Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) is working to garner support for civil and military administrations it aims to establish in opposition-controlled parts of northwestern Syria – plans it is expected to make public in the near future.
Officials from HTS and its Salvation Government have been holding intensive talks since mid-January with officials and commanders from armed opposition factions and jihadist groups as well as tribal elders, convincing them to accept its proposed form and scope for the administrations in Idlib and nearby regions, and pushing them to join.
HTS leader Abu Mohammad al-Jolani’s comments during an appearance on a talk show broadcast by the group’s Amjad media channel in mid-January signalled to his supporters that it was time to launch efforts to promote the project and begin their consultations. He spoke at length about the need for separation between civil and military affairs.
Jolani’s proposal is to allow the Salvation Government to take over all the civil administrations in opposition-held areas, including local councils, institutions and other civilian bodies, while on the military side setting up an expanded operations room that oversees secular, Islamist and jihadist armed groups – essentially, a ministry of war that would impose itself by force over the other armed groups.
HTS sees this plan as the key to a new phase allowing it to reproduce itself and avoid a possible battle of annihilation. It also sees its plan as aligned with Turkey’s military, security and political interests, guaranteeing Ankara can meet its obligations under its deal with Moscow to get the situation in Idlib under control to prevent a Russian military attack on the area.
The proposal comes with HTS almost entirely in control of opposition-held parts of Syria since it seized areas from the National Liberation Front, which it had been fighting since the beginning of the year. Parallel to its military expansion, and at the expense of other armed factions, came the expansion of its Salvation Government, which imposed its control over the local councils and other civilian bodies.
The HTS leadership, including a top military commander, have taken on the responsibility of holding talks with armed opposition factions and jihadist outfits over the military administration. The National Liberation Front, which includes 14 opposition factions and is led by Faylaq al-Sham, appeared responsive to the HTS plan during intense meetings that took place in Idlib. According to leaked reports, leadership of the military administration that is set to be established would fall to opposition factions, most likely Faylaq al-Sham, which is close to Turkey.
HTS faces opposition from jihadist groups within the operations room, most notably Huras al-Din, and is continuing to negotiate with them. It does not want a fight with jihadist factions but is rather attempting to lure them into the fold of its military administration, which would enable it to rein in their activity. That was clear in the conditions it would impose on those factions if they join the military administration: accepting the nationalization of foreign fighters, forcing them to carry identification cards, and registering their cars and military equipment and fitting them out with registration plates.
In parallel with their work on the military administration, Salvation Government officials have been holding consultations on the civilian administration. The head of the government, Fawaz Hilal, and several of its members have been visiting local councils and meeting prominent figures along with tribal sheikhs to persuade them to support and take part in the government after its expansion to encompass other parts of the opposition.
At the same time, the Salvation Government is preparing the way for other changes, by implementing new security and economic policies, organizing the operation of border crossings, imposing tolls and taxes, and seeking to take control of the region’s economy to pressure the various civilian powers there to accept the proposed civilian administration.
Salvation Government officials and members of the constituent body of the Syrian General Congress, also close to HTS, have been visiting Turkey to meet officials and figures from the Syrian opposition as well as Turkish officials for consultations on the proposed civilian and military administrations. Turkish support will be crucial to implementing the plan and persuading opposition factions to get on board.
HTS is aiming to hide behind the two administrations, transforming itself from a local Salafist-jihadist group into a pragmatic organization that can endure and keep up with changing circumstances. Internally, it has taken a number of measures to rein in its foreign members, forcing them either to adopt its vision and stay, or defect and join another jihadist group such as Huras al-Din, which has ties to Al-Qaeda.
If HTS succeeds in convincing the opposition and other jihadist groups to back its plan and turn it into a reality, that will place all opposition-held parts of northwestern Syria in its grip, enabling it to control the implementation of the Russian-Turkish deal over Idlib. If it succeeds, that could lead to the re-opening of cross-border highways.
But it is not clear whether the success of the two administrations will be enough to win Turkey’s approval and prevent Russia and the Assad regime from attacking. And with this success being difficult to reach, HTS needs to plan for the prospect of a military confrontation leading to its own dissolution.