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    Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS): No longer an Al-Qaeda Affiliate

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    1. Introduction.

    Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) is a former Al-Qaeda (AQ) affiliate based in Syria. Formed from the ashes of five extremist groups fighting against the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad. These groups were Jabhat Fath al-Sham (formerly known as Al Nusrah Front), Harakat Nur Al-Din Al Zanki, Liwa Al Haqq, Ansar Al-Din and Jaysh Al-Sunnah. Although the West formally recognises HTS as a terrorist group, it is much more than that. It aims to rid Syria of the Assad regime and install an Islamic government. The group control a large area of territory in which it provides education, health care and amenities to the population.

    2. Doctrine of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.

    Hayat Tahrir al-Sham means the “Organisation for the Liberation of the Levant.” The relevance is striking, as the group aims to liberate to Syrian people from the tyrannical rule of the Assad regime. It is now the dominant faction fighting in the Syrian Civil war.

    The group can trace its origins back to the start of the Syrian civil war. Its predecessor was the Al Nusrah Front. However, unlike AQ and other extremist groups, we should see HTS as a localised organisation. With Syrian goals at its core.

    Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS)  flag
    Flag of HTS (source)

    2.1. Formation of HTS.

    HTS formed in 2017 through the merger of five other factions. It soon took in fighters from other groups, when a series of negations between rebels and the Russian-backed Assad regime allowed these groups to flee to the HTS stronghold in the North. (source)

    2.2. Al-Qaeda and HTS – the Bay-at that turned sour.

    HTS’s predecessor, the al-Nusra Front, formed in 2011 (source) as AQ’s affiliate in the Syrian Civil War. It quickly became a well-organised and capable entity. Securing its funding from the Persian Gulf. It collected revenue from taxes on areas under its control and drew fighters in. (source)

    The Al-Nusra Front maintained ties with AQ even after AQ publicly split from ISIS. The ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had been influential in the group’s early formation. However, al-Nusra soon broke ties with ISIS and pledged (Bay-at) to AQ. (source)

    Furthermore, in 2016, Al-Nusra rebranded as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS). Following this rebranding, the group and its leadership formally broke ties with AQ. It was not an autonomous “jihadist” entity. (source) The break from AQ central was part of a significant failing on behalf of AQ. AQ had failed to capitalise on the Syrian Civil War, and now its affiliates in the country were breaking the Bay’at and going it alone. AQ viewed this breakaway as an “illegal” step by the Syrian affiliate, as no consultation took place with AQ central’s leadership. (source) Following this, a merger of different groups in 2017, led to the formation of HTS as we see it today.

    3. Leadership and organisation of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.

    HTS and its predecessors were all founded by one man. Abu Mohammed al Jolani. Born in 1982, in Syria, Jolani, in 2003 after the US invasion of Iraq, joined the insurgency led by AQ that was fighting against the US. Like many prominent jihadist leaders, he spent time in the infamous Camp Bucca detention facility in Iraq. When released from Camp Bucca in 2008, Jolani continued with his militant work, working closely with future Islamic State leader al-Baghdadi. (source) In 2011, he was dispatched to Syria, his country of birth to link up with other AQ members to secure a presence in the Syrian Civil War.

    It was in 2017 that Jolani ascended to the top seat. He became the leader of the recently rebranded HTS. A group that has localised ambitions, and he claims, is no threat to the West. Despite his adamant rhetoric that HTS and its predecessors are no risk to the West Jolani was listed as a specially designated terrorist by the US Department of State. The FBI consequently places a $10 million reward on his head. (source)

    Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS)  leader
    Jolani’s wanted poster with reward (source)

    3.1. Jolani roams free – the apparent freedom of HTS’s most wanted man

    Unlike many other terrorist leaders, Jolani appears to be a man that can roam free within the region controlled by HTS. He frequently appears at rallies and on various military and economic occasions. Given HTS’s pivot to working with international actors like Turkey to contain IS, it is highly likely that he has avoided being the target of US airstrikes because he is a useful safety valve against IS and other terrorist factions. Although there are no guarantees with leaders of ‘terrorist’ groups behaviour, it appears Jolani has bucked this trend. That the US may see it as beneficial to keep him in place in the medium term. (source)

    3.2. Notable individuals and groups within Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.

    As a result of its goals to form an Islamic state within Syria, HTS is governed by a Sharia Council. Which in many respects mirrors the ‘government’ style of ISIS in its heyday. The group is driven by three internal factions.

    1. Those who are close to Jolani – who share his pragmatism.
    2. Those who have a vested interest in HTS dominance in Syria.
    3. An ideological faction that has largely been kept quiet by Jolani and his loyalist.

    (source)

    In an attempt to frame HTS as a localised Syrian group with little to no interest on the international stage, Jolani has constructed his inner circle with his fellow Syrians. (source)

    These include:

    Abdel Rahman Atun –is the head of the HTS Sharia Council. A senior religious figure that is extremely close to Jolani. Like Jolani he has emphasised that HTS pose no risk to the West. Following the 2021 takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban he advocated for a Taliban-style insurgency in Syria. (source)

    Mustafa Qadid – is a high-ranking Commander within HTS. Formerly a banker he has taken over much of the financial tasks of the group. And is responsible for the border crossing with Turkey. He is a close ally of Jolani which is represented by his high standing within the organisation.  (source)

    4. Government and Economy.

    Controlling a vast swath of territory in North-West Syria, HTS has had to provide both government and economic institutions. This allows it to exert control and keep the local population on side. Given that the Idlib area that it controls has a population of nearly 4 million it is not surprising that it has had to adapt to these challenges.

    4.1. Governing in Idlib and surrounding areas.

    HTS does not directly govern Idlib and the surrounding areas. But has a great deal of influence over the Syrian Salvation Government (SSG). Although the SSG claims to be a self-determining body, by which it implements local government and its tasks, many suggest that HTS has control of the SSG. And that the SSG simply provides the legal support needed for HTS to take over the region’s economy and resources. (source)

    On the social side of government, HTS has limited the hard-line introduction of Sharia law, the likes seen when the Islamic State took over vast areas of Syria. (source) Although HTS imposed gender segregation in schools and universities, it has not stopped girls from attending university. In fact, the group boasts that a large proportion of university graduates are female. Like ISIS, however, HTS monitors the use of social media within its region of control.  (source)

    Faced with the region’s worst drought in years, HTS, along with the SSG, began pumping water from pumping water once again from the Balaa Damn. Although they have imposed charges on irrigation to local farmers, it has stopped the region from starving amid fears of food shortage. (source)

    It is not all roses for HTS. HTS has come under increased criticism from residents. Particularly with its means of taxing local olive oil producers. So much so that in 2019, a group of residents stormed a police station and expelled those linked to HTS. (source) HTS responded to this by shelling the town and killing 5 civilians.

    4.2. Economics of HTS.

    With HTS ruling over a combined 4 million people, 2 million of which are displaced Syrians from regions other than Idlib, it has had to raise funds. Currently, its principal source of income is tax revenue at border crossings. The most profitable is the Bab al-Hawa crossing that joins Syria to Turkey. It reportedly brings in millions of dollars in levies each month from this border crossing alone. (source)

    According to a UN report from 2021, HTS is also heavily involved in importing and distributing gasoline. This monopoly through Watad Petroleum earns HTS $1 million in revenue each month. (source)

    5. Tactics, Techniques and Procedures HTS.

    HTS, like many designated terrorist organisations in the middle east, employs a wide range of tactics. But because of its localised goals that focus solely on Syria and deposing Assad, its attacks rarely target civilians.

    In its fight against the Assad regime, HTS has not been below employing suicide bombers and improvised explosive devices. At the height of 2018, it had 15,000 fighters in and around the Idlib area. However, the vast majority of its operations toe the line between its anti-government and anti-Islamic State values. In 2018, of the 1786 violent events carried out, it deemed only 99 of those to have been violence against civilians. (source)

    Despite attempts by the Russian-backed Syrian regime in 2019 and 2020, HTS has remained in control of the vast majority of Idlib. And in 2022, the group released several propaganda videos via its media agency Amjaad Media. These videos showed HTS was prepared to fight on all fronts and featured heavily armed vehicles that the group possesses. (source)

    6. Equipment used by Hayat Tehrir al-Sham.

    Many of the weapons that HTS fighters have are those that have been looted from Syrian forces. This includes but is not limited to:

    AK-47 rifles.

    Machine guns.

    Rocket-propelled grenades.

    Anti-aircraft guns.

    Artillery.

    (source)

    The group continue to use these looted weapons in defence of the territory that it now controls. Most notably in 2019 and 2020. When it used both anti-aircraft and artillery weapons in response to an offensive launched by Syrian and Russian forces. (source)

    HTS military. (source)

    7. Notable recent operations by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.

    Many of the most notable operations carried out by HTS have been against rival terrorist organisations. Since HTS’s inception, it has fought against ISIS. It has also engaged with Turkey on several occasions as it seeks international recognition.

    7.1. Operations against ISIS and other terror organisations by HTS.

    In its current form, HTS has conducted over it has announced over 20 raids on ISIS targets. (source) Most recently it has captured two Uzbek ISIS members in Idlib province. This operation took place on the 24th of August 2022. (source) And was conducted by the General Security Service of HTS. Before this, HTS announced that it had detained six ISIS members in an apartment building in the town of Al-Dana. This raid took part on June 14th 2022. (source)

    Furthermore, as HTS seeks to cement its position in Syria, it has conducted raids on other terror organisations. In July 2022, the group announced the arrest of most members of the Ansar Abu Bakr al-Siddiq Brigade. A little-known terror cell appeared in Syria in late 2020. HTS says the group is responsible for targeted bombings of civilians and military personnel in Idlib province. HTS also says the group targeted Turkish armed forces at the border crossing of Bab al-Hawa. Not only does this show the group’s ability to act against its enemies. It also shows its ability to act in its self-interests. Because as it seeks recognition, working with Turkey to bring those to justice that attacked its troops will help. The Bab al-Hawa crossing is also a major source of revenue for HTS, and its security is of vital importance. (source)

    7.2. HTS’s relationship with Turkey.

    In 2018, Turkey officially recognised HTS as a terrorist organisation. However, Turkey has worked with HTS to combat other ‘terrorist’ organisations like ISIS. In April 2022, HTS handed over 50 foreign jihadists to Turkey. These were mainly IS members from various backgrounds, including French, Moroccan and Saudi nationals. (source)

    Ultimately, Turkey sees HTS as an effective fighting force against both the Islamic State and also the Assad regime. Even if Turkey does not fully recognise HTS as a regional ally, it will certainly recognise the non-state actor as an ally against IS.

    8. Summary of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.

    HTS represents a quagmire for the international community. This is because we recognise the group as a terrorist organisation. However, it has never posed a threat to Western interests and, unlike IS in its ‘Caliphate’, does not impose a draconian version of Sharia law in its area of influence. Yes, it developed out of a more extremist group in the Al-Nusra Front, but since it appeared in its current form and released the shackles of AQ influence, it has only had regional goals. HTS are perhaps the only group left within Syria that can oppose a  resurgent IS. Therefore, the West and regional allies should look at the regional influence HTS can have and the potential security the group brings to the small part of Syria under its control.

    Bobby Payne
    Bobby Payne
    Bobby has ten years experience in contracts management and business ownership. He is an alumni of the University of East Anglia where he studied history, focussing on Spanish colonisation. He is currently studying MA Intelligence and Security Studies at Brunel University. His research focus is on terrorism and geopolitics.

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