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 in some areas.” 

Since its triumph over Ahrar, Tahrir al-Sham has continued its attempts to consolidate power. But its overwhelming dominance has sparked new resentments and exposed internal rifts. One of Tahrir al-Sham’s constituent parts, a formerly U.S.-backed group known as the Nour al-Din al-Zenki Brigades, left in July to protest the crackdown on Ahrar. Then on September 11 the online jihadist celebrity Abdullah al-Muhaysini and another prominent Saudi preacher quit the group. Wednesday saw the most severe blow to the group yet, when Abu Saleh Tahan, a powerful former Ahrar commander, announced that his men would be leaving Tahrir al-Sham to work independently instead.

With Tahan’s defection, Tahrir al-Sham is back down to its historic core: the al-Qaeda offshoot previously known as Jabhat al-Nusra. As a rebel unity project, the group is starting to look like a failure.

Khalil Ashawi / Reuters Snow covers a village in southern Idlib province, January 2016.

GETTING TO DE-ESCALATION

Although Tahrir al-Sham has split, Turkish-backed Syrian rebels have been trying to cobble together an opposition force capable of challenging the group’s hegemony and making Idlib a “de-escalation zone” in accordance with the Astana peace process, run jointly by Iran, Russia, and Turkey. According to Russian Colonel-General Sergei Rudskoi, the newest round of talks—which started yesterday in Kazakhstan—will specifically focus on how to bring Idlib into the de-escalation arrangements, which prescribe a long-term ceasefire and some form of temporary self-governance.

Doing so, however, is easier said than done. Policing a ceasefire in northwestern Syria will require dealing with Tahrir al-Sham one way or another. Although Abderrazzaq al-Mehdi argues that Tahrir may remake itself into an internationally accepted “civilian administration” that could continue to operate inside the de-escalation zone, diplomats have less faith in such schemes. The United States has warned of “military measures” if the jihadists consolidate control over Idlib, and a State Department official told me last month that the terrorism designations originally applied to the Jabhat al-Nusra in 2012 will remain in force “regardless of what name it uses or what groups merge with it.” Russia, too, refers to Tahrir al-Sham as a “dangerous enemy” and has warned that it must not be allowed to slip off terrorism lists.

None of the nations involved in the Astana process seems comfortable with treating the group as a legitimate actor, even though it is likely to dominate any ceasefire zone declared across Idlib. For months now, Moscow and Tehran have been pushing Turkey to develop a plan to tamp down the jihadist presence in Idlib, threatening to back a new regime offensive if Ankara doesn’t deliver. 

Turkey has tried to play along to the best of its ability. “Our expectation is the declaration of Idlib as a de-conflict zone,” said Turkish presidential spokesperson Ibrahim Kalin on Thursday, adding that “Turkey will do whatever [is] necessary if there is a role it can play.” 

The problem is not that Turkey doesn’t want to comply, but that it doesn’t know how. After the purges in January and July, Ankara lacks a useful set of allies inside Idlib. Tahrir al-Sham still has plenty of enemies who are also friends of Turkey, but they are divided and leaderless. And if the Syrian war has taught us anything, it’s that many small factions who won’t work together cannot defeat a big, centralized group with no compunctions about violent repression. To undercut Tahrir al-Sham, the Turks first need to gather their own opposition allies behind a joint leadership.

TURKEY'S PLAN

On August 30, an influential group of exiled Sunni clergy known as the Syrian Islamic Council called on non-jihadist rebel factions to unite in a “national army” to be run under the auspices of the opposition’s exile government in Gaziantep, Turkey. The plan, which clearly enjoys Ankara’s blessing, has been endorsed by dozens of rebel factions, including a number of small Free Syrian Army affiliates and what’s left of Ahrar al-Sham.

On September 11, the Gaziantep government unveiled its proposed leadership for the new rebel force. Its choice of defense minister, Colonel Muhammed Faris, was an eccentric one: Faris has played no previous part in the insurgency, but in 1987 became the first and only Syrian cosmonaut launched into space. For army chief of staff, Gaziantep proposed an old Free Syrian Army hand—Salim Idris, an avuncular brigadier-general who served as the frontman for Syria’s armed resistance from 2012 until 2014, when his version of the Free Syrian Army collapsed in one of the insurgency’s countless, pointless splits. Idris, however, appears to have turned down the post.

Mukhtar Kholdorbekov / Reuters Syria peace talks in Astana, Kazakhstan, September 2017.

Even hardline Islamists are now falling in line with Ankara’s strategy, apparently sensing that it is their last chance to get Tahrir al-Sham off their back and save Idlib from being branded a jihadist terrorist enclave and treated by the international community like ISIS-ruled Raqqa.

On Wednesday, the Ahrar al-Sham leader Hassan Soufan announced on Twitter that his group would henceforth “struggle at the negotiating table.” Though the wording was unclear, it was widely understood to mean that Ahrar al-Sham will finally give up on its rejectionist attitude and join the Astana talks.

Soufan confirmed that theory on Thursday evening: “Yes, we are indeed participating in Astana,” he told me. “And we are for the construction of a national army into which all opposition factions will enter under the ceiling of the country’s interest, in accordance with a just system that safeguards freedoms.”

For years, Ahrar al-Sham has refused to join rebel unity projects of precisely this type, citing concerns over their Islamic legitimacy. Now that the group is finally droping its resistance to policies that are already shared by virtually all other rebel groups except Tahrir al-Sham and its extremist allies, the Syrian opposition has, for the first time, a chance to create a politically unified rebel front opposing both Assad and Tahrir al-Sham. But is that enough to make a difference? 

TAHRIR ISN'T DEAD YET

The decision of different groups to coalesce behind Ankara’s strategy may seem like an impressive display of opposition unity in the face of Idlib’s jihadist overlords, perhaps even a game changer in the wider war. But on its own, it is too little, too late.

For starters, the exile government's much-vaunted national army seems to be taking shape in exile only. Although their plan is backed by Ahrar al-Shamand the Nour al-Din al-Zenki Brigades, it lacks buy-in from the two other second-tier armed groups in Idlib, the Tahrir-friendly Chinese Uighur jihadis of the Turkestan Islamic Party and Abu Saleh Tahan’s splinter faction. What’s left is a potpourri of disaffected Islamists, commanders-in-exile, and star-crossed Free Syrian Army grouplets. Although such a coalition would have mattered in the past and might still make a difference in other parts of Syria, it seems unlikely to produce meaningful change on the ground in Idlib, where Tahrir al-Sham remains a formidable presence, ready to crack down on the first sign of rebel reorganization.

The only thing realistically capable of tipping the scales in favor of Idlib’s non-jihadist groups would be a forceful Turkish military intervention—one that provides the rebels with the firepower and hands-on leadership they lack. But although Ankara has flirted with intervention during the Astana talks and may at some point opt for limited cross-border deployments, Turkey doesn’t appear to have either the capacity or the commitment to completely reengineer the opposition politics of northwestern Syria. With Turkish troops already bogged down in one open-ended intervention elsewhere in Syria, Ankara will likely think twice before starting another. Any Turkish troop deployment, moreover, would be about fulfilling Turkey’s own interests as negotiated with Russia and Iran—not the interests of the Syrian opposition, which revolve around ways to topple Assad’s government.

This perfect storm, then, seems more like a breeze. In the absence of either a unified opposition or a Turkish intervention, even a weakened Tahrir al-Sham will likely continue to dominate northwestern Syria to the extent that foreign powers refuse to back rebel groups there. If so, Idlib will continue to slide closer to the abyss of Raqqa-style international ostracism, allowing Assad to bide his time until he can resume military operations—this time with international approval.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article failed to note that Salim Idris had turned down the chief-of-staff position, and misstated the Nour al-Din al-Zenki Brigades' position on the exile government's national army. We regret the error. 

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