Smoke rises from an emergency service point after an airstrike at the rebel-held village of Maar Zita in Idlib province, Syria April 27, 2017. AMMAR ABDULLAH/Reuters/PA Images. All rights reserved.On July 19, 2017, the rebel factions Ahrar al Sham (Ahrar) and Hayat Tahrir al Sham (HTS) engaged in some of the fiercest infighting that Greater Idlib has experienced during the Syrian Civil War.
This old conflict has been brewing just beneath the surface since before the formation of HTS, which came as a response to rebel failures and the decrease in international support for moderate rebel groups in 2016. Following it's formation, HTS pursued a two-pronged approach towards achieving its dream of a grand merger: cooperating with Free Syrian Army groups in joint offensives and using violence and the threat of violence to pressure smaller groups into joining the fold.
As HTS realized that their military actions were not successful in attracting additional factions, the group began taking an increasingly violent stance towards non-aligned rebel groups in Idlib.
On May 12, amid fears of a Turkish-backed united FSA front, HTS ordered Friday’s sermons in Idlib to denounce Turkey and the FSA groups that fight in Turkey’s Euphrates Shield operation. Five days later, Ahmed bin Ghalib, a Saudi HTS commander, “vowed to eradicate Ahrar al Sham.”
On May 31, in a sign of internal dissent, former Nour al-Din al-Zenki commander and current HTS leader Hossam al-Atrash stated that all groups should dissolve and unite under the Interim Government’s Defense Ministry.
Eight days later HTS made its first major attack since January when it attacked FSA and Faylaq al Sham units in the town of Maraat al-Numan, killing FSA Colonel Tasyeer al-Samahi.
Violence in Idlib continued on June 13 when HTS kidnapped two FSA commanders – Nidal Haj Ali and Ahmed al-Mousa. HTS Political Chief Zayd al-Attar announced his resignation the following day, and on June 20 at least five former Ahrar al-Sham units defected back to Ahrar in further indications of internal division over HTS’s aggressive actions.
Finally, on July 8 al-Modon reported that the Turkistani Islamic Party and clerics Abdullah Muhaisini and Abu Mariyah Qahtani were mediating between HTS and Ahrar as tensions rose along the Bab al-Hawa border crossing.
However, attempts at mediation repeatedly failed as the increasing tensions exploded on July 19. HTS General Leader Abu Jaber justified these attacks in an audio message that day, claiming that Ahrar “refused to merge with us and sold out to foreign interests” – a reference to Ahrar’s close ties with Turkey and its participation in Euphrates Shield.
Ahrar appeared to hold the upper hand following the first day of fighting, capturing several towns from HTS. However, on July 20 HTS reiterated its position that it would only accept a full merger and launched a new wave of attacks, making quick work of Ahrar strongholds and seizing all of the Idlib/Turkey border crossings by July 23.
Despite the apparent military success of HTS, the most recent round of infighting has called into question the strength of HTS’s “coalition” label.
On July 20, after only one day of fighting, Nour al Din al Zenki broke from HTS, claiming that the new attacks were launched by Jolani and Abu Jaber without the approval of the Shura Council and that Zenki had only joined HTS with the promise that infighting would cease.
Even the HTS-aligned cleric Abdullah Muhaisini declared that the new infighting was haram and confirmed that the Sharia Council gave no approval for it. Zenki’s and Muhaisini’s statements imply that Abu Jaber and the former leaders of Jabhat al Nusra still act with impunity within the organization, despite the fact that former Zenki leaders held the high positions of Deputy Political Chief and President of the Consultative Council.
On July 20 another HTS group, Quwa al Markaziya, defected to Ahrar and an unnamed Uzebek group announced that, while remaining a part of HTS, it would not fight Ahrar. This, as well as Zenki’s defection, demonstrates that while HTS appears to have won the Idlib war, it has done so only through force and an unwillingness of many Ahrar fighters to fight HTS.
Thus, the recent infighting is a clear indication of the failure of HTS’s attempted middle-ground policy. Abu Jaber and Jolani have abandoned the carrot for full license of the stick and will never again be able to masquerade as a welcoming, uniting force in Idlib.
HTS’s only chance now to achieve a complete merger with Ahrar and the dozens of FSA factions throughout the region is to violently force them into submission – a course which will cement their pariah status both within Syria and the international community.
Yet this possible merger may have been aided by the United States when the Trump Administration announced the end of the CIA’s arming program on July 19.
If the formation of HTS was a partial response to the perceived abandonment by the international community, then the actual abandonment of moderate factions by the United States will only serve to further force moderates into HTS.
In January, choosing to unite with HTS offered a clear decision between choosing a unified domestic opposition that will aggressively pursue war, or remaining outside in order to seek stronger ties with international backers and a more diplomatic approach to resolving the overall conflict.
Unfortunately, it appears that most factions no longer hold a choice in this matter, but the effects will remain the same.
As HTS grows at the expense of others, opposition representatives will continue to lose negotiating power in the Astana and Geneva talks, leaving Assad and Russia only one option with which to end the war.