The Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS, Organisation for the Liberation of the Levant), led by Abu Mohammad al-Julani, seeks to reproduce its image through the shifts it makes at the level of its political rhetoric, or through the tactical changes made by Julani, both by appearing in a modern outfit, abandoning the stereotypical image of the Mujahideen (Holy Warriors), and by wandering in Idlib's markets, unlike the jihadi leaders who live in isolation from the people and reside in unknown areas.
Most of the interpretations have argued that this behaviour is as an attempt on the part of the HTS to reposition itself vis-à-vis the Syrian crisis, and to present itself as a moderate local player who deserves to be a party to the final settlement that determines the future of Syria. This paper tries to shed light on those shifts and determine their causes and the results expected to be achieved from them.
The shifts and their causes
The HTS's attempts to change its image began in the summer of 2017 with a communication campaign with the West. At that time, the HTS political official Zeid Attar had a meeting with Jonathan Powell, a former British diplomat who manages many back channels to negotiate with terrorist-designated groups at the international or national level. However, this shift began to take shape in late 2019, one month after the killing of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of Daesh (Islamic State, ISIS). Julani delivered a speech on camera in which he explicitly announced the transition to a new stage of fighting a liberation war against the Russian and Iranian occupation. That speech was tantamount to the announcement of a radical shift in the HTS vision and orientations.
In September 2020, Abd al-Rahim Atoun, the HTS general jurist, gave statements to a French-speaking Swiss newspaper in which he confirmed that the organisation sought to exit the classification list, pointing out that the HTS had no problem with Western countries in general and France in particular.
Julani's meeting with the International Crisis Group (ICG) in February 2020 is considered the culmination of the transformation path, where he explained the status of the HTS and its doctrine, by asserting that it is "based on Islamic jurisprudence, just like any other local Sunni group in Syria [in areas outside the control of the regime]”, indicating that “like most movements in time of war, we’ve made mistakes, but we are trying to fix them now”. According to him, HTS’s single goal is to fight the regime in Damascus – “a regime that has lost all legitimacy”.
In that interview, Julani clearly underlined his efforts to develop the HTS’s political discourse with its local dimension and Syrian identity as a faction based on the Islamic jurisprudence adopted in Syria like all other “moderate factions”, and that the stage of the Jabhat al-Nusra (Support Front) was an extension of certain internal and external circumstances that dictated allegiance to al-Qaeda and nominal association therewith. A number of factors contributed to raising the ceiling of Julani's ambition to lift the HTS’s name from the lists of terrorism, and to have it dealt with as a normal political party, the most important of which are the following:
1. The existence of a precedent, namely the acceptance by the US to hold negotiations with the Afghan Taliban Movement, and the US tacit recognition of the Movement, despite having placed it for many years on the terrorism list.
2. The lifting of the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) from the US lists of terrorist organisations. The HTS issued a statement in which it indicated that it was expecting a similar decision regarding the HTS. The statement mentioned that “the classification according to which the HTS was placed on the terrorism lists is purely political and does not reflect the true picture, given that it was not based on facts or tangible evidence”. It added that “its termination would be an opportunity for correction and reconsideration of who really is a murderer and practises the most heinous types of genocide using various internationally banned weapons, according to the testimony of local and international human rights organisations and bodies”.
3. The hints by the former US envoy to Syria James Jeffrey regarding Julani to the effect that the HTS could be removed from the terrorism lists. Jeffrey emphasised that removing the HTS from the terrorism lists requires conditions and criteria that the HTS has not succeeded in meeting. This implied that once the HTS meets those conditions, its name would be removed from the terrorism lists. However, in his clearest messages, Jeffrey asserted in a press interview in January 2020 that “there’s also a very large group, the al-Nusra or Hayat Tahrir al-Sham group, HTS, that 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”.
4. The recommendation made by the ICG to the US administration to remove the HTS from the lists of terrorist organisations, since this would enable the HTS to play a different interim role and open the way for it to play a new role that is commensurate with a different stage, by pressuring it to take further steps to primarily address local and international concerns. The ICG presented several proposals to the new US administration headed by Joe Biden to correct Washington’s overly militarised foreign policy, considering that Idlib is “one opportunity to redefine US counter-terrorism strategy”.
5. Julani takes advantage of the transition in the US administration from Trump to Biden to re-present himself. The new administration began building a political strategy regarding Syria. Perhaps the appointment of Robert Malle for the Iranian issue has encouraged Julani to adopt the new look (the photo in which he appeared alongside the US journalist Martin Smith), given that under Robert Malle’s presidency of the ICG, the first interview was conducted with Julani and published on its official website. That interview presented Julani as a completely different person from the leader of a terrorist group as he was always portrayed before.
Objectives, perceptions and estimations
The central goal behind those shifts is to renew the identity of the HTS Movement and redefine it as a Syrian movement that is concerned with the cause of national liberation which is linked at this stage to the fight against the Russian and Iranian occupations, and is no longer concerned with “transnational jihad”. That stage had its own circumstances and contexts that are accordingly gone forever.
Related to this goal is another goal, namely to reformulate the map of the organisations described as terrorist, first to obtain legitimacy and, secondly, to obtain an influential role in settling the Syrian crisis, that is to enter into the political equation. The mechanisms followed by the HTS to achieve this goal are to adhere to the international agreements concluded between Turkey and Russia over the Idlib region and refrain from getting involved in international problems.
Julani seeks to enhance this context by presenting himself as a guarantor of peace and a partner in fighting extremism in northern Syria, by fighting al-Qaeda through its Syrian branch (Hurras al-Din (HaD, Guardians of Religion)). He presents himself as a guarantor for the stay of foreign fighters and jihadists in Idlib under control, and as a useful organisation in the framework of the war on terror, in addition to being a moderate local authority that must be coordinated with in Idlib.
The HTS is aware that the recent military losses and its shrinking spheres of influence in Idlib have greatly narrowed its ability to manoeuvre. It is now operating under the roof of the Turkish-Russian understandings, which are both not final and temporary. Therefore, any new battle in northern Idlib would be deep in the HTS regions. Besides, any such battle would be portrayed as a battle against terrorism. The Assad regime and Russia would pursue such a battle with enthusiasm, and the HTS would not find anyone who would ask those two to declare a ceasefire, even if civilians are the victims.
The HTS expects that its continuation may be desired by influential international parties, due to the complex and intertwining nature of the conflict in Syria that has transformed into a theatre of international conflicts. Thus, the tendency by the HTS to undergo new organisational transformations may help those parties to accept it and put it forward as a moderate party and an influential local actor that is difficult to give up in running a region teeming with extremists. The HTS perceives that it is on the threshold of achieving international acceptance. This perception is supported by the stability of the HTS security and organisational situation in Idlib and the fact that the Realpolitik requires its recognition after the changes it made in its positions and behaviour.
The HTS is betting on the changing priorities of the international community in favour of fighting extremist groups, and imposing itself as part of the understandings in the region, in addition to its wager on its ability to control the jihadist space and present itself as its sole regulator, a function that the HTS seeks at this stage, and to resolve the problem of foreign fighters that appears to be the most complex component of the issue of extremist groups.
To what extent can the HTS achieve its goals?
Despite the attempt by the HTS to appear as the main force in northern Syria, and to highlight its capability to manage the military, economic, administrative and security issues, the HTS is experiencing a clear phase of confusion and weakness, especially that its behaviour falls within the context of tactical organisational transformations that do not have any connection to the ideology and its reviews, and in the context of future bets whose results are unguaranteed. At a time when the HTS is achieving cosmetic gains, during those transformations, it gradually loses some of its cards.
The developments reveal a significant decline in the capabilities of the HTS, which reflects a decline in its influence after its successive losses in the face of the regime and Iranian militias. Furthermore, the defection of large HTS groups has weakened its capabilities, especially that the defectors were mostly foreign fighters with high combat experience and on whom the HTS relied in most of its wars against the other factions. Besides, the Turkish expansion inside Idlib deducts from the balance of the HTS influence and warns of more. The ongoing transformations raise the question about the impact of those transformations on the HTS internal structure and the ability to control extremist currents within it.
The HTS was able to overcome difficult milestones during the previous stages, starting with distancing itself from Daesh and pledging allegiance to the al-Qaeda organisation, then disengaging from al-Qaeda, transforming from the cross-border Jabhat al-Nusra to the Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS, Front for the Conquest of the Levant) with a local dimension, and subsequently establishing the HTS. While it faced objections and rejection by hard-line cadres, especially by the foreign elements, in all those stages, it was able to survive and retain its strength. It was helped in this by its capability to extend its influence beyond the military role, through the establishment of the Salvation Government and the control of the crossings and road networks, in addition to its transformation into the number one force after it overwhelmed many factions and organisations in northern Syria.
While the HTS, as a Salafi jihadist organisation, needs Sharia-based justifications in some key decisions to control the doctrinal line of its fighters and convince them of any transformation, the transformations that occurred in the past years in jihadist organisations and their shift from cross-border centralisation to localism and the tendency towards repatriation in order to exert a local influence and ensure that they have a popular base constitute the framework for any potential transformation.
Obstacles to the HTS
The available data indicate that Julani may face many obstacles in completing the course of making shifts in the HTS’s behaviour, some of which are internal and the others related to the stance of the external parties, especially the US:
Internally, the HTS houses a hard-line current that seems to be in disharmony with the transformations undertaken by Julani. Remarkably, the prominent legal and military jurist in HTS Yahya bin Taher al-Farghali, known as Abu al-Fath al-Farghali, made statements on his channel on Telegram in which he emphasised the fundamentals that cannot be waived, stressing that they are the fundamentals of the HTS leaders, soldiers and jurists alike. Farghali identified several fundamentals, namely the resort to the law of God and elevating His word, the protection of Sunni Islam, the adoption of jihad in order to uphold the word of God and the supremacy of His law, and refraining from putting their decision in the hands of others. Farghali said that among the “fundamentals of the HTS are not to follow deviant ways such as parliaments and the like in order to achieve this goal, and not to give in to injustice as far as our religion is concerned, such as agreeing to a democratic or secular rule, which religious scholars agree on the opinion that it constitutes an example of apostasy and departure from the religion and law of God”. Some observers considered his statements as an indication of the beginning of the emergence of a dispute within the HTS where Farghali leads the trend in the opposite direction of what Julani is doing to remove the HTS from the circle of terrorist classification.
Externally, there are great doubts about the possibility of confidence by the US in the steps taken by the HTS to be removed from the lists of terrorism. Doubts about the links of the HTS cannot be removed. It is more likely that the US acceptance of the discussion of the reclassification of the HTS is not related to the achievement of changes in the behaviour and rhetoric. Rather, it needs a strong justification and argument, that is, by making fundamental changes in structure, organisation and discourse. This is confirmed by the State Department's reminder of the reward that it announced earlier for those who provide information about the leader of the HTS Abu Mohammad al-Julani.
Conclusions and projections
The HTS, led by Abu Mohammad al-Julani, is trying to move from its status as a party associated with extremism and terrorism to a national movement seeking to liberate Syria from the Russian and Iranian occupations, according to Julani’s description. HTS leaders believe that there is a conducive international opportunity to help them achieve this transition. However, the reality is not similar to what is portrayed, especially in the light of the existence of a trend within the HTS that rejects those shifts, and the lack of confidence on the part of the international powers in the tactical measures taken by the HTS, which puts the HTS in the face of a number of possibilities:
First possibility: integrating the HTS, after completing its transformation into a moderate movement, within the framework of a new structure that is being prepared by Turkey and that includes the National Army and the HTS. According to information released by the Syrian opposition, a unified military council is about to be formed that brings together the two aforementioned parties, after the factions of Idlib Governorate are transformed into military brigades totalling 34 brigades, directly reporting to the military council that would be led by representatives of the HTS and the National Front for Liberation (NFL). The aim is to find a way out to solve the HTS's dilemma, remove Russian pretexts for invading Idlib and unify the military decision in the region. While the HTS's association with the Turkish decision turns it into a marginal party within a framework that brings together dozens of factions, and also despite the presence of opposition within the leaders of the HTS who portrayed the matter as merely an operations room for coordination between the many parties in Idlib and not an involvement in a unified military council, there are indications of Julani's seriousness in pursuing the project till the end, as a result of his falling under Turkish-Qatari influences that seek to reshape the Syrian scene.
Second possibility: the disintegration of the HTS into several factions, or the defection of large groups and their affiliation with the HaD. The HTS itself is a gathering of factions. It also includes multiple currents, some of which continue to adopt the al-Qaeda ideology, especially the foreigners who still constitute a large number within the ranks of the HTS. Such a possibility remains plausible, especially if the international response to accepting the HTS as a national party is delayed. This situation would encourage the hard-line currents within the HTS to reject Julani’s attempts, in addition to the possibility that Julani would make new concessions in order to integrate himself into the structures that Turkey is seeking to engineer in northern Syria.
Third possibility: the elimination of the HTS through a military operation carried out by Russia, or the factions loyal to Turkey. While the war in Idlib has become difficult as a result of the Russian-Turkish consensuses, the situation is unlikely to finally stabilise in the current form, given that Russia may seek to alter the situation in Idlib through seizing new areas, especially that the Hmeimim command talks of daily violations of the truce by the HTS, which means that the pretext is always at hand. On the other hand, Turkey now possesses a large number of equipment and personnel that would allow it to fight a war against the HTS in case the latter does not comply with Turkey’s plans in northern Syria. Besides, the sites and locations of the HTS are now besieged by the Turkish forces.
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 Julani prepares for the Biden stage: survival. Annahar al-Arabi, 26 November 2020.
 The most prominent points referred to by HTS leader Abu Mohammad al-Julani" during his interview with the International Crisis Group. Ebaa News Network, 23 February 2020.
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