By Richard Hall
03 April 2019
The Isis caliphate is no more. Four years
after its fighters captured large swathes of Iraq and Syria and declared its
intention to spread jihad around the world, the terror group no longer holds
But as one extremist Islamic state falls,
another one endures. Over the past few years, a group that was formerly part of
al-Qaeda has cemented its power in northern Syria and now rules over some 3
After forcing out rival rebel groups in
Idlib earlier this year, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) has moved to impose its
control over all institutions in the province. A university with more than
6,000 students has become the latest battleground in its quest for dominance.
“They came when we were in the middle of
exams and said they would be taking over,” says Ahmad, a student at Free Aleppo
University, which was shut down last week by the HTS-controlled administration
“We have demonstrated against the decision
many times. They arrested many professors at our university to put us under
pressure to leave,” says Ahmed, who would give only his first name because he
fears retribution for speaking out.
When the group first shuttered the university,
its lecturers gave classes outside the building’s gates in protest. But the
HTS-run salvation government officially closed it down last week.
“I wasn’t surprised. The problem is the
mentality. Both HTS and Isis worked with Assad to destroy our revolution,” he
The takeover of the university is just the
latest power grab in the group’s slow and steady march to dominance.
Like Isis, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham wants to
create an Islamic state of its own. Where Isis aimed to expand quickly and
attract the maximum possible attention, HTS has played a long game. It has been
pragmatic, and worked with other groups when it needed to. But it has also been
opportunistic and crushed its rivals. It has put aside global ambitions to
focus on succeeding locally. In doing so, it has pursued a far more durable
force than Isis.
“Hayat Tahrir al-Sham shares the same end
state goal as Isis, which is to build a state based on a rigid interpretation
of Salafist Sunni Islam. But it has a smarter way to do it,” according to Nicholas
Heras, a fellow at the Centre for a New American Security think tank.
Its strategy has been “to allow other rebel
groups to exist, but like a powerful mafia enterprise, to maintain the ability
to use overwhelming and concentrated force on any opponents as they appear.”
“HTS also has positioned itself to control
the major border points into and out of Idlib, and to control the roadways that
serve as the major arteries of the province,” he adds. In doing so, it has
become “the powerbroker in Idlib and the de facto sovereign power there”.
The closure of Free Aleppo University was
just another demonstration of that power. The result is that thousands of
students have been forced to stop their education and left many facing the
prospect of being displaced again.
“Some of the professors and academic
figures were arrested. Some students were arrested. It’s so dangerous for the
education, for the students. Many professors are thinking of leaving Syria
now,” says one lecturer at the university.
“Thousands of students were so close to
achieving what they lost seven or eight years ago have been stopped from
completing their studies. Their dreams have collapsed,” he adds.
But their problem is part of a larger issue
that shows few signs of being resolved. As early as 2017, former US envoy for
Syria Brett McGurk called the territory controlled by the group “the largest
al-Qaeda safe haven since 9/11”. Since then, the group’s grip on the province
has only got stronger.
Hayat Tahrir al-Sham is a direct descendant
of al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch, Jabhat al-Nusra. That group was formally
established by al-Qaeda’s central command and the leadership of the Islamic
State of Iraq in January 2012, after the latter sent fighters to join the
battle to overthrow Assad and set up an emirate.
Nusra set itself apart in the early days of
the Syrian civil war as one of the strongest and most disciplined groups among
the dozens of rebel factions. Its strength on the battlefield won it supporters
among the Syrian people, despite espousing an ideology that was more extreme
than most Syrians were used to.
In 2013, the group split in two. Isis
leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi tried to merge his group with Nusra, under his
command. Nusra’s leader, Abu Mohammad al-Julani, rejected the merger and announced
his loyalty to al-Qaeda.
Nusra initially focused on immersing itself
within the Syrian opposition to ensure its survival. But after a time, it
crowded out more moderate groups and came to dominate it.
The US intervened against Nusra before it tackled
Isis, carrying out airstrikes against the group’s leadership as early as
September 2014. Russia’s entry into Syria in 2015 saw it take control of the
skies over Idlib, and together with the Syrian government has surrounded the
In January 2017, a coalition of Islamist
Sunni anti-government armed groups was formed and named Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.
It was led by the group previously known as Jabhat al-Nusra, which has since
claimed to have cut ties from Al Qaeda.
International pressure has prevented an
all-out assault on Idlib by Russian and Syrian government forces. But that
peace is fragile. Clashes between the two sides have been increasing in recent
Hundreds have died in Syrian government and
Russian attacks on “de-escalation” zones in Idlib over the past few months, and
some 40,000 civilians have fled their homes to escape the fighting.
Many in Idlib now fear a government
offensive is imminent. A long-threatened plan to recapture the province was put
on hold last year following an agreement between Russia and Turkey, which has
military forces on the ground there and backs a number of rebel groups in the
Turkey, which has deployed military forces
on the ground in Idlib to deter an all-out government offensive, had hoped the
deal would allow time to reach an agreement between Damascus and the remaining
rebel holdouts. But since then the extremist Hayat Tahrir al-Sham has increased
its control of the province, dimming those hopes.
In January this year, Human Rights Watch
said it had documented “scores” of arbitrary arrests by the group across its
area of control, including 11 cases in which people were detained “apparently
because of their peaceful work documenting abuses or protesting the group’s
“Hayat Tahrir al-Sham’s crackdown on
perceived opposition to their rule mirrors some of the same oppressive tactics
used by the Syrian government,” says Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at
Human Rights Watch. “There is no legitimate excuse for rounding up opponents
and arbitrarily detaining and torturing them.”
The group is also accused of being behind
the assassinations of several well known activists, including Raed Fares and
Hamoud Jneid, who ran a local radio station where they spoke out against the
Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the
Middle East Institute, says the threat of an attack by government forces has
been used by HTS to justify its crackdown.
“The key here is how HTS appears to be
responding to increased external threats – rather than pulling back and seeking
to appease, HTS’s strategy has been to double down in a form of aggressive
deterrence. Sadly, civilians have too often been the victim of these power
gambles, as the group overreaches or simply chooses to crack down to
demonstrate its authority once again,” he says.
“For HTS, everything is about maintaining a
complex balance – balancing relations with the local population; with rival
opposition groups; with al-Qaeda loyalists; with Turkey; and with Russia. HTS
cannot afford to burn all its bridges with the local civilian population, but
likewise, it cannot afford to demonstrate weakness or vulnerability to any
party, including civilians. It must simultaneously appear as both defender and
governor, while also deterring enemies beyond its borders from attacking.”
In seeking its goal of creating an Islamic
state of its own, HTS has come to represent to many living under its control
something similar to the regime it hopes to replace. And while it is unlikely
to succeed in creating its own caliphate, Idlib’s three million residents
remain caught between Russian bombing and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham’s prisons. That
may be precisely how the group planned it.
“HTS is becoming so woven into Idlib that
the only way that its power can end is if it is ripped out of Idlib, which will
lead to many dead and displaced,” says Heras.