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HTS Turns to Community Relations

  • Haid Haid

    Consulting Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme, Chatham House

    زميل مشارك استشاري، برنامج الشرق الأوسط وشمال أفريقيا

The group is shoring up its hold in the northwest by promoting confidence-building measures with locals.

In an attempt to assert itself over the last remaining rebel-held pocket in Idlib, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) has recently launched a new military campaign against rival opposition factions across northwestern Syria. The offensive targeted the groups and communities that have been most successful in resisting HTS for years, such as the Nour Eddin al-Zinki group and the town of Atarib.

To consolidate its military gains and ensure a lasting dominance over the dozens of seized towns, HTS has started implementing a mixture of confidence building measures. The aim of such tactics, which are implemented during and after the offensives, is to slowly win the support of locals by addressing their concerns and showing a softer side of HTS.

HTS usually tries to capture areas through negotiated deals with local notables instead of full military assaults, with the aim to establish good relations with local communities by avoiding or minimizing the number of local (especially civilian) casualties during a takeover. To make ruling new areas easier, it delegates the task of convincing communities to peacefully submit to the signatory notables.

The ideal scenario for this strategy is to be able to neutralize the targeted communities and factions by offering them protection in exchange for agreeing not to fight against HTS. For example, during the recent HTS offensive against Zenki, the former managed to broker local deals with a number of Zenki’s towns (such as Kfar Dael and A’wejel) to side-line them.

HTS’s second-best option is to besiege an area and intimidate its inhabitants to submit. The group used this strategy to capture the city of Atarib on 6 January. After besieging it from three fronts, HTS shelled the city intensively for a few hours using artillery, heavy machine guns and mortars. Notably, the intense bombardment was merely used to terrify people (by firing in the air), thus no casualties were documented. As a result of this tactic, Atarib (which had successfully resisted HTS since 2015) was surrounded in less than 24 hours.

Even in extreme cases where HTS resorted to the use of force, the group focused largely on defeating its enemies swiftly without intentionally trying to kill their fighters. Thus, such fights do not typically result in a large number of causalities, even among the fighters.

Capturing new areas is usually accompanied by providing locals with protection measures, including for those who resisted HTS. The group’s objective for capturing new areas goes beyond eliminating its rivals or securing new financial resources. It is directly linked to HTS’s long-term goal of embedding itself in local communities and ruling them. In other words, the group portrays itself as a good ruler who aims to protect locals and serve them, despite their position towards it.

Therefore, HTS usually publicly declares its assurances to protect locals and prevent any retaliation against them. In the case of Atarib, those guarantees were clearly written in the city’s surrender agreement. As for the areas that were captured from Zenki, HTS published a public statement affirming its commitment to protecting the inhabitants of those territories. In those two incidents, HTS’s protection guarantees included individuals who participated in the fight against the group (fighters and civilians alike). This is a new practice, as HTS used to arrest those who fight against it.

To avoid skirmishes with hostile communities in areas captured by HTS (such as Atarib), the group reduced the number of its checkpoints and positioned them at the entrances of the city. Additionally, HTS allowed the people who wanted to relocate to areas outside HTS’s control (including those who are wanted by the group) to leave peacefully. The fighters of the defeated groups were also allowed to keep their personal weapons (such as rifles, hand grenades and handguns), regardless of their decision to stay or leave.

Additionally, HTS has provided various incentives to win the support of locals after an offensive. For examples, HTS published photos of its preparations to distribute aid to civilians, including the seized areas. The group also announced the release of former Zenki fighters that were captured during the attacks, despite their active participation in the fight. This move, which seems to be rare, aims to reconcile with the local communities to which the released fighters belong.

Following its victory against Zenki, HTS announced that it would pay monetary rewards to Zenki fighters who did not abandon their positions on the fronts with the regime in order to counter HTS’s attacks against their hometowns. Similarly, HTS announced its decision to allow the fighters of defeated groups who are stationed on the frontlines to keep their bases and weapons there as well as to provide salaries and supplies.

Such rewards were not predicated on swearing allegiance to HTS but to show that the group is fair and that that its main concern is to fight the regime, rather than to empower itself. Nonetheless, such moves will likely help HTS co-opt the frontline fighters of its rivals, if they accept becoming dependent on the group.

Despite these confidence-building measures, there are clear indications that the group’s strategy to expand its support base will face significant challenges. In response to HTS’s military gains, a number of Western donors have suspended or terminated their funds to humanitarian and civil entities operating in areas controlled by the group. A major change for HTS and its affiliates, namely the Syrian Salvation Government, is a focus on being able to provide essential services when existing humanitarian aid, or part of it, is terminated.

HTS’s takeover could also precipitate an offensive by the Syrian government aimed at recapturing the province, or at least increase the government’s assaults on civilians living there. Such attacks, even if they remain limited, might urge local communities (in an attempt to stop the attacks) to protest against the group’s presence or authority, which would make HTS’s rule more difficult.

HTS has also verbally informed around 30 individuals in Daret Azzeh, in rural Aleppo, to leave the city and head to areas outside the group’s control. The profile of those who were expelled includes media activists, militants and civil servants. If such actions become common practices, they will likely hinder HTS’s attempts to increase its local support.

The ability of HTS to achieve its objective of reconciling with local communities remains to be seen. Nonetheless, HTS’s confidence building measures indicate that the group is aware that military victories do not automatically ensure the absence of existing hostile sentiments or activities against it.

As such HTS aims to slowly win the support of local communities to hinder any future effort to erase the group’s influence in the northwest. In contrast, HTS’s opponents, whether local or international, do not seem to have any strategy to counter this campaign to win hearts and minds.