The present crisis in Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham: Interactions and scenarios

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Since its foundation in 2017, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) has established the National Salvation Government (NSG), created a supportive environment for the local private sector to grow and invest in several production and trade sectors, ended the factionalism that infested the local security order and introduced a centralised governance structure in its place. To achieve these objectives, the group implemented a dual strategy of offering financial and social incentives and rewards to its loyalists and threats of elimination and imprisonment to their foes and antagonists. The group’s social contract with the local population is founded on the principles of traditional authoritarian regimes. It emphasises safety and a promise of relative economic stability in return for unwavering loyalty and submission to its authority.

This semblance of order, discipline and authority that HTS has projected has even encouraged several attempts to gradually rehabilitate the group in Syria’s mainstream politics despite its internationally recognised terrorist status. Nevertheless, this centralisation was soon hampered by the limited resources at the group’s disposal. Consequently, its leadership grew restless to find new revenue sources and territories to feed its governance machine, without which the basis of its social contract with the populace would collapse.

In 2022 and 2023, HTS fought four battles against the Turkey-backed Syrian National Army (SNA) in Northern Aleppo to expand its territory and resources. Expanding in opposition-held areas was perceived as the least costly and easiest path for the group to reinforce its authority and influence. Nevertheless, each time the Turkish Army intervened and prevented the imminent defeat of their closest allies in the opposition, which most importantly exposed the growing vulnerability of HTS.

With HTS’s capacity to finance its promises of relative prosperity and stability dwindling, the group’s authority became increasingly questionable, and challengers to its leadership became increasingly emboldened. A year ago, the pressure within the organisation mounted and triggered the arrest of hundreds of individuals on the pretext of combating espionage. This crackdown was largely perceived as political and an attempt to prevent internal dissent. This episode confirmed the repressive nature of HTS and its lack of a clear security doctrine to manage the region. It also emphasised the growing polarisation within HTS and the eroding confidence in al-Golani’s leadership. This latest crisis in the group emboldened local communities to protest, demand change and act on deep-seated grievances.

The Roots of the Crisis

Internally, the military wing of HTS has long demanded a greater role in decision-making, viewing the security apparatus controlled by al-Golani and his deputy, Anas Khattab, also known as Abu Ahmad Hudud, as corrupt and resistant to challenging the political and military status quo. The group’s internal complexity is further heightened by competing factions divided not only by their visions but also by social partisanship and affiliation. These factions include the Jazrawi bloc from eastern Syria, along with groups led by Abdullah al-Muhaysini, Abu Shu’ayb al-Masri, Zubair al-Ghazi (all former members of the legislative Shar’i branch) and Jihad Issa Sheikh, ‘Abu Ahmad Zakur,’ former financial officer and head of the security cell responsible for infiltrating the SNA.

This internal division came to the forefront in June 2023, when the General Security Service (GSS) of HTS initiated a wave of arrests, accusing 400 members of the military wing of espionage. In mid-July, HTS publicly announced the elimination of an espionage cell. This led to a targeted campaign against Abu Ahmad Zakur, who was allegedly involved in espionage activities. On 15 January 2024 the GSS declared it had thwarted a security plot and that its investigation was continuing. By the first week of February 2024, most of those detained in connection with the espionage case were released, although the outcome of the accusations remained uncertain.

On their release, tensions increased within HTS after reports of torture of detainees and the death of an individual without his family being notified. This fuelled public anger, especially among civil activists, amidst fears that political detainees would be executed. The initial demonstrations against the group started with limited numbers in Idlib’s Clock Square and Sarmada in the  northern countryside of the province. However, on the first Friday of March 2024, the numbers and geographical scope of the participants expanded, spreading to several cities and towns controlled by HTS in Idlib, its countryside and western rural Aleppo.

The key areas of popular protests against HTS show the diverse groups/tendencies challenging its authority. For instance, protests in areas previously considered HTS strongholds, such as Binnish, Taftanaz, Killi and Sarmada in Idlib, are driven by internal factional struggles within the group. In Atarib and Darat Izza in western Aleppo, demonstrators are driven by local grievances and protests against their political and economic marginalisation. In addition, several political and militant groups are exploiting this popular unrest for their own interests. Hizb Al Tahrir (a non-violent Islamic political organisation advocating re-establishment of the caliphate) views the unrest as a response to its calls for an uprising against HTS and is attempting to reintroduce itself in the mainstream of local politics. Similarly, after the death of one of its members, Abdul Qadir al-Hakim, under torture in a GSS prison,  Ahrar al-Sham has used the movement to confront HTS indirectly. Hurras al-Din (an al-Qaeda-affiliated militant group in Syria) has also involved itself with Abu Malik al-Talli (a former al-Nusra Front leader and ISIS sympathiser in Qalamon) participating in demonstrations and issuing a statement supporting the movement with demands for further application of Sharia law.

In addition to the above, other factors have led civilians to raise their voices and protest against HTS. Chief among them is the deteriorating economic situation, which is marked by widespread unemployment and rising poverty levels. It is exacerbated by the group’s policies, especially its control over key economic sectors like fuel and its imposition of taxes on various sectors and services amid inflation and joblessness.

Since the protests began, the public has looked to political activists and civil society organisations for leadership. However, many have refrained from participating due to fear of reprisals by HTS or scepticism about the movement’s objectives. The political and civil society actors involved fall in four categories. First, civil society organisations have largely abstained from being involved, fearing backlashes by HTS. Second, the longstanding political body in Idlib which consists of former civil coordination revolutionary activists has released a statement expressing support but has not proceeded with any additional measures. Third, a host of local activists have demanded a neutral protest area and advocated national unity and a democratic government while rejecting both HTS and the Assad regime. Last, some prominent local figures have advocated negotiations with HTS for political reform and broader representation in governance.

A noteworthy case is the Karamah Initiative, which has garnered widespread support, notably because of its strong organisation. Key figures include Farouk Keshkesh, a doctor and community activist who helped form resistance groups affiliated with HTS; Bassam Siyoni, an academic and former head of the General Shura Council in Idlib, who also served as a minister in the Salvation Government; and Abdul Razzaq al-Mahdi, a prominent cleric renowned for his bold stance despite threats against him. While the initiative has added momentum to the protests, its association with individuals previously aligned with HTS has alienated some potential supporters. Its emphasis on establishing Islamic rule has deterred activists advocating civil and political reforms from joining its ranks.

Despite the challenges arising due to the diverging interests of these actors and the HTS divide-and-conquer strategy, activists are increasingly demonstrating greater coordination. Despite their current inability to neutralise the most militant actors, this growing unity shows potential for more effective opposition to HTS in the future.

The HTS Response and Possible Future Scenarios

In response to the internal and social crisis, the HTS leadership has launched an initiative to resolve the situation, including forming a special judicial committee to investigate allegations of torture of military personnel and issuing a general amnesty. They have engaged in intensive media activities and dialogue with various social segments, such as local religious leaders, businessmen, tribe sheikhs and activists with Islamic inclinations, in order to propose reforms. Amid the momentum of the protests, HTS adopted a new policy to contain the unrest by temporarily abandoning repression while ignoring the main demands, notably for al-Golani to step down and be held accountable.

This shift was evident in a statement by HTS’s chief cleric, Abdul Rahim Attoun, who emphasised his responsiveness to calls for an amnesty for detainees and mentioned that investigators would be suspended following a request by the judicial committee. The NSG recognised the legitimacy of the protesters’ demands and described the movement as being led by “zealous youths” while accusing them of being influenced by “electronic armies organised by the enemy to disrupt the internal front of the revolution.” The GSC also announced the release of dozens of detainees, and it is expected that HTS will continue to refrain from confronting the protests in the short term, thus leveraging the narrative of free protest to improve its image, especially after the recent incidents of torture.

However, exceptions remain as in the protest in Darat Izza, where live ammunition was used, indicating that HTS would resort to force if the demands intensified or the protests gained momentum. Indeed, the GSC has recently increased its patrols in urban areas. These are fully equipped and armed to keep the threat to use violence alive, which had not been the case in the last couple of years. There have been similar acts of intimidation, such as banning the ‘Revolution Flag’ after allowing it since 2021 because of a threat of a possible return of al-Qaeda ideology to govern the region.

Given the current situation, three future scenarios for the popular protests in northwestern Syria can be outlined. First, there may be a gradual containment of the protests, with al-Golani attempting to leverage security and economic measures. This will involve easing the security grip, releasing some detainees and reducing taxes, fees and fuel prices. In this scenario, al-Golani would retain his leadership, thus maintaining internal cohesion and rallying supporters around him, allowing HTS to continue to control northwest Syria with some concessions and reforms without altering its structure and role.

A second potential scenario would involve resorting to violence and neutralising key influencers. If HTS stabilises internally, it might target the key activists driving the protests, impacting their modus operandi and expansion. HTS could also resort to bombings and assassinations while blaming external parties like the Assad regime or Islamic State (IS). This could open other fronts for HTS, such as disrupting protests by launching limited military operations against Assad’s forces, prompting airstrikes that deter gatherings and indirectly aiding al-Golani in quelling the movement. In this scenario, al-Golani would buy time but may not necessarily succeed in reclaiming full authority in the long run.

Last, al-Golani could step down due to the depth of the internal crisis and the defection of some military factions aligning with demands from the local community. This scenario is the most unlikely, but it would mean HTS losing control over northwest Syria, leading to structural and role changes and potentially resulting in a new administrative model independent of HTS.

Regardless of how HTS deals with or suppresses the protests, the local population has become more courageous in criticising and challenging its security grip. This is particularly significant amid an unprecedented internal crisis threatening the group and a state of distrust between its military and security wings. Nevertheless, there are differences in the objectives of the HTS internal factions’ discontent with al-Golani and the protesting public. While the former seek to oust al-Golani, weaken his grip or regain their organisational roles, the latter aim to overthrow the entire HTS governance structure. This difference may influence future protests, particularly if al-Golani settles with the opposing factions in his organisation, potentially depriving the movement of a key driving force.