Ammar Abdullah / Reuters A street market in the rebel-held city of Idlib, June 2017.

A Jihadist Breakup in Syria

Tahrir al-Sham Splits

On September 13, Syria’s most powerful jihadist group split. Not the badly degraded Islamic State (ISIS)—which the U.S. military believes is down to around 10,000 fighters in its crumbling eastern Syrian strongholds—but Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which dominates northwestern Syria’s Idlib region.

Tahrir al-Sham has recently lost some of its most important leaders, leaving the group’s hold on power weaker than before. Meanwhile Ankara-backed Syrian rebels are lining up behind a plan to sideline the group, just as Turkish officials sit down with Iran and Russia in Astana to talk about solving Idlib’s jihadist problem. 

A defeat for Tahrir al-Sham would undoubtedly have far-ranging consequences both for Syria and for international counterterrorism planning. But the group’s enemies shouldn’t get their hopes up yet—on closer inspection, Syria’s jihadists may well weather the current storm.

COMING APART

When Islamist hardliners came together in January to create a new Syrian super-group under the name Tahrir al-Sham, that seemed like a final nail in the coffin of the uprising against the country’s authoritarian leader, Bashar al-Assad. Syria’s Sunni insurgents were already on the ropes, and if they were now to be fronted by a jihadist group, they could kiss all hopes of international support goodbye.

In July, Tahrir al-Sham cemented its power in Idlib by smashing its Turkish-backed rival Ahrar al-Sham and monopolizing key assets in the province, such as the Bab al-Hawa border crossing, the local sharia courts, and aid-funded public service providers. Tahrir al-Sham is back down to its historic core: the al-Qaeda offshoot previously known as Jabhat al-Nusra.

“Today Idlib is dominated by the Tahrir al-Sham faction,” I was told last month by Abderrazzaq al-Mehdi, an influential Salafist preacher in Idlib who briefly joined Tahrir al-Sham in January before leaving. The group “is the biggest and the strongest” in Idlib, Mehdi told me, although he added that there is still “a number of factions that have a presence and that exercise control

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