Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (Syria)
Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) appears light-years away from the day in late 2011 when a few dozen hardened jihadists crossed from Iraq into eastern Syria to establish Jabhat al-Nusra. Having emerged from the latter group in 2017, HTS now controls the last stronghold of Syria’s opposition, in the country’s north-west. Those men, dispatched by the leadership of the Islamic State of Iraq (also known as al-Qaeda in Iraq), the progenitor of the Islamic State group (ISIS), would later turn not on only ISIS – and wage a merciless campaign to arrest and execute its members – but also on al-Qaeda’s other franchise in Syria, Hurras al-Deen. These shifts created deep schisms within the ranks of HTS and the global jihadist movement. In the past three years, HTS has been increasingly characterised by pragmatism stemming from its unyielding desire to survive, and to dominate north-western Syria.
During its first three years of existence, Jabhat al-Nusra significantly grew in strength, while maintaining cooperative relationships with more mainstream groups. As Jabhat al-Nusra gradually expanded its influence in Idlib – which, at the time, was just one of many areas under opposition control – it adopted a more aggressive policy on other rebels. In 2015 Jabhat al-Nusra launched a series of attacks on Free Syrian Army groups, which it perceived as a threat due to the support offered to them by the CIA and the Pentagon. Having largely decimated or co-opted the Free Syrian Army in 2017-2019, it took the fight to Islamist factions such as Ahrar al-Sham and Nour al-Din al-Zenki in a quest to gain control of the area’s financial resources (particularly those from trade crossings) and to establish its military dominance there.
Through these rounds of fratricidal fighting, HTS came to dominate Idlib. More mainstream factions continue to operate in the area under the framework of the National Liberation Front (NLF), a body that receives Turkish weapons and arms. Their presence in Idlib is useful for HTS: the group weakened NLF factions to such an extent that they pose no threat to its dominance by themselves, while they act as conduits for the Turkish support it needs in the fight against the Assad regime. Now comfortable in its position, HTS engages in close cooperation with factions of the NLF as part of al-Fath al-Mubeen, a joint military operations room, and an emerging military council.
A major break
In late 2017, the HTS leadership allowed Turkish soldiers to enter Idlib and uphold a ceasefire as part of the Astana Process – the tripartite negotiations on Syria’s future between Turkey, Russia, and Iran. The decision marked a significant shift in the position of HTS. The group, along with more hardline jihadist militant organisations, initially refused to abide by temporary ceasefires with the regime. Furthermore, HTS criticised other factions for cooperating with Turkey and upholding such ceasefires.
The HTS leadership’s decision to tacitly accept a Turkey-mediated ceasefire was deeply controversial. Members of HTS who did not want Turkish forces to enter Idlib either split off and formed Hurras al-Deen (the Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate) or were sidelined internally by the pragmatic wing of the group, led by Abu Muhammad al-Jolani. The decision stemmed from a realisation that, without the presence of Turkish forces, Idlib would fall into the hands of the regime. This would have meant an end not only to the HTS governance project, but also the destruction of the last opposition stronghold in Syria.
Since the entry of Turkish forces into Idlib, HTS has halted its offensive operations, except for those during military campaigns initiated by the regime. Since 2019, during lulls in regime offensives on Idlib, HTS has not only abided by ceasefires but sought to prevent more radical factions from attacking regime forces. In June and July 2020, HTS arrested the commanders of various jihadist factions, forcing these groups to withdraw from the front line and hand over their heavy weapons. One Turkish member of Hurras al-Deen echoed the complaints of other jihadist factions: “HTS lost its way, has given up on Sharia law, and has gotten closer to the Euphrates Shield groups” (a reference to Turkey’s Syrian proxies that control northern Aleppo).
HTS also banned the formation of any operations room other than the one it headed, effectively outlawing offensive operations against the Assad regime without its permission. Justifying this move, Taqi al-Deen Omar, the group’s director of media relations, stated: “there is no benefit to the presence of small factions that decide on war and peace, but do not bear the consequences of the battle”. Indeed, Russia and the Syrian regime have carried out indiscriminate bombings across Idlib in response to small-scale offensives launched by jihadist factions.
The HTS leadership seeks to present the change within the group as a genuine ideological break with al-Qaeda. It appears that al-Qaeda’s strategy of endless insurgency and terrorist attacks by a small vanguard is increasingly coming into question in jihadist circles, due to its failure to achieve any of its aims. In recent years, several al-Qaeda affiliates have shifted from prioritising endless struggle and attacks against the West to controlling territory, governing it, and thereby maintaining at least a minimal degree of popular support. Among these groups, HTS has gone the furthest in prioritising territorial control at the expense of armed struggle.
In Idlib, NGOs and the HTS-linked Syrian Salvation Government (SSG) attempt to compensate for the absence of state institutions. The SSG lacks the resources to fully meet the needs of the three million inhabitants of the area. Most of these people have been displaced from their homes. More than 1.1 million of them live in tent camps. Due to the SSG’s links to HTS, a group under UN sanctions, international donors refuse to cooperate with it. Hence, NGOs provide most of the few public services available.
The SSG maintains a balancing act in which it often seeks to co-opt NGOs and gain control of the humanitarian assistance they provide without overstepping its boundaries – lest this lead to the withdrawal of this assistance. For example, in 2018, when the US Agency for International Development and the UK Department for International Development halted the passage of humanitarian assistance through the Bab al-Hawa crossing, HTS stopped imposing taxes on aid trucks that had prompted the move. It appears that large international NGOs can stop efforts to capture aid or tax it, but smaller ones – particularly those that do not receive state support – are obliged to hand over a share of their assistance to HTS. (This activity is difficult to accurately gauge, as NGOs are wary of disclosing successful efforts to capture their resources.)
The SSG’s limited capacity to provide public services, the miserable living conditions in Idlib, and the taxation of the population have all undermined the popular legitimacy of HTS. While all the rebel groups retain some popular support, their record of failure in countering the regime’s latest offensives, their image as pawns in the hands of outside actors, along with their authoritarian behaviour, has had a similar effect. At the same time, the population is largely terrified by the prospect that the regime will recapture Idlib, which would likely involve large-scale massacres. Hence, residents of the area perceive HTS as the best of several poor alternatives.
The HTS governance project in Idlib does not have a clear end goal. Currently, the group’s leadership appears content with maintaining control of Idlib and waiting for an opportunity for further expansion or a political process that results in the removal of the regime or the formal decentralisation of Syria. While HTS officially maintains the goal of replacing the Assad regime with a form of governance inspired by its interpretation of Islamic principles, the group’s leadership has abandoned its prior rhetoric about the establishment of an Islamic state in Syria without clearly articulating an alternative.
The shift in HTS is reflected in its approach to the international community. Jabhat al-Nusra was unconcerned about international boundaries and kidnapped foreign journalists for ransom. Now, HTS and the SSG take pride in welcoming foreign journalists and researchers, offering them protection. But HTS does not appear interested in engaging in international political processes on the war in Syria, as those negotiations lack popular support and are widely perceived to be unfavourable to opponents of the Syrian regime. The group has not established a political wing, but some of its leaders engage with international mediators.
HTS seems increasingly open to engaging with Western countries on mutual security concerns such as ISIS. HTS is particularly interested in restoring the humanitarian and stabilisation assistance to Idlib that significantly declined after the group took over the area.
Western actors that are concerned about the fate of civilians living in Idlib should find ways to communicate their priorities to HTS. Ankara’s involvement in Idlib has only addressed some Western priorities in Syria – such as preventing the outflow of refugees, and constraining and weakening jihadist groups. Through engagement with HTS and the SSG – which would have to be indirect due to the UN designation of HTS as a terrorist organisation – Western actors could test the limits of the group’s pragmatism and communicate a set of priorities to it. These priorities should include modes of restoring stabilisation funding to the region in a manner that will not directly benefit HTS, halting the group’s attempts to capture aid, and other concerns about its human rights record: its treatment of religious minorities, recruitment of child soldiers, repression of political dissent, and abuse of detainees. While HTS officially maintains a hardline ideology and is unlikely to relent on issues that it perceives as linked to its survival, cautious Western engagement with the group could accelerate its turn towards pragmatism.
Elizabeth Tsurkov is a fellow at the Center for Global Policy, a Washington-based think-tank, where her research focuses on the Levant, and particularly Syria. She is also a research fellow at the Forum for Regional Thinking, a progressive Israeli-Palestinian think-tank based in Jerusalem. She has worked as a consultant for the International Crisis Group, Freedom House, the Atlantic Council, and the European Institute for Peace, among other organisations.
This case study was submitted on an individual basis without prior knowledge of the respective contributions. The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This paper, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.