Hay’at Tahrir Al Sham
Since its ideological and organizational divorce from Al Qaeda in January 2017, Hay’at Tahrir Al Sham has shifted its focus from global jihadism to the local Syrian arena, focusing on ‘national’ aspirations confined to the borders of Syria. HTS gradually and systematically rose to prominence by entrenching itself within local communities, building transactional and temporary alliances with local factions, and eliminating its enemies through coercion and/or co-optation. The group’s previous affiliation with Daesh and Al Qaeda has led to its name being on the terrorist lists of several countries and international organizations, including the US, the UN, and Turkey. HTS military structure has significantly changed over the past decade. Unlike its ideological worldview and political positioning, HTS’s leadership has never changed.
The chaotic security environment of the Syrian war has offered fertile ground for the emergence of local and transnational jihadist groups. Since the beginning of the conflict in 2011, dozens of such groups have been formed, and then dismantled, absorbed or otherwise defeated by other factions or the Syrian Arab Army. Some have managed to survive by adapting to the constantly changing political realities. Chief among the survivors is Hay’at Tahrir Al Sham (HTS), currently the most powerful faction in northwest Syria.
HTS gradually and systematically rose to prominence by entrenching itself within local communities, building transactional and temporary alliances with local factions, and eliminating its enemies through coercion and/or co-optation. The group’s previous affiliation with Daesh and Al Qaeda has led to its name being on the terrorist lists of several countries and international organizations, including the US, the UN, and Turkey. Additionally, HTS has been criticized for its human right violations, committed against not only its rivals but also civilians who oppose its rule. HTS’s evolution can be conceived of through four main phases, as shown in the table below:
|Phase One||Jan 2012 – Apr 2013||The group operated under the name of Jabhat Al Nusra. While it was formed and funded by Daesh, both groups had agreed to keep their organizational ties covert. |
|Apr 2013 – Jul 2016||Nusra broke with Daesh and its leader pledged an oath of allegiance to Al Qaeda Central Command (AQC).|
|Jul 2016 – Jan 2017||Nusra ostensibly severed its ties with AQC and formed a new military coalition with several local groups, becoming Jabhat Fateh Al Sham (JFS).|
|Jan 2017 – present||JFS officially broke up with AQC and merged with other local groups under the name of HTS.|
Since its ideological and organizational divorce from Al Qaeda in January 2017, HTS has shifted its focus from global jihadism to the local Syrian arena, focusing on ‘national’ aspirations confined to the borders of Syria. In doing so, the group has pursued a two-pronged policy:
- Military focus: To ensure its hegemonic position over other local factions, HTS has managed to defeat or absorb other local armed Islamist groups operating in Idlib and eastern Aleppo, including Ahrar Al Sham, Suqour Al Sham and Liwa’a Al Tawhid. Moreover, the organization has been effective in eliminating other radical groups, for instance, Al Qaeda affiliates such as Hurras Al Din as well as Daesh. This allows HTS to present itself not only as an actor that can provide stability but also as a partner of the international community in its efforts to fight terrorism.
- Political focus: Without providing governance and services for more than 3.5 million civilians living in Idlib, the odds of HTS’s survival would have been limited. Therefore, HTS formed the ‘Salvation Government’ in November 2017, a semi-technocratic regime that includes nine ministries. While the government enjoys a degree of independence, those who are members need the blessings of the HTS leadership. HTS has employed a mixed strategy of co-optation and coercion to gain loyalty, consolidate its rule and control resources.
Unlike its ideological worldview and political positioning, HTS’s leadership has never changed. It has firmly remained in the hands of its co-founder Abu Mohammed Al Jolani. Contributing to this reality is the group’s tight control over the economy and security sectors. Through Al Jolani’s cronies, HTS monopolizes Idlib’s economy via its control of the Bab Al Hawa crossing with Turkey, the banking sector, oil, and telecommunications, cutting off resources from rival groups or individuals. The security sector allows the HTS leader to coup-proof his rule by monitoring allies, quashing dissident voices within and outside the group and cracking down on enemies.
Within HTS, there are three main factions: The pragmatic one led by Al Jolani himself; those who have a vested interest in the HTS remaining dominant; and a minority ideological faction that has been sidelined by Al Jolani and his supporters. The pragmatic faction is dominant and controls the religious field through the Shura Council, which can veto anti-HTS figures and decisions. The council includes:
Abu Mohammed Al Jolani: Ahmad Hussain Al Shara’, who is referred to by the aforementioned kunya, is a Syrian national who was born in 1982. Al Jolani travelled to Iraq and joined Islamist militants fighting against the US invasion. Following his release from prison in Iraq, he was sent back to Syria in late 2011, alongside several senior jihadists, by Daesh leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi to establish the group’s secretive wing in Syria, Jabhat Al Nusra. In May 2017, the FBI offered $10 million for information about his whereabouts. Nevertheless, his frequent public appearances in Idlib suggest there is a lack of US appetite for targeting him.
Abu Maria Al Qahtani: An Iraqi national who was among the jihadists who accompanied Al Jolani in his journey from Iraq to Syria in late 2011. It is widely believed he was behind the group’s break-up from Daesh in April 2013.
Abd Al Rahim Attoun: A Syrian national and HTS’s highest religious figure, Attoun leads the Shura council. He is arguably the architect of HTS’s divorce from Al Qaeda in July 2016.
Dr. Mazhar Al Wis: A Syrian national, Al Wis is a staunch supporter of HTS’s pivot from transnational jihadism to focus on Syrian aspirations.
HTS military structure has significantly changed over the past decade. During the time of Jabhat Al Nusra, the group did not follow the traditional hierarchical and centralized structure of its mother organization, Daesh, in which orders go from top (the ‘Caliph’/ senior commanders) to bottom (the field leaders). Influenced by the ideas of the jihadist strategist Abu Musab Al Suri, Al Jolani employed a decentralized organizational system that allowed for dynamic operational capacity. Jabhat Al Nusra relied on small cells operating in geographically unconnected areas, linked to their Emir or leader by a bay’at or oath of allegiance. While these cells shared the goal of waging jihad, they had limited organizational links with their mother organization, which allowed them to protect their fellow jihadists and leaders in case of capture by enemies.
HTS’s final rebranding in 2017 marked a shift in the group’s organizational structure from its previous non-traditional paradigm to a classical army structure. Since then, HTS went through two main transformations; one in 2018 that reorganized the group’s military capacity into four militias bearing the names of the first four Caliphs of Islam, and another that abolished the former formation and divided the group’s fighters into 10 brigades under the title ‘The ten to whom paradise was promised’.
The new structures can be attributed to a number of factors. The fact that HTS’s formation was a result of a merger between Jabhat Fateh Al Sham and other local Islamist factions, including Jabhat Ansar Al Din, Liwa Al Haqq, and Jaysh Al Sunna, as well as Al Zinki Movement, necessitated a clear top-down structure to bring them under one leadership. Additionally, as the conflict wound down and became less intense, HTS found itself locked in a small geographical enclave in northwest Syria that could best be protected through an army-style structure.
HTS has been through a notable ideological transformation over the past decade. During its early stages, the group espoused the Salafi-jihadist ideology of Al Qaeda and ISI, a worldview that does not believe in the nation-state system and calls for establishing the Islamic ‘Caliphate’ through waging violent jihad against Arab regimes and the West. Nevertheless, as the group broke its ties with Al Qaeda in 2017, it has departed from global jihadism and reframed its struggle from the global cause of the Muslim ummah to a local struggle against the Syrian government. This can be seen, for example, in HTS’s statements, its weekly magazine (Ebaa) and leadership interviews, where terms such as ‘the jihad of the ummah’ and ‘the jihad against nusayriya’ (a pejorative term used mainly by Salafist-jihadists to describe Alawites) have disappeared and been replaced with terms such as the ‘jihad to defend the Syrian revolution’ and the ‘struggle for the freedom of the Syrian people.’ However, this does not necessarily mean that HTS has become a moderate group. Indeed, the group still applies its extreme interpretation of Islamic law. For example, in March 2021, HTS members stoned four people, including a woman, to death in a public market in Idlib on charges of adultery and prostitution, after they appeared before what the organization considers a ‘shariah court.’ While reports suggest that HTS is pivoting into a less extreme ideological position, the group has a long way to go before it can be called moderate.
HTS’s significant shift in military structure has largely shaped the group’s operational capabilities. Jabhat Al Nusra was reportedly the first group in Syria to introduce suicide bombing operations and the inghimasi warfare tactics. An inghimasi is a jihadist fighter who aims to stay alive, killing his enemies with firearms but retains the option of detonating his vest when overwhelmed. In December 2012, the US announced that Jabhat Al Nusra had conducted more than 600 attacks across Syria, most of which were carried out against Syrian government targets and behind enemy lines. Despite announcing it had abandoned these types of operations in 2020, HTS still trains Al Asa’ib Al Hamra’ or The Red Brigades (also known as Asa’ib Al Mawt or the Brigades of Death), which is an elite military unit that includes hundreds/thousands of inghimasi fighters. Nevertheless, little has been reported on the Red Brigades’ operations outside Idlib.
In 2022, a UN Security Council report estimated the number of HTS militants to be around 10,000. It is hard to verify the extent to which these estimations are accurate, as is the nature of their distribution across the ten HTS brigades. Like most jihadist groups, HTS is equipped with small arms, including anti-tank systems and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs). Additionally, HTS has used the suicide vehicle-born improvised explosive device (SVBIED) tactic dozens of times. This tactic helped the group and its predecessors gain more territory in the early stages of the conflict.
HTS’s military operations in northwest Syria can be conceived of as both defensive and offensive. While the former are carried out to repel encroachment by the Syrian government forces and its allied militias, the latter are conducted against its rivals from local and transnational jihadist groups to ensure military hegemony over territories under its control. HTS’s lack of an air force, its limited resources, and its geographical position – being locked in a pincer move between the Turkish army and its allied militias, the Syrian government forces and the Syrian Democratic Forces – prevent the group from starting major offensives outside Idlib. It is likely that HTS will continue its efforts to maintain the status quo, as that will ensure its survival and help it consolidate its rule amid delicate international agreements brokered by Turkey, Russia, and Iran.
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