Efforts by Idlib’s dominant jihadist group Hayyat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) to rebrand themselves and expand into Turkish-controlled regions of northern Syria should be regarded with caution, the Rojava Information Center (RIC) has stated in a new report.
HTS is attempting to present itself as offering a particular brand of ‘political jihadism’, and having abandoned its roots as an offshoot of al-Qaeda, the RIC reported. Simultaneously, HTS is “expanding politically and militarily into northern Syria, pushing its own agenda as an increasingly powerful actor, at times with tacit Turkish approval, at times creating tensions with Turkey.”
The RIC is an independent news and research centre, established to provide accurate, well-sourced, transparent information from on the ground in North and East Syria. The report ’Jihadism learns to smile’ traces the history of the listed terror organisation. The group’s origins date to 2012, at which time the organisation’s current leader Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani was dispatched to Syria by the Islamic State of Iraq to set up a group then known as the al-Nusra Front. From the start, al-Nusra “exhibited two characteristics that detached it from a canonical Salafi-jihadist guerrilla group: it took an active part in the administration of the rebel areas by providing social services, and it accepted allyship with other insurgent groups, even those not ideologically aligned.”
This strategy, and powerful international backing, contributed to al-Nusra’s rapid success and the split with what had then become known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS. Following a sequence of splits, the defeat of ISIS, bouts of in-fighting and the eradication of non-aligned jihadist militias HTS established itself as the most dominant single jihadi force in Syria, exercising effective control over Idlib, the large northern city which remains outside the control of the Assad regime, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, and the zone of Turkish forces.
In part, HTS has been able to survive due to its pragmatic approach, abandoning the transnational approach which had previously characterized the approach of groups like Al-Qaeda and ISIS and styling itself as abandoning torture and the most severe punishments meted out under Sharia law. Nonetheless, the UN commission covering the second half of 2022 refers to “multiple, consistent, and credible reports of ongoing executions […], including women, by firing squad.” The forced conversion of minorities, detention in secret prisons, the suppression of protests, child marriage, fatwa against women, and attacks on the press have all characterized HTS’ rule in Idlib, as documented in the RIC’s report, suggesting the extent to which their efforts to present themselves as reformed are motivated by realpolitik and an effort to appease the West.
The RIC, therefore, calls for further investigation of HTS’ ‘increasingly totalitarian regime’ on the basis of “the publication of various alarming reports on violations of human rights that fly contrary to HTS’ Idlib narrative, such as references to arbitrary arrests, torture and summary executions in secret prisons, lack of press freedom via both bureaucratic and violent means, lack of freedom of expression, and ethnic and religious discrimination.”
Latterly, HTS has begun trying to spread its control into regions under Turkish control and the day-to-day control of the Syrian National Army (SNA), a patchwork of warring militias armed, funded and directed by Turkey. HTS has formed strategic alliances with those groups particularly close to Turkey, enabling it to benefit from regular rounds of infighting as the groups squabble over resources, control of checkpoints, and the right to exploit the local population. “In the context of the SNA’s inability to engender security in the areas under its control, HTS tried to show itself as an actor capable of providing civilians with relative stability.”
The RIC documents HTS’ advance through the Afrin region in the course of bouts of infighting. While the group formally withdrew from its most advanced positions in the majority-Kurdish region seized by Turkey in 2019, Turkey was able to use HTS’ presence in the region in order to ensure its decrees were observed by the more restive SNA militias. Despite formal withdrawal, HTS has been able to retain a significant foothold in Turkish-controlled regions, training, delivering ideological education, and working under the banners of Turkish-backed militias.
Though Turkey has formally distanced itself from HTS, the RIC concludes: “The facts gathered in this report point to an increasing HTS presence in the Turkish-occupied regions at the expense of the SNA. This is happening under Turkish approval, notwithstanding the official Turkish designation of HTS as a terrorist group, and might lead to a complete substitution of the SNA with HTS. Nonetheless, HTS is an actor by itself, with its own agenda that only partly overlaps with the Turkish one.”