikh who aims to implement his jihadist Salafism in his areas of influence, dreaming of extending it across the Syrian geographical landscape. However, this is not accurate. Al-Golani is a religious pragmatic leader who knows what he wants and works quietly to ensure the success of his project.
When you ask intellectuals living under his authority, you’ll find the surprising answer that he has relinquished much of his Salafism. He deals with the citizens pragmatically, providing them reassurance. Not to mention the state of social security in the areas under his control, which far surpasses many other military opposition areas, even those under the regime.
How did al-Golani establish his emirate? What are the features of his personality and economic vision? What is his plan for dealing with the Syrian regime? What is his relationship with Turkey? And what about his negotiations with the Russians? These are the topics we will discuss through the following axes:
- Al-Golani and his role in establishing Jabhat al-Nusra!
- From Deir Ezzor to Idlib to establish the emirate!
- Why did al-Golani choose Idlib as the center for launching his project?
- Al-Golani’s personality, diplomacy, and negotiating style!
- Al-Golani’s economic vision!
- Al-Golani’s relationship with Al-Qaeda!
- His vision for a solution with the Syrian regime! How does he deal with it?
- Al-Golani’s relationship with Turkey? and the assertiveness in his dealings with the Turks!
- What is Turkey’s role in al-Golani’s negotiations with the Russians? What are the seven files that were negotiated?
Al-Golani and his role in establishing Jabhat al-Nusra!
When the Syrian revolution began, and Al-Qaeda decided to extend its influence into Syria, al-Golani was chosen to lead the Syrian branch under the name Jabhat al-Nusra li Ahl al-Sham. It is said that al-Golani played a role in choosing this name and laid the foundations for its operation. From there, he strategically planned his project, which included two essential points:
- The first: He aimed to confine his operations solely to confronting the Bashar al-Assad regime, without targeting American and Western interests. He did not allow other organizations to plan or target American interests. This stance later softened the West’s hostility towards him and even opened the door for cooperation in counterterrorism efforts. It facilitated the elimination of some senior ISIS leaders who had sought refuge in Syria by providing intelligence information, ultimately leading to their elimination. This stands in contrast to Al-Qaeda’s ideology of global confrontation.
- The second crucial point: From the outset, he practically sought to gradually isolate himself from the leaders in Iraq and establish an organization specific to Syria, independent of the influences of Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. This enabled him to build a strong and cohesive authority in Idlib, where the central decision-making power rested solely with him.
From Deir Ezzor to Idlib: Establishing the Emirate!
Abu Muhammad al-Golani initially settled in Syria in the town of Al-Shahil, east of the city of Deir Ezzor, shortly after the formation of Jabhat al-Nusra in late 2011. It is believed that he arrived in Al-Shahil with the support of some of its residents due to an old friendship he had with a young man from Al-Shahil named “Osama Al-Haddawi.” At that time, Osama was a third-year medical student in Syria when he joined what was known as the convoys of mujahideen in Iraq.
The town of Al-Shahil in the eastern countryside of Deir Ezzor, before the events of the Syrian revolution, had most of its residents and families affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood. However, after the events in Iraq between 1990 and 2003, they gradually turned towards Salafism, which explains their later embrace of organizations like ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra.
Al-Golani heavily relied on the inhabitants of the eastern region for the reasons mentioned earlier. It is a predominantly Sunni area, and al-Golani sees it as the backbone of Syrian Sunnis, unlike other Syrian regions where there is a mix of various sectarian components.
Furthermore, Jabhat al-Nusra, established in late 2011, managed to obtain significant funds due to the puncturing of oil pipelines near the area, with some rooms siphoning oil without accountability.
The accumulation of funds resulting from the oil flow played a significant role in strengthening and expanding the organization. People were recruited to protect the oil pipelines, and subsequently, they were enlisted into Jabhat al-Nusra. As the organization’s influence grew in the eastern region, it expanded towards other areas, from Daraa in the south to Idlib in the northwest, and then to Al-Hasakah Governorate. There, it engaged in fierce battles against the armed Kurdish organization (PYD) in cities like Shaddadi and Ras al-Ain in the countryside of Al-Hasakah. Later on, the organization found that the best region to establish it Emirate, is Idlib Province.
Why Golani has Chosen Idlib to Implement his Project?
There are three explanations for choosing Idlib:
- The first reason is that the international coalition in its war against ISIS did not allow al-Golani to establish his emirate in the eastern region. In 2012, after several attacks with the Military Council led by the defected Colonel “Muhannad Al-Katia” on Shaddadi and the outskirts of Al-Hasakah to expel the Kurds from those areas.
- The second reason is that ISIS was stronger, and thus, either al-Golani would be assimilated into its project, or it would militarily eliminate him because it was stronger.
- The third reason is his refusal to be part of the forces fighting against ISIS during the coalition’s war against it.
Abu Muhammad al-Golani then headed to Idlib, settled there, and began forging important alliances with its people through various marriages. One of the significant unions was his marriage to a girl from the Badowi family, a well-known family with a brother working as a human doctor and another serving as a military commander. This commander assisted al-Golani greatly, both in military battles against his enemies and in winning the hearts of the people in Idlib and northern Hama, especially in Halfaya and Taybat al-Imam.
Al-Golani’s Character, his Diplomacy and his Way of Negotiation:
It is certain that al-Golani possesses a very strong personality with authority. He has a tall and imposing stature, a handsome face, and he wears luxurious clothing from well-known brands. He walks with confidence and stability, exuding a captivating charisma in both his sitting and movement.
When receiving guests, he does so with great warmth, sending them with strict accompaniment and protection. This aims to convey several messages, including that he holds power and authority. He also seeks to win the favor of the guest to influence their perspective, perhaps even adopting some of their ideas.
Al-Golani relies on the principle of consultation in his matters, always surrounded by advisors of high status and intellect. However, in the end, he only acts in accordance with his own reasoning. He is known to initiate negotiations with a strict stance, softening after bargaining for what he wants through his initial firmness. Each negotiation ends with a flexible position and a softer tone, suggesting a desire for a resolution. In this regard, he resembles a Damascene merchant who knows the market well.
Perhaps the Turks are the most familiar with this trait, as they are not devoid of means to reach understanding with him to achieve the desired results that align with their requirements. His approach can be summarized as not conceding without receiving a price; he does not do anything for free. He considers offering the observation points in Idlib as a mistake because he did not receive the deserved compensation for them.
He consistently declares that his policy is not to join a project unless he was involved in its foundation from the beginning. He refuses to accept projects sent to him for signing and commitment, rejecting the Turkish approach of dealing with factions and issuing orders. He is extremely cautious about not leaking any information, no matter how small, believing in the theory that information is power, so why provide it for free to others?
He considers the behavior of many military factions to be inappropriate revolutionary behavior because they accepted financial bribes in dollars for smuggling elements and leaders from ISIS during its defeat against the international coalition. Meanwhile, he asserts that he can never engage in such practices, as he has stated multiple times.
At the same time, he believes that his project is the primary defender of Sunni Arabs, and he sees himself as their leader and protector of their existence. Therefore, he views the resolution of the Syrian issue as something that will only happen if he is sitting at the negotiation table, representing the Syrian Sunnis. He holds this belief with firm conviction.
He has an extremely strict stance against ISIS and continues to pursue and rid the world of their evils. He promotes a policy of moderation in dealing with people in Idlib, and he is sincere in it. He has not enforced the full-face veil on women but has mandated the hijab only. He has overlooked the use of hookahs and smoking, and his instructions are clear that the Hisbah group should be disciplined and gentle with people.
He often speaks in the first person, describing actions he has taken, and this phenomenon is worth studying to gain additional insights into his personality.
He harbors a strong dislike for Shia Muslims and believes it is his duty to counter Shia expansion. It is unclear whether his animosity towards Iran stems from his father’s nationalist ideologies or if it developed after his turn towards Salafism, witnessing the influence of Iran on Iraq and its consequences.
He strongly supports the government of the Syrian Salvation Government (Hukumat al-Inqadh) and believes that it cannot be compared to the interim government during the era of Abdul Rahman Mustafa. He believes that if there is a chance for the formation of a unified government in northern Syria, it should start with his government, the Salvation Government. He thinks that other factions, such as Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, may have military capabilities but lack a governmental project. He expressed significant concern about the formation of the National Front in Idlib, refusing to join it and considering it a “Turkish movie,” with the goal of assimilating Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham into factions that listen and obey Turkey, regardless of Syrian interests.
His Economical Vision:
Abu Muhammad al-Golani believes he has a significant role in regulating and determining the exchange rate of the Syrian pound in Damascus. He suggests that a single rumor spread by Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) contributes to the depreciation of the Syrian pound in Damascus itself. The gold market in Idlib is considered the most important market for jewelry and currencies in all of Syria.
Al-Golani is said to be responsible for regulating trade with areas controlled by the Syrian government. He allows a specific flow of foreign cash, subjecting it to the interests of the citizens and aiming to prevent inflation. The text questions whether this perspective aligns with his father’s views or if it is part of his own economic expertise, suggesting a preference for the former.
Every move made by al-Golani is described as calculated, including potentially malicious ideas. Consequently, his media appearances and statements are seen as sending messages to others. For example, his media appearance at the end of April is portrayed as a crucial message after the failure of both the Russians and the Turks to obtain concessions from him for negotiations with the Assad regime. This was evidently clear to those who followed the media appearance, including the implied threats mentioned during the interview.
His Relationship with Al-Qaeda!
Despite acknowledging his organization’s previous affiliation with Al-Qaeda, al-Golani claims to have completely severed ties with it. He asserts that there is no longer any connection between them and that he has actively worked to dismantle and eliminate Al-Qaeda in Syria. This is not out of animosity towards Al-Qaeda, but rather due to the potential impact of its existence or that of any other Islamist faction on his organization’s presence, popularity, and decision-making in representing Syrian Sunnis.
Al-Golani also believes that the Americans and Europeans do not object to the application of Sharia by his organization. According to him, they have previously approved of the Taliban’s implementation of Sharia. However, he recognizes their concerns about potential attacks against them abroad. As a result, he has sent several messages to the West to assure them regarding this matter. He claims that the Sharia they implement is moderate, and he seeks to alleviate Western fears about potential external threats posed by his group.
Al-Golani’s perspective on a solution with the Syrian regime and how he deals with it.
He believes that the existence of his organization is of great importance, preventing the Syrian regime from reclaiming full control of Syrian territory. In his view, if the Syrian regime were to regain complete control, it would rebuild and structure its army in a way that would prevent any future challenges for a period of fifty years.
Therefore, he sees his organization as the key to a solution in Syria. He holds the belief that the regime cannot stabilize itself or reproduce without getting rid of both him and his organization. Consequently, he refuses to negotiate on this matter, regardless of the circumstances. He has hinted at this stance in a way that those familiar with the numerous negotiation rounds between him and the Russians, under Turkish sponsorship, would understand. With his presence and organization, he asserts that no one would believe that Assad has triumphed over the revolution.
Furthermore, he strongly believes that Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) is the last stronghold for Sunni Arabs in Syria, perhaps even in the broader troubled region. According to him, the resilience of Sunnis in Idlib serves not only the Sunni community in Syria but also the Sunni population worldwide within the Islamic community.
Al-Golani’s Relationship with Turkey!
Abu Muhammad al-Golani’s relationship with Turkey is characterized by a clear and independent stance. He refuses to accept dictates from the Turks without a cost, potentially influenced by his father’s Arab nationalist inclinations. Al-Golani believes that the Turks have benefited significantly from the strength of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) without adequately compensating for this advantage. Consequently, he prioritizes the interests of Syrians in the liberated north, considering it the top priority. He asserts that his mission is not to ensure the national security of the Turks, despite some considerations in that regard. What matters to him is maintaining the independence of his group, which he views as a partner rather than a subordinate, and he acknowledges that this stance is challenging for the Turks.
Al-Golani consistently criticizes the Turks for not providing sufficient information to understand ongoing international discussions, understandings, and agreements. He strongly opposes the continued visits of his group’s members to Turkey for tourism or similar purposes. Therefore, he restricts the number of his group members allowed to go to Turkey to hold meetings to only two, emphasizing urgent necessity.
In his explanations of events, al-Golani expresses dissatisfaction with Turkey’s handling of the Syrian issue, comparing it unfavorably to Pakistan’s approach to the Afghanistan file. He sees the Pakistani engagement as far superior to Turkey’s in the context of Syria.
Perhaps the seizure of the Bab al-Hawa border crossing by Jabhat al-Nusra (now known as Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham) and the expulsion of the Free Syrian Army faction, Ahrar al-Sham, from it in July 2017, along with Turkey’s acceptance of this development, marked a turning point in the establishment of Abu Muhammad al-Golani’s emirate. Many consider this event as the true beginning that solidified al-Golani’s authority, granting him all the pillars of governance in Idlib. It marked the start of Turkey’s absolute reliance on him as a security officer for that region.
After Jabhat al-Nusra entered negotiations with the Turks to implement the de-escalation agreement that Turkey had signed with Russia and Iran in May 2017, officially announcing the establishment of the de-escalation zone in Idlib in the sixth round of Astana talks in September 2017, the monitoring points in the fourth de-escalation zone in Idlib were then established starting from October 13, 2017. Some experts believe that this agreement and the initiation of setting up monitoring points would not have happened if Jabhat al-Nusra hadn’t paid the price, which was the control of the Bab al-Hawa crossing. This occurred after Ahrar al-Sham refused to implement the de-escalation agreement. From this point onward, the Turks began to see al-Golani as a valuable asset with multiple uses in the Syrian situation, whether in war, peace, or negotiations.
Al-Golani strongly believes in the policy of (Command of the Situation), and he envisions that the significant cost that any party will pay in initiating a war will eventually lead them to accept him as a leader and his organization, similar to Hamas in Palestine and Hezbollah in Lebanon.
He possesses a tremendous ability to fragment opponents and sow discord among them. In most cases he faced, he managed to dissipate the unity of those who opposed him through a policy of carrot and stick. He was the only party willing to accept that high school and higher education certificates be supervised by the interim government, even if only symbolically. He strongly criticizes the refusal of the local councils associated with the Turks to accept the same certificates.
What is the Turkish role in negotiations between al-Golani and the Russians? And what are the seven files discussed?
Several negotiating meetings have taken place between al-Golani and the Russians as part of the broader negotiations between Assad and the Turks, and the quadripartite negotiations on Syria (Russia, Iran, Turkey, and the regime). These negotiations included seven files, with al-Golani playing a significant role in some of them. We will mention them sequentially:
- File One: Cooperation and alliance with the Assad regime and the Turks, with the assistance of al-Golani, against “QSD” and “MSD” (Self-Administration) in northeastern Syria/the Syrian Jazeera and northern Deir Ezzor and Raqqa.
- File Two: The exclusive entry of aid through the Turkish borders to Syria, meaning to Idlib and the regime-controlled areas; this has also been agreed upon with al-Golani, and so far, two crossings have been agreed upon, namely Ar-Rai and Bab al-Salameh.
- File Three: The internal crossings file; a file related to Idlib, al-Golani, and the Turks; it requires al-Golani’s approval, and there is no information about its results so far.
- File Four: The Russian/Turkish file with the regime regarding how the Turks deal with the activities of the Syrian opposition on their territories; and how to deal with the military organizations affiliated with the Syrian opposition.
- File Five: The Syrian regime’s request for the Turks to reclaim Idlib; this file is a complex issue, and it seems that there have been discussions with al-Golani about it to some extent, as indicated by his subsequent appearance in a threatening and warning media interview.
- File Six: Projects referred to as the “Early Recovery” for the Assad regime, preceding the reconstruction in Syria.
- File Seven, the last: The withdrawal of the Turks from Syria.
We notice in the Syrian/Turkish negotiations with Russian/Iranian mediation that Al-Golani has a role in three files directly, in addition to his presence as an obstacle in the other files.
Al-Golani has his own project and ambitions, which may not necessarily be a national project; it might be an emirate project. However, he is not willing to relinquish it or merge with others, fearing dissolution. Assessments confirm that he will not seriously cooperate with the interim government or the Turks unless it guarantees an increase in his influence. Perhaps he dreams of expanding towards Olive Branch and Euphrates Shield and being recognized as a significant force on the ground. This is evident through his exploitation of every problem that arises for intervention and strengthening his security presence, particularly in Olive Branch and Euphrates Shield, where he has succeeded.
Al-Golani believes that he has established a civil model in Idlib that is much better than the model created by the Turks in Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch. He believes that his model is exemplary and deserves to live, survive, and grow. He succeeded at a time when the Muslim Brotherhood failed despite their experience, history, capabilities, and relationships. The Turks also failed, despite being a longstanding state.
In the educational aspect, the progress of Idlib University is impressive, having accommodated more than twenty thousand students so far. Hospitals conduct postgraduate studies and training for doctors, similar to those in regime-held universities, unlike the hospitals in Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch.
Notably, during your tour of Idlib, you’ll observe significant administrative discipline. The decisions made by the Rescue Government are implemented, and no one can defy the decisions of the ministries, no matter how minor, as the law holds authority.
Given these aspects, one might wonder: Are we facing a state project or an Islamic emirate?
 The financial support for Jabhat al-Nusra initially started with limited capital. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi provided al-Golani with $50,000 when the organization was founded, before al-Golani later defected from the Islamic State organization (ISIS).
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