As the operations against Islamic State (IS) in al-Raqqa and Deir al-Zour remain the focus of attention in Syria, a group known as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) has quietly and quickly consolidated near-total dominance over Idlib — the last remaining opposition-held province in the country. Neglecting HTS’ activities, however, risks allowing the group to establish a jihadist stronghold from which to launch attacks outside the country.
Many know HTS as the latest iteration of Jabhat al-Nusra (JN), formed in August 2011 when al-Qaeda General Command (AQGC) and IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi authorized Abu Mohammad al-Jolani to set up a branch in Syria. Over the course of the six-year conflict, al-Jolani and his jihadist cadres transformed JN into one of the fiercest anti-Assad fighting forces by leveraging its influence within both the broader Syrian revolutionary factions and the global jihadist network. Straddling these two diametrically-opposed forces has remained HTS’/JN’s most pressing challenge as it seeks to establish an Islamic emirate in Syria.
Despite its dominance in Idlib province, HTS currently faces both external and internal challenges to its rule. The three strategic pillars that it has relied on to date — co-optation of rival groups, strong internal harmony and manipulation of the civil space — appear to be crumbling under the pressure of the Turkish-Russian-Iranian-led Astana peace talks and escalating tensions with rival rebel groups and local residents.
What HTS decides to do next will undoubtedly impact U.S. counter-terrorism planning in the region, but also the future of the Syrian state itself.
HTS Struggles to Fully Co-opt the Opposition
Aside from its effective military prowess, HTS has exercised adept political control over the revolutionary landscape by employing a strategy of “controlled pragmatism” that started in 2012. This approach involved building interdependent alliances with the local opposition, gradually socializing — and at times, bullying — the opposition into accepting an Islamic emirate. Most notably, on March 24, 2015, HTS (then known as JN) jointly founded and led the Jaysh al-Fateh (JF) coalition with Ahrar al-Sham (AAS), eventually sweeping Syrian government forces from Idlib in early April 2016 (Shaam, March 24). HTS replicated these efforts during the siege of Aleppo in late 2016, and agreed to jointly manage the city of Idlib with AAS and various other Free Syrian Army (FSA) groups.
However, HTS’ unifying efforts were largely limited to tactical and operational cooperation as the group failed on numerous occasions to convince its partners to declare loyalty under its banner. Opposition groups pointed to HTS’ ties to al-Qaeda, arguing such links not only distorted the original aims of the revolution, but also justified external attacks on the moderate opposition under the pretext of fighting terrorism, further hindering the revolution. In response, al-Jolani rebranded JN as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS) on July 28, 2016, and extricated the group from al-Qaeda, seeking to portray the newly-polished JFS as more locally Syrian and divorced from jihadist influence (Halab Today TV, July 29).
Al-Jolani’s initiative appeared to fail. The region’s most independently powerful groups, Nur al-Din al-Zanki Movement (NDZM), AAS and Faylaq al-Sham, refused to join the merger, fearing its external backers — Turkey and Qatar — would disprove of links to al-Qaeda.
A secondary tactic in HTS’ efforts to subsume its rivals under its banner included a campaign of intimidation and low-intensity attacks. Part of this campaign involved the frequent use of abductions, assassinations and attacks using improvised explosive devices (IEDs), slowly eroding AAS and FSA command-and-control without completely destroying it.
Since it rebranded as JFS in July 2016, HTS/JFS has publicly claimed to have conducted at least 15 abduction events, including that of FSA Jaysh al-Tahrir commander Hussein al-Ghabi on July 3, 2016 (Qasioun, July 3). Since May 2015, at least 30 assassinations or attempted assassinations, and at least 70 IED attacks, have occurred in Idlib. Due to its overwhelming military advantage, HTS was likely behind the majority of these, although the group rarely claims responsibility for them, so as to deter retaliatory attacks and avoid an all-out, intra-rebel conflict. Regardless, the effect of these tactics, which have become common-place in rebel-held Idlib, remains — although HTS has openly cooperated with various non-jihadist groups, it uses a variety of low-intensity tactics to wear down any potential challenger to its rule.
By the end of 2016, however, HTS’ struggle to fully co-opt its various partners and rivals took a complex turn. On-ground dynamics in Idlib had become increasingly subservient to external politics, and HTS felt the pressure. Turkey, the opposition’s main backer, decided to rescind its unlimited support for rebels opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, instead focusing on combating the Kurds, isolating JFS and edging closer to Russia, a consequence of which involved marginalizing JFS.
As early as August 2017, Turkish intelligence was reaching out to AAS to discuss how to undermine and dismantle JFS’ stranglehold. Turkey, Russia and Iran opened up the Astana talks in late January 2017 to negotiate a ceasefire as a first step for peace talks. Many opposition groups participated, but JFS was excluded due to international terrorist designations.
Facing the seemingly existential challenge to its project in northern Syria, on January 28, JFS rebranded once again as HTS and launched a series of unprecedented coordinated raids on AAS positions across Idlib province (al-Modon, January 28). By July, it had captured the region’s key assets: Idlib city, and the Bab al-Hawa, Khirbat al-Jouz and Atmeh border crossings. HTS had managed to induce the defection of over 1,000 AAS fighters, including leaders Hashem al-Sheikh and Abu Saleh Tahhan, and gain the allegiance of NDZM and various other groups. It appeared that HTS — through sheer force of arms — had finally swallowed its competitors.
Despite its continued attempts to maintain and consolidate its power, HTS’ dominance over AAS and its position vis-a-vis Astana has provoked significant internal discord. Between September 11 and 13, Abdullah al-Muhaysini, a prominent Saudi jihadist cleric, along with former AAS commander Moselh Alyani, left HTS likely because they felt the group needed to normalize relations with Turkey and participate in an international peace process to legitimize HTS’ rule in Idlib province (Ennabaladi, September 11).
Abu Saleh Tahan, head of the Uigher-majority Turkestan Islamic Party, also left HTS (Twitter, September 13). The decision came after a call between al-Jolani and the HTS Idlib Chief Abu al-Walid (a.k.a. Abu Hamza Banash) was leaked throughout the province, revealing al-Walid’s request to arrest Muhaysni and Alyani after Jolani expressed his displeasure with both of their ideological positions (Ennabaladi, September 11).
The result has been an ongoing campaign to exterminate al-Jolani’s dissenters. Unidentified assailants assassinated senior HTS Saudi cleric and former Jund al-Aqsa military commander Abu Mohamad al-Jazraoui (also known as al-Hijazi) in Saraqib on September 11, while others executed Saudi HTS cleric Saraqa al-Malki after concluding Friday prayers in an Idlib City mosque three days later (Ennabaladi, September 13; Raialyoum, September 15).
These internal differences over the strategic direction of HTS are not unprecedented. Since its inception back in 2011, HTS has consistently faced internal discontent over whether the group’s ideological commitment to jihadist goals can incorporate making concessions to Syrian revolutionaries. In July 2016, al-Jolani faced the defections of various senior leaders — such as Sami al-Uraydi and Iyad Nazmi Salih Khalil (Abu Julaybib) — because they viewed JFS’ extrication from al-Qaeda as an erosion of the group’s jihadist purity.
Tensions over ideology and pragmatism are even spilling over into the conflict with one of HTS’ strongest competitors, the Nur al-Din al-Zanki Movement (NDZM). On July 20, NDZM and its 4,000-7,000 fighters left HTS in protest at HTS’ capture of Idlib city, as well as the Bab al-Hawa, Khirbat al-Jouz and Atmeh border crossings from AAS (al-Arabi 21, July 20). Toufic Shahabedine, the head of NDZM, released a statement announcing the defection and stating that the “absence of sharia in HTS controlled territory and the decision to fight AAS” were the reasons for his defection (Orient News, July 20).
Since then, HTS has captured the NDZM base in northwestern Aleppo province, assassinated five NDZM commanders (including well-known Nur al-Said Basha) and kidnapped NDZM commander Ashraf Raheem in Dayr Hassan. According to NDZM’s Shahabedine, commenting on HTS’ recent posturing in Idlib province, “the compass has lost its path and the rifle has strayed from its target” (Orient News, July 20).
At the core of these recent events and the HTS-NDZM conflict is al-Jolani’s rumored proposal to open relations with Iran as a means to avoid potential Turkish intervention. Many, including Hussam al-Atrash, the deputy head of NDZM, view Iran as a “historic enemy of Muslims,” and cooperation with it equates to a complete betrayal of revolutionary values (Twitter, September 14). These rumors — whether factual or not — indicate a pattern of deepening polarization between HTS and those who distrust its strategic direction.
Aggression in Local-Civilian Affairs
A third cause of HTS’ increasing lack of control is its attempt to dominate civilian space and access to humanitarian aid in order to portray an image of effective governance. As part of its strategy of “controlled pragmatism,” HTS/JN set up various service-based arms (such as the General Services Administration) that actively competed with — but tolerated — local civilian-formed committees and NGO actors. This coordination allowed JN to ensure the flow of Turkey-based humanitarian assistance, while also dictating the distribution of resources among towns and its rivals. However, as part of its assertive shift post-January 2017, HTS consolidated its control over the region’s local service-bodies and conduits for aid in order to legitimatize itself as a credible governing authority and manipulate incoming flows of humanitarian aid from regional NGOs.
On August 28, HTS seized the offices of the Idlib City Council (ICC) by force after the ICC, an independently-administered civil institution for the entire province, refused to turn over its bakeries, water and transportation directorate offices to HTS’ newly-minted Civil Administration of Services (CAS) (Baladi News, August 20). Prior to the takeover, HTS issued various directives that signaled its intention to impose control over civilian affairs. It formed a “remittances and consumer protection association” to monitor all hawala (a traditional Muslim system of transferring money) transfers, which NGOs heavily depend on for aid provision; absorbed AAS’ electrical administration, which had previously withheld electricity to HTS-held towns; prohibited new education projects that did not have HTS approval; and imposed oversight over all local councils, demanding they submit periodic reports (al-Dorar, May 13; Twitter, July 29; Twitter, August 20). On March 25, HTS even undertook the bold move of confiscating two shipments of flour en route to a bakery operated by the Ihsan Foundation, an NGO in Saraqib, which has been a hotbed of anti-HTS activism throughout the conflict (Facebook, March 25)
HTS’ assertive intervention into the civilian space suggests it is attempting to use its monopolization of humanitarian supply chains as a form of leverage over both Turkey and the opposition. However, this move appears to have backfired. After meeting with various members of the provisional government, the ICC rejected HTS’ demand to place its offices under the group’s authority (Facebook, August 22). The eventual dissolution of the ICC on August 26 sparked protests even in the historically pro-HTS village of Binnish (All4syria, August 26) Hotbeds of anti-HTS sentiment, such as Atarib and Maarat al-Numan, saw protests all throughout July and August (Smart News Agency, July 23; All4syria, August 12). On September 9, HTS opened fire on protesters in Darkoosh, further inflaming tensions (Smart News Agency, September 9).
Turkey’s Next Move
On August 30, the Turkish-sponsored Syrian Islamic Council — a group of 128 religious clerics that aims to unite Syria’s moderate religious authority — called on rebel forces to form a “national army” under the auspices of the provisional government, exiled in Gaziantep, Turkey (Syrian Islamic Council, August 30).
In mid-September 2017, the provisional government heeded that call with the participation of dozens of FSA groups and key non-FSA, such as AAS and Jaysh al-Islam (Orient News, September 13). The inclusion of AAS marks a shift away from the group’s prior rejection of various rebel unity initiatives and has, in unprecedented fashion, created a unified front that opposes both al-Assad and HTS.
However, the extent to which this new force can tip the scales in their favor is questionable given HTS’ military, political and economic presence in Idlib province. HTS boasts the most fighters, an increasingly interventionist civil administration and control over the region’s border crossings and major towns. It is highly unlikely that HTS will moderate its opinion toward dealing with international actors, and even if it did, the international community would be hard pressed to treat HTS as a legitimate actor. Military intervention by Turkey could pose a threat to the group. However, that would face opposition from Russia and al-Assad as neither would desire another Turkish-controlled enclave so close to its coastal stronghold in Latakia province.
Future Prospects and U.S. Policy
Ongoing challenges such as dealing with NDZM, stemming internal discord and monopolizing civilian affairs will continue widening the cracks in HTS’ armor, but these are unlikely to topple its deeply-entrenched authority. With the lack of a unified coalition strong enough to dislodge it and only the remotest prospect of Turkish intervention, HTS is likely to continue its dominance in Idlib province.
While the U.S. and Coalition have made aggressive strides in degrading IS in the east, HTS is taking advantage of being a lower priority to build its safe haven and shore up jihadist support.
Central to preventing this is identifying new local partners, which may require collaborating with Turkey politically and diplomatically. Doing so may include walking back on some commitments to the Kurds, but ultimately will align with the U.S. national security goal of preventing a jihadist stronghold in Syria.