Will Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham reshape Syria's north?
When the forces of Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), an armed Islamist group which is a successor to the al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra, rolled into Afrin in northern Syria earlier this month, the primary reaction was one of confusion.
HTS had for some time functioned as an unwilling but significant part of the uneasy administration of the country’s north – much of which is administered with the help of Turkey and its intelligence services, the National Intelligence Organization (MIT).
Afrin, in particular, was administered by the reorganised Syrian National Army (SNA), a force of former Syrian rebels organised in close alliance with Turkey, with whom the SNA had taken Afrin from Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) forces in an offensive called Operation Olive Branch in early 2018.
Ever since, according to Turkish intelligence and local SNA detachments, Afrin has seen a determined insurgency coordinated by the YPG’s umbrella organisation, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
That the apple cart would be upset now by HTS, and this much, has surprised many.
"HTS had for some time functioned as an unwilling but significant part of the uneasy administration of the country's north"
Analysts remarked on the scale of the HTS advance, which brought armoured vehicles into Afrin. When it was discovered that Abu Mohammad al-Jolani, the commander of HTS, took part in the advance personally, more surprise was sounded.
He had not been very visible of late – perhaps because his long-term goal is to legitimise HTS as a distinct breakaway from the traditions of al-Nusra and its al-Qaeda history.
HTS is sanctioned as a terrorist organisation by the United States and the European Union. Any military show of force like this will likely keep that designation looking appropriate.
Did this perhaps represent a future of inter-rebel fighting within the Turkish-administered north? Similarly, others wondered whether this represented a collapse of the always precarious Turkish-administered system of governance in which HTS and its affiliated Salvation Government were able to remain in place in much of Idlib province.
According to Charles Lister and Rena Netjes, the tension rose as individual units within the SNA and HTS orbits competed and disputed the local drugs trade and protection money racket.
Abu Ghanoum, an activist in al-Bab, was recently killed - along with his pregnant wife. Netjes notes that before his murder, Ghanoum had begun investigating the al-Hamza Brigade’s, a local armed group, involvement in the illegal drugs trade.
HTS took Afrin and surrounding villages largely without losses on both sides. It began political arrests. After a week, it seemed to reach a settlement for joint administration with SNA forces, but this quickly fell apart. Now, in defiance of Turkish demands to leave Afrin, both HTS and Turkish military observers appear to be preparing for further conflict.
But the roots of this move are deeper.
“For some time, HTS has been trying to expand its [sphere] to Afrin [from Idlib] because of the crossings between both areas that are very important, financially speaking; and to try to show Turkey that it has the ability to expand, and so can help Turkey to do what SNA groups failed to do, which is maintaining regional security and ending the SDF-backed insurgency,” Suhail al-Ghazi, a Syrian researcher, told TNA.
“HTS’ alliance with some SNA groups was under threat, when other SNA groups tried to end the al-Hamza Brigade, and it needed to show allied SNA groups, including al-Hamza, that it can protect them,” al-Ghazi added.
“HTS still thinks that other groups like Levant Front, Jaysh al-Islam and parts of Ahrar al-Sham [other armed groups, all of which are present in Idlib and the north] are still a threat to its project, and always tries to end them because they have local support that other SNA groups don't have.” All of this built up.
HTS has long sought to dominate its surroundings. It has a dedicated core of fighters and some local support organised through the Salvation Government. It believes its fighters are willing and able. And it resents the various attempts by Turkish forces and intelligence to stoke disagreement and dissent against it.
In the last decade, Turkish intelligence reformed other Islamist rebel groups into the Syrian Liberation Front (JTS) which was intended to beat HTS at its own game in Idlib. This did not work, with the JTS eventually withdrawing to Afrin; but HTS and Jolani are unlikely to have forgotten or forgiven Turkey’s involvement – and its eventual objective of usurping HTS.
"[HTS] is creating a situation where Turkey - and by extension the whole outside world - cannot operate in Northern Syria without dealing with HTS"
HTS, even under someone as calculating as Jolani, cannot, it seems, sit back and allow Turkish forces to try again. And especially at present, HTS is strong and its opponents weak.
Turkey has long threatened a renewed offensive into the northwestern parts of Syria where the YPG-run SDF has its base. This offensive has been long-trailed and long-delayed. Many analysts and locals believe it will never come.
But if it were to do so, HTS might find itself attempting to operate against a Turkish force in northern Syria which might be significantly reinforced, or with newly boosted rebel and SNA opposition.
Now appears to be the time for HTS to demonstrate – not only the superiority of its Salvation Government, which appears uncommonly stable – but also its fighting men.
This does not mean that HTS and Turkey are doomed to fight. “Both HTS and Turkey don't want hostilities,” said al-Ghazi.
“They are working closely on some issues but don't want an escalation. HTS knows that it can't just fight Turkey because Turkey guarantees the current situation in Idlib. But also, we can't say HTS is under full Turkish control like the SNA. Turkey's silence on this matter, HTS attacking SNA and Afrin, was because Turkey doesn't much like Levant Front and Jaysh al-Islam because they are not one hundred percent behind Turkey, so HTS is a perfect scarecrow for SNA.”
It is possible that HTS is going to start asserting itself more vigorously vis-a-vis Turkish forces and intelligence, but without open conflict.
If more violence is avoided, it will be more than a fait accompli for HTS – it will be a coup, within limits.
“Jolani tested the water and understood what he wanted to know: the Turkish response, US statement, SNA alliances, and local support,” said al-Ghazi.
He got what he wanted and succeeded in his objectives. But this does not mean HTS domination.
“HTS will continue to try to enter Afrin and be present there, maybe among allied SNA groups, but it won't cause a bigger escalation in the future because this is something Turkey doesn't want especially 8 months before [Turkey’s upcoming] election,” said al-Ghazi.
That election complicates things for Turkey. It makes the Syria issue both a higher priority and a distraction. Turkey under Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been unsuccessful in pacifying the north of Syria from either Kurdish or jihadist insurgency. The area is not stable enough to be the intended final destination for the million Syrian refugees who currently live in Turkey.
Erdogan’s electoral chances hinge on his ability to stabilise northern Syria and to deport refugees in large numbers – and all of his gambits for each have largely failed.
Now Turkey has even indicated its willingness to go some way to accept the survival of the Assad regime, including new open, diplomacy when the time is right.
"Fundamentally, HTS did this in Afrin because it could - it was opportunistic. It had cultivated the SNA elements it needed, and it was sure Turkey would not react"
Yet meanwhile, Turkish strength in northern Syria is ebbing as its own rebel proxies become more corrupt and less popular, and Turkish forces become bogged down. It is into this confusion that Jolani and HTS have stepped.
“Fundamentally, HTS did this in Afrin because it could - it was opportunistic. It had cultivated the SNA elements it needed, and it was sure Turkey would not react. HTS is less asserting itself against Turkish intelligence than asserting itself to Turkish intelligence; it is creating a situation where Turkey - and by extension the whole outside world - cannot operate in Northern Syria without dealing with HTS,” said Kyle Orton, an independent researcher of jihadism and terrorism.
“Whether there is a pause for a time, as seems likely, while HTS consolidates in Afrin and tries to somewhat hide its hand, its driving ideology is expansionist and monopolistic, so we could easily be here again soon in other SNA territories; the limiting factor is politics and capacity.”
The HTS advance could stop, or it could still go on to Azaz. The future of this Syrian region is in the hands of the Turkish, SNA, and HTS negotiators.
James Snell is a writer whose work has appeared in numerous international publications including The Telegraph, Prospect, National Review, NOW News, Middle East Eye and History Today.
Follow him on Twitter: @James_P_Snell