More than 35 members of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) – a coalition of rebel groups led by the rebranded al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham – have been assassinated in Idlib since September. While assassinations in Syria are common, the unprecedented rate and scale of these targeted attacks and their impact on the group’s capacity indicates a significant shift in the way its opponents are dealing with it.
It is extremely difficult to get a clear picture of the exact number of assassination attempts targeting HTS, due to the lack of systematic data collection and the secretive circumstances in which some of these attempts took place. However, a quick scan of public local media reports from the past three months shows that most of the attacks targeted high profile members. Eliminating HTS’s foreign Sharia scholars and leaders – mostly Saudis, Jordanians and Tunisians – comes at the top of the priority list, indicating that the assassinations are meant to weaken its leadership. Among the most prominent targets are Abu Talha al-Ordini, Abu Abdulrahman al-Mohajer, Abu Sulaiman al-Maghribi, Abu Yahya al-Tunisi, Suraqa al-Maki and Abu Mohammad al-Sharii. Local military leaders come as a second priority, namely Abu Elias al-Baniasi, Mustafa al-Zahri, Saied Nasrallah and Hassan Bakour.
Despite HTS’s efforts to become a rooted movement, it is still largely a network built around individuals with charisma and expertise. Therefore, the assumption is that eliminating those targets will destroy the network around them. As such, targeting HTS’s foreign scholars, who are mostly veteran fighters with long experience as jihadists, will weaken the group’s credibility and limit its ability to recruit. Likewise, the military leaders who are targeted are generally known to be effective and experienced and thus difficult to replace.
The assassination operations against HTS have significantly increased since last September, which coincided with preparations for the Turkish-led intervention in Idlib. Much of the speculation about a potential Turkish intervention in Idlib had portrayed it as an anti-HTS operation, leading to the assumption that Turkey is behind the attacks. The advocates of this theory argue that Turkey’s plan is to slowly weaken HTS rather than out-fight it in a military confrontation that would be costly and may even harden its base.
Central to this plan is exacerbating HTS’s internal divisions between the pragmatists and the hardliners. The latter, who are considered the main threat, can then be eliminated through a Turkish-led covert assassination campaign. But this theory assumes that Turkey, which entered Syria in coordination with HTS, would jeopardize its main objective in Syria – keeping the Syrian Kurds in check – in order to do this.
Alternatively, the pragmatic model adopted by HTS’s leader Abu Mohammed al-Julani – which led to divisions within the group – is used as evidence that the attacks are an inside job. The rift was widened by Jolani’s decision to sever the group’s external ties to al-Qaeda in order to establish Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS) in July 2016. The tension reached another level when its leader dissolved JFS a few months later to create HTS, despite internal objection from hardliners.
Likewise, Johani’s decision to negotiate with Turkey and allow it to launch its Idlib operation resulted in an internal crisis of confidence with his leadership. Accepting cooperation with the (secular) Turkish government is seen by the Salafist-jihadist community to which HTS belongs as a clear violation of that ideological school’s teachings.
Many HTS members expressed, in several conversations with me, their dissatisfaction with the group’s new line of thinking. In a recent interview, Hasan al-Daghim, a well-informed Syrian researcher and religious scholar focusing on Islamist movements, argued that HTS’s pragmatic wing will try to get rid of the hardliners to allow the new model to function. This statement is echoed by other observers, who believe that the assassinations started after the defection of two prominent HTS figures, Abdullah al-Muhaysini and Muslah al-Alyani, as a preemptive move to prevent further divisions and defections. But how can this sophisticated operation stay secret when many of the group’s sensitive private conversations were leaked?
There are unconfirmed reports about the involvement of foreign actors and governments in the assassinations through local proxies. With ISIS rapidly declining, international attention has turned more heavily toward the threat posed by HTS in Idlib. But instead of conventional military operations similar to the anti-ISIS campaign, a different approach is perhaps being used to eliminate HTS’s persons of interest without disturbing the conflict’s delicate dynamics.
The types of assassination attacks indicate that a small number of people are involved in executing them. The majority of assassinations are either done through planting explosive devices under the cars of the targets or by ambushing and shooting them. As such it is easy for certain governments to hire local mercenaries to kill high-value targets such their fellow citizens who joined HTS or other individuals who are perceived as a threat. Local sources have confirmed that many locals, whether proxies or bounty hunters, are already involved in such activities. But they also highlighted that the regime and ISIS may also be behind some of the assassinations.
The vast number of people with both an interest in assassinating HTS leaders and the means to do so adds to the difficulty of verifying who is responsible for what. But it is safe to say that such targeted attacks will continue as long as the group is perceived internationally as one of the biggest threats in Syria.
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 movements.