Azzam al-Kassir is a Syrian researcher based in London. He holds a Ph.D. in Politics from Birkbeck,University of London and a Master’s degree in Middle East politics from the University of Exeter. His research interests lie in the study of Salafi-Jihadism and its recent ideological and strategic transformations. Diwan interviewed Kassir in mid-September to discuss Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, which exerts considerable control over Idlib Governorate in northwestern Syria. This comes as a time when there has been political movement in Deraa in southern Syria, and following the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, which Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham welcomed and followed very closely.
Michael Young: What is the relationship between Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham and Al-Qaeda?
Azzam al-Kassir: Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and Al-Qaeda have parted ways in the past four years, ideologically, strategically, and organizationally. In April 2013, fearing the hegemonic tendency of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, the Nusra Front, the precursor of HTS, became officially the Syrian branch of Al-Qaeda. However, in July 2016 and following Russia’s heavy military intervention, Abu Mohammed al-Jolani, the leader of the Nusra Front, renamed his group Jabhat Fateh al-Sham and declared that the group would cease to be a branch of Al-Qaeda. In response, a group of hardline jihadis established Hurras al-Din as Al-Qaeda’s new representative in Syria.
Since early 2017, the HTS survival strategy has been to jump on the bandwagon of the Syrian opposition and express its localized agenda. Therefore, HTS and Hurras al-Din inevitably clashed. But it soon became clear that HTS was formidable enough to contain Hurras al-Din and any Al-Qaeda sympathizers in northwest Syria. Today, there is no relationship between HTS and Al-Qaeda simply because any open interaction or collaboration with Al-Qaeda would only hinder the relentless attempts by HTS to demonstrate its “moderation” and “Syrianness,” the two pillars of its strategy to secure regional and international recognition of its authority in northwestern Syria.
MY: How has Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham been able to sustain itself militarily and otherwise, given that it appears to be contained in Idlib Governorate?
AK: Militarily, we need to remember two things. First, the Nusra Front previously captured strategic military bases such as the Abu Duhur airbase and the Mastumeh base with most of their vehicles, ammunition, and equipment. Nusra also seized strategically important weapons from factions of the Free Syrian Army such as the 13th Division* and the Hazm Movement.
Second, there have been sporadic low-intensity confrontations around the fringes of HTS-held areas. However, no major military operations have taken place since the establishment of deescalation zones and “observation posts” around Idlib in late 2018, allowing HTS to preserve much of its capabilities.
Economically, if any external funding is reaching HTS it must be minimal. Given this situation, the group has turned to relying on the local economy through taxation and tariffs, including revenues generated from border crossings, in addition to management of the banking sector and zakat, or alms collection. Importantly, HTS benefits greatly from local religious sources that collect donations from individuals and Islamic charities.
MY: Does the victory of the Taliban in Afghanistan affect Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham in any way? If so how?
AK: Yes, it does. In fact, it had affected the group’s strategy and preferences long before the Taliban victory. The HTS leadership was watching and taking notes from the beginning of the Taliban’s negotiations with the Americans in Doha two years ago. For HTS, the main lesson learned from the Taliban experience is that if taking a distance from Al-Qaeda and refraining from launching external terrorist operations leads to international acceptance, then so be it.
From my analysis of the discourse of HTS, such an approach is not only presented internally as strategically lucrative but also as religiously permissible under the Islamic principle of maslaha, or the public interest or common good. The availability of such religious justifications, like the recent success of the Taliban, means that the future is open for bolder pragmatic moves from the HTS leadership that may take the form of some sort of cooperation with Turkey and the so-called Syrian National Army that it backs.
Finally, HTS has started using what happened in Afghanistan in recruitment campaigns and in its attempts to win the support of jihadi leaders and ideologues who question the efficacy of Jolani’s approach of reassuring the West and denying the terrorism charge.
MY: There have been attacks against Idlib recently that have led to rising fears in the governorate that the Syrian military is planning a new offensive there, perhaps as it did in Deraa. What do you think is likely to happen in Idlib and how might this play into the relationships among the Syrian regime, Turkey, and Russia?
AK: We need to keep in mind that Syrian regime forces and Russia never ceased to attack the edges of Idlib since HTS took control of the governorate. There are commonalities and differences between the contexts in the south and the northwest. The Assad regime wants to regain complete control of the two governorates by any means possible. In Deraa, the regime seemed inclined to negotiate a local deal and send those who rejected it to the northwest, as this strategy proved successful in the past and was encouraged by Russia.
Dealing with the situation in Idlib, however, is more complicated. HTS is powerful and entangled in the social fabric of the northwest, which is also the only remaining destination for the opposition. Additionally, if the regime begins a large-scale ground offensive, this would push HTS to extend its hand to factions of the Syrian National Army which, in turn, have a vested interest in expanding their area of operations and having a share in governing Idlib. As such, efforts to isolate HTS, which is one of Russia’s top priorities in Syria, would become nearly impossible.
MY: Recently, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham asked tribes in Idlib to coordinate with it, including forming shura, or consultative, councils to address tribal affairs and problems. What was the rationale behind this and where do you see it leading?
AK: This move can be seen from two angles. On the one hand, both HTS and local tribes have a mutual interest in the formation of tribal shura councils. For HTS, this would allow it to maintain the upper hand and demonstrate its dominance as the sole powerbroker and decisionmaker in Idlib. For the tribes, it would maintain their traditional role and give them a say in the administration of social and judicial affairs. On the other hand, the establishment of tribal councils reflects the deepening involvement of HTS in the Syrian context. Soon after HTS broke from global jihadism it began to show its local character by claiming to represent the will of Sunni Arabs in Syria. The formation of tribal shura councils can be seen as another move by HTS to strengthen its engagement in local affairs and demonstrate its understanding of local social dynamics.
MY: What kind of future does Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham have, given that it is contained on all sides by Syrian regime forces or Turkey, is considered a terrorist organization by many countries, and that its popularity among the local population is not high?
AK: Yes, HTS is designated a terrorist group by many governments and international organizations, but “delisting” such groups is not unprecedented. The Houthis in Yemen are a recent example. Should HTS be removed from lists of terrorist organizations, this must come about at the end of a long and thorough scrutiny of the group’s promises to allow organic and meaningful civil activism and its claims of willingness to open prisons and detention centers up for inspection by human rights groups.
The way is paved for HTS to cooperate with Turkey, whether directly through the HTS-affiliated Salvation Government in Idlib or indirectly by collaborating militarily with the Turkey-backed factions in the north. There are actually signs of a rapprochement between HTS and some factions of the Syrian National Army. This must be read against a background of the following factors.
First, HTS is under mounting pressure both from extremists dissatisfied with Jolani’s pragmatism and locals unhappy with the group’s management of social and economic affairs. This makes it likely that HTS will move closer to accepting Turkey as its regional patron and comply with, or at least not aggressively oppose, any international initiatives for peace and reconciliation in the future.
Second, HTS will capitalize on its de facto dominance in Idlib to try to secure recognition of its role and authority to compensate for its diminishing military legitimacy.
Third, all actors involved in the conflict in Syria are concerned about the rumors of a sudden American withdrawal, following what happened in Afghanistan recently. Such a scenario is unlikely given that the situation in Syria is considerably different and that the United States left Afghanistan after striking a deal with the Taliban. But, still, the mere possibility of an American withdrawal is propelling all actors, including HTS, to prepare for such a scenario, for if it happens it will alter the balance of power, most probably in favor of Iran, Russia, and the regime.
* This sentence was changed because of an error in the original.