Following the defeat of ISIS, Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) has emerged as the forerunner of jihadi activity in Syria
Since the defeat of ISIS in eastern Syria, attention has refocused on the last remaining rebel-held pocket in the west of the country. Controlled largely by Hayy’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a coalition of rebel factions, observers have noted similarities between the group and ISIS. And while there do exist commonalities between the two sides, the reality may be more complex.
Following the outbreak of conflict in Syria in 2011, HTS has undergone a significant series of transformations and developments. Beginning as Jabhat al-Nusra and led by Abu Mohammed al-Jolani, the group originated from the Islamic State of Iraq, the precursor to ISIS, under the leadership of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
While Jabhat al-Nusra split from ISIS in acrimonious fashion, Jabhat al-Nusra continued to be a key fighting force against the Assad Regime in the early days of the war.
But since then Jabhat al-Nusra has rebranded itself on two further occasions. In July 2016, the group rebranded to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, signalling its desire to detangle itself from Al Qaeda and become an independent entity in Syria.
Just six months later in January 2017, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham merged with hardline groups Nour al-Din al-Zinki, Liwa al-Haq, Jaish al-Sunna and Ansar al-Dine to form Hayy’at Tahrir al-Sham.
While many of these groups, including Nour al-Din al-Zinki, have since left HTS, the group commands several thousands of fighters, with relations with other rebel groups in Idlib notably strained after a series of conflicts, infighting and purges.
But how does the comparison to ISIS hold up today?
While HTS and ISIS have at times endured a fractured relationship, with ISIS militants carrying out numerous attacks against HTS and other rebel groups in Idlib, the HTS is not entirely devoid of blame for ISIS’ presence in Idlib.
In 2016, as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, the group merged fighters belonging to rebel group Jund al-Aqsa despite warnings from other rebel groups that Jund al-Aqsa contained fighters loyal to ISIS.
Ignoring these warnings, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham defended Jund al-Aqsa, only for the latter to turn and pledge its allegiance to ISIS, with many fighters splitting from Jabhat Fateh al-Sham while others actively went to join ISIS in Raqqa.
But beyond rebel politics, observers have cited similarities in the tactics employed by both groups. Over the past years, HTS has slowly increased its influence over Idlib, finally gaining what is tantamount to full control in January 2019 after defeating other rebel groups and asserting its authority.
The move was reminiscent of how ISIS crushed opposition factions to its rule in 2014. Instead of gaining attention like ISIS did, HTS has exploited and subverted rebel factions in a pragmatic fashion when necessary, before defeating them when the group wanted to exert its sole dominance in the region.
Furthermore, HTS set up the Syrian Salvation Government (SSG) in 2017 as a means of legitimising and politicising its rule. Acting as a de facto HTS-backed political entity in Idlib, the SSG has meted out a number of arbitrary laws and severe punishments.
Working in tandem, the HTS and SSG have clamped down on civil society actors, protests to its rule – including shooting at unarmed civilians – and imprisoning or forcibly disappearing or displacing those who utter any form of dissent, even those affiliated to the HTS such as Dr Ola Sharif. This has also extended to displaced people in recent weeks.
While the HTS is playing a slow game, the group’s exploitation and removal of other groups, its tactics, and arbitrary system of punishment all bear some of the hallmarks of ISIS.