The End of the Road for the Group that is not Al Qaeda in Syria

An important change of forces is taking place in the province of Idlib, rebel bastion for islamist groups in northern Syria since 2012, where once again it is Turkey which gets to impose its interests.

In the mess of fratricidal struggles that plague Syria today, one that has captured the international attention is developing in Idlib and nearby areas, where we see a realignment of forces and a probable rebirth of the “real” Al Qaeda.

But, wasn’t Al Qaeda already present in ​northern Syria? Yes and no. There is an alliance of Islamist groups called Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS, “Organization for the Liberation of the Levant”) that is the direct product of Al Qaeda in Syria, but actual links have lately been disowned.

Without going into detail, Al Qaeda and the group now known as the Islamic State (IS or, according to its former acronym, ISIS) were practically the same during 2012 in Syria, but doctrinal and methodological differences separated them. At the end of 2013, those differences were settled when the world leader of Al Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, “expelled” the leadership of ISIS and recognized as his representative in the Levant the group called Jabhat al-Nusra (“Front for Victory” or “Al Nusra Front”).

It was not a peaceful separation, but a deadly war between the two jihadist groups, which took place between 2014 and 2015. Al Nusra ended up prevailing only in the Idlib province and some sectors of Aleppo and Hama, from where it expelled its rival ISIS, which kept dominating much of the rest of Syria.

To defeat Islamic State, Al Nusra acted in conjunction with other forces opposed to these extremists, most of them affiliated to the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which had the support of Western governments, Turkey and the countries of the Persian Gulf. Most of these circumstantial allies are also Islamists (they want a religious government in Syria), but not as extremist as Al Qaeda or ISIS. Others are republicans or have tribal or sectarian interests. With some, Al Nusra even had close coordination since March 2015 in an alliance called Jaish al-Fatah (JaF, the “Conquest Army”).

The important thing is that, once the threat of ISIS was eliminated in Idlib and the surrounding areas, Al Nusra began to have problems and armed clashes with these groups too, especially with the powerful Ahrar al-Sham (“Islamic Movement of Free Men in the Levant”), which was one of its partners in JaF. The smaller groups were forced to support one or the other of the “bigger ones.”

The crisis was solved with a magic trick: in July 2016, Al Nusra disappeared when it joined smaller groups to form Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS, the “Front for the Conquest of the Levant”). The leader of the new group was the same historical leader of Al Qaeda in Syria, Abu Mohammad al Joulani, who declared that the organization had no “affiliation with any external entity.” The phrase was intended to make believe that JFS no longer depended on the international leadership of Al Qaeda and thus to attract more moderate groups, international support (especially from Turkey), and Qatar financing. Although that was partially achieved and the tensions in Idlib came to a pause, the maneuver had other undesired results: it confused and angered its traditional followers, loyal to Al Qaeda, even when internally it was clarified that the bond was not broken yet and that everything had the blessing of Ayman al-Zawahiri, which was questionable and hard to corroborate.

The positive effects lasted only months before there were hard clashes again with Ahrar al Sham and other groups opposed to the Syrian government. Another reform led to a new name change: in January 2017, what remained of JFS joined four other factions and became Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), as it is still called. This time it openly broke ties with Al Qaeda, while maintaining the dialogue with Zawahiri himself, until the end of 2017, when the relationship ended completely.

Since the creation of JFS, Al Joulani’s group was in a process that accentuated when it became HTS: to try to be the largest political and military force of Idlib and nearby areas in control of the Syrian government opposition. For this it either absorbed or destroyed smaller groups (taking their weapons and funding networks) and weakened all others, killing or arresting their leaders, or winning them over if they were powerful, as was the case with Ahrar al Sham.

And indeed, at the beginning of 2018, HTS was considered the “owner” of Idlib, with its influence spreading throughout the opposition territory in northwestern Syria.

A general progression of the Al Nusra Front since its origins with ISIS in 2011.

Scores Of Enemies

What changed, then? How do we get to this point, when some believe that HTS is about to disappear from Idlib?

First, let’s summarize all the previous story in a paragraph that reads like a sum of errors: HTS infuriated and eliminated ISIS –the most powerful Islamists in the country– from Idlib, it annoyed and confused its own followers close to Al Qaeda, it exasperated the leadership of Al Qaeda International, it antagonized and fought again and again with the other powerful groups of Idlib (Ahrar al Sham, Nour al-Din al-Zenki Movement), it angered or turned into puppets all the other groups of Idlib (when it did not destroy them) and, in general, its strict religious control eventually outraged the civilians of all the occupied areas.

So the history of HTS is a sum of errors that distanced the organization from its own origins and ideals, getting at odds with almost everyone. This includes, of course, the Syrian government, Russia, Iran, Lebanon, Hezbollah and several Shiite militias, which are their declared enemies from the beginning, plus all the Western countries that still link them to the terrorist network Al Qaeda.

Area of influence for different groups fighting in Idlib at 6 March 2018

And what did HTS get in return? Of course, the power it enjoys in Idlib, but not much more. With its new name, it no longer appears on the lists of terrorist organizations, but it is far from having international support. Since the beginning of its fight against ISIS, funding sources and weapons dried up and that contributed in large part to its desire to absorb other groups. For a couple of years it obtained support from Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, but through the missing “Conquest Army” or JFS. As for Turkey, HTS also succeeded in becoming its interlocutor, but it is the only international link it has achieved, though with no real projection.

Because here come into play the recent changes in the Syrian landscape, starting with the “de-escalation zones” that Russia devised and which began to be implemented in 2017 with the support of that country, Turkey and Iran. One of these areas was designated for Idlib and was left to Turkey, which had to establish “observation points” to protect the precarious ceasefire. In recognition of its importance in that province, the government of Ankara opened the dialogue and agreed with HTS to enter peacefully and establish those points. A new mistake by Al Joulani, because neither friends nor enemies understood why HTS was “protecting” troops from a foreign country, which happens to be a NATO member!

Actually, there were several reasons: it validated itself as an interlocutor to a foreign country, it showed its military and administrative control of Idlib, and it benefited from the ceasefire without adhering directly to the agreement. It is likely that HTS also dreamed of getting new weapons from Turkey. However, for its adventure in Afrin, the Kurdish majority area that is just north of Idlib, the Ankara government sent military equipment to its own Free Syrian Army allies, almost all of them eager to settle old scores with HTS.

In addition, while Al Joulani tried to take advantage of the calm, making calls to the unity of all the opponents of the Syrian government, Turkey formed an “Operational Room” that took that unity into practice, but left HTS out of it. 

A second change, after the Turkish intervention, was that of Russia and Syria. As Turkey used Idlib as a platform to attack Afrin, it only installed observation points on the border between the two provinces and did not make anymore changes (which strengthened the jihadist group). But Russia decided to pressure its partner to comply with the deal and enforce the ceasefire. Using the Syrian Army’s Tiger Forces, it launched an operation in southern Aleppo and eastern Idlib, which in a few weeks managed to recover much of the territory occupied by the rebels. Turkey was forced to send troops as “observers” to protect both its allies and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, as they all feared being overwhelmed by the Syrian military machine.

But Turkey did not send only observers, who really do not have any combat role. It also allowed the Free Syrian Army groups under its control to use in Idlib the new military equipment handed over by Turkey to fight against the Kurds in Afrin. To disgrace of HTS, one of the groups that received armored vehicles was its nemesis Ahrar al Sham.

Al Joulani with HTS fighters planning operations on a map of Idlib Province in Syria

United Against The Oppresor

The fight in eastern Idlib ended approximately on 13 February, when a small group of ISIS that tried to enter from the south was eliminated. At the time, the situation was like this: on the one hand, a depleted HTS, with worn-out weapons and scattered forces throughout the province trying to maintain control; on the other, groups that hated HTS, with weapons recently received and focused on their respective areas of influence.

Soon skirmishes resumed. Some minor confrontation over here, a leader murdered or kidnapped over there, verbal threats everywhere. On 18 February, the two major groups apart from HTS, Ahrar al Sham and the Al Zenki Movement, formed an alliance that they called Jabhat Tahrir Suriya (JTS, “Front for the Liberation of Syria”). Although it was an obvious alliance against HTS, it was this latter organization that, in another mistake, launched the first attack.

Almost immediately, defections began in their ranks, while various groups joined the JTS and attacks began on multiple fronts. Just ten days after the alliance was born against it, all the enemies that HTS had made during the previous years had already risen up against it and quickly expelled HTS from dozens of sites, especially in the east of the province (where, what a coincidence, were the Turkish “observers”), but also in important cities of the center, such as Khan Shaykhoun and Saraqib. It is rumored that Al Joulani himself fled to the nearby province of Latakia to the west, while part of its high command tried to flee to Turkey and that country denied them entry. It is not a minor fact, since their enemies have put “Wanted” posters against them, announcing that they want to try them in religious courts for terrorism and conspiracy to kill Syrian civilians.

It must be recognized that the withdrawal of HTS, both compulsory and voluntary, has not translated into strong losses. Most of its men have taken refuge with their heavy weapons in safe sectors, leaving behind unusable machines. The worst bleeding is due to defections, not losses in battle. So HTS, the “Organization for the Liberation of the Levant,” probably remains a powerful force for the time being.

Another important group is the Turkistan Islamic Party, which remained neutral for the first few days, hoping that sanity would return to all parties, but later announced its support for HTS, strengthening the position of the group.

Abu Mohammad al-Julani in an Arabic “Wanted” sign where the Syrian Liberation Front (a.k.a. JTS) calls for the capture of 4 HTS leaders

If HTS manages to resist a couple of weeks, it is possible that the JTS will split and perhaps even fight among themselves for the throne taken from the jihadists. It partly depends on what Turkey wants or allows, because Turkey is the real power behind the two main groups that make up the new “Front for the Liberation of Syria.” In fact, if Ankara allows the fighters that are in Afrin to return to Idlib soon, the end of this conflict –and HTS– could come quickly.

Perhaps the greatest danger to the long-term survival of HTS is a still small alliance that has just come to light. This is Tanzim Huras al-Deen (“Organization of Religious Guardians”), led by a group of Al Qaeda loyalists led by Abu Humam al-Shami, one of many who left the current HTS when it departed from its origins. If this new group attracts the extremists orphans from different Islamist groups, Al Qaeda would be reborn in Syria, leaving behind the experiment led by Al Joulani.

In any case, the big winner of the revolt in Idlib will be Turkey. Without firing a shot, it is getting its puppets from the Free Syrian Army to take control of that province. In the best scenario, this control will bring calm, even if HTS maintains territorial control in the northwest of Idlib, where it has concentrated its force. It would mean peace for the whole province, after years of internal fighting. And the “de-escalation zone” will finally come into force, so it is also a triumph for Russia’s strategy.

At some point in the future, the “real Al Qaeda,” Tanzim Huras al-Deen, will become a strong-enough force to challenge that dominion. Unlike HTS, they don’t want to court Turkey.

The worst case would be a sweeping counterattack by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. Though improbable, eternal divisions between enemies could play for it. To avoid it, Turkey must stay vigilant, keeping HTS under control to safeguard the peace for Idlib.