The group faces a strategic dilemma in Idlib, and its choices are causing local backlash.
In the face of the Syrian regime’s ongoing offensive in the province of Idlib, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) is in retreat. Pro-regime forces have been able to swiftly capture dozens of kilometres and a number of strategic military positions, including the second-largest Syrian airbase, Abu al-Dhuhour. Likewise, dozens of villages have been seized while other important cities like Saraqib are at imminent risk of being captured.
But while reports of HTS’s withdrawal from these locations are not contested, the reasons behind the retreats are, with many speculating HTS is abandoning local supporters to secure its long-term survival.
HTS has always presented itself as an indispensable armed force in the fight against the Syrian regime, so the loss of a large amount of territory over a short time came as a surprise to locals and initiated a war of accusations against HTS. Rebel groups and opposition figures issued a statement accusing HTS of retreating from its areas without putting up much of a fight. They also blamed the bleak situation of other rebel groups, namely Harakat Hazem and Ahrar al-Sham, on HTS attacks against them.
Other Jihadi figures who are known to be critical of HTS, such as the former al-Nusra leader Saleh al-Hamwi (a.k.a Muzamjer al-Sham), went a step further and accused HTS of sabotaging rebel efforts to counter regime attacks. He blamed HTS for withdrawing from their areas of operation without notifying the rebel groups they are fighting with, pulling the rug out from under the rebels’ counterattacks.
In response, HTS leader Abu Muhammad al-Jolani blamed, in his latest video statement, the rebel groups who signed the de-escalation agreement for HTS’s territorial losses. He claimed HTS is the only group fighting back while other rebel groups have withdrawn from the targeted areas in the agreement, which labels these areas as pro-regime territories. Facing fierce attacks by the pro-regime forces backed by Russian air support, HTS, according to Jolani, had no choice but to withdraw in order to defend other areas.
Some observers argue that HTS is changing its military tactics to ensure its long-term survival. Sam Heller, a Syria analyst, refers to a pro-HTS telegram channel Sina’at al-Fikr [Producing Thought], which provides HTS and other jihadi groups with policy recommendations on the military tactics they should adopt in face of the increased military abilities of pro-regime forces. The channel recommends that in the event of regime attacks to capture new areas, the aim of HTS and likeminded groups should not be to prevent the regime from capturing the desired areas, but to make his military operation as costly as possible.
In other words, if the military balance is in favour of the regime, groups fighting back should shift away from fighting until the last man and focus instead on maximizing the enemy’s losses of personnel and equipment. Such retreats, however, should be paired with other tactics, namely planting mines and booby-traps in the deserted areas as well as deploying suicide attackers and inghimasin [suicide commandos]. A quick scan of pro-Syrian opposition media outlets shows that in the past four weeks HTS has carried out seven suicide attacks and deployed two inghimasin operations behind the enemy lines. While this might indicate that HTS is shifting its military tactics, it is important to highlight that HTS has been selectively implementing these tactics in areas that are not strategically important or cannot be defended.
Despite the long-term benefits that such tactics might bring to the group, the military reputation and local support of HTS have been negatively impacted. Multiple sources on the ground linked the recent demonstrations against HTS, notably in Binish, Idlib, to the group’s successive retreats in the province.
In what seems to be an HTS attempt to boost its popularity, the group recently released two Free Syrian Army leaders from Harkat Hazem and the 7th brigade after more than two years of detention. HTS also agreed for the first time to pay monetary compensation for the victims of the Zenki rebel group who died in recent clashes with HTS.
As a result, HTS seems to be facing a strategic dilemma: prioritizing its long-term survival by shifting to insurgent tactics or mobilizing to defend its territories and maintain its local support. It seems, for now at least, that the HTS cannot have it all.
Haid Haid is a Consulting Research Fellow in the Middle East and
North Africa programme at Chatham House and Syrian columnist who focuses
on security policies, conflict resolution, Kurdish and Islamist