What is the next step of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham?

Summary : Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), known as the “Organization for the Liberation of the Levant” has experienced an escalation in the attacks it has been undergoing, which is now  increasingly challenging the cohesion of its authority in Idlib. The Russian military campaign is increasingly threatening the HTS, whether through the continuation of its military campaign deep inside Idlib or by leveraging  the possibility of Turkey  responding to the Russian proposal to pressure the HTS. Internally, HTS and its civil arm, the Syrian Salvation Government, are once again facing popular demonstrations by revolutionary activists. HTS’s leader, Abu Mohammad al-Julani is also being attacked by the jihadist movement from within for his pragmatic policies and accusations of financial corruption. The HTS has a diverse set of options; either dissolving the organization as demanded by its opponents, entering a new phase of transformation as it has done before, or resisting the current pressures and sticking to the same formulation of the organization, which is the most likely scenario in this case. However, the regional and international stances, which are still uncertain, remain critical for the future of the organization.


After the defeat of the Ahrar al-Sham movement and its expulsion from the Bab al-Hawa border crossing in July 20171 , HTS has become the dominant faction in the northwest of Syria, comprising Idlib and its countryside as well as the countryside of northern Hama . HTS has begun to impose control over the area through its civil arm, the Salvation Government, as an alternative to the interim government and the local councils, which is closely related to the revolutionist stream. Areas in the western countryside of Aleppo, once fell under the authority of the al-Zinki Movement and the Interim Government, as well as the sites of the falcons of Syria and Ahrar al-Sham in the al-Ghab plain and Jabal Zawiya, and some areas where the civil movement was active in rejecting HTS, most notably the city of Maarat al-Numan, all remain outside the control of the HTS. This meant that HTS had fragile control at the time.

By attacking Ahrar al-Sham and controlling the Bab al-Hawa border crossing, HTS anticipated the Turkish intervention in Idlib through the Astana process, establishing itself in front of Ankara as a dominant party on the ground to coordinate with. As a result, the first Turkish military convoy to enter Idlib on October 13, 20172 was escorted by the organization. The HTS hoped that this step would help it gain regional and international acceptance which could pave the way for its removal from the terrorism list, leading to an international acceptance of its control over Idlib. This came in accordance with the moderation policy pursued by al-Julani since the formation of the Fatah al-Sham Front and later the formation of HTS. However, these pragmatic shifts and the acceptance of the Turkish intervention as an output of the Astana peace process contradicted the fatwa and jihadist slogans previously used by HTS against the rival local factions and against the Turkish army itself, which had a tendendy to be described in the jihadist literature as a “secular army.” 

In August 2015, Jabhat al-Nusra withdrew from the northern countryside of Aleppo before Turkey intervened there against ISIS, declaring that it was not permissible to enter the battle alongside Turkey and America.3 Fatah al-Sham repeated this fatwa with the beginning of the Euphrates Shield Operation in which it forbade the fighting “under any regional party”.4 Following the first Astana process in early 2017, the Fatah al-Sham Front waged a large-scale battle against the factions based on the assumption that they were already preparing to fight and to implement the Astana process outputs.5 Then it described the implementation of the reduction of escalation agreement, which included the establishment of Turkish control points, as a “betrayal”.6 The contradiction in fatwas and statements continued up until just days before the Turkish intervention in Idlib.

Later, in February-March 2018, HTS was struck in a way that almost overthrew its control when the Syrian Liberation Front (Ahrar al-Sham and the Zanki Movement) launched an attack on it forcing it to withdraw – within two weeks of fighting – from most of its controlled areas in the western countryside of Aleppo and southern and northern Idlib.8 However, HTS was able to recapture these areas through an adverse attack in alliance with the Islamic Turkistan Party. After two months of clashes, a ceasefire agreement was established9 and the HTS proved once again its ability to maintain control in the face of the revolutionary factions .

The remaining revolutionary factions assembled in Idlib and Hama under Turkish protection within what was called the National Liberation Front (FNL), which was initially announced on May 29, 2018.10 It included the factions that were part of the Military Operations and Support Coordination Room, known as the MOM room, after the US support program was cut off. In August 2018, the front witnessed a restructuring which brought together all opposition factions affiliated with the Free Syrian Army in the area (except Jaysh al-Izza), including Ahrar al-Sham, Soqur al-Sham and Failak al-Sham.

On September 17, 2018, the Sochi Agreement on Idlib between the Turkish and Russian presidents to halt the wave of bombing, displacement, and military escalations was announced following a Turkish diplomatic escalation that threatened to cancel the Russian-Turkish agreement. The agreement resulted in the removal of armed groups from the buffer zone and the continuation of the fight against terrorist groups in the region.12 However, it did not bring about the dissolution of HTS, as it was rumored. The organization issued a statement approving the agreement and welcoming the Turkish efforts13 showing a significant shift in rhetoric and rapprochement with Turkey.

In fact,, the HTS took advantage of the Sochi Agreement to consolidate its control over Idlib, complete the construction of its institutional, security and economic network through the Salvation Government, and benefited from the displacement of besieged rebel enclaves in central and southern Syria towards Idlib, gathering displaced fighters – mainly affiliated with them – into regional blocs within the organization.

After the Sochi agreement, HTS resumed its war against the National Front for Liberation in sporadic clashes, preventing the formation of a rival authority in the region. The HTS’s attacks targeted the al-Zanki movement, but expanded with the participation of the areas and factions within the National Liberation Front in the battle, especially those in alGhab plain, Jabal Zawiya, and the northern countryside of Idlib. 

The decisive wave of fighting took place at the beginning of 2019, when HTS at the time launched a full-scale assault targeting the al-Zinki movement in western Aleppo countryside, dismantling it and expelling its faction from its traditional stronghold in the western Aleppo countryside to Afrin.15 Through siege and threat, The National Front for Liberation surrendered in the al-Ghab plain and Jabal Zawiya, despite the fact that it generally preferred not to fight and to instead maintain their positions after the collapse of al-Zanki movement,16 although the National Front managed to take over important HTS locations during the first phase of the battle in the areas near al-Ghab plain, Jabal Zawiya and the southern countryside of Idlib.

The ceasefire agreement was signed on January 10, 2019 between the National Liberation Front and HTS, which was in fact a declaration of victory for the latter. The agreement imposed the ruling of the Salvation Government, accepted the voluntary departure of fighters, and kept the factions in their positions. The agreement strongly resembled the local reconciliation agreements with the regime which included the imposition of the regime’s government, the confiscation of heavy weapons, and the voluntary exit of the fighters who refused the settlement. The HTS announced in a statement of victory that all the areas of Idlib and Hama had become part of the Salvation Government.

The Effects of the Russian campaign in Hama 

This situation continued until the beginning of the last Russian military campaign, which began by aerial bombardment in early March 2019 and later transformed into a land campaign on May 6. The regime forces, supported by the Russian Airforce, were able to control several sites at first, most notably Kafr Nabudah and al-Madiq castle, before the factions were able to rearrange their ranks and carry out countercampaigns in Tal Malh and Jubbayn.

Although a ceasefire was declared in Astana Round 13,19 the Russian and regime forces were able to take full control of the northern Hama countryside as it arrived in Khan Sheikhoun during the second round of the battle which was resumed after just a few days.

It was remarkable that the factions of the National Liberation Front, which was previously attacked by the HTS and partially dismantled in the al-Ghab Plain and Jabal al-Zawiya and Idlib, quickly assembled itself and held the burden of the bulk of the battle fronts, in addition to the successive support of Turkish-backed National Army factions coming from Afrin and Euphrates Shield areas, despite the reluctancy of the HTS, which used to detain people for joining the national army.

The participation of the opponents of the HTS in the National Front and the National Army, in addition to the fall of the main axes in which the HTS had a strong presence, such as Al-Hubait, Harash Abdeen, and Khan Sheikhoun22, showed that the military performance of the HTS was well below expectations, even according to its supporters. And although the HTS stated that more than 500 people were killed in the battles in Hama23, the recent battles invalidated its previous claims that it is the largest military force to protect the region, an argument that was previously used in its fighting and dismantling of the revolutionary factions. This did not only weaken the HTS ability to impose itself locally, but also weakened its image as a single and influential power externally, especially in front of Ankara.

The Popular Movement against the HTS 

With the fall of the northern countryside of Hama, the campaign against the HTS escalated. The revolutionary activists launched mass demonstrations in Idlib and its countryside raising slogans against HTS, its leader al-Julani, and its civil arm, the Salvation government. One of the direct causes of these demonstrations was the decision to decrease the provision of electricity hours generated by the government and the raising of taxes. The failure of the Salvation Government to provide people with services and the exacerbated humanitarian crisis with the increase in the number of people displaced, especially after the departure of a number of civil organizations either because of the restrictions on provisions imposed by the HTS24or because of the cuts to financial support provided by the donors.25 Add to these the political reasons and the pressure for the HTS to dissolve itself is significant and multifold.

As for the National Liberation Front, its factions were severely affected by the interruption of its own resources after the HTS took control over the border crossings and the commercial activities. It has also lost most of its depositories to the HST earlier and its international relations became limited to Ankara after the closure of the military operations and support coordination room, known by the acronym MOM room. Thus, the Liberation Front was obliged to assemble its forces quickly with the start of the Russian campaign against Idlib. It resorted to relying on popular donation campaigns in addition to Turkish support26. All of these accumulated tensions against the HTS, in addition to its military performance which was less than what was expected have taken their toll. However, the possibility of confrontation between the opposition factions and the HTS is unlikely to happen given the fact that the regime and Russia would benefit from this clash. There guarantee for a sustainable or long-term ceasefire in Idlib continues to be absent and there is no guarantee that Moscow will give up the attack on Idlib in the absence of HTS.

The Relationship with the jihadists

On the other hand, some jihadists voices were raised inside and outside the HTS criticizing alJulani’s pragmatic policies and accusing him of financial corruption. The most prominent of these was Abdul-Mu’in Kahal, known as “Abu al-Abd alAshda’a”27, who is the leader of “Omar Army” in which all Halab fighters who belong to the HTS are assembled. Al-Ashda’a used to form one group with the “Egyptian legitimates” (Abu Shuaib and Abu alYaqzhan) when they were members of the Ahrar al-Sham Movement in Aleppo before they split and joined the HTS. Since then they have become the spearhead in calling for fighting the rival factions of HTS, especially against their former faction Ahrar al-Sham.

After Abu al-Abd’s coup over his leadership, several stances emerged confirming al-Julani’s accusations. The former HTS judge, Abu Yaqzhan al-Masri, who is one of the fiercest instigators in the killing of the HTS’s opponents and known for his fatwa that allowed “the shooting in the head of Ahrar al-Sham’s fighters”28, issued a statement after his resignation talking about Al-Julani’s military negligence and the administrative corruption of al-Julani.29 The judge in the HTS military court Issam al-Khatib also accused al-Julani of seemingly deliberate responsibility for the fall of the territories in line with international resolutions30, alongside his wife, “Batoul Jundiya”, ‘s accusation of the HTS of committing sexual abuse and harassment against women.31 These accusations were similar to those raised by Talha al-Masir, who is considered as the most prominent legitimate authority, by calling for the dismissal of al-Julani and implicitly accusing him of holding responsibility for the assassination of his violators.

Whether the recent coup was done out of ideological convictions or because of the lack of real authority or influence over the HTS leadership, it shows that a broad stream within the jihadist milieu no longer recognizes the HTS and its leader as the representative of the jihadist stream. This includes all traditional Salafi-jihadi symbols such as Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, Abu Qatada alfilatini, Hani al-Sibai and al-Qaeda. It also includes a large group of founders and legitimates of the former Jabhat al-Nusra, after pragmatic behavior of the HTS started to contradict with the fatwas it used to adopt, both in terms of its relations with Turkey, its approval to the ceasefire, or its moderate political discourse.

In a recorded video released prior to his arrest34, Abu al-Abed Ashda’a stated that the HTS’s monthly resources amount to 13 million $. He also stated that it has received over 100 million $ from a country that he did not name, in addition to the wide trade and economic network it manages, while so little was spent on the military and social services in the area. He also mentioned that the voices opposing al-Julani were tamed, stating that the HTS was aware of the axes of the battle in Hama in advance but chose not to fortify the area, which led to its fall. 

The HTS arrested Abu al-Abed Ashda’a. The media activist Ahmad Rahal, who is an advocate of the HTS, was also arrested under the accusation of filming the video. While a number of jihadist figures, who were formerly members of the HTS, were reported to have fled to Turkey out of fear of arrest and liquidation by HTS.

The suspicion around al-Julani’s jihadism was the result of his transformations. He first appeared when he disengaged from al-Qaeda and moved to Fatah al-Sham Front (28/7/2016). This move actually started the rupture and enmity with al-Qaeda. Al-Julani benefited from the absence of Aymen al-Zawahiri to proceed with his disengagement with the organization. However, by re-engaging with al-Zawahiri, the leader of al-Qaeda announced in a speech titled “we will fight you so that it will not be disorder (fitna)” (4/10/2017) that the pledge of allegiance (bay’ah) to “al-Qaeda” is binding and leaving it is a forbidden act.36 In his subsequent speeches after his despair over the return of the dissident organization and the HTS’s attack on the organization of the guards of religion, al-Zawahri’s speech evolved to describe the HTS as denunciating covenants, perfidious Jihadists, renouncing jihad, accepting the democratic process, and submitting to Turkish secularism.

This rupture reached its final episode when alJulani moved to the HTS (28/1/2017), which witnessed a process of shifts in rhetoric and behavior and attempts to prove its moderation and adoption of the project of establishing a micro-government in Idlib. This led to the split of the part of the organization affiliated with the Al-Qaeda and the formation of the Guardians of Religion 27/2/2018)38, which soon had its leadership arrested by the HTS, including the Jordanian Sami al-Aridi, who was previously the general legitimate of Jabhat al-Nusra, before releasing him out of fear of possible splits within the faction.

AL-Julani realized the seriousness of his rivalry to represent the jihadist movement on the grassroots level , as well as the overthrowing of its jihadist credibility, in addition to the deep security threat that his former comrades could pose. Consequently, he launched several crackdowns and arrests against parallel jihadist organizations such as the Guardians of Religion and the Jund alAqsa organization (his remnants assembled in what is called Ansar al-Tawhid organization). These parallel jihadist organizations, which oppose the policy of the HTS and the Sochi Agreement, allied themselves under one conviction which is “inciting the believers”.

These organizations fear the military superiority of HTS. Al-Julani also fears that a thorough campaign against these organizations would impact the continuity of the loyalty and cohesion of the elements of the HTS. Therefore, the parties reached some understandings, through which the HTS would accept the existence of the organization of the guards of religion and pledge to provide it with weapons as long as it is subject to the conditions of the HTS.41 Despite the divisions among the Guardians of Religion and its inability to attract a number of important figures or to benefit from its representation of al-Qaeda to attract new foreign volunteers, it remains the most prominent threat and alternative to the jihadist stream which opposes al-Julani’s policy.

Add to the above mentioned a spectrum of smaller jihadist groups in Idlib, which have varied positions regarding the HTS, who prefer to distance themselves from the HTS’s conflicts against local factions and incubators. For Arab fighters, for example, Jordanians have been split between the HTS and the Guardians of Religion organization, but there are still some Jordanian names in the leadership of the two factions,42 while most of those coming from the gulf decided to stay neutral since the beginning of the fighting between the HTS and Ahrar al-Sham movement43, a decision mostly influenced by Abdullah al-Muhaisni, who has been in dispute with the HTS ever since he came to office .

The same diversity and fragility can be found among the Asian fighters. For example, the Bukhari battalion of Uzbek fighters is considered to be close to Ahrar al-Sham (National Liberation Front). The front also has a group of Turkistan in addition to its relations with the Islamic Turkistan Party. But despite the previous fighting of the party alongside the HTS against the factions, the party is not affiliated with it and it is unlikely for their positions to match after the dispute between them and the jihadist factions, or in the event of a sharp dispute between the HTS and Ankara.

The HTS has been keen, despite its policies towards proving moderation and local resettlement, to establish a popular base among foreign fighters, particularly after its disagreements with the Guards of Religion organization. Some statements were issued in support of the HTS from non-Syrian legitimate and jihadist leaders,45 many of which have recently changed their positions towards the HTS and its leader alJulani.

The American strikes on Idlib during the previous period, the first of which targeted a meeting of dissidents from the Guards of Religion organization46 and the second one targeted the camps of the Ansar al-Tawhid organization47, reinforced the loss of credibility of the HTS among the jihadists and at the same time strengthened the HTS conviction of being from outside the terrorist list and thus can legitimately gain international acceptance for its control in Idlib.

It is worth mentioning that the HTS was initially benefiting from its relationship with foreign jihadists as to promote its new moderate image internationally as a trusted party able to maintain control over the region until it reaches an international consensus over their fate. However, the continuation of its pragmatic transformations and the deterioration of its credibility and its relations with the jihadists, in addition to the weakening of its image as a superior military force after the last battle, and its attempts to carry out silent assassinations targeting in the Al-Qaeda affiliated foreign fighters and others.48 All of this is limiting the HTS’s ability to play the foreign fighters card and making it more and more precarious as it could backfire on them.