Al Qaeda’s role in the Syrian civil war drastically increased after the al Qaeda-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) managed to take control of Syria’s northwestern Idlib province and position itself as the strongest rebel force battling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. HTS has built accumulated support in Syria by focusing its attention on battling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as opposed to concentrating its efforts on international targets. The Cipher Brief’s Bennett Seftel sat down with counterterrorism expert Daveed Gartenstein-Ross to discuss HTS’ influence in Syria, the organization’s overall strategy, and the group’s short and long-term objectives.
The Cipher Brief: Al Qaeda-linked militants in Syria formed an umbrella group known Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which has incorporated several Syrian rebel factions. It has taken hold of Idlib province in northwestern Syria, and now represents the strongest opposition to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. How has the group managed to consolidate power? Does it represent a formidable rebel force?
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross: Many factors contributed to HTS’ creation. One set of factors was endogenous to its predecessor organization, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS). JFS leader Abu Muhammad al-Julani faced internal pressures within his organization that moved him toward seeing HTS as strategically necessary. A second set of factors is exogenous to JFS, including the relationships between rebel groups. Five militant factions that were clashing with JFS joined the militant group Ahrar al-Sham, at least in part. This expansion of Ahrar al-Sham with groups hostile to JFS provided the impetus for JFS to accelerate efforts to swell its ranks.
But in addition to these endogenous and exogenous factors, there is a strategic dimension to HTS’ formation, and earlier moves on the part of HTS’ predecessors enabled the group’s later consolidation of power. Prior to JFS’ formation, al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria was known as Jabhat al-Nusra. In contrast to the Islamic State’s (ISIS) decision to try to dominate all militant factions on the ground, Nusra adopted more of a big tent approach of cooperation with other rebel groups. A significant step in the group’s evolution toward becoming HTS was then-Nusra front emir Julani’s emirate plan. Revealed through leaked audio in July 2014, the plan called for the announcement of an emirate in the Levant and implementation of sharia in areas the emirate controlled. To create an emirate, Nusra would have to unify disparate militant efforts in Syria and fend off the challenge posed by ISIS.
Nusra took advantage of the fact that it was then widely regarded as a spent force, so U.S. airstrikes did not focus on it. The only time the U.S. hit Nusra targets during this period was when the U.S. struck at the “Khorasan Group” (affiliated with al Qaeda’s core leadership), which was embedded with Nusra and other rebel groups. The Pentagon said at the time that the Khorasan Group was plotting to attack American and Western interests. The United States’ narrow targeting of the Khorasan Group while Nusra was left largely unchecked was driven in part by the fact that Nusra was heavily intertwined with other rebel factions and the U.S. did not want to be seen as attacking the anti-Assad rebels as a whole. However, this targeting decision also helped Nusra/al Qaeda achieve a stronger base in Syria.
Following the announcement of the emirate plan, Nusra was able to assemble the Jaysh al-Fatah coalition in March 2015. As the New York Times has noted, Jaysh al-Fatah was “a loose alliance” rather than a “unified army.” That is, its members shared resources, coordinated military efforts, but remained “independent, and there is no overall military commander.” Jaysh al-Fatah was predominantly composed of Islamist factions, including Nusra and also the group that is now the most prominent Sunni rebel alternative to HTS (other than ISIS), Ahrar al-Sham. One key impetus behind Jaysh al-Fatah’s creation was the fact that ISIS had gobbled up Deir ez-Zor from April to July 2014, taking the governorate from al-Qaeda and other rebels. This defeat made clear that Nusra needed a new military approach. Jaysh al-Fatah began with a bang, capturing the provincial capital of Idlib the same month that it was announced. The coalition was able to carve out a safe haven that was approximately the size of one of the smaller New England states.
Another key step toward HTS’ formation was Nusra/JFS’s public dissociation from al Qaeda. This announcement proved to be a precursor step to the formation of HTS. HTS was initially formed by five rebel factions: JFS, Harakat Nur al-Din al-Zinki, Liwa al-Haq, Liwa Ansar al-Din, and Jaysh al-Sunna. It is unlike Jaysh al-Fatah in the sense that the factions that make up HTS no longer retain a nominal separate identity. Instead, they officially dissolved, becoming part of a new entity.
Does it represent a formidable rebel force? Yes. Ahrar al-Sham has lost a number of fighters to HTS through defection, and as of January 2017 the Middle East news company Al-Sharq Al-Awsat estimated that HTS had 31,000 fighters. Though such estimates should be viewed with some caution, as even official estimates of the numbers in Syria-based militant factions have proven to be unreliable in important ways in the past, the core idea that the group has tens of thousands of fighters seems correct.
TCB: What are HTS’ objectives? Does it prioritize ousting Assad from power or attacking regional and international adversaries such as Turkey, the EU, and the U.S.?
Gartenstein-Ross: Objectives and priorities should be understood as separate things. For salafi jihadist groups like HTS, their long-term objectives, or ultimate goals, are inherently rooted in their ideology. Salafi jihadism is a violent outgrowth of the salafi movement, and has several long-term objectives that drive its use of violence. One objective is to impose sharia, or Islamic law, a goal that can be seen in Julani’s emirate plan; sharia has also consistently been implemented by al Qaeda affiliates whenever they have been able to capture distinct geographic areas, including in Northern Mali, Somali, Yemen, and elsewhere. Another objective of the salafi jihadist movement is reestablishment of the caliphate. Al Qaeda leaders have made numerous references to the need to reestablish the caliphate, though they rejected ISIS’ claim to have done so as illegitimate because it did not fulfill the necessary prerequisites.
The caliphate’s alleged establishment did not end ISIS’ war against the infidels, nor would it do so for al Qaeda. One work that shows how jihadists envision their fight continuing even after the caliphate has been restored is Jordanian journalist Fouad Hussein’s influential 2005 book Al-Zarqawi: The Second Generation of al-Qaeda, which Pulitzer Prize-winning author Lawrence Wright has called “perhaps the most definitive outline of al-Qaeda’s master plan.” Hussein shows that al Qaeda’s strategists foresaw a “stage of all-out confrontation” with the forces of atheism after the caliphate is established. Hussein writes, “Al-Qaeda ideologues believe that the all-out confrontation with the forces of falsehood will take a few years at most. The enormous potential of the Islamic state—particularly because the Muslim population will amount to more than 1.5 billion—will terrify the enemy and prompt them to retreat rapidly.”
But long-term objectives do not dictate current priorities, which are driven by a group’s situation and strategy. There is no evidence that HTS’ current priority is attacking Turkey, the EU, and the U.S., which would likely be strategically counterproductive. Instead, HTS seems intent on consolidating its power in parts of Syria. Jihadist groups have a tendency to intermingle the local with the transnational, so we should not take its current local prioritization as unchangeable – but the group is currently emphasizing the local, while its overarching objectives remain transnational.
TCB: HTS publicly severed ties with the al-Qaeda network while under its previous name, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham. Does the group still maintain ties to al-Qaeda?
Gartenstein-Ross: I assess it as highly probable that HTS maintains ties to al Qaeda. When al Qaeda first moved into the Syria theater, its affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra disguised the fact that it was part of the al Qaeda organization. This was designed to allow it to operate as part of a broader rebel coalition. ISIS ultimately forced Nusra to reveal its relationship with al Qaeda when ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi publicly claimed that Nusra was subservient to him. In response, Julani acknowledged Nusra’s affiliation with al Qaeda, and appealed to Zawahiri to resolve his dispute with Baghdadi. While Zawahiri did side with Julani, he was not happy that, in responding to Baghdadi, Julani showed “his links to al-Qaeda without having our permission or advice, even without notifying us.”
There are several examples of al Qaeda employing clandestine connections to its affiliates. Indeed, an official al Qaeda publication outlines what may have been intended by JFS’ public dissociation, as Al-Masra (a weekly newsletter of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula that is a key source for understanding al Qaeda’s thinking) published an article by the pseudonymous Osama bin Saleh on August 9, 2016. In a section of his letter titled “Not Standing Out,” Saleh reiterated that al-Qaeda never wanted a publicly-acknowledged affiliate in Syria. He quoted the May 2014 passage from Zawahiri reprimanding Julani for announcing al-Qaeda’s presence in Syria without authorization. Bin Saleh also pointed to an August 2010 letter (previously released by the U.S. government) from bin Laden to Ahmed Godane, the emir of Somali jihadist group al-Shabaab. Bin Laden told Godane that Shabaab’s “unity” with al-Qaeda “should be carried out … through unannounced secret messaging.” Godane and his men could spread the news that Shabaab had joined al-Qaeda “among the people of Somalia,” but should not make “any official declaration” of allegiance. The letter to Godane made clear that Shabaab was already part of al-Qaeda at the time, but bin Laden believed ambiguity was a strategic advantage. “If the matter becomes declared and out in the open, it would have the enemies escalate their anger and mobilize against you,” bin Laden wrote. Though bin Laden conceded that “enemies will find out inevitably” about Shabaab’s allegiance to al-Qaeda, he argued that “an official declaration remains to be the master of all proof.” Bin Saleh underlined the point: “Notice that the leadership of the organization [al-Qaeda] was not passionate about declaring their relationship with other factions, in order to avoid confrontation with the enemies and … denying them excuses.”
While open sources do not fully answer the question of HTS’ connection to al Qaeda – just as in the past they did not fully answer questions about al Qaeda’s connection to groups like al-Shabaab or Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia until important documents were later made public – I would advise keeping this strategic calculus in mind when considering the question.