Examining Extremism: Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS)
Based in Syria’s northern Idlib province, Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) is one of the few remaining rebel groups opposing Bashar al-Assad’s regime. The former al Qaeda affiliate now governs approximately two million people, half of whom are internally displaced Syrians. Over the past three years, HTS consolidated power within its territory and sought to convince the international community that it no longer merits its pariah status as a terrorist organization. As the uneasy ceasefire in Syria frays, HTS’s status as a terrorist group, governing body, and last rebel stronghold grows increasingly complex.
HTS was formed out of a merger of five Islamist militias and opposition factions in 2017. Ahmed Hussein Al-Shara, better known as Abu Mohammed Al-Jolani, is the founder and current leader of HTS. Before founding HTS, Jolani led Jabhat Al-Nusra, an al Qaeda affiliate in Syria. In 2016 Jolani broke ties with al Qaeda in favor of creating an organization focused more narrowly on Syria. Initially, Western academics characterized the break as a cosmetic maneuver designed to better position Jolani to ally his group with local Syrian political and militia groups. However, the January 2017 merger that created HTS was repeatedly condemned by al Qaeda. The condemnation confirmed the rupture between HTS and Al Qaeda and suggests that HTS’s formation represented a substantial break from Jolani’s past as an al Qaeda affiliate.
As a fledgling alliance, HTS initially contended with several major threats. First, HTS’s 2018 designation as a foreign terrorist organization by the United States limited the group’s economic options, political alliances, and access to international aid while justifying U.S. coalition and Russian military strikes against its members. Second, the repeated alliances and mergers that created HTS resulted in an array of ideological and political factions within the group that undermined its internal cohesion. Finally, the sustained threat of an Assad regime offensive into southern Idlib jeopardized the organization’s territorial control.
Despite these threats, HTS has become the de facto governing body in northern Idlib, having destroyed or absorbed most of its rivals. Jolani consolidated power by incorporating local religious and political leaders into the group’s emerging bureaucracy and eliminating rival militias from HTS’s territory. HTS worked to squash splinter groups such as Ahrar Al-Sham in 2017 and targeted Hurras Al-Din and other affiliates with transnational ties to al Qaeda and ISIS. This process involved a combination of political compromise, sabotage, and military operations. The 2020 March ceasefire between Turkey and Russia, which have backed different sides in Syria’s civil war, benefitted HTS as it was consolidating its power by reducing violence in its region of control. The lull in fighting allowed the group to establish its organizational structures, build bureaucratic institutions, and expand its governance efforts.
Today, the organization faces challenges as both a government and an insurgent group. It continues to target ISIS and al Qaeda factions operating within its territory, most recently killing ISIS leader Abu Hussein Al-Husseini al-Qurashi in July 2023, while also working to control a war-torn area recovering from a natural disaster with limited access to international aid. At the same time, the threat of a Turkish military offensive into Kurdish-held regions of northern Syria and increased Russia-United States tensions threaten to disrupt the geopolitical balance that allowed HTS to carve out a pocket of control in northern-Syria.
HTS’s ideology has changed dramatically since Jolani’s days leading an al Qaeda affiliate. HTS’s current political-religious ideology frames the group as strictly Syria-focused and religiously moderate. Since 2017, HTS has incorporated various independent religious and political leaders into its internal institutions to appease factions and build a religious bureaucracy, a process that has helped moderate the group, at least on the surface. While HTS presents itself as less ideologically extreme than al Qaeda or ISIS, the brutal measures HTS uses to maintain control over its territory are a far cry from the benevolent, citizen-led government shown on its media outlets. Today, HTS is more recognizable as an authoritarian statelet than the transnational Islamist militia it once was.
Within HTS, Jolani has led a public effort to “Syrianize” the organization, which has resulted in the removal of many foreign religious leaders with transnational ties, such as the Egyptian Yahya bin Tahar Al-Firghali, from public facing positions. However, support for foreign terrorist groups such as Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad and extreme beliefs that depart from official HTS messaging can frequently be seen on the social media accounts of senior HTS leaders. This dichotomy between official messaging and HTS leadership’s individual opinions has led some analysts to argue that the HTS crackdown on al Qaeda and ISIS factions, as well as the group’s ideological moderation, should be viewed more as an effort by HTS leadership to consolidate power within the organization and exert greater control over northern Idlib than a genuine change in ideology.
Jolani has used the group’s public appearance of moderation to appeal for HTS’s removal from the list of U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organizations. In various interviews, he has outlined a more tolerant vision of governance, explaining that HTS would uphold Sharia law, “but not according to the standard of ISIS or even Saudi Arabia.” The group’s public content has sought to mold Jolani’s image into that of a responsible and caring leader, releasing videos of him eating iftar with orphans, attending graduations, and speaking to community leaders. HTS’s public relations strategy has included clear appeals to Western media, particularly Jolani’s feature on a 2021 PBS Frontline special. Beyond the messaging campaign, there have been some substantive signs of moderation within the group, including limiting the power of the so-called morality police. Despite any moves towards religious moderation, HTS has shown limited tolerance for political dissent, reacting swiftly and harshly to any protests or civilian complaints. The group has been criticized for its arrest and torture of journalists and political opponents.
HTS organizational structure encompasses both military and political institutions as the group straddles the line between Islamist militia and would-be government. HTS has worked to establish an institutionalized security force alongside a semi-autonomous civilian government; however, the group remains heavily reliant on international aid to deliver services to the population it effectively rules, many of whom are internally displaced. HTS’s status as a terrorist group and its isolated geographic position have left it with little economic recourse to raise funds to support its governing body, security forces, and civilian population. Despite HTS’s attempts at creating formal governance structures, it remains at its core a coalition of local Islamist militias that incorporates fighters with a range of political goals and religious beliefs.
The organizational structure of HTS centers around Jolani as the military and political face of the group. He is advised by a small Shura council largely composed of Syrian fighters. HTS governs northern Idlib through the nominally civilian-led Syrian Salvation Government (SSG), which is divided into 10 administrative ministries and a 75-man Shura Council. The SSG ranks include individuals who are not members of HTS, including members of the “urban middle class, economic entrepreneurs, independent Islamists, and tribal entities.” HTS members occupy many if not most of the SSG’s key security and religious positions, including within the SSG’s internal police force. Other SSG bodies have tried to distance themselves from HTS and have benefited from more direct international aid. The Ministry of Education, for example, allowed international partners like UNICEF and humanitarian NGOs to help craft educational materials and design curricula in Idlib.
Estimates of the group’s size vary from 12,000 to 20,000 fighters and fluctuate as groups join and disaffiliate from HTS. HTS also incorporates military wings consisting of the remnants of groups such as Jama 'at Ansar al-Islam, Katibat Imam al-Bukhari, and Katibat Al-Tawhid wa-l-Jihad. The result is that these formerly independent groups' command and control structures have been largely incorporated into HTS’s larger military and bureaucratic structure.
HTS fundraising efforts illustrate the difficulties that HTS faces as it attempts to reorganize itself from a terrorist insurgency into something resembling a government. It raises funds from a combination of taxation and drug trafficking. It provides some services but remains reliant on international humanitarian aid. HTS makes the majority of its revenue from border tariffs, while also collecting taxes from residents and holding a monopoly over utilities such as water, petrol, and garbage disposal. HTS has also been accused of facilitating a robust illicit economy, including trafficking the popular synthetic stimulant Captagon. At the same time, HTS and the SSG provide some services to people in northern Idlib, but residents of the area are largely reliant on UN aid, with 75 percent of the residents utilizing humanitarian organizations’ resources. HTS has also repeatedly attempted to revive licit trade with the Assad regime in order to boost its isolated economy, although its efforts have not yet been successful.
Tactics and Targets
HTS’s targets and tactics have changed dramatically from its inception to the present day, with the group’s main goal currently being to maintain its control over northern Idlib. In its fight against other insurgencies, especially more radical elements such as ISIS, HTS has transitioned from guerrilla warfare to activities more closely resembling law enforcement campaigns.
These efforts have met with a degree of success. In July 2017, HTS claimed to have detained 130 ISIS fighters in its areas of control in one of its first rounds of mass arrests. Including that operation, HTS has publicly announced 59 law enforcement operations against ISIS as of February 2023, arresting 279 ISIS fighters. A July 2018 assassination campaign was the last documented set of attacks by ISIS in HTS territory.
These efforts have not resulted in the elimination of ISIS from HTS territory. ISIS leaders have used HTS territory as a safe haven and will probably continue to do so. In the past four years, two significant U.S. operations targeted ISIS leaders within areas HTS controls: Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi in October 2019 and Abu Ibrahim Al-Hashimi Al-Quraishi in February 2022. Questions remain about HTS’s ability to completely eliminate ISIS from its territory, but the July 2023 announcement of the death of ISIS's leader in direct clashes with HTS speaks to the group’s continued counterterrorism efforts.
HTS has not attempted significant military operations outside its territory for more than five years. The last sustained HTS military effort outside the area it controls was a deployment of 500 fighters to break the Assad regime’s siege of Ghouta in 2017. The effort was unsuccessful, and the fighters were eventually evacuated as part of the 2018 ceasefire negotiations. The majority of HTS’s operations are now focused on securing and maintaining political and territorial control over northern Idlib, which includes responding to consistent rounds of Assad regime and Russian shelling across the Russia-Turkey March 2020 ceasefire line in southern Idlib with its own indirect fire. In the past, Russian airstrikes and Assad regime military offensive operations have been timed around increased fighting between HTS and breakaway factions. These offensives have set back HTS’s policing and counterterrorism activities. For example, a March 2019 Russian airstrike struck an HTS prison and reportedly freed dozens of ISIS militants.
HTS intermittently cooperates with the Turkish military and Turkish-backed groups in Syria. Their relationship has been marked by several escalations and multiple rounds of reconciliation, most recently in May 2022 when Turkey mediated negotiations between HTS and the Levant Front, a Syrian National Army contingent backed by Turkey. The future of the HTS-Turkey relationship is murky. In May 2023, the United States and Turkey imposed joint sanctions against a senior leader of HTS, which may signal a fraying relationship between HTS and its Turkish partners as HTS threatens to expand into territory controlled by Turkish-backed armed groups.
These patterns of activity have become well-established over the past six years but cannot be taken for granted. HTS has changed its tactics before. HTS’s evolving use of suicide attacks demonstrates its willingness to shift its ideology in order to ensure its survival. HTS has historically used suicide bombers against opposition factions and Assad regime forces, which has drawn international criticism. It would not be difficult for the group to resume such attacks. HTS is above all else a pragmatic organization that prioritizes its own survival over ideological consistency, and a coordinated Russian-Syrian offensive into southern Idlib would probably shift the group’s tactics and general security strategy towards a return to insurgent-style violence.
HTS poses a low threat to those outside of its immediate area of control. The group has made extensive attempts at framing itself as a moderate force worthy of international support and is unlikely to undermine those efforts intentionally. Jolani and HTS’s messaging has clearly publicized its Syrianization measures, counterterrorism campaigns against transnational Islamist groups, and attempts at building a governance structure in northern Idlib. This sustained messaging and the lack of military operations outside areas HTS controls indicate that the group will continue to position itself as a relatively moderate governing force in Syria in an effort to receive international aid, resources, and eventually recognition. Participation in a terrorist attack would set those efforts back, perhaps irreparably. The likelihood that HTS attempts to conduct an attack outside of its area of control is low, and the likelihood that it would attempt to stage an attack outside of Syria is even lower.
However, HTS’s authoritarian style of governance poses a threat to the local population. HTS has been swift in combating political and religious dissent among the residents of the territory it controls. Civilians living in HTS-controlled territory face similar dangers to those living under authoritarian rule such as the threat of extrajudicial killings, police torture, and false imprisonment. HTS has reacted harshly to protests and will likely continue to crack down on political dissent in areas it controls.
The threat from HTS territory also depends on the group’s ability to combat transnational terrorist groups. The future of its ability to do so is unclear. HTS has established weak governance in a resource-poor area, flush with former fighters from a range of Islamist and rebel factions. Despite HTS’s ambitions, northern Idlib risks providing safe haven to transnational groups such as al Qaeda and ISIS. HTS has been unable to completely eliminate ISIS from its territory, and other transnational terrorist groups are almost certainly still present as well. HTS’s ability to govern and exert control over territory therefore influences the threat emanating from northern Idlib.
HTS’s control is threatened both by the recurrence of humanitarian emergencies, which it is ill-equipped to handle effectively, and the precarious politics of the war in Syria. Environmental and health crises like the COVID-19 pandemic and the February 2023 earthquake have strained resources and exacerbated the humanitarian crisis in northern Idlib. Russia’s July 2023 veto of UN cross-border aid to Syria will only worsen conditions, potentially reducing HTS’s ability to control territory. A joint Russian-Syrian regime offensive into southern Idlib would create additional risk, probably resulting in HTS returning to guerilla warfare tactics and forging new alliances with transnational terrorist groups. HTS’s ideological moderation has been built over a sustained period, but the group is capable of adopting more violent tactics to ensure its survival and prevent the Assad regime from wiping out its political project
Mackenzie Holtz is a research intern with the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.