In a conflict that is unique in its sheer complexity, the disposition and standing of rival fighting groups shifts on a near daily basis. There have been increasing reports on a new coalition of fighting groups who collectively are known as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). But who are this new group? And, who are they fighting for?
In July 2016, the Al-Nusra Front apparently ‘broke’ formal ties with Al Qaeda renaming itself the Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS). However, in another re-brand JFS has now merged with four smaller groups to become the HTS.
HTS is led by Hashim al-Sheikh, also known as Abu Jaber, who was until very recently commanding general of the rival Ahrar al-Sham (AAS). In his new HTS role, Abu Jaber has turned on AAS in an increasingly bitter struggle for the Islamist mantle in Syria. This is seen by observers as a bid for supremacy by JFS.
Abu Jaber goes to great lengths to play down any AQ linkage, trying to convince Syrians that HTS is an independent organisation. This is the latest move by operatives previously allied to AQ to dominate the anti-Assad opposition in the country. But to what end? The soundings from HTS hint at attempts to hijack the spirit of the Syrian revolution, but rewriting the revolution as a rejection of secularism and democracy completely at odds with the early protests of the Arab Spring.
Abu Jaber is no stranger to AQ. He reportedly fought alongside AQ under Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq. Zarqawi gained notoriety in the early 2000’s for his beheading videos and suicide bombings that even led to a reprimand from AQ.
The HTS leader admitted to Al Jazeera that the AQ link was a stumbling block to winning over ordinary Syrians. But the group he now leads is dominated by individuals who came from the AQ-affiliated al-Nusra Front. They have also retained an identical ideology to that of AQ. Like Daesh, they aim to create a theocratic dictatorship differing only in tactics but not strategy.
Violence is never far from the surface in terms of the group’s methods. Though Abu Jaber claims that HTS “ushers in a new stage in the life of the blessed revolution”, this has translated into concerted effort to crush all other anti-Assad forces. JFS, operating under the HTS banner, has mounted aggressive actions against both FSA and AAS linked groups. In one incident, JFS even attacked an AAS-linked sharia court while it was in session in western Aleppo on 29 January 2017.
HTS vision for Syria
If HTS manages to become the dominant force among anti-Assad factions, this would be a decisive step away from the original aims of the Arab Spring revolt against Assad. What began as a popular and patriotic revolt against autocracy in 2011, mimicking other movements in the region, was hijacked by ISIS with an inflow of foreign fighters from 2014. It’s now being pulled towards the AQ version of a caliphate.
Neither is there any wish by HTS to create a pluralist and united Syria. The HTS vision is sectarian and supremacist and a far cry from the original cries of peaceful protestors against Assad back in 2011. In the city of Deraa, cheering citizens gave roses to soldiers and security forces chanting: “One, one, one, the Syrian people are one.” HTS is effectively rewriting the history of the Syrian conflict, airbrushing out its original democratic and nationalist aims.
HTS does not represent Syria
HTS is positioning itself as the legitimate opposition to Assad but it does not represent the Syrian people. In recent months, HTS and its predecessor Al-Nusra has killed or imprisoned soldiers from other anti-Assad forces leading to multiple protests by ordinary Syrians against the group. In March last year, it shut down a nationalist protest – believing it now has the sole right to define the revolution going forward.
As one Syrian put it: “How can they build their emirate if the people don’t want them?”
The question now is whether most Syrians, despite all their suffering, can stomach what HTS wants to impose as an alternative. Can they bully and intimidate their way to the vanguard of the Syrian revolution? The growing number of protests against HTS suggest many Syrians are not fooled by this AQ wolf trying to prove it’s a Syrian nationalist sheep.