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Much debate about the Syrian insurgent group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) in the West revolves around the nature of its relations with al-Qaeda (AQ). Conventionally, HTS is classed as an AQ affiliate, based on the fact that HTS’ core constituents evolved out of Jabhat al-Nusra, which was AQ’s official affiliate in Syria. Critics, however, point to extensive disagreements between HTS and AQ that have emerged on social media. The question then arises as to the nature of these disagreements and why, despite them, the classification of HTS as an AQ affiliate remains.
The driving force behind the formation of HTS was the long-standing ideal of ‘unity’ among the Syrian insurgency: something perceived as all the more necessary in light of the serious losses the insurgency has suffered, as the Syrian government has asserted control over all the country’s main cities. In the language of HTS’ leaders, striving for unity through a single entity by breaking ties with AQ was in the ‘interests of the jihad’.
In practice, this supposed ‘unity’ has not meant the merging of all the factions in the field, but rather one group (i.e. HTS) asserting dominance with a single military force embodied in its own fighters alongside a single governing system (in this case, the HTS-backed ‘Salvation Government’). Even so, HTS leaders argue that since Ayman al-Zawahiri himself once said that unity of the ‘mujahideen’ should come above organizational ties, there was nothing illegitimate about the formation of HTS and its break from AQ.
Conversely, AQ supporters assert that HTS’ leaders disobeyed Zawahiri and undertook steps without appropriate consultation. For example, prior to the formation of HTS in January 2017, Jabhat al-Nusra had rebranded itself as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham in July 2016, which was presented to the media as some kind of breaks with AQ. To Zawahiri, however, it was presented as a shift from a public to secret allegiance to AQ. Zawahiri rejected this move. Sami al-Oraidi, a Jordanian and former high-ranking official in Jabhat al-Nusra, claims that after Zawahiri indicated his rejection of the rebranding, Abu Muhammad al-Jowlani (then leader of Jabhat Fatah al-Sham and now leader of HTS) pledged not to take any steps to break ties without consulting Zawahiri and obtaining his consent.
Alongside the dispute over whether the formation of HTS was legitimate is a disagreement over strategy on the ground. For example, in Zawahiri’s view, the jihad in Syria should not focus at pre-sent on controlling and administering territory but rather guerrilla warfare in order to bleed the enemy over the long term. In this regard, AQ supporters reject the Salvation Government linked to HTS.
At the same time, HTS has laid down its own red lines on aspects of governance that would leave it open to jihadist accusations of compromising principles. For example, the group has made clear its rejection of democracy, though its leaders take the view that most Muslims who believe democracy is compatible with Islam do so out of ignorance and thus are only in need of gentle guidance and education. Further, there is a consistent emphasis on Islamic law as the sole reference in governing. Nor has the group’s attitude toward heterodox minorities like the Druze and Alawites changed. There is, for example, a small community of Druze in northern Idlib, Syria’s remaining insurgent epicentre, whose inhabitants were forced to convert to Islam by HTS’ predecessor Jabhat al-Nusra in 2015. Even now, complaints of discriminatory treatment persist.
Another key point of divergence between HTS and AQ concerns relations with international actors. For HTS, by making itself the dominant actor in and around Idlib, international actors are forced to recognize and deal with it even if they designate the group as a terrorist organization. In HTS terms, this is deemed to be ‘balanced relations’ with relevant actors.
The clearest case in this context is Turkey, which in an attempt to prevent new large-scale flows of refugees into its territory agreed a ‘de-escalation’ framework with Russia and Iran. To enforce this ‘de-escalation’ in northwest Syria, Turkey has set up military outposts around Idlib to block a military offensive by the Syrian government and its allies. However, since HTS is the dominant actor in the area, Turkey had to set up most of its outposts in cooperation with HTS, which permits them on condition that HTS retains the decision to launch offensives and Turkey does not interfere in administrative matters.
The result is a complex relationship between Turkey and HTS. Turkey has designated HTS as a terrorist organization, arrested individuals inside Turkey for suspected HTS links and signed an agreement with Russia in September 2018 that mentions Turkish and Russian ‘determination to combat terrorism in Syria in all forms and manifestations’. Presumably, that clause includes taking action against HTS, yet on the ground Turkey has been unwilling to launch an offensive against HTS in the way it fought the Islamic State and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Meanwhile, HTS leaders have said that they will not oppose a Turkish offensive against the PKK in areas east of the Euphrates River since Turkey (deemed a ‘secular’ power) is a lesser evil than the PKK (deemed ‘atheist’), though this does not mean HTS will participate in that offensive.
AQ’s supporters, however, consider HTS to be playing a dangerous game with Turkey that is detrimental to the jihad and leads to an unacceptable compromising of principles. As the pro-AQ ac-count Shibl al-Aqeeda wrote recently on Telegram: ‘The Turks will not be content with you no matter how many concessions you offer them, until you are stripped of all your principles. So beware, you who have entered onto this dangerous path.’
Given these various disagreements, which are clearly real, the question remains as to why HTS is conventionally designated as a terrorist group on the grounds of being an AQ affiliate. It is unlikely, for instance, that American intelligence is unaware of these disputes. As such, the designation probably remains for practical reasons.
On the ground in Syria, various elements proclaiming loyalty to AQ, including some HTS defectors, have come together in a group called Hurras al-Din. It was officially announced in late February 2018, although it existed some time before that. Hurras al-Din is part of a small insurgent operations room called ‘And Rouse the Believers’. In this regard, Hurras al-Din’s main allies are Jamaat Ansar al-Islam (a jihadi group that originated in Iraq but expanded into Syria during the civil war, even though the original Iraq group was decimated by the rise of the Islamic State) and Jabhat An-sar al-Din (a Syrian jihadi group that broke off from HTS).
However, it is erroneous to presume that Hurras al-Din somehow exists in isolation from HTS. Given HTS’ dominance, it cannot exist in isolation, nor can it undertake operations without HTS’ knowledge. In fact, Hurras al-Din has held multiple meetings with HTS, partly relating to a dispute over weapons in HTS’ custody that Hurras al-Din claims belong to it, but also more recently with HTS suggestions to form a larger ‘military council’.
The disagreements eflared up again at the end of January 2019, but the two sides have now reached an agreement to stop media provocations against each other and put aside the dispute over weapons. Even so, there have been claims that certain frontline points manned by members of Hurras al-Din are supervised by HTS, which is allegedly responsible for their expenditures.
The other concern that likely maintains the conventional terrorist designation of HTS is its broader links to foreign fighters. One of HTS’ principles is to protect foreign fighters and not allow them to be used as a bartering tool in negotiations. More recently, a number of foreigners (some in HTS) and foreign fighter networks have proclaimed support for HTS and its broader project, including a group founded by Moroccan ex-Guantanamo Bay detainees (Sham al-Islam) and the Uyghur-led Turkestan Islamic Party, whose presence in Syria is of great concern to China.
In any case, the West’s own ability to observe and impact internal jihadi dynamics in northwest Syria is rather limited. This is because the West is excluded from the de-escalation framework in the region and is thus barred, among others, from using the airspace to launch precision strikes against individuals deemed to be dangerous.