Charles Lister Profile picture
Feb 2, 2021 15 tweets 21 min read Read on X
Very, very interesting.

#HTS & its leader Abu Mohammed al-Jolani have just finished hosting @frontlinepbs's @Martin28Smith in #Idlib for 3 days.

How times change -- quite a difference from 2014/15.
@frontlinepbs @Martin28Smith #pt: It's no secret that #HTS has been pushing hard behind-the-scenes for opportunities to improve its image abroad -- first in outreach to researchers/institutes & more recently giving top access to highly-regarded media outlets.

And fwiw, PBS is one of several.
@frontlinepbs @Martin28Smith #pt: That #HTS is pushing this shouldn't come as a surprise -- the ingredients were put in place as far back as 2015, when a prolonged internal debate regarding the right path for Jabhat al-Nusra began. Clerical "lobby groups" got involved & then #JFS was created; then #HTS.
@frontlinepbs @Martin28Smith #pt: #HTS hasn't moderated its foundational ideology, but it has pivoted entirely to a localized agenda in which governance measures at least as important as efforts in the military sphere.

The break with #AlQaeda is/was real, but the impetus was largely for self-preservation.
@frontlinepbs @Martin28Smith #pt: The vast majority of Syrians in the NW continue to distrust #HTS & he definitely doesn't represent their revolution -- but the success of #Jolani's governance project in #Idlib is almost certainly the only hope left for preventing a full regime conquest -- a grim irony.
@frontlinepbs @Martin28Smith #pt: 3yrs ago, I was told #Jolani had begun using "Liberated Northern #Syria" to describe the NW & was also proposing this zone elect a "Prime Minister" -- anathema to jihadists.

Today, #HTS runs a semi-technocratic "Salvation Government" & conducts CT ops vs. #AlQaeda & #ISIS.
@frontlinepbs @Martin28Smith #pt: 2yrs ago, I learned of unofficial outreach efforts from #HTS to a number of Western governments & began to be asked by some whether it was "time" to engage in "exploratory dialogues." (I said no)

I now understand some engagement has occurred. This also should be a surprise.
@frontlinepbs @Martin28Smith #pt: When U.S. diplomats have spent months on end negotiating over a shared table with the #Taliban, #HTS gambled that it too could achieve a similar level of legitimacy.

The #Taliban model has been talked about in #Syria before -- years back by another group: Ahrar al-Sham.
@frontlinepbs @Martin28Smith #pt: In public & (mostly) closed settings, I began suggesting that #Nusra/#JFS/#HTS was heading in this direction in early-'16.

My point was to warn of the challenge this'd present - it'd undermine moderates, risk justifying a major assault & force us into an impossible dilemma.
@frontlinepbs @Martin28Smith #pt: I wrote and said repeatedly that thus evolving #Nusra represented the primary threat to #Syria's opposition for a reason -- because once it gains traction & achieves some level of local dominance, it'll prove immensely difficult to uproot.

That's definitely proven true.
@frontlinepbs @Martin28Smith #pt: Worse still, when jihadists "go local" & succeed in consolidating a dominant position, they create a dynamic in which any external CT campaign against them is almost certain to enhance their local credibility -- that's also proven true.

Hence today's effort to reform image.
@frontlinepbs @Martin28Smith #pt: Zoom out for a minute: with minimal hostilities, #Idlib is a dire humanitarian disaster. An outbreak of major fighting is hard to fathom.

If the international community wants to keep #Idlib stable, it's essentially impossible to envision how to do so w/o #HTS's cooperation.
@frontlinepbs @Martin28Smith #pt: And yet at the same time, #HTS remains a designated terrorist organization, albeit one that allows foreign (including U.S.) aid to be distributed throughout its territory; supports a modest COVID-19 response; & confronts both #AlQaeda & #ISIS.

It's an impossible quandary.
@frontlinepbs @Martin28Smith #pt: One last pt - it's hard to understate the enormous symbolic significance of this image in the jihadist world.

Until now, #HTS was condemned by #AlQaeda & #ISIS alike for its "nationalist" rhetoric & distancing from "true" jihad -- this picture makes that look insignificant. Image
@frontlinepbs @Martin28Smith Al Jazeera's @Ahmadmuaffaq says @frontlinepbs's documentary on #Idlib & #HTS is likely to be aired in May -- in a tweet/photo taken at #Hatay Airport sometime after @Martin28Smith's meeting with #Jolani near Bab al-Hawa.

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More from @Charles_Lister

Apr 1
#Israel's strike in #Damascus today is a huge development & a major escalation.

3 #IRGC-QF Generals:

- Brig. Gen. Mohammed Zahedi (Commander, #Syria & #Lebanon)
- Gen. Hossein Aminullah (Chief of General Staff, #Syria & #Lebanon)
- Maj. Gen. Haj Rahimi (Commander, Palestine)

Since the Feb 7 U.S. strike in #Baghdad, we've had zero confirmed #Iran proxy attacks on U.S. bases in #Iraq & #Syria.

It's quite likely that freeze could now end. The #IRGC has often used U.S. "soft targets" in #Iraq & #Syria as one form of retaliation for #Israel's actions.
For months, Iranian ballistic missiles, cruise missiles & suicide drones have targeted Israeli & U.S. targets in #Iraq, #Syria, the Gulf & #Israel itself -- but all launched from outside #Iran's territory.

Could that now change?

Or will #Iran hit targets in the #KRG again?
Read 5 tweets
Mar 28
There's not nearly enough appreciation of how #ISIS's branches have increased & enhanced their interconnectivity over the past ~18 months.

From #Africa, through the #MiddleEast & into South & SE Asia, lines of logistics, recruitment, financing & plotting overlap more than ever.
Multiple #ISIS wilayat in #Africa have recruitment & logistics lines running into #Europe & #ISIS finance bodies in #Africa have been supporting operatives as far as #Afghanistan.

Recent #ISIS plots in #Europe have been tied back to #Africa, the #MiddleEast & #Afghanistan.
In 2023, multiple #ISIS-related attack plots were foiled in northern #Europe -- most unreported, almost all linked to #ISKP.

BUT, those #ISKP plots were 1st detected *outside* #Afghanistan, underlining the group's transnational reach -- as I wrote here:…
Read 5 tweets
Feb 3
Since 2012, #Iran has been building & consolidating a formidable network of proxies across #Syria & #Iraq -- dozens of groups & 150,000+ members, all financed, trained & armed by the #IRGC.

In #Syria, they engaged in ethnic cleansing & war crimes -- completely unchallenged.
During the formative years of 2012-16, #Obama's admin consciously ignored the #IRGC's militia surge in #Syria -- dismissing it as unimportant to U.S. interests.

In 2015, orders were even granted for U.S. forces to deconflict & coordinate with #Iran's proxies in #Iraq, vs. #ISIS.
For a time ('15-17), U.S. forces fighting #ISIS in #Iraq were effectively told to coordinate with the very same groups who'd killed 100s of U.S. troops from '03-'10 & who are again back to targeting us today.

What a staggering indictment of U.S. inconsistency & ill-judgment.
Read 8 tweets
Dec 5, 2023
It’s staggering how much traction this thread got, when it fails to acknowledge one basic fact:

- It takes time to get bodies out of rubble amid intense bombing & to ID bodies (by age, gender) when they’re shredded or in pieces.

Data gets retrospectively updated. That’s normal.
The same has been true in #Syria, #Yemen & many other acute conflict zones.

The @StateDept has told Congress the #Gaza HM data is an undercount. Why? Because in every previous conflict its data has been +/- 1-3% off post-conflict analysis by #Israel, the U.S., the EU & the UN.
@StateDept Are #Hamas combatant casualties being accurately acknowledged? Clearly not — but that doesn’t affect civilian casualty rates.

With ~20,000 strikes in 6 weeks, much in dense urban environments, it’s hardly surprising that ~15,000 civilians would be dead.

Tragic, but logical.
Read 4 tweets
Oct 31, 2023
#Putin [rightly] gets slammed for firing cruise missiles into residential buildings in #Ukraine, but when #Israel vaporizes an entire residential block, it's ok & "like the tunnels of Chu Chi."

I'm sorry, but if our principles can't be universal, they count for nothing. Image
#Hamas' evil massacre in #Israel revealed its true colors -- and the group deserves & requires rooting out.

But a scorched earth campaign in which civilians are paying the overwhelming price is a recipe for disaster. We're watching Hamas 2.0's seeds being sown, bomb by bomb.
We can't viscerally oppose #Assad's sieges in #Syria but accept them in #Gaza & we can't condemn the targeting of residential tower blocks in #Ukraine but turn a blind eye when they're turned to rubble in #Gaza.

Countering extremism requires consistency in values, not hypocrisy.
Read 4 tweets
Aug 31, 2023
Heavy fighting continues today, as the death toll reaches 75+.

Overnight, senior Akeidat tribal voices began calling for an anti-#SDF insurgency, which could be *very* significant.

Some of the heaviest fighting is within 10mins of the US “Green Village” base at the Omar Fields.
As fighting escalates further in Deir ez Zour, reports suggest the #SDF has lost 18+ villages & towns to tribal forces.

Since the Akeidat calls earlier today, there are also reports of amassed Arab #SDF defections to the tribes, handing over checkpoints.

Serious, serious news.
Meanwhile, the #SDF continues to dispatch fighters from #Raqqa & #Hasakeh, along with heavy equipment (including U.S.-made Humvees & Bearcats) to confront the tribal uprising in Deir ez Zour.

The tribes control roadways down south though - multiple IED/RPG ambushes yesterday.
Read 8 tweets

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