Can Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham be defeated by an alliance of Syrian rebels in northern Syria 

• By Muhammed Ruzgar* •  March 5, 2018 

In a new piece Muhammed Ruzgar, a Syrian with intimate knowledge of the Syrian civil war and the opposition to the Assad regime, looks at how Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham came to dominate Idlib province and whether recent developments will result in it losing influence and power. ​

He examines the interplay between the Free Syrian Army, opposition groups, Ahrar al-Sham and Faylaq Sham and their relations with Turkey as Turkey has increased its role in northern Syria. His article concludes that recent clashes between HTS and elements of Ahrar al-Sham and Nour al-Din al-Zenki represents a new phase alongside the operations taking place in Afrin. 

Disputes about the raising of the Syrian revolution flag fueled anger at HTS (screenshot)

Background

Nusra Front, which later became HTS has never been a reflection of the Syrian people who revolted against the regime in 2011. This movement HTS has benefited primarily from two factors to become one of the most powerful organizations in northern Syria.

 

The first is the chaos created by the war and the second is that it has left the Free Syrian Army alone to face the Syrian regime and its Iranian ally. The western countries, especially the United States, worked hard to prevent the flow of army to the FSA, especially effective and necessary weapons such as anti-aircraft arms.

 

The Jihadist-Islamists initially appealed to the hearts of the Syrian people who opposed the regime through their fighting ability and they did well against the regime. At the same time they managed to hide their real agenda.

 

After the jihadists in Syria managed to hold vast areas they divided it into two main groups, which included Islamic State and Nusra in late 2013. These two groups hated each other and they even fought each other. Each group claimed it was the real representatives of “jihad.” ISIS eventually revealed its true face after seizing Raqqa in 2014. Meanwhile the Nusra Front did the same after seizing Idlib. There was one essential difference. Nusra was more gradual and moderate in dominating the area it sought to enter and take control of. This was in contrast to ISIS which dominated the areas under its control through the persecution, execution and killing of any other groups.

 

Nusra front was a part of a group called the Jaish al-Fatah (The Army of Conquest) which liberated Idlib from the regime. This Army of Conquest consisted of many groups including the FSA and other Islamist movements such as Ahrar al-Sham (Salafists) and Faylaq al-Sham (moderates). After the victory in Idlib, Nusra started to disclose its agenda.

 

First it decided to get rid of the FSA groups starting with the weakest by using accusations of corruption as a pretext. The simple people of Idlib believed Nusra and its claim of fighting corruption and its claims to be securing the area. After defeating the FSA, Nusra decided it had to defeat the biggest group in Syria called Ahrar al-Sham which had more than 25,000 fighters. Through this process the Nusra Front declared that it had severed its link with Al Qaeda, changing its name to Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.

 

HTS was aware that it would lose if it directly attacked Ahrar al-Sham, so it worked on inviting a part of them to join HTS and fight the remaining part or paying them off to leave. A large number of high level commanders of Ahrar al-Sham defected and joined HTS, and Ahrar al-Sham lost 80% of its strength.

 

After getting over the hurdle of Ahrar al-Sham’s opposition, HTS became the strongest group in Idlib and Aleppo’s western countryside and in Hama’s northern countryside. It set down roots with its own government and governing institutions and preventing the government established by the Syrian opposition coalition to function inside its territories. It fired and arrested the staff of the opposition. Up until this point everything went well for HTS. However it began to fact problems after Turkey and Russia agreed to establish monitoring posts and watch towers as part of a de-escalation area in northern Syria. Turkey and Russia deployed observers in September 2017.

 

Turkey insisted to continue the plan as agreed upon with Russia. Turkish intelligence presented HTS with two options. Either Turkey could fight a war against HTS to allow the Turkish army to do its job in Idlib or Turkey would commit not to intervene in local matters outside of the watch points it wanted to establish and HTS would Turkey access. HTS choose the second option.

Idlib between HTS, Turkey and Russia

 

In January Russia and the regime launched a massive operation and seized a wide area in the southeastern countryside of Idlib. HTS withdrew in the face of the offensive and did nothing to prevent it. Russia and the regime seized Abu al-Duhur airbase from HTS on January 20. The local people alleged that there was a plan between Russia, Turkey and HTS and realized that the main goal of HTS was not to fight the regime but rather to establish an “Islamic emirate” in the area that it would be allowed to keep after withdrawing from the airbase.

 

HTS turned out to be more pragmatic than it appeared, aiming for a new type of Islamic governance and it started actually to move away from the Al-Qaeda model and form a unique type of Islamic system. It sought to situate itself between Al-Qaeda’s brand and Salafism, making itself more hard-line than average Salafists but less hardline than Al-Qaeda. HTS then put distance between itself and Al-Qaeda and a group defected from it and established a new group but did not fight against HTS.

 

At this point public anger against HTS increased and clashes between HTS and local residents increased in several places. They erupted after HTS took down the flag of the Syrian revolution in several towns and attacked people carrying the Syrian rebel flag.

 

The remaining members of Ahrar al-Sham and a group called Nur ed-Din al-Zinki united under the name of the Syrian Liberation Front (Jabhat Tahrir Souriya) fearing that HTS would attack them and become the only power in the field. They launched a massive attack on HTS and managed to take control of many vilages, especially in Aleppo’s western countryside. The clashes continue to this day and HTS is trying to save its strongholds. At the end we can describe the conflict as one between the Salafists and the more hardline Salafists.

 

Faylaq al-Sham, a group supported by Turkey, has not intervened in the conflict yet due to its involvement with the Olive Branch operation in Afrin. If Olive Branch, which was launched in late January to drive the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) which Turkey views as terrorists out of Afrin, and if those areas then fall under FSA and Turkish control then Aleppo’s north countryside will be connected to other FSA-held areas. This will create a major change in the balance of power in northern Syria and HTS will lose its advantage of being the strongest group and we might see its end very soon as more radical groups within the FSA unite against HTS.

*The author writes under an assumed name that he has used before for safety reasons

An image shows vehicles during clashes with HTS last year (screenshot)

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