Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham’s Lone Path to Survival

The fate of Idlib, the Syrian opposition’s last major stronghold, is coming to a head. Militarily, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) is in control, but this military control is severely threatened. HTS could lose this control at any moment and is looking to find another way to continue to exert control over the affairs of the province. That is why HTS participated in the Syrian General Conference in Idlib in mid-September. The conference was called to establish a city administration to manage provincial affairs, but it would appear that HTS tried to influence its result so that the civil administration would be under HTS control, and through it, HTS could remain the dominant force in Idlib. Why is HTS involving itself in these kinds of calls for the civil administration of Idlib, especially when it already controls the city militarily?

The answer to this question begins by observing the changes that have taken place in the regional context, the most recent of which being the Astana Conference, which gave Turkish forces the green light to enter Idlib, accelerating both the pace of change on a regional scale and the nature of alliances linked to the Syrian conflict. Amidst these differences, the conflict around Idlib remains caught between distinct parties. At a time when the United States will support any efforts to eliminate Islamists from the region, Turkey is trying to prevent the Kurds from entering the city because a Kurdish presence on its southern border which could pose a threat to its national security. Therefore, Turkey is trying to prevent any new Kurdish control in Syria. To achieve this objective, Turkey finds itself forced to collide with a wall of Islamists and jihadists in Idlib to secure its presence in Syria and confront the threat of the Kurds in Afrin.  Meanwhile, a majority of jihadists believe that Turkey is not a Muslim country ruled by Islamic law, but an ally of the United States in NATO that must be fought in the name of “jihad for the sake of God and to impose Sharia Law.”

Facing this wall of Islamic extremism, Turkey is trying to secure its allies in the Free Syrian Army (FSA) to help it in its next war in Idlib. As such, Turkish armor and military equipment has been deployed to the Syrian border near Harim and Bab al-Hawa as the majority of Idlib’s population eagerly awaits Turkey’s entry, since neither al-Qaeda’s sharia nor the regime’s laws were well-liked, leaving Turkey’s “secular Islam” as the best available option.

Likewise, HTS, in the face of these changes, finds itself faced with two options; either put down its weapons and hand over the city to its people, or search for another way to maintain control over Idlib and preserve its influence. This is where HTS’s attempts to pass its agenda under the guise of Idlib’s civil administration come into play. These attempts manifested in its presence at the Syrian General Conference inside the city. Activists say that HTS threatened more than one party against attending the conference and arrested those that rebuffed its threats. The conference announced a number of decisions, most notably the creation of a constituent assembly that will carry out the functions of the Shura Council while HTS forms a government to manage the affairs of liberated areas to be the sole legitimate government at home and abroad.  The conference also made several recommendations related to daily life in liberated areas, like consolidating all police services, implementing an agricultural plan in these areas, and calling for the Service Administration and Local Councils to be integrated under the newly formed government.

In light of the group’s military control over Idlib, these decisions and recommendations illustrate HTS efforts to strike at everything outside its authority. HTS seeks to establish a civil administration that would be a legal cover for its presence and control in Idlib, despite the current existence of a local administration based in the Idlib countryside affiliated with the Syrian Interim Government. A few days before the Syrian General Conference, HTS issued a statement explicitly calling for the formation of a civil administration to govern liberated areas. A number of civilian actors also organized to mobilize support for this initiative, trying to get the support of the Syrian Interim Government as well as a number of opposition figures, but failed to convince them to support the project.

The head of the Syrian Interim Government, Dr. Jawad Abu Hatab, announced that he would not attend the conference because of jihadists’ control over it. He stressed that HTS forced people to support the conference and indicated that HTS threatened the Interim Government’s Ministry of Interior in the village of Killi in Idlib countryside as well as the University of Aleppo and the local council in Saraqib, arresting its president. “They want to control existing institutions. What they are doing is [imposing] self-administration like the PYG in Afrin,” Abu Hatab added.

In spite of strong opposition, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham is moving forward with its plan for civil control of Idlib. In this context, the “Civil Service Administration” was established to place the organizations operating in Idlib under a unified entity run by HTS cadres, through which it distributes support as and wherever it pleases. HTS aims to control funds entering Idlib. HTS currently controls all exchange offices in the city and inspects all large sums entering the city via local organizations. HTS is focusing its efforts on any source of funding to ensure its survival. It is estimated that it has tens of millions of dollars, but is buying up and stockpiling weapons deep in the mountains. Abu Mohamad al-Golani is pursuing a policy of adaptability and is preparing for every scenario that could occur in the province, including opposition control of Idlib.

In its efforts to establish civil administration, HTS is looking to control the database owned by the Interim Government’s existing local administration that includes statistics on medical aid and local council projects created over the last four years in order to transfer it to the government established under its auspices; that way, it can identify any future projects local councils plan to implement.

The complexity of matters in Idlib suggests that it will be difficult for HTS to adapt to these regional and local changes. Turkey’s secularism does not bode well for them, nor can it afford to confront Russia and the United States, after they failed to repel Russia and were defeated in Aleppo and the coast. Now, to survive in Syria, and to avoid death or prison, civil administration is Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham’s only hope.

Saleem al-Omar is a freelance journalist who has written for Al-Jazeera, Alquds Alarabi Newspaper, Arabi 21, and Syria Deeply.

Image: Photo: Members from a coalition of rebel groups called "Jaish al Fateh", also known as "Army of Fatah" (Conquest Army), man a checkpoint in Idlib city, Syria July 18, 2017. Picture taken July 18, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah