A drone camera view of rebel-held Idlib city, June 2017.
Ammar Abdullah / Reuters

Most media coverage of Syria focuses on two aspects of the country’s civil war: first, the campaign against the Islamic State (or ISIS) in northeastern Syria—including the battle by U.S.-backed Syrian forces to retake ISIS’ de facto capital, Raqqa—and second, the broader Russian involvement in the country.

In northwestern Syria, however, an overlooked but important battle has been taking place, pitting Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a successor to the Syrian al Qaeda affiliate known as Jabhat al-Nusra, against Ahrar al-Sham, a rival Salafist group aligned with Turkey and Qatar. The two have been engaged in heavy fighting for control of Idlib Province, the epicenter of the remaining anti-Assad insurgency, and HTS has acquired important gains. It has seized the provincial capital, Idlib city, and forced Ahrar out of Bab al-Hawa, the main border crossing with Turkey. HTS, in other words, has already scored a major strategic victory against Ahrar and will likely dominate Idlib from now on.

HTS control of Idlib means that the province will increasingly be viewed as a pariah internationally. Although the group claims to be independent, the United States and the international community at large see it as an al Qaeda front. One result of this perception is that while HTS may claim that it can preserve NGO independence, fewer and fewer NGOs will be willing to work in Idlib, leading to a further deterioration in the province’s humanitarian situation. Moreover, the Assad regime and its allies will likely have greater international support for an offensive to retake the province.

But how did this disastrous turn of events come about, and who is to blame for it? Largely, the fault lies with Ahrar itself.

DECLINE AND FALL

With support from outside powers such as Turkey and Qatar, Ahrar has emerged over the course of the war as one of Syria’s most powerful rebel organizations. It possesses networks across the country, but is strongest in the north. Its prominence has made it the subject of polemical debate among Western commentators and policymakers, who are unsure whether to treat the group as a potential ally or enemy. Arguments about Ahrar (and Western policy toward it) have tended to focus on its internal ideological trends: although the group is commonly recognized as Salafist, outsiders disagree as to whether it is a jihadist group little different al Qaeda and ISIS or something more complex—a movement with diverse and evolving ideological strands, some jihadist, some more nationalist or moderate.

HTS control of Idlib means that the province will increasingly be viewed as a pariah internationally.

Yet debates about Ahrar’s ideology often obscure the bigger picture. The main problem with the group, from the Western perspective, has always been its role as an enabler of jihadists, whether or not its members can be fairly described as jihadists themselves or have changed their position over time. This problem was captured well in a 2014 McClatchy article in which Syrian journalist Mousab Alhamadee profiled Ahrar’s first leader, Hassan Abboud, who was killed in a mysterious explosion in September 2014 and with whom Alhamadee had had extensive interactions. Before his death, Abboud had apparently made attempts to distance the group from al Qaeda, with which it was most notably connected by way of Abu Khalid al-Suri, an Ahrar member who was appointed by al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in 2013 to mediate between Nusra and ISIS and who was killed in February 2014. But Alhamadee recognized that under Abboud’s leadership Ahrar had worked to bring large numbers of foreign jihadists into the country and undermine local councils and civil society. In particular, under Abboud Ahrar played a significant part in enabling the rise of ISIS in Syria in 2013—cooperating with it in Tel Abyad and Hasakah and standing by while it crushed other groups, such as Ahfad al-Rasoul in Raqqa. These problems came at a time when an early rebel mobilization against ISIS might have prevented it from seizing considerable swaths of Syrian territory.

Ahrar al-Sham fighters patrol a hill in Jabal al-Arbaeen, in Idlib Province, May 2015.
Khalil Ashawi / Reuters

Abboud’s death and Ahrar’s conflict with ISIS, however, did not lead the group to abandon its close working relationship with Nusra—even after the latter expelled the most important Western-backed group in northern Syria, the Syrian Revolutionaries Front, from Idlib by the end of 2014. In 2015, Ahrar and Nusra together set up and led the Jaysh al-Fatah alliance of rebel groups, which would go on to drive the regime out of all major towns in Idlib in the spring of that year. But the coalition made no further gains, and its advances in Idlib helped provoke the September–October 2015 Russian intervention that has over the last two years helped Assad win victory after victory, including the December 2016 recapture of Aleppo that dealt a major blow to the insurgency. Ahrar’s unwillingness to dissolve Jaysh al-Fatah meant that over time, Nusra was able to embed itself more deeply in Idlib society and grow in strength.

Over time, certain political differences between Ahrar and Nusra—such as the former’s desire to distance itself from the al Qaeda brand—grew more pronounced, partially contributing to Nusra’s rebranding, first as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS) and later as HTS. For example, in early 2016 Ahrar rejected the idea of a merger with Nusra on the grounds of the latter’s al Qaeda affiliation, but even after that affiliation was officially dropped (and despite some support for the move within Ahrar) the group’s leadership feared that a merger would hurt its relations with Turkey, its main external backer.

The fall of Aleppo, however, put further pressure on Syria’s remaining rebels to unify against the regime. Again, a merger between Ahrar and JFS was floated, but didn’t work out because of Ahrar’s fear of alienating Turkey. Infighting subsequently broke out among the Idlib rebels, leading several smaller groups to seek protection in Ahrar. Meanwhile, JFS, groups that had a close working relationship with JFS, and a pro-JFS faction from Ahrar came together to merge into HTS at the end of January 2017.

AFTER AHRAR

At the beginning of this year, it seemed as though Ahrar and HTS held roughly equal power in Idlib—a view I myself held at the time. In reality, HTS was strengthening its hand, gaining control of some important supply routes near the Turkish–Syrian border despite Ahrar’s control of the Bab al-Hawa border crossing. HTS, it turns out, was invigorated and determined to expand its administrative capabilities. Ahrar, although it knew it wished to maintain ties with Turkey, was indecisive, unable to formulate a clear stance against HTS. Indeed, it maintained the broader Jaysh al-Fatah alliance thanks to fears of further conflict. As Syria analyst Aron Lund wrote in early February, “The balance of power has now visibly tilted in favor of the jihadis”—that is, HTS and its allies.

Since then, a new round of infighting has begun in which Ahrar has suffered major losses. Conflict between HTS and Ahrar, as noted by Abu Sulayman al-Muhajir, an independent Australian jihadist previously involved in Nusra and JFS, was likely inevitable. The two have been running incompatible projects: both established their own administrative systems in Idlib, including governmental institutions such as courts, which could not coexist in the long run. And between them, HTS is clearly winning. Whatever words Ahrar’s leaders might utter against HTS are now of little use—the group allowed HTS to fester and grow for too long. Recently Ahrar, long one of the dominant groups in northern Syria, has even seen many defections from its own ranks to those of its rival.

HTS’ ascendancy in Idlib can only be described as a major jihadist victory in northwestern Syria.
 

HTS’ ascendancy in Idlib can only be described as a major jihadist victory in northwestern Syria. That will lead to international pariah status for the province and increase the chances of a new regime offensive. At this stage, the only viable option for reversing this victory would be a direct Turkish military intervention in favor of Ahrar and other rebel factions in Idlib, although there is little incentive for Turkey—which does not see HTS as a direct threat to its territory—to do so. Absent that intervention, the most likely alternative is an ugly regime-backed offensive to retake Idlib, prompting greater refugee flows into Turkey.

Such an offensive into Idlib is not necessarily imminent. For now the regime and its allies will still focus most of their firepower on ISIS in the east, hoping to outcompete U.S.-backed forces for valuable natural resources and control of the border with Iraq. In the long run, however, a negotiated compromise between Assad and HTS is unlikely: the latter clearly affirmed in a recent statement that “the revolution continues.” Eventually, however, Assad will attempt to take Idlib, and Turkey and the West may have to prepare for a new wave of refugees.