“Moderate” Extremists in Syria’s Idlib Threatened by Own Success?

As ISIS is cornered in southeastern Syria and the U.S. begins to withdraw from the Kurdish-held northeast, eyes are turning toward a resurgent, al-Qaeda-linked militant faction in the northwest. While that group, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, appears to be playing a savvy political game with Turkey, Russia, and Syria, internal conflict may threaten its dominance.
Extremists in Syria’s Idlib Threatened by Own Success

Eight years into Syria’s turbulent civil war, the country’s dictator, President Bashar al-Assad, supported by Russia and Iran, has managed to quash most of his opposition.

Eight years into Syria’s turbulent civil war, the country’s dictator, President Bashar al-Assad, supported by Russia and Iran, has managed to quash most of his opposition. Claiming defeat of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), President Donald Trump abruptly announced that the U.S. will withdraw its troops. If the U.S. withdraws, ISIS could retake its lost territory in a matter of months.

Turkey has since threatened to attack the U.S.-allied Kurdish forces that control northeastern Syria and keep ISIS at bay, provoking them to ask their former antagonists, Russia and Assad, for protection.

Against this volatile backdrop, a militant jihadi faction has surged into dominance in the northwestern corner of the country, centered on Idlib province. That faction, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS, or the Levant Liberation Committee) has become a key player in the complex dynamics of the war.

HTS’s Idlib territory is a pressure cooker about to boil over. Now that HTS is a serious threat, a truce between its Syrian-Russian-Iranian enemies and its fickle friends, the Turks, is quickly crumbling. Russia gave Turkey an ultimatum: destroy the jihadi group or face a full-on assault.

Seeking to play a savvy political game, HTS’s commander-in-chief tried to divert Turkey and Syria’s attention to the Kurds’ dilemma. At the same time, one of its religious leaders contradicted him, was declared too radical, and forced to resign. This is HTS’s core tension. Its long-held strategy of political opportunism, which contradicts its hardline religious ideology, may turn out to be its Achilles heel.

Between Iraq and a Hard Place

President Trump’s withdrawal announcement left the U.S.-allied Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which control the de facto autonomous Kurdish region in northeastern Syria, scrambling for a new survival strategy.

President Trump’s withdrawal announcement left the U.S.-allied Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which control the de facto autonomous Kurdish region in northeastern Syria, scrambling for a new survival strategy. Neighboring Turkey has long threatened to destroy the militia that leads the SDF, seeing it as a “terrorist group” affiliated with Kurdish revolutionaries in Turkey (the PKK).

The U.S.’s alliance with the Kurds had held Ankara’s hostile ambitions at bay. Turkey has now become increasingly belligerent, amassing troops at the border and threatening invasion. Meanwhile, Assad, who opposes Kurdish autonomy, appears intent on regaining control of their territory.

Short on options and busy fighting ISIS, the SDF reached out to Assad and his allies in Moscow for protection. A senior Kurdish official said the Kurds would prefer a deal with Assad over a Turkish attack.

Al-Julani Approves, Al-Masri Forbids

Wedged into the opposite corner of the country, HTS sought to use this disarray to its advantage. In a January 14 interview with an HTS-affiliated media agency, Abu Mohammad al-Julani, commander-in-chief of HTS, declared support for Turkey’s war against the Kurds.

Echoing Ankara’s conflation of the Turkish PKK “terrorists” with the Syrian SDF, al-Julani declared that “The Kurdistan Workers’ Party [PKK] is an enemy to the revolution, and it has seized areas inhabited by many Sunni Arabs. We believe that it is necessary to remove this party. We cannot hinder such an action.”

Al-Julani’s endorsement of Turkey is surprising, given Turkey’s secular army and secular goals that run contrary to HTS’s radical jihadi ideology. One of the group’s strongest proponents of that ideology made this inconsistency clear.

Abu al-Yaqzan al-Masri was, until recently, one of the most senior Islamic jurists and a military leader in HTS. Speaking in a December 30 sermon, al-Masri vehemently forbade any collaboration with or approval of Turkey’s military actions.

By his judgment, the battle between Turkey and the Kurds is between a “secular military and a secular atheist party,” and thus any participation in it is “haraam [forbidden] according to Sharia.” Thus, he implied that the only acceptable actions HTS can take are those with explicit goals of jihad.

“The Jurisprudence of Necessity”

These two conflicting statements reflect the duality of HTS’s religious doctrine, which is unbending, yet adaptable. HTS’s General Sharia Council uses obtuse rulings to justify its “moderate” politics.

It declared in June 2018 that the group would never be part of a system that does not adopt reference for itself from Islam.”

It declared in June 2018 that the group would never be part of a system that does not adopt reference for itself from Islam.” However, it added that the “jurisprudence of necessity” may require it to make political choices that appear contrary to jihad but actually are in service of it. As long as leaders are “steadfast on the Sharia of jihad,” the choices they make can stray from it, the Council asserted.

In other words, aligning with secular forces or softening the religious hardline is acceptable if it ultimately helps advance the group’s mission to defeat Bashar al-Assad and install an Islamic emirate in Syria.

The Council added an important disclaimer: “We do not claim infallibility for our choices and efforts of reasoning.”

This kind of pragmatic opportunism now defines Abu Mohammed al-Julani’s controversial leadership strategy. Throughout his tenure as a jihadi leader, al-Julani has sought to accomplish the improbable task of being a diplomatic terrorist and a “moderate” extremist. This strategy is a more extreme version of the approach used by groups such as Hezbollah or Hamas, both of which have sought to circumvent their “terrorist” labels and gain power by engaging in secular politics.

The Making of HTS

After being imprisoned and released by U.S. forces during the Iraq War, al-Julani joined ISIS’s predecessor, the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) in 2008. Its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, ordered al-Julani to Syria in 2011, where he founded the al-Nusra Front as an ISI branch.

When al-Baghdadi wanted to merge the two groups to create ISIS in 2013, al-Julani refused. He pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda instead, making al-Nusra its official affiliate in Syria and an enemy of ISIS and al-Baghdadi.

Al-Julani rejected the merger because he thought that ISIS’s monstrous violence, extreme religious doctrine, and largely foreign fighting force would alienate al-Nusra from Syrian civilians and other rebel groups, limiting its life span.

Although this choice initially weakened al-Nusra, it has proven to be shrewd. Whereas a multinational coalition has—at least temporarily—battered ISIS into a corner, al-Nusra has grown to pose a more serious threat in its new form, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. HTS is the largest and possibly most dangerous al-Qaeda-linked group in the world.

The secret of al-Julani’s success was that, unlike ISIS, he formed tenuous alliances with other rebel factions and curried favor with local civilian leaders, whose consent gave him legitimacy and undermined his rivals.

The secret of al-Julani’s success was that, unlike ISIS, he formed tenuous alliances with other rebel factions and curried favor with local civilian leaders, whose consent gave him legitimacy and undermined his rivals. He sought to make the group more palatable by focusing on fighting the Assad regime for the sake of the Syrian people, not under the pretext of global jihad and the establishment of an Islamic caliphate.

Al-Julani, however, is just playing the long game to achieve essentially the same goals as ISIS. While HTS explicitly only seeks to establish an Islamic emirate in Syria, it implicitly wants this emirate (an Islamic province or state) ultimately to form part of an extensive—if not global—caliphate (a religious and political body ruling the entire Muslim world).

Concerned with the optics of extremism, al-Julani has rebranded the group twice. In 2016, he announced that al-Nusra would break “external ties” with al-Qaeda and now be called Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS). JFS merged with defectors from rival jihadi groups in January 2017 and became Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.

Al-Julani said that splitting with al-Qaeda would “[protect] the Syrian revolution,” unify the rebels and remove international powers’ excuse “to bombard and displace” Syrians. U.S. intelligence, however, believes that HTS’s break from al-Qaeda was little more than a public relations stunt. Many countries still regard HTS as an al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorist organization.

While HTS has managed to present itself as more moderate than ISIS, its violence has still been extreme. People living under HTS in Idlib face shockingly brutal summary executions, torture, and abductions. Locals are allegedly protesting against al-Julani, likening him to Assad.

“We are a part of the Syrian revolution,” al-Julani said in the January 14 interview. “We do not want to tighten our grip on people’s necks, but we are concerned with the proper course under the Sharia of Allah,” he added.

Gaining Ground

After gaining strength through rebel alliances, HTS then dominated Idlib by attacking rival factions. Over a dozen factions, including former HTS allies, united against HTS as the Turkish-backed National Front for Liberation (NFL) in 2018. But over the course of January 2019 alone, HTS conquered much of their territory.

HTS now controls much of the region, including the capital city of Idlib, allowing a pro-HTS, anti-regime “salvation” government to administrate civilian life. HTS is jockeying to present itself as the only reasonable rebel group capable of running and protecting Idlib. If it is seen as the lesser of several evils, Russia, Syria, and Turkey may put less effort into destroying it.   

It appears to be a hard sell. The coalition of Syrian, Russian, and Iranian forces, after having all but stamped out the rebels in the south, turned their military focus to HTS. Even Turkey, HTS’s on-again, off-again partner, is cracking down.

A Precarious Partnership

Turkey’s relationship with HTS has morphed according to political utility, with President Erdoğan and al-Julani using each other to achieve their own interests.    

Turkey has generally turned a blind eye to HTS’s military operations. In exchange, HTS allowed Turkish troops to set up posts in its territory to monitor the fragile, year-old truce that staved off a Syrian regime offensive. These posts effectively shield HTS from regime forces.

HTS and Turkey share a common cause: the fall of Bashar al-Assad. Ankara wants to use a rebel-held Idlib as leverage against Damascus: essentially, ‘Let us attack the Kurds and we’ll let you attack Idlib.’ Erdoğan also does not want a regime offensive on Idlib to send millions of already displaced civilians fleeing into Turkey.

HTS leaders were judicious about this partnership, declaring that Turkish troops in Idlib must submit to HTS’s military and religious authority. HTS’s political director said in June 2018 that “relations with Turkey are balanced,” thanking Ankara and even calling it an “ally.” Turkish monitoring posts in Idlib were in the “realization of higher interests,” he said.

Now that HTS threatens Idlib’s fragile stability, Ankara is changing its game. Russia has told Turkey it must fight HTS or face an assault because the jihadis’ newfound power effectively voids the 2018 truce. Already, Assad’s forces have been shelling HTS-held towns daily, since mid-January.

After meeting in late January, President Erdoğan affirmed that he and Putin were “on the same page.” Turkey now classifies HTS as a “terrorist organization,” declaring that it would halt the “radical groups [that] are attacking the Syrian opposition.”

In this context, al-Julani’s support for Turkey’s Kurdish offensive appears to be calculated. A battle in the northeast would undoubtedly relieve some pressure from Idlib (Syria and Turkey have already diverted some troops there). Al-Julani’s narrative offered Turkey legitimacy by framing a Kurdish battle as a liberation of Sunni Arabs. Nonetheless, supporting secular Turkey runs counter to HTS’s extreme jihadi doctrine.

HTS’s Sharia Council declared that the group could “build relations” with any party — jihadi or not — as long as doing so “secure[s] considered interests of [the] revolution and [the] jihad.” But if “the evils they bring about . . . exceed the interests,” the partnership should be scrapped. The leadership, however, cannot seem to agree on the right balance of evils and interests.

Evils Exceeding the Interests?

Adaptability has been a successful political strategy for HTS so far, but it may yet prove to be its undoing.

Adaptability has been a successful political strategy for HTS so far, but it may yet prove to be its undoing. There is a fundamental and perhaps inescapable tension between the HTS members who are rigidly committed to the religious hardline and those who see the political pragmatism of straying from it.

When al-Julani broke off ties with al-Qaeda, for example, a faction of al-Qaeda loyalists defected from his ranks to create Hurras al-Din, now a more extreme, rival militant group in Idlib. Since, ideological infighting, rivalries, and the assassinations of top leaders have battered HTS. Its leaders have arrested vocal al-Qaeda loyalists from within.

The case of Abu Yaqzan al-Masri is just the latest such incident. A month after the controversial Egyptian cleric forbade supporting Turkey’s Kurdish war, the HTS General Sharia Council forced his resignation.

In a related ruling, the Council did not explicitly name al-Masri, nor did it define an acceptable level of extremism. It did, however, prohibit breaking with official policy and speaking out of line. Prioritizing “the interests of jihad” over those of individuals, the Council forbade “criticizing the leadership,” publicly commenting on HTS affairs, or issuing fatwas (rulings) before the Council does so. The group has specific mechanisms of communication, it stated, and any violations of that system would result in “judicial inquiry.”

Al-Masri, who defected to HTS from a rival faction, has survived assassination attempts, and issued extreme fatwas before, making it clear that upholding his religious doctrine supersedes toeing the party line. He is not alone in HTS. His ouster represents an attempt to stifle ideological dissent within HTS, which will likely only lead to more division.

In parallel, tensions are rising with the al-Qaeda loyalists Hurras al-Din, after two of its leaders (both former HTS allies) rejected al-Julani’s proposal to unify jihadi groups in Idlib under a new military council. Al-Julani had argued that the Syrian regime does not differentiate between “moderate” and extreme rebels.

Echoing many jihadis’ grievances, the al-Qaeda loyalists suggested that the proposal, like HTS’s actions in general, betrays both the Syrian revolution and the path of jihad. They also saw the proposal as a sign that HTS is bending to the “influence of regional powers,” likely Turkey. Now, they declared, is not the time “to engage in projects that kill the jihadist spirit in the souls.”

According to Enab Baladi, al-Julani will likely attack Hurras al-Din and “cut out the extremist faction” from within HTS, as a further step to prove its “moderation.”

While al-Julani calls for unity, his political tactics have more often sown discord among the jihadi factions in Idlib. Although he has led HTS to dominate over its rivals, his opportunistic shape-shifting may be too corrosive. Al-Julani responds to secular politics, but his group is fundamentally religious.

Al-Julani rejected ISIS for the same reason al-Qaeda did: it was too radical and unhinged in its execution of jihad. He then publicly split from al-Qaeda to avoid being tarred with its terrorist reputation. Now, HTS has rejected al-Masri because he was too publicly hardline.

It remains to be seen how these tensions will play out in the coming months in Idlib. It is possible that al-Masri and other extreme hardliners will undermine HTS’s stability from within, defect to Hurras al-Din, or form a new, competing faction.

Too much ideological splintering could well serve to dilute HTS’s strength, cutting its ambitions short, and bringing a whole new tangle of conflict to Idlib.