Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham has gone through different stages of existence since the beginning of its formation as al-Nusra Front (Jabhat al-Nusra) and then as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham to its latest iteration under the name of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS).
HTS’ approach has evolved from believing in the principle of global jihad and drawing on the Salafist jihadist ideology of Al-Qaeda to a paradigm framed by Syria’s borders as a particular theatre of combat with a reliance on local cadres, albeit with an Islamist jihadist character that motivates its members and stimulates continued fighting.
Why HTS is relying on Syrians rather than foreigners
Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham wants to put forward an alternative vision to that of the Muslim Brotherhood and secular factions, one which must be national and whose leaders must consequently be Syrian. HTS wishes to prove to the world that it is Syrian in identity and no longer believes in global jihad nor remains hostile to the nationalism on whose basis many Syrian rebel factions were previously established.
The main reasons for the marginalization of foreigners and attraction of Syrians to HTS lie in the organization’s renunciation of its weighty legacy and long-established history as a branch of al-Qaeda, which had led to its inclusion on terrorism lists and all that entails in terms of harassment, embargo, and economic and fiscal pressure on the organization.
Other reasons include training and bolstering the experience of local cadres in the management of civil and military affairs as opposed to depending solely on foreign ranks arriving from outside the country who do not know the nature and make-up of its population, such that their decisions will harm the local community and stir social discontent with HTS.
HTS aims to appease locals who no longer accept the idea that service affairs can be managed by foreigners and often criticize the organization’s policy on services. It also wants to show Turkey that it is establishing a nucleus for Syria’s national project, one which believes in the nation rather than the Islamic caliphate. HTS depends on Turkey to convince the West to change its mind and remove the organization’s name from terrorism lists.
Having studied the fate of ISIS and not wanting to repeat it, HTS also wishes to differentiate itself from the former group, which gave preference to foreigners over locals in certain positions.
For this reason, HTS is trying – albeit while facing major obstacles – to implement a large-scale plan that unites all factions in northern Syria. HTS leader al-Julani hesitated in relinquishing his leadership in favour of a new entity that could be led by a Syrian and his most prominent candidate, Hassan Soufan. But were such an entity to be created, HTS would have the biggest say in it.
A significant change was seen in the latest statement from al-Julani, which began with praise for the role of the rest of the factions in the battle for the towns of Idlib and Hama. This indicates that HTS may head a new entity analogous to Hamas in Gaza with two wings, military and political.
HTS used foreign fighters to counter the influence of ISIS, but at great cost
In the wake of its confrontation with and separation from ISIS, HTS needed foreign fighters who had the jihadist legitimacy to challenge ISIS’ claimed authority as the ‘legitimate state apparatus’. Since ISIS also depended on foreign fighters to support its authority, it was necessary for HTS to use foreigners to counter the former group’s legitimacy. This was evident in the fact that all the publishers of al-Nusra Front’s legal rulings against ISIS were foreign fighters.
Yet the announcement by al-Nusra Front that it was renouncing Al-Qaeda and becoming the Jabhat Fateh al-Sham resulted in ideological and intellectual shifts that sparked internal differences over the legitimacy of this move. The military reality that allowed the Syrian regime to retake areas controlled by jihadist factions and organizations prolonged these differences.
There began to be instances of division and consolidation within individual groups, most of whom were foreigners. Al-Nusra Front had abandoned its Al-Qaeda ideology to form Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. It then took a big step to demonstrate major change in its thought and ideology by merging with several factions and formations – among whom were those, like the Nour al-Din al-Zenki faction, supported by the Military Operation Center established and supported by the US – in an entity under the name of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham.
The goal was to speak with one voice and unite efforts to lead what remained of the revolutionaries as well as form a parallel entity to the Free Syrian Army and to groups pledging allegiance to the Muslim Brotherhood.
The formation of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham was an attempt to completely control the will of the revolutionaries and furtively deceive the international community by concealing its cadres of jihadist ideologues within an organization of a predominantly local character.
Yet this had serious ramifications for the internal structure of HTS, prompting many jihadist Syrian and foreign elements to seriously think about leaving to form an entity that maintained Al-Qaeda’s approach and jihadist literature in light of what they perceived as the ideological concessions made by HTS.
Foreign fighters turn to jihadist organizations
The agreements of Astana and Sochi, followed by the inclusion of stipulations for Turkish surveillance, resulted in numerous disputes in HTS wings and cadres, especially foreign ones. Those blocs objected to the new policies of the organization and formed the Guardians of Religion (Hurras al-Din) – a group oriented toward Al-Qaeda in thought and affiliation. Each new dispute within HTS increased Hurras al-Din’s attraction to HTS cadres.
The vast majority of foreign fighters within HTS lack the influence to make decisions, as most of them are involved solely in the military aspect of the organization. HTS still retains some foreign leaders in its top ranks in various legal, administrative and military areas, but they are bound and limited by its public policies as well as new ideology and image. The organization has imposed restrictions on these positions to show that it is fighting hardliners in its ranks regardless of their status.
The fate of anyone who rejects this policy is isolation and separation from the group, as was the case with the prominent leader Abu al-Yaqthan al-Masri, who was removed by HTS for his statements, which it saw as giving the impression to Syrians and Western nations that the organization’s rhetoric is still in line with Al-Qaeda. The Egyptian leader Abu Shuaib, who was close to al-Julani, was similarly removed for having criticized the handover of a Yazidi child to his relatives, in accordance with the literature of jihadist groups which deems Yazidis disbelievers.
Foreign cadres are finding themselves besieged under the new policy and approach of the leadership of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham that deals harshly with any attempt to return the organization to its Al-Qaeda past. Despite this, HTS continues to retain many foreign cadres in its leadership such as the Iraqi Abu Maria al-Qahtani, the Palestinian al-Zubair al-Ghazi, the Jordanian Abu Hussein, the head of elite forces in the organization, and many from the cadres committed to the organization’s new approach and vision.
With the transfer of a wide segment of Syrian and foreign cadres to Hurras al-Din, which has become an alternative organization for all those who object to the new approach and vision of HTS, the former group may represent an existential threat to the legitimacy and existence of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham as the largest and most powerful group in northern Syria.
Despite the great disparity in funding as well as material and military capabilities between these two organizations, attraction to Hurras al-Din will increase and disagreements with HTS will deepen. This may end in the containment or destruction of one of the groups by the other, which would nonetheless be delayed by the current circumstances of the war and the regime’s fierce attacks on northern Syria.
Many foreign fighters are now joining groups that believe in jihadism like Hurras al-Din, Supporters of Unity, and the Turkistan Islamic Party in Syria. It is expected that small battalions will form containing foreign fighters who have left HTS. There will be several jihadist entities in northern Syria that remain non-confrontational with HTS as long as there is fighting with regime forces, since HTS needs foreign fighters as military allies. Nonetheless, Hurras al-Din will grow stronger because of the many fighters who leave HTS to join it.
The future of foreign fighters
Although HTS has begun to weaken the role of foreigners, they still represent a sizable proportion at 6,000 fighters and remain fortunate to be valued by the leadership of HTS. Foreign fighters will find it difficult to survive if a solution to the conflict in Syria is put in place, but no such solution is on the horizon for at least the next two years.
But the changes within HTS, as well as external circumstances, may make groups like Hurras al-Din more attractive to them. Syria will continue to see a rise in groups more strongly committed to jihadism, both among foreign fighters and Syrians.