The religious and legal discourse of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) has shifted as a result of its evolution from Jabhat al-Nusra through Jabhat Fatah al-Sham to today. HTS has often absorbed broad elements and doctrines in the areas under its control and avoided confrontation. A notable example is its lack of opposition to approaches based on the Ash’ari creed, one that has many followers in Syria, especially among revolutionary factions and within religious institutes.
Before the revolution, Sufism and Ash’arism predominated in Syrian society. When Jabhat al-Nusra was formed, it played a major role in spreading Salafi ideology, especially at religious institutes. The group attacked Ash’arism and other creeds – intellectually and without the use of violence – to eliminate the religious schools that adhered to them, such as the Nawawi Institute.
The institute, which teaches Ash’arism, had been severely restricted, especially prior to its dissociation from Al-Qaeda. Its main headquarters are in the city of Ma’arat al-Nu’man, with affiliated institutes and schools scattered across all areas of Syria controlled by the opposition. As Jabhat al-Nusra, the organization often demanded from such institutes that they reform some of their subjects that conflict with jihadist Salafism.
Since al-Nusra became HTS, however, it has attempted to pursue a policy of assimilation of all the religious schools in the areas affected by the Syrian revolution. It hoped to present itself as tolerant and distinct from ISIS, which has rejected all religious schools except those that adopted its curriculum. HTS also wanted to send a message to the Turks, whose religious schools are dominated by Sufism and Ash’arism, that it is not hostile to these religious and intellectual methodologies.
This assimilation was not without points of intellectual clash between the jihadist Salafism from which HTS emerged and the rest of the Islamic currents in opposition areas. HTS has frequently repressed some of the religious institutes which oppose its ideology and clashed with Hizb ut-Tahrir, at times launching campaigns against it. But it more often turns a blind eye, letting it voice its ideology in a limited capacity.
These shifts have had significant impacts on HTS, including broadening its appeal as a component of Sunni society that has the ability to govern. It has benefited in a real way from the organization of other Islamic currents in the management of the regions under its rule. It has involved branches of Islamic groups – including the Muslim Brotherhood, independent Islamists and some technocrats – in administering liberated areas, albeit under the leadership and supervision of HTS.
Its goal is to build an incubator within society to win over and lead all competing groups. HTS wants to proclaim that its vision is one that represents all Sunnis in the opposition areas, and indeed it has succeeded in winning over media and academic elites from various different groups, who may perceive HTS as the best option available, one which must be joined and amended rather than attacked and eschewed.
A double-edged sword
But assimilation and accommodation has had a negative effect on the internal structure of HTS. There have been internal disputes, with certain strands of legal thought that are partial to jihadist Salafism seeing these revisions as concessions that will diminish the organization’s attractiveness, especially for ideologically jihadist elements. To proponents of this view, HTS’s pursuit of a policy of calculated and contingent recruitment has weakened the principles of the organization.
As a result, many in leadership roles have left and, on the ground,, battalions have split off. These have turned into competing groups that maintain the original ideology and legal creed of HTS such as the Guardians of Religion Organization (Hurras al-Din) and other jihadist organizations.
By using the policy of containment while claiming it has changed as an organization, HTS attempts to use groups opposed to it yet affiliated with its vision – like Hurras al-Din – as a means to achieve its own interests and gain international legitimacy. Meanwhile, opponents of HTS try to use the policy of containment to undermine it, criticizing its political control and denouncing those who have joined it as not being true believers.
Yet the changes taking place within HTS are a major achievement for its leader, Abu Mohammed al-Jolani, who was able to transform a group adhering solely to the literature and theorists of Al-Qaeda into one believing, at least ostensibly, in joint participation. This policy could represent the precursor to the survival of HTS as a political party following the model of Hamas. It will likely have a role to play in the future of Syria, unlike other jihadist groups that have failed to adopt a policy of containment and acceptance of others.
However, this does not mean it has become tolerant of all opponents nor stopped detaining its critics. It remains in a security mentality, fearful of every rival as representing an alternative vision and threat to its existence. It considers anyone who opposes it in the present circumstances to be aiding the regime and Russia to advance militarily. It has yet to rid itself of all the effects and vestiges of Al-Qaeda’s ideology. HTS still views other groups through the logic of supremacy and sees itself as the best fulfilment of a divine mandate among jihadists.