Tahrir al-Sham: The dream of northern Syria control
Enab Baladi – Khaled al-Jeratli
The recent fighting between Syrian armed opposition components in northern Syria prompted talk of the ambition of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), whose recent alliances with its former enemies appeared to indicate that it was not satisfied with running only Idlib governorate and parts of the western countryside of Aleppo and northern Hama.
Although the infighting did not last for more than a week, nor did it differ from its previous fights in which HTS dismantled opposition military factions, the recent fighting led Syrians to discuss HTS’ intention to expand eastward.
Such a theory was supported by accounts and activists supporting HTS. On 19 October, they launched an electronic campaign on social media platforms bearing the hashtag “One Administration”; the campaign demanded the unification of the administration of areas outside Syrian regime spheres of influence in Idlib and Aleppo under HTS command.
Speculation and analysis of HTS’ ambition in the region indicate that it is far greater than being a military faction running a limited geographical area in northwestern Syria.
Chaos for stability
Military confrontations between opposition factions developed during the early days of the military clash and produced a map of unexpected alliances in a short time.
The confrontations divided the opposition factions into the Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) alliance with the support of the Hamza Division (al-Hamzat), the Sultan Suleiman Shah Division (al-Amshat) and groups from Ahrar al-Sham, on the one hand, and the Third Legion and the Liberation and Construction Movement (LCM) on the other.
Alliances shuffled the cards in the region, especially with each faction containing a group of factions that have complex relations with the faction to which it belongs and the faction that it considers an enemy.
Sam Heller, a researcher at the Century International Foundation for International Research and Policy, who specializes in Syrian affairs, told Enab Baladi that the HTS project was, from the outset, based on the idea of “rationalizing opposition-controlled areas, institutions, and resources.”
At this level, rationalization means governing the region at the political, economic, and service levels.
Heller considered that HTS’ rationalization of the region was not limited to organizing the military forces in its areas of control but rather the reorganization of the opposition’s ruling institutions under the auspices of the Syrian Salvation Government (SSG), which constitutes the service wing in HTS-held areas.
By means of this policy, HTS has tried over the past years to consolidate and coordinate what represented “multiple and inconsistent flows of funding and support” under one wing.
Heller considered that HTS’s justification for expanding its influence in northern Aleppo was to “put an end to this prevailing chaos and establish some sort of stability and order.”
The aspiration of Tahrir al-Sham to expand eastward towards opposition-held areas rather than south or west towards regime-controlled areas can be linked to international fluctuations or an understanding of the region’s balance of powers.
In an attempt to dissect the HTS philosophy or the feasibility of its ambition, Maan Talaa, a political researcher at the Omran Center for Strategic Studies, said that the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) project, which it seeks to achieve, dates back to the moment of its decision to disengage from al-Qaeda.
Talaa considered the moment of disengagement to b the most dangerous at the level of the structural rift related to “Islamic jihadist bodies,” and thus the transition from the philosophy of “cross-border jihad” and the concept of the near enemy and the distant enemy to a philosophy of “local interaction.”
He added that HTS’ strategy over the past years could be recapitulated in a “gradual shift towards having the tools of political effectiveness and ensuring an active role in Syria’s future.”
Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra) was the only military arm of al-Qaeda in Syria after the Islamic State (IS) had also renounced allegiance in 2014, declaring the establishment of the “Caliphate State.”
In 2016, Jabhat al-Nusra disassociated itself from al-Qaeda to bear the name Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, leaving the Syrian scene free of al-Qaeda-affiliated jihadist factions, with the exception of certain groups lightly deployed in the region to date.
“Soft Sunni entity”
During the past years, there has been an official HTS talk about the establishment of what it called a “Sunni entity” in northern Syria, most recently last July when HTS commander, Abu Mohammad al-Jolani, visited villages and towns inhabited by a small proportion of followers of the Christian faith.
This was preceded by HTS’ comment on the arrests of jihadist leaders who supported the ideology of al-Qaeda in northern Syria in response to a question posed by Enab Baladi; the Director of Media Relations in Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) at the time, Imad al-Din Mujahid, said that “some groups are working against HTS’ tendency towards establishing a Sunni entity that mobilizes to deter the aggressor enemy.”
The term also described the reasons for the Ajnad al-Sham faction’s accession to HTS as a “Sunni entity” in northern Syria, according to the official statement issued by the faction.
Researcher Maan Talaa considered that HTS’ strategy in governance and expansion in the region is divided into two fields of action, the first of which is what has become known as the “Sunni field,” which can be sought in the HTS discourse that has turned into a “soft political and religious discourse” with the aim of identifying with the idea of the “largely numbered group,” thus imposing its presence in any social contract that could be proposed in the future in Syria.
On the same level, it was also evident that HTS attempts to clean the field of any “impurity” that could set back its project to the “cross-border jihad” phase, which explains its hostility towards its former jihadist fellows and foreign jihadist entities during the past years, according to Talaa.
As for the second field of action that HTS is trying to delve into, the researcher divides it into three parts:
According to Talaa, HTS’ behavior on a practical level is visible through its attempts to replicate the experiences or models of other actors in the Syrian scene, such as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) or even the model of the Syrian regime itself.
The replication of such experiences means that the control of the geography held by these actors is in the hands of the region’s authority, in addition to the existence of administrative structures that operate according to the security axes determined by the region’s authorities, according to Talaa.
More clearly, HTS’ strategy is based on the establishment of a central structure that has a monopoly on information, decision-making, and interaction with civil society and relief organizations and with the surrounding community in general.
Applying the foregoing, it can be observed that HTS is now central to the region, and in possession of its active force, according to Talaa.
The “security” part
In today’s view of HTS’ security strategy, it can be seen as attempting to promote itself as a “disciplined security force” that respects Syria’s crisis management lines, said Talaa.
This is illustrated today by HTS’ attempts to promote this aspect through the pursuit of drug dealers, control of smuggling lines, and work on managing checkpoints and the security sector in general.
The “international relations” part
Talaa recognizes that, through this strategy, HTS is trying to send direct messages by changing its discourse or showing its “pragmatism” in dealing with the scene and suggesting discipline and control over the held geography in an attempt to demonstrate its respect for the rules of the game. It also seeks to indirectly transmit its messages in line with the security objectives of international actors, rendering local security objectives and common goals between it and the said international actors.
Talaa considered that the deep motives behind the current HTS strategy are “the pursuit of power and relevance in the scene,” which would later backfire on its own project, especially since HTS is seen today as having disengaged only formally from al-Qaeda and not categorically.
Concerning HTS’ work in international relations spheres, the Middle East Institute (MEI) published a commentary authored by the researcher specializing in countering terrorism and extremism, Charles Lister. “In seeking to expand, HTS believes that through its subordinate and semi-technocratic Syrian Salvation Government (SSG) in Idlib, it maintains a governance project superior to that of its rivals across Syria’s north. In conducting outreach to foreign governments, de-conflicting and coordinating with the aid mission run by the United Nations, and seeking to open trade crossings into regime areas, HTS has sought to demonstrate a level of pragmatism necessary to compete with its more mainstream rivals”, he said.
In attempting to replace the Syrian National Army (SNA) model in Afrin, HTS is using its age-old argument that it is combating corruption and putting an end to costly division; but in al-Jolani’s eyes, the greater his control, the more secure his position, Lister reckons.
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