Syrian Islamist terrorist group Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) continues to push its territorial expansion campaign from the Idlib province into Aleppo and the surrounding area controlled by the Turkish-backed National Liberation Front (NLF). Increasing aggression from HTS warns of more conflict not only for civilians and Turkey, but also challenges the Idlibdemilitarization deal between Turkey, Iran, the Syrian government, and Russia.
HTS is a Salafijihadist terrorist organization that renamed and rebranded itself from itsoriginal name, Jabhat al-Nusra. Formed following the 2011 Arab Spring, Jabhat al-Nusra was al-Qaeda’s Syrian-specific response to the power vacuum and the civil war there. Al-Nusra reformed in 2016 to become Jabhat Fatah al-Sham when they cut their ties with al-Qaeda. The terrorist group became HTS when it consolidated with other terrorist groups, including Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zinki to Jaysh al-Sunna, with its own.
Although HTS has been accused of being a Syrian-specific “neo-Qaeda”, concerns about HTS affiliation with al-Qaeda have been dismissed following leader al-Zawahiri’s comments about HTS deviation from strictly jihadi ideology. Additionally, HTS inclusion of several terrorist organizations has led to some moderation of their ideological aims.
Unlike al-Qaeda, the HTS does not necessarily desire a global caliphate. HTS desires the establishment of an Islamist Syria as a salve to President Bashar al-Assad’s brutal authoritarian rule. HTS also hopes to rid Syria of Iranian and counter their Shi’a ideology. HTS strategy thus consists of ridding Iranian militants from the Syrian towns Fu’a and Kafriya, expelling the Islamic State in Syria and its allies, and defending the rebel-held territory that they hope to control in Northern Syria, including Idlib.
HTS may be limited in scope in its but are more severe about how it rules. According to civilians in HTS occupied territories, the HTS religious police force mimics the Islamic State’s by jailing unrelated men and women who socialize, shutting down beauty salons, and closing a university with mixed-gender classes. It seems that as the more territory HTS controls, the more aggressive it becomes in the application of its jihadist ideology.
Although HTS solidified its position as the strongest rebel force in Idlib (it holds 60% of the province), HTS struggles because of al-Qaeda’s rejection, local disapproval, itsassassinations of regional leaders, defections. Internally, HTS operatives are debating of having a moderate nationalist agenda rather than a radical Islamist one. Officially, HTS leadership has not shifted its ideological motives from religious to nationalist, but it is important to note that the discussion is occurring among HTS members themselves.
HTS believes territorial expansion will give it more strength and resources to combat Russia and Turkey if need be over the rebel-held provinces of Idlib, and parts of Aleppo and Hama provinces. Although Turkish-backed militias have fought with HTS to combat Assad, Iranian, and ISIS forces, Turkey has placed pressure on HTS to discontinue their organization in the future.
If Turkey pushes HTS to dissolve, concerns arise over negotiations with the terrorist group for political power or where to funnel the now unemployed terrorists. Larger worries include what group would attempt to fill the power vacuum following the disbandment of this relatively moderate Islamist terrorist organization.
HTS reached a ceasefire on January 10 with the Turkish-backed NLF over control of Idlib. This ceasefire helps secure Turkey’s demilitarization deal with Russia since the fighting between the NLF and HTS was occurring inside a buffer zone where no military action was to occur. However Turkey’s inability to combat HTS due to the demilitarization deal is propagating the proliferation of the group and their ability to control land. Monitoring the success of the ceasefire and its repercussions is crucial for peace in the Idlib province.
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