The dangers in Idlib are well known. In 2019, the Syrian regime, backed by Russian airpower, mounted offensives that pushed back rebel forces, killing at least 1,600 civilians and driving 1.4 million others from their homes. A Russian-Turkish ceasefire has held for ten months. If it breaks down, the regime could launch another offensive that would result in massive civilian casualties and displace hundreds of thousands toward (and potentially far beyond) the Turkish border, while scattering insurgents far and wide. In other words, Syria’s conflict, for now largely locked in an uneasy standoff, could re-emerge as an epicentre of international instability.
This worst-case scenario is not inevitable but still very possible. The expansion of Turkey’s military role in Idlib over the past year has bought time. Hei’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the former al-Qaeda affiliate that is Idlib’s dominant rebel group, has broken with transnational jihadist networks and now seeks entry into the realm of political engagement on Syria’s future. In theory, that development should open opportunities for averting renewed violence.
In practice, however, HTS’s continued status as a “terrorist” organisation (as designated by the U.S., Russia, the UN Security Council and Turkey) presents a major obstacle. It has a chilling effect on Western support for essential service provision in Idlib, worsening the humanitarian crisis. It has also precluded discussions with HTS itself about its conduct and the future of the territory it controls, as Western states and the UN avoid contact completely while Turkey restricts itself to the bare minimum needed to facilitate its military presence in Idlib. The absence of engagement undermines the ceasefire and stops outside powers from pressing HTS to take further constructive steps.
There is an urgent need for creative ideas for how to sustain the fragile calm, including by directly addressing the question of HTS’s status. Yet it is difficult to imagine these ideas emanating from the protagonists in Syria’s north west: Ankara is reluctant to engage diplomatically with HTS (absent international backing); Moscow and Damascus prefer an outright military victory over the group; and HTS itself is focused on defending Idlib from further regime advances. There is a policy vacuum, and Washington is now well placed to fill it.
The Biden administration should work with European allies and Turkey to press HTS into further action that addresses key local and international concerns, and to define clear benchmarks which (if met) could enable HTS to shed its “terrorist” label.
In doing so, the U.S. could reduce risk of a violent eruption in north-western Syria while simultaneously addressing two additional policy challenges. Through cooperation with Ankara on this issue of mutual concern, Washington could improve strained relations with a key North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) ally. Moreover, the Biden administration could establish a new approach to counter-terrorism that gives as much weight to diplomatic tools as it does to military ones. Such an approach would have wider value: it could lay out what a conditional roadmap looks like for other groups on today’s battlefields that have been designated “terrorists” but show willingness to forego their pursuit of transnational agendas and attacks on civilians, among other criteria.
The Case for U.S. Engagement
U.S. officials have thus far largely avoided grappling with the policy challenges that Idlib presents. While U.S. humanitarian aid continues – as do occasional drone strikes upon individuals allegedly linked to al-Qaeda and aligned with HTS’s jihadist rivals – a sense prevails in Washington policy circles that there is not much the U.S. can or should do to address the risk of renewed military escalation. This conclusion, while understandable, is short-sighted. It tends to rely on some combination of three assumptions: that a regime military takeover of Idlib might be desirable from a counter-terrorism perspective; that such a takeover is inevitable, in any case; or, alternatively, that Turkey is now sufficiently engaged in Idlib to deter regime attacks and address the HTS conundrum on its own, without U.S. assistance. All three assumptions are mistaken.
The first is easiest to rebut. Put simply: if a major regime offensive does occur, it will sharply exacerbate counter-terrorism challenges. The calm created by the March 2020 ceasefire has provided space and incentives for HTS to intensify its crackdown on transnational jihadists, hunting down remaining Islamic State (ISIS) cells and defanging the al-Qaeda-linked faction Hurras al-Din. So long as HTS can govern Idlib – its declared top priority – it will have ample reason to suppress elements that oppose the ceasefire or otherwise threaten local stability. Yet renewed regime attacks would reduce HTS’s capacity to sustain that effort, as its priority would switch to mobilising all available fighters in its own and Idlib’s defence.
Moreover, if regime forces advance deep into the province, the offensive would eventually push Idlib’s rebels to shift from territorial defence to guerrilla tactics, thus lending new relevance to senior figures in al-Qaeda and its affiliates, who have long criticised HTS for prioritising control of Idlib over fighting the regime and for abandoning the cause of transnational jihad. Rather than ending the war, such a regime advance would likely give way to a new phase of insurgency emanating from ungoverned spaces, with already overstretched regime forces unable to control Idlib’s hilly border areas, which were the first to slip from the regime’s grip in 2012 and remain home to many of its most dedicated opponents.
As for the second and third assumptions, the situation is neither as hopeless as the fatalists suggest nor as stable as the optimists profess. Further offensives and a regime takeover are not inevitable, as Turkey’s role in Idlib has opened the possibility of sustained calm in north-western Syria. With nearly four million Syrian refugees already in Turkey and popular resentment of the associated burden rising, Ankara is treating the threat of further regime advance as a major national security concern, recognising that it could push hundreds of thousands more Syrians over its border. Thus, Turkey launched a counter-intervention blunting the regime’s offensive in early 2020 – which succeeded in convincing Russia to negotiate the ceasefire – and has since deployed some 12,000 troops along Idlib’s front lines. These Turkish actions have underlined to Damascus and its backers that any future offensives would entail higher risks and costs.
Yet the ceasefire remains fragile, and Turkey’s role may ultimately prove insufficient to avert the resumption of major regime attacks in coming months and years. Joint Turkish-Russian patrols along the M4 highway have essentially halted since August; tit-for-tat shelling across the front lines continues; and Russia has resumed occasional airstrikes. Moreover, HTS’s “terrorist” status undermines the truce’s durability. The March 2020 agreement between Russia and Turkey explicitly calls for both sides to “combat all forms of terrorism, and to eliminate all terrorist groups in Syria as designated by [the UN Security Council]”. Moscow has repeatedly pointed to HTS’s designation by the Security Council to justify previous regime attacks on Idlib, emphasising that military campaigns against the group should continue and that the ceasefire is a temporary arrangement.
If the Biden administration is willing to sharpen its diplomatic engagement on Idlib, its role could be essential to averting an unnecessary escalation of destabilising violence.
In contrast, Ankara realises that HTS is too entrenched to be defeated militarily without causing mass casualties and precipitating a disastrous wave of refugees, and that HTS’s adherence to the ceasefire – and its pressuring other groups to do the same – is a paramount benefit. All this leads Turkish officials to prefer a political solution to the HTS problem, but they are wary of unilateral engagement toward that end exposing them to accusations of whitewashing and supporting jihadists. Key officials are also simultaneously handling a range of complex Syrian and regional files, leaving Ankara little bandwidth to look beyond immediate crisis management in Idlib.
Worryingly, Russian-Turkish dialogue on the future of Idlib is deadlocked and UN-facilitated Syria talks are moribund. In effect, there is no meaningful diplomatic process for addressing the divergence between the Russian and Turkish positions on HTS or for consolidating the ceasefire politically.
In short, the situation is salvageable yet volatile. If the Biden administration is willing to sharpen its diplomatic engagement on Idlib, its role could be essential to averting an unnecessary escalation of destabilising violence. The first step is to introduce ideas and incentives for political ways of solving Idlib’s HTS puzzle.
HTS’s Al-Qaeda Baggage
In Syria, and in foreign capitals, apprehension toward HTS is grounded in real concerns. HTS is the latest iteration of a faction originally known as Jabhat al-Nusra, whose Syrian founder (now HTS leader) Abu Muhammad al-Jolani participated in the post-2003 Iraqi insurgency as a member of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI, which later became ISIS), and in 2011 coordinated with ISI leadership to establish a branch in Syria. Although al-Jolani’s approach diverged from ISI’s, he did not sever ties with the Iraqi-led organisation until 2013. Even then, he kept his faction within the jihadist milieu by declaring allegiance to al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, until breaking with that transnational group in 2016.
Meanwhile, al-Nusra became feared among many Syrians (including within the anti-regime uprising) for its aggressive tactics early in the conflict, brutal and thuggish conduct by some of its members, and its strong-arming of rival opposition factions. In 2012, for example, non-jihadist Syrian opposition groups criticised al-Nusra’s bombings of regime forces and facilities in urban areas, recognising that they undermined efforts to broaden the opposition’s appeal and international support. Al-Nusra continued to employ suicide bombings against military targets in the years that followed, which provided it a tactical advantage over non-jihadist factions but also contributed to local and international perceptions that the rebellion was turning into an Islamist militant enterprise. Al-Nusra members were also implicated in some of the ugliest acts committed by rebel forces, including executions and hostage-taking during attacks on Alawite villages in 2013, and a 2015 incident in which a Tunisian al-Nusra commander (subsequently detained by and expelled from the organisation) murdered more than twenty residents of a Druze village in Idlib. Between late 2014 (as al-Nusra) and early 2019 (as HTS), the organisation gradually dismantled, sidelined or subdued most of the mainstream armed opposition in north-western Syria while reducing space for civil society, in a successful effort to consolidate itself as hegemon.
Through a series of internal transformations and security crackdowns, HTS has distanced itself from the Salafi-jihadist movement while reducing space for transnational jihadists to operate in north-western Syria. Breaking from its jihadist roots, HTS leadership has steadily recast the group as a local Syrian actor capable of governing Idlib and willing to ensure that outside militants will not use the area as a launching pad for operations. This evolution does not erase the past. Nor does it address the concerns of many Syrians who continue to denounce the group’s autocratic rule and repressive conduct.
Yet it appears to be more than a mere rebranding. Rather, it reflects years of gradually widening ideological and strategic divergence from al-Qaeda and ISIS on key defining issues, including HTS’s opposition to transnational jihadist operations; its prioritisation of territorial control and governance over anti-regime insurgency; and its compromise on the imposition of strict Islamist rule in Idlib.
The HTS leadership’s objection to using Syria as a staging ground for international operations appears central to the group’s series of breaks from transnational jihadists. In a recent conversation, al-Jolani told us his version of the story: that his rejection of international attacks emerged as a key fault line between him and the radical circle surrounding ISI leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (prior to al-Nusra’s break from the Iraqi-led organisation in 2013), notably when al-Jolani and likeminded allies refused an ISI demand to bomb a Syrian opposition gathering in Istanbul. Al-Jolani added that a similar dynamic occurred later amid the more drawn-out breakup with al-Zawahiri, when hardliners in his group who opposed the 2016 decision to cut ties with al-Qaeda renewed calls for conducting attacks outside Syria. He argues that although advocates of such attacks played roles within al-Nusra, they failed to impose their agenda and steadily broke from or were pushed out of the group. Though details of al-Jolani’s narrative are impossible to confirm, the overall track record appears evident: while both ISIS and al-Qaeda made international operations central to their identities and strategies, HTS has distanced itself from transnational attacks and the militants who advocate for them. U.S. officials are aware of these key breaks and distinctions, which helps explain why drone strikes in Idlib typically target jihadists operating outside HTS but not the group itself.
HTS has proved willing to compromise ideologically and militarily in order to preserve its control over Idlib.
Another core disagreement between HTS and global jihadists centres on HTS’s decision to value territorial control over conducting insurgent attacks on the regime and its backers. HTS has proved willing to compromise ideologically and militarily in order to preserve its control over Idlib, for example by largely halting its attacks on the regime and its backers during Turkish-Russian ceasefires and by welcoming the deployment of Turkish forces in Idlib. While it maintains its anti-regime rhetoric, HTS focuses today on achieving an extended freeze of the conflict, consolidating its governance in areas it controls, and gaining some form of international legitimacy through engagement with Turkey and (it hopes) other states it deems critical to Idlib’s survival. In contrast, al-Qaeda leader al-Zawahiri, in addition to strongly criticising HTS for distancing itself from transnational jihad, warned that the Turkish intervention was dangerous and called for shifting to a guerrilla war of attrition to weaken the regime and its backers. Other prominent Salafi-jihadists voiced similar criticisms, as did al-Qaeda loyalists within Syria. For their part, HTS leaders are increasingly explicit about the ideological and strategic divides separating them from more extreme rivals, for example by publicly slamming prominent Salafi-jihadist critics.
And HTS has not merely broken with hardline jihadist groups: it is combating them in Idlib. HTS has been at war with ISIS since 2014, and since the March 2020 ceasefire it has escalated its raids and arrests aimed at thwarting ISIS attempts to build a covert network of cells in Idlib following the latter’s loss of territorial control in eastern Syria. Meanwhile, HTS has contained non-ISIS foreign jihadists, and since March 2020 has forcibly dismantled elements who oppose HTS’s adherence to the Turkish-Russian truce – notably Hurras al-Din, an al-Qaeda-linked faction dominated by individuals who split with HTS over the latter’s relative pragmatism and who opposed the break from al-Qaeda. After first pursuing a policy of containment toward Hurras, HTS turned its guns upon the group in mid-2020 after Hurras attempted to consolidate an alliance with HTS defectors and other hardline factions opposed to the ceasefire. HTS raided the group’s headquarters, detained some of its leaders and forced Hurras and its partners to shut down their bases and checkpoints, hand over heavy weaponry and withdraw from the front lines. These measures have severely reduced (though not eliminated) Hurras’ ability to violate the ceasefire.
While HTS has used its military dominance and the relative calm to crack down on transnational jihadists, it has refrained from imposing a severe version of Islamist rule. Thus far at least, the form of governance applied by HTS and the “Salvation Government” (the civil administrative body it backs) is Islamist, but not draconian. For example, in contrast to groups such as ISIS or the Taliban, HTS has not imposed its own curriculum in schools (though it does compel gender segregation at schools and universities). It has not enforced the harshest interpretations of Sharia law. Nor has it compelled women to veil their faces or banned mixed-gender gatherings in restaurants. Its leadership says (with apparent pride) that women make up a significant proportion of the thousands of students at Idlib’s main university. Describing their approach to Islamist governance, HTS leaders emphasise the importance of remaining compatible with Syria’s mainstream religious traditions and mores. As al-Jolani put it: “Governance should be consistent with Islamic Sharia, but not according to the standards of ISIS or even Saudi Arabia”. Of course, this bar is very low – and many Syrians in Idlib and beyond will rightly insist that HTS should be pressed to allow more room for personal freedoms.
To be clear: a former al-Qaeda affiliate governing three million Syrians and sharing a border with a NATO member is deeply problematic. It is understandable that many local and international observers remain highly sceptical of HTS’s evolution, given the group’s repression of opponents and the continued ambiguity as to how – in the medium to long term – it intends to balance its immediate priority of protecting Idlib with its ultimate goal of ending Bashar al-Assad’s rule over Syria. Moreover, the fact that HTS has separated and distinguished itself from ISIS, al-Qaeda and the Taliban does not make it “moderate” or democratic. Indeed, speaking with Christians in Idlib sheds light on the limitations of HTS’s evolution: during a recent visit, we heard cautious optimism from Christians that local authorities had improved their treatment of the population since HTS consolidated its governance, but frustration that armed factions (including HTS elements) had yet to return many properties they seized in previous years.
Toward a New U.S. Policy Approach
As the Biden administration settles in, the U.S. should revisit its approach to Idlib to ensure that it accounts for several factors. These include the significance of what is at stake for regional stability if the ceasefire breaks down; the HTS conundrum’s role in undermining the ceasefire; the lack of international initiative and political will to address the problem; and both the substance and limitations of HTS’s evolution to date.
Washington should also consider a broader internal void that has spanned multiple administrations: the U.S. has no clear policy – indeed, not even a playbook – for dealing with designated “terrorist” groups that show signs of being willing and able to forego the tactics and positions for which they were originally designated. This shortcoming is glaring. It should be particularly troubling to those in foreign policy circles who want the U.S. to reduce its reliance on primarily military means of addressing jihadists who are prominent protagonists in wars across the Middle East and Africa.
In Idlib, and potentially elsewhere, policymakers could avail themselves of additional options beyond whether or not to conduct drone attacks. The lack of clear, conditional pathways for designated groups to exit their “terrorist” box may discourage them from moving in a direction more amenable to Western interests and local concerns. Indeed, HTS leaders told us that first ISIS and later al-Qaeda-linked figures argued that refraining from international attacks was useless because the West would treat them as terrorists regardless.
These dynamics warrant a bold and more proactive U.S. policy that tests whether HTS is prepared to build upon the constructive steps it has taken thus far. The Biden administration should begin working with Turkey and European allies on the following steps:
These steps to test HTS’s evolution are not a magic wand. They can reduce the risk of further violence in Idlib, but they will not in and of themselves prevent a new regime offensive, and they may fail to significantly alter Russia’s desire to reinstate regime control over Idlib. While cooperating with Turkey on this approach could help improve U.S. relations with a key NATO ally, the effort may draw criticism from other U.S. allies in the region that oppose Ankara and favour broadening the definition of “terrorist” to encompass a much wider range of Islamists (including in some cases the Muslim Brotherhood).
Yet the potential benefits clearly outweigh the disadvantages, and the risks in an approach based on clear conditions appear minimal. By opening the door to direct discussions and conditional incentives, the U.S. and Europe would gain influence and leverage in an area of Syria where, at present, they have none. They would give themselves real and direct opportunities to further reduce the danger of Idlib becoming a staging ground for international militant activity, to improve conditions for its three million inhabitants, and to prevent it from becoming a new major source of refugees (as well as fleeing militants).
This approach would also help Washington define and test new tools for a diplomacy-first counter-terrorism policy. If successful in Idlib, the U.S. could apply a similar playbook toward other designated groups that show signs of shedding the baggage of transnational jihadism and demonstrate willingness to take meaningful steps in that direction. For U.S. officials interested in ending the “forever war”, with its over-reliance on military means, the situation in Idlib is a chance to start developing practical policy tools matching their rhetoric.
Source: Crisis Group