The Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS, Organisation for the Liberation of the Levant), formerly called Jabhat al-Nusra (Front of the Supporters), has been intensifying its messages to the international actors in the Syrian crisis with the aim of declaring its transformation into a "moderate" faction, and even a "national liberation movement" like many of the movements that struggle against the occupiers, requiring a response from the international community to this shift regardless of HTS’s ideology as long as HTS ultimately represents – as it promotes – a significant segment of Syrians.

According to HTS’s assessment, the international community would have to meet HTS midway because HTS is a reality on the one hand, and on the other because it has become a “lesser evil” when compared to the takfiri (excommunicative) and anti-Western organisations. HTS bases its estimates on the statements of the US Representative for Syria James Jeffrey who said in a press conference he held in February 2020, that “… Hayat Tahrir al-Sham group, HTS, … is an al-Qaida offshoot. It is considered a terrorist organization, but it is primarily focused on fighting the Assad regime. It itself claims – we haven’t accepted that claim yet, but they do claim to be patriotic opposition fighters, not terrorists.  We have not seen them generate, for example, international threats for some time”.

Normalisation with the West

In the context of its propaganda course to promote itself as a moderate force, Abd al-Rahim Atoun, the HTS general jurist (leading cleric), called, during an interview with the French-speaking Swiss newspaper Le Temps on 4 September 2020, for the normalisation of relations with Western countries. It is noteworthy that Atoun integrated HTS into the framework of the society under its control in northern Syria, by asking Western countries to normalise relations with the people in Idlib governorate and parts of the western Aleppo countryside, that is the HTS-controlled areas. He even went as far as requesting the West’s assistance to eliminate the Assad regime, stressing that the region cannot continue without the help of Western countries.

HTS’s jurist justified his position by saying that HTS is currently working on presenting its true image and that “the goal is not to beautify reality but just to show it as it is”, adding that HTS “wants to exit the blacklist [of terrorism] and only then the region will recover”.

HTS leader Abu Mohammad al-Julani had begun the process of rapprochement with the West since late 2019 when he announced the beginning of a new phase in the conflict in Syria based on resistance to both the Iranian and Russian occupations. This was followed by a press interview with the International Crisis Group (ICG) in February 2020 during which he underlined that he is giving up his cross-border jihadist ambitions and focusing only on governing the region under his control.

The "State of Idlib " is a fait accompli

In continuation of what HTS believes is its diplomatic and political rehabilitation path, it declared, during a meeting of HTS leaders with journalists, that Idlib is a full-fledged state, with or without recognition by the international community. He added that the areas in Idlib and western Aleppo are "a state governed by authority and institutions, even without the countries’ recognition", indicating that the intersection of its interests with those of other actors is an "additional gain".[1]

In the eyes of HTS, the State of Idlib does not lack any requisite in order to obtain international recognition, considering that “Idlib’s region has about four million people, and [is] managed by an administration born from the revolution’s womb and the rubble of bombing, thus giving it legitimacy before the people and the world, which is a strategic victory”, according to HTS leaders.

Credentials

Over the past few years, HTS, or formerly al-Nusra, has witnessed several shifts in its ideological and military structure in the context of adapting to the Syrian situation. The most important of these was the assertion that the group is a local movement with purely Syrian goals and has nothing to do with global jihad. This aims at presenting credentials to the outside world in order to gain recognition of the HTS or al-Nusra as an acceptable political actor.

HTS did not content itself with statements. Rather, it recently intensified its actions in this context, including:

  • Dismantling the jihadist groups in its areas of control and preventing them from carrying out any military action or opening headquarters without HTS permission.
  • Extending control over areas that until recently were outside HTS control, and confronting the factions that reject the Sochi Agreement (Hurras al-Din (Guardians of the Religion) and Ansar al-Din (Supporters of the Religion)).
  • Excluding hardliners from HTS ranks, especially non-Syrians who reject any political solutions to the Syrian issue, mainly Abu al-Yaqzan al-Masri, who quit the HTS in February 2019 in protest of its tendency towards leniency with regard to some issues.
  • Appearing as the actor concerned with peace and calm in the northwest regions of Syria by respecting the Russian-Turkish understandings and facilitating the Turkish army's mission in deploying thousands of soldiers.
  • The HTS attempt to present itself as a catalyst in solving the problem of jihadists in Syria. This was evident through the arrest, on 18 June 2020, of its former leading name Saraj al-Din Mukhtarov, aka Abu Salah al-Uzbaki, who is wanted by the Interpol and who was affiliated with Ansar al-Din Front (jihadist) organisation. However, the most important message in this context was the arrest of the French jihadist Omar Diaby, nicknamed Omar Omsen, who leads a group of French fighters in Syria, and whom the French authorities say "is responsible for recruiting 80 percent of French speaking jihadists who went to Syria and Iraq", while the US State Department designated him as a global terrorist in 2016.
  • Appearance of al-Julani several times in pictures published by his media apparatus while wandering in marketplaces, visiting patients, and receiving delegations, in a repeated attempt to establish his image as a religious politician, in a way that serves the current and future stages.

Objectives

HTS believes in the existence of international intelligence agencies that monitor its behavior and performance and make assessments in this regard, allowing decision-makers in the concerned countries to re-designate HTS as a local actor with a certain specificity rather than as a terrorist organisation. As far as the actions taken by HTS are concerned, they constitute an expression of its leaders’ awareness that the way to reach recognition and qualification passes through a functional role that it performs for the outside. That is why, by arresting some international jihadists, it sought to send a message to Western countries that it can play a major role in finding a solution to this dilemma whose repercussions provide a source of fear for many Western countries. As for the required price, it is the acceptance by those actors to barter the services of the HTS for the recognition of its legitimacy.

The ultimate goal of the HTS actions and messages is to export a new HTS image to the international community in a clear endeavour to be part of the solution. Such measures indicate that the HTS leaders keep pace with expected changes in the Syrian issue in terms of the political solution.

Some experts on Islamic groups raise the possibility that HTS would be transformed into a political party or create a political wing of its own along the lines of the Lebanese Hezbollah and Palestinian Hamas Movement, given that Western countries deal with the political wings of such organisations, considering that they are ultimately representative of a local segment and have domestic support. This in turn means that those movements must change their “terrorist” structure, political language and anti-Western rhetoric.[2]

Conclusion

Most readings indicate that HTS mixes up acceptance of its immediate role of “managing chaos and controlling it within the borders of the conflict so that it would not extend outside and to neighbouring countries with controlling the movement of the displaced and striking hard-line organisations”. However, this is only a temporary scene. HTS is unlikely to play a future role and transform into an acceptable actor, such as the Taliban Movement.[3] After the recent changes on the ground, both through the loss of large areas under HTS control to regime forces and the redeployment of thousands of Turkish soldiers, HTS is no longer a strong actor to be militarily counted by actors. Facts have changed considerably, and Abu Mohammad al-Julani's forces have become within the fire range of many actors. Their overthrow is only delayed by the failure of the parties to the conflict to reach final understandings.

References

[1] Alaa Halabi, “Julani declares his “state in Idlib: ‘institutionalising extremism’”, 180post website, 2 September 2020.

[2] Ali Darwish, “’HTS’ develops its ideology: political relations in Idlib’s ‘mini-state’”, Enab Baladi website, 8 September 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/33ILCmJ

[3] Ameen Alassi, “HTS assurances to the West: a manoeuvre or an approach change?”, alaraby aljadeed, 6 September 2020.

 

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