Syria Insight: Jolani's outreach campaign highlights HTS' many challenges in Idlib
Over the past six months, Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham's (HTS) chief, Abu Mohammed Al-Jolani, has toured camps, villages and homes in Idlib province as part of an ambitious public relations campaign aimed at presenting the commander as a responsible leader concerned with the welfare of ordinary Syrians.
Swapping his fatigues and rifle for a taqqiyah, shirt and ladle, Jolani's most recent outreach to the local community was serving fuul and hummus to patrons at a popular Idlib restaurant.
Once again, the visit failed on the details with attention focused on a freemasons t-shirt worn by one of Jolani's crew, another set-back for the jihadist commander's bid to polish his public persona.
The PR campaign comes at a critical juncture for Jolani and his HTS organisation, which is now responsible for considerable civilian as well as military affairs in Idlib province amid a torrent of internal and external pressures.
After taking over much of Idlib early in 2019 and pushing out moderate rebel groups, HTS have been had to deal with the loss of the south of the province to the regime, an array of restless jihadist groups, massive homelessness and poverty, and the threat of a Covid-19 outbreak.
Jolani has switched from being the commander of Al-Qaeda's Syria franchise, Al-Nusra Front, to the head of a Syrian militia grouping that has quietly began to eschew its previous transnational jihadist ties.
HTS-linked media portray Jolani as a responsible and moderate Syrian leader looking to administer Idlib fairly and defending the province from regime attacks.
"Jolani's recent PR campaign comes as a part of HTS' broader strategy to portray themselves as a local Syrian organisation that is primarily focused on administering Idlib and that they no longer have any transnational objectives," said Dareen Khalifa, a senior Syria analyst at the International Crisis Group.
"This means they are keen to protect the area from regime advances and consolidating their administrative government structures, while opening up to local communities and non-threatening opposition voices. Jolani's recent public appearances are a continuation and extension of that."
While a Russia-Turkey brokered ceasefire has given Idlib residents some respite from daily Russian bombing raids and halted the Assad regime's ground offensives, millions of Syrians are still living in tents and makeshift shelters amid immense poverty.
|Jolani's recent PR campaign comes as a part of HTS' broader strategy to portray themselves as a local Syrian organisation.
- Dareen Khalifa
Jolani's challenge is to establish the stable conditions needed in Idlib to lessen suffering on Idlib residents and ensure that HTS does not lose more territories to the regime.
At the same time, Jolani needs to ensure that his makeover does not completely isolate his jihadist fighters in his ranks.
HTS faces pressure from Hurras Al-Din, a more radical transnational jihadist outfit that has attracted a growing number of disenchanted, particularly foreign, fighters.
After Hurras Al-Din broke an agreement earlier this year not to establish parallel power structures in Idlib, HTS saw the opportunity to further consolidate their control over the province by taking over bases and checkpoints operated by the militants.
It saw also saw commanders and activists suspected of links with Hurras Al-Din arrested, but HTS stopped short of the outright destruction the jihadist group.
"HTS have adopted this multi-layered approach towards Hurras Al-Din. Initially they tolerated their presence after they took part in the pushback against the regime’s military offensives," said Khalifa.
"They had a containment strategy to limit Hurras Al-Din's capabilities within Idlib, so once they violated this it gave HTS the pretext to go after them. It was quite an easy takeover by HTS, taking only three days."
The campaign coincided with the arrests of a number of foreign self-decribed media activists and aid workers in Idlib.
Mohannad Hage Ali, a fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center, said that a US-led coalition airstrikes on Hurras Al-Din's leadership has also increased accusations among jihadist circles that HTS is collaborating with the US and Turkey.
"You can imagine how a jihadist will see HTS not being targeted by the US-led coalition while Hurras Al-Din are, and this creates the feeling that HTS are not only disengaged with the jihadist cause but also conspiring against it," said Hage Ali.
"I see a vicious circle where the more the US attacks Hurras Al-Din, and the more Jolani is pressured into making concessions, the more disenfranchised fighters HTS will lose to Hurras Al-Din."
|Jolani has become the Syrian equivalent of Walid Jumblatt.
- Mohannad Hage Ali
Accusations that HTS' crackdown on Hurras Al-Din was in response to Turkish demands to rein-in restless jihadist groups will further undermine Jolani's credibility among this constituency and possibly lead to future confrontations with more radical groups.
"This PR campaign is a very difficult and slow process for Jolani. It is not 180 degrees turn by Jolani, it is a rebranding effort. There is definitely a crackdown on the jihadists by HTS, but also an attempt to appease them at the same time. Otherwise, too many tensions will emerge in Idlib," said Hage Ali.
"I'm not sure if he's willing to give up on his extremist base altogether, but his ideological stance is changing. It is perhaps too fast for some jihadists but probably not quick enough for Turkey. It's a difficult balance and not an easy process for Jolani."
In order not to compltely isolate his base, the crackdown on Hurras Al-Din has been relatively soft, while HTS have at the same time accused jihadist rivals of torture and links to the Islamic State group.
In response, there have been considerable attempts to disrupt the peace by their rivals and a growing number of HTS fighters are said to be dissatisfied with Jolani's attempts to disassociate himself with the transnational jihadist brand.
Radical groups have launched attackson Turkish and Russian patrols in southern Idlib and shelled regime positions, leading to Russian airstrikes disrupting the peace and serving to further undermine HTS' aim of centralising control of Idlib.
Attempts by HTS to appear a disciplined and responsible authority, capable of administering a province of 4 million and creating some stability in Idlib, chime with Jolani's recent efforts to appear more moderate to the outside world.
"Since the day he broke ranks with Al-Qaeda, Jolani has rebranded himself again and again. He has become the Syrian equivalent of Walid Jumblatt, Lebanon's political acrobat. We see continuous efforts by Jolani to project an image of governance in Idlib and that he is not an extremist fighter, but this has to be reconciled with his jihadist base," said Hage Ali.
Appealing to both sides will likely prove an impossible task for Jolani and he could be forced into a position where he has to choose whether to continue with his rebranding efforts, which could prove impossible given his former links to Al-Qaeda, or remain a jihadist figurehead.
"The rebranding is cosmetic and directed at external actors. I'm not sure Jolani is willing to give up on his extremist base and he is likely embarrassed by his relationship with the 'apostate' Turkish army, as some jihadists view them," said Hage Ali.
HTS are very unlikely to stop their harassment of pro-democracy movements in Idlib, while Jolani's reputation as a brutal warlord will be impossible to shake-off among Syrians, despite his outreach efforts.
"People in the region are used to these PR campaigns by their leaders and recent attempts could prove counterproductive for Jolani. People are sceptical about what Jolani's real motives are so I doubt his efforts will prove very useful," Hage Ali added.
Syria Insight is a regular feature from The New Arab. To get Syria Insight in your inbox each edition, sign up here.
Paul McLoughlin is a news editor at The New Arab.
Follow him on Twitter: @PaullMcLoughlin