In Part 1 of this series I discussed how the formation of HTS was a response to rebel failures in 2016 and the decrease in international support for moderate rebel groups. Part 2 detailed HTS’s two-pronged approach towards achieving its dream of a grand merger: cooperating with Free Syrian Army groups in joint offensives and using violence and the threat of violence to pressure smaller groups into joining the fold. The failure of this strategy is now clear following effective dissolution of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, marked by the defection of the group’s Emir Abu Jaber1.Charles Lister, Twitter post, October 1, 2017, 12:55pm, https://twitter.com/Charles_Lister/status/914579543092056064 along with rejection of HTS by the Free Syrian Army (FSA) groups in southern Syria and the formation of the United National Army.2.Enab Baladi, “غرفة العمليات ضد “جيش خالد” تشطب “تحرير الشام” من بيانها,” July 7, 2017, https://www.enabbaladi.net/archives/160002; “Syrian rebels meet in Qatar after declaring unified ‘national army’,” Middle East Eye, September 7, 2017, http://www.middleeasteye.net/news/united-national-army-1761696192
On July 19, 2017, the rebel factions Ahrar al Sham (Ahrar) and Hayat Tahrir al Sham (HTS) engaged in the fiercest round of infighting that Greater Idlib has experienced during the Syrian Civil War. This old conflict has been brewing beneath the surface since before the formation of HTS and its eruption served as the final test for the faltering faction.
As HTS realised that its military actions against government forces had failed to attract additional factions, the group took an increasingly violent stance towards non-aligned rebel groups in Idlib. On May 12, amid fears of a Turkish-backed united Free Syrian Army (FSA) front, HTS ordered Friday’s sermons in Idlib to denounce Turkey and the FSA groups that fight in Turkey’s “Euphrates Shield” operation.3.“تحرير الشام” تهاجم تركيا في خطب الجمعة بإدلب” : Enab Baladi Five days later, Ahmed bin Ghalib, a Saudi HTS commander, “vowed to eradicate Ahrar al Sham.”4.https://twitter.com/Charles_Lister/status/864946673079996417 On May 31, in a sign of internal dissent, former Nour al-Din al-Zenki commander and current HTS leader Hossam al-Atrash stated that all groups should dissolve and unite under the Interim Government’s Defence Ministry.5.https://twitter.com/Charles_Lister/status/869965832918532096 Eight days later HTS launched its first major attack since January against the FSA and Faylaq al Sham units in the town of Maraat al-Numan, killing FSA Colonel Tasyeer al-Samahi.6.https://twitter.com/charles_lister/status/872891944132849667 In response, Ahrar al Sham sent units to the town to defend the FSA forces.7.https://twitter.com/Charles_Lister/status/872887156683018240 Violence in Idlib continued unabated when on June 13 HTS kidnapped two FSA commanders – Nidal Haj Ali and Ahmed al-Mousa.8.https://twitter.com/Charles_Lister/status/875079990043435009 The HTS Political Chief Zayd al-Attar announced his resignation the following day. On June 20 at least five former Ahrar al-Sham units defected back indicating further internal division over HTS’s aggressive actions.9.https://twitter.com/Charles_Lister/status/87496245882541261210.https://twitter.com/Charles_Lister/status/877252782113382400 Finally, on July 8 al-Modon reported that the Turkistani Islamic Party and clerics Abdullah Muhaisini and Abu Mariyah Qahtani were mediating between HTS and Ahrar as tensions grew along the Bab al-Hawa border crossing.11.“لماذا استنفر “الحزب التركستاني” قواته في سوريا؟” : al-Modon Online
Attempts at mediation repeatedly failed and on July 19 the war of words escalated to a war of weapons. Justifying these attacks, HTS General Leader Abu Jaber claimed in an audio message that Ahrar “refused to merge with us and sold out to foreign interests”12.https://twitter.com/IbnNabih1/status/887628996061663232 – a reference to Ahrar’s close ties with Turkey and its participation in the Turkish backed Euphrates Shield. Ahrar appeared to hold the upper hand following the first day of fighting, capturing several towns from HTS. However, on July 20 HTS regrouped, reiterating its position that it would only accept a full merger.13.https://twitter.com/AbuSulaymanMM3/status/888002606999719937 A new wave of HTS attacks soon captured many Ahrar strongholds, and by July 23 they had seized the vital Idlib/Turkey border crossings.14.“Turkish border remains closed as HTS assumes control of Idlib” : Syria Direct This act secured a crucial supply line for HTS, starving Ahrar forces of fresh supplies of men and equipment. At least 19 armed groups joined HTS following July 19, reportedly including 7,000 fighters from Ahrar’s Badia Division, with many local forces defecting after HTS captured their towns.15.https://medium.com/@_alhamra/blow-by-blow-breakdown-ahrar-al-sham-and-hayat-tahrir-al-sham-clashes-in-free-idlib-8b7f246f2ff16.“19 Armed Groups Defect From Ahrar al Sham During Tensions With Hayat Tahrir al Sham” : Southfront
Despite the apparent military success of HTS, the most recent round of infighting has called into question the unity of the HTS ‘coalition’ label. On July 20, after only one day of fighting, Nour al Din al Zenki broke from the group, claiming that the new attacks were launched by Jolani and Abu Jaber without the approval of the Shura Council and that Zenki had joined HTS with the promise that infighting would cease.17.https://twitter.com/badly_xeroxed/status/88800186463732531318.https://twitter.com/AbuSulaymanMM3/status/888002072003715072 Even the HTS-aligned cleric Abdullah Muhaisini declared that the new infighting was haram and confirmed that the Sharia Council gave no approval for it.19.https://twitter.com/IbnNabih1/status/887746962661007361 Zenki and Muhaisini’s statements imply that Abu Jaber and the former leaders of Jabhat al Nusra continued to act with impunity within the organization, in spite of former Zenki leaders holding the high positions of Deputy Political Chief and President of the Consultative Council.20.https://twitter.com/Charles_Lister/status/878368906221674496
On July 20 another HTS group, Quwat al Markaziya, defected to Ahrar and an unnamed Uzbek group announced that, while remaining a part of HTS, it would not fight Ahrar.21.https://twitter.com/morasul_ahrar/status/888030346180251651 While HTS enjoyed a resounding military victory in the brief Idlib war, its inability to maintain a cohesive merger had been laid bare. Since mid-September, Muhaisini and at least twelve armed factions have defected from HTS, including the third largest remaining contingent, Jaish al-Ahrar as well as a large north Hama group, Liwa Shuhada al-Ghab. These reportedly returned the organization to its original size.22.“التسريب الثامن يمس”أبو الحارث المصري”..و”جيش الأحرار” يترك “الهيئة” : al-Modon23.https://twitter.com/badly_xeroxed/status/90737731136381747224.“Is this the beginning of the end for Idlib’s jihadi groups?” : Al-Monitor25.https://twitter.com/badly_xeroxed/status/91457049588602470526.https://twitter.com/badly_xeroxed/status/91459879674254540927.https://twitter.com/badly_xeroxed/status/91461647053721600028.https://twitter.com/badly_xeroxed/status/914629117567553536 The increasingly frequent defections culminated in the October 1st defection of Aber Jaber Hashem al-Sheikh, a former leader of Ahrar al-Sham and the now former Emir of HTS.29.https://twitter.com/Charles_Lister/status/914579543092056064
HTS only achieved its July victory over Ahrar through force and the unwillingness of many Ahrar fighters to fight.30.https://twitter.com/ThomasPierret/status/888850316887805952 Fighters and civilians throughout the region still adamantly oppose HTS’s ideology and policies, and any union with HTS will not be amicable.31.https://twitter.com/Elizrael/status/88813210034752716832.https://twitter.com/JohnArterbury/status/88771963698017894433.https://twitter.com/Charles_Lister/status/917037040268709888
This recent infighting is a clear indication of the failure of HTS’s attempted ‘middle-ground’ policy. Abu Jaber and Jolani have abandoned the ‘carrot’ for the full use of the ‘stick’ and will never again be able to masquerade as a welcoming, uniting force in Idlib. HTS’s only remaining option to achieve a complete merger with Ahrar and the dozens of FSA factions throughout the region is to violently force them into submission. Not only would this course cement their pariah status both within Syria and the international community, but it has also clearly been rejected by Abu Jaber, Muhaisini, and the dozens of factions – both small and large – which have defected since July.
However, this potential merger may have been aided by the United States when it ended the CIA’s Timber Sycamore TOW-supplying arming program on July 19.34.“Trump ends CIA arms support for anti-Assad Syria rebels” : Reuters If the formation of HTS was a partial response to the perceived abandonment by the international community, then the actual abandonment of moderate factions by the United States will only serve to further force moderates into HTS. This path will appear increasingly appealing as pro-government forces shift their focus away from the Islamic State (IS) in the east and back towards the rebel stronghold of Idlib, especially now that Deir Ez Zor has been liberated from IS.
Hoping to prevent losing valuable allies in the region and strengthen their international legitimacy, FSA factions across the country embarked on several major unifying courses since late July. On July 22, 11 factions in Dara’a and Quneitra formed the National Front for the Liberation of Syria, which grew to include more than 50 factions by mid-August.35.“فصائل الجيش الحر في الجنوب تعلن تشكيل “الجبهة الوطنية لتحرير سوريا” : El-Dorar al-Shamia On September 7, 44 rebel factions from Idlib, Aleppo, and East Ghouta agreed to join a new United National Army under the directorate of the Syrian Interim Government.36.“Syrian rebels meet in Qatar after declaring unified ‘national army’” : Middle East Eye The army is headed by a new Minister of Defense, Fadlallah al-Hajji of Faylaq al-Sham,37.https://twitter.com/Charles_Lister/status/909843606919360512 and includes both Nour al-Din al-Zenki and Ahrar al-Sham.38.“Divided Syrian opposition tries for unified army again” : al-Monitor
In January, choosing to unite with HTS offered a clear decision between choosing a unified domestic opposition that will aggressively pursue war, or remaining outside in order to seek stronger ties with international backers and a diplomatic resolution to the conflict. HTS’s violent actions in July, however, seem to have opened a different path for the rest of the opposition. It remains to be seen what, if anything, will come from this new rebel initiative – a similar merger exactly two years ago failed due to internal disagreements – and how a gutted HTS will respond to increasing defections and isolation.39.“هل يتشكل الجيش الوطني السوري هذه المرة؟” : Orient News
It is clear, however, that HTS’s belligerent presence in Idlib and the crucial role it plays along the frontlines will continue to bring conflict to Idlib’s civilians and weaken the opposition representatives’ negotiating power in the Astana and Geneva talks. No matter how united the anti-HTS rebels may be, the internal and external factors benefiting extremists remain: corrupt local councils, lackluster foreign support for moderate rebels, government bombing of civilian centers, and the pervasive sectarian nature of the conflict. Until these issues are fully addressed, Nusra, al-Qaeda, and ISIS will persist in Idlib, threatening both the opposition and government.
This piece was originally published on Open Democracy on 26 July 2017 and updated on October 10, 2017
|↑1||Charles Lister, Twitter post, October 1, 2017, 12:55pm, https://twitter.com/Charles_Lister/status/914579543092056064|
|↑2||Enab Baladi, “غرفة العمليات ضد “جيش خالد” تشطب “تحرير الشام” من بيانها,” July 7, 2017, https://www.enabbaladi.net/archives/160002; “Syrian rebels meet in Qatar after declaring unified ‘national army’,” Middle East Eye, September 7, 2017, http://www.middleeasteye.net/news/united-national-army-1761696192|
|↑3||“تحرير الشام” تهاجم تركيا في خطب الجمعة بإدلب” : Enab Baladi|
|↑11||“لماذا استنفر “الحزب التركستاني” قواته في سوريا؟” : al-Modon Online|
|↑14||“Turkish border remains closed as HTS assumes control of Idlib” : Syria Direct|
|↑16||“19 Armed Groups Defect From Ahrar al Sham During Tensions With Hayat Tahrir al Sham” : Southfront|
|↑22||“التسريب الثامن يمس”أبو الحارث المصري”..و”جيش الأحرار” يترك “الهيئة” : al-Modon|
|↑24||“Is this the beginning of the end for Idlib’s jihadi groups?” : Al-Monitor|
|↑34||“Trump ends CIA arms support for anti-Assad Syria rebels” : Reuters|
|↑35||“فصائل الجيش الحر في الجنوب تعلن تشكيل “الجبهة الوطنية لتحرير سوريا” : El-Dorar al-Shamia|
|↑36||“Syrian rebels meet in Qatar after declaring unified ‘national army’” : Middle East Eye|
|↑38||“Divided Syrian opposition tries for unified army again” : al-Monitor|
|↑39||“هل يتشكل الجيش الوطني السوري هذه المرة؟” : Orient News|