Hayy'at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) militants are infighting and defecting

In recent weeks, Hayy’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) has suffered from large-scale problems within its ranks as the group rapidly unravels in northwestern Syria.

Formed in January 2017, the HTS was a conglomeration of rebel groups including Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, Jaish al-Ahrar, Jaish al-Sunna, Nour al-Din al-Zinki, Ansar al-Din and Liwa al-Haq.

After nine months since its inception, however, the coalition of groups is experiencing significant changes and challenges in maintaining its cohesion. High-profile defections have hit the group, most notably from leading clerics such as Abdullah al-Muhaysini and Musleh al-Olayani. Furthermore, founding factions Nour al-Din al-Zinki and Jaish al-Ahrar have also defected.

However, the loss of Jaish al-Ahrar will likely be felt hardest. The group, along with Nour al-Din al-Zinki and former al-Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, were the leading groups and formed the backbone of the HTS. It is also a blow for the HTS’ leader, Hasham al-Sheikh, who was formerly the head of Jaish al-Ahrar.

In the group’s defection statement, Jaish al-Ahrar criticised the HTS for corruption and the inability to reform.

Moreover, reports of infighting remain rife. This includes a spate of assassinations of militants in recent months. On Monday, the HTS commander Abu Yasser al-Shami was killed after his vehicle was attacked by unknown gunmen.

The near dissolution of the rebel coalition comes weeks after the group defeated its nearest and most powerful rival, Ahrar al-Sham, at the end of July. This has allowed the HTS to instigate its own rule, with many onlookers suggesting this was the group’s prime opportunity to consolidate power in Idlib Province.

However, citizens across the province have responded negatively to what they perceive as an attempted “power grab” by the HTS, the destruction of rebel-unity and the brutal treatment of civilians. Moreover, some towns and villages such as Saraqib and Maarat al-Numan continue to protest against HTS rule and have often called for the expulsion of al-Qaeda-linked groups, citing the links of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra) to al-Qaeda.

With the coalition rapidly unravelling and widespread discontent with the group’s practises, it remains to be seen what future the group has in Idlib. This comes amidst international mediation of the Idlib de-escalation zone, as well as an increased Turkish military build-up on the border.