MMP: Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham

Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham

Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (Tahrir al-Sham), formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra (Al-Nusra), is a Sunni opposition group that aims to overthrow the Assad Regime and establish an Islamic Emirate in Syria.

Key Statistics

2011 First Recorded Activity
2011 First Attack
2021 Profile Last Updated

Profile Contents

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Overview

Narrative of the Organization's History

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Organization

Leadership, Name Changes, Size Estimates, Resources, Geographic Locations

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Strategy

Ideology, Aims, Political Activities, Targets and Tactics

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Major Attacks

First Attacks, Largest Attacks, Notable Attacks

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Interactions

Foreign Designations and Listings, Community Relations, Relations with Other Groups, State Sponsors and External Influences

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Maps

Mapping relationships with other militant groups over time

Contact MMP

Send a message to the Mapping Militants team.

Download Full Profile as PDF

Last Updated June 2021

How to Cite

Mapping Militant Organizations. “Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham.” Stanford University. Last modified June 2021. https://cisac.fsi.stanford.edu/mappingmilitants/profiles/hay’-tahrir-al-sham
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Organizational Overview

Formed: 2011

Disbanded: Group is active.

First Attack: December 23, 2011: Two Al-Nusra suicide bombers attacked military intelligence facilities in Damascus. This was Al-Nusra’s first official attack (44 killed, 150+ injured).[1]

Last Attack: June 22-27, 2020: After Hurras al-Din (HD) and other Al Qaeda-aligned groups formed their own operations room (known as “So Be Steadfast”) and established checkpoints in Idlib, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham issued a statement forbidding any group aside from itself from taking military action in rebel-held territories in Idlib. Both groups quickly mobilized their forces, leading to six days of clashes (100+ killed, unknown wounded).[2]

 

Executive Summary

Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra (Al-Nusra) and Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, is a Sunni opposition umbrella group that aims to overthrow the Assad regime and establish an Islamic Emirate in Syria. The group targets the Assad regime, Shiite forces, and U.S-backed forces in 11 of Syria’s 13 provinces and has conducted operations in Lebanon’s Bekka Valley. Al-Nusra was formed in late 2011 when Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) emir Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi sent AQI operative Abu Muhammad al-Julani to Syria to organize regional jihadist cells. At its inception, Al-Nusra began harboring the Khorasan Group, a cell of approximately two dozen experienced Al Qaeda (AQ) jihadists whom the central AQ leadership had sent to Syria to organize regional jihadist cells. However, Al-Nusra began targeting the Islamic State (IS, formerly AQI) in January 2014 amid rising tensions between IS and the Sunni opposition forces.

In July 2016, Al-Nusra controversially ended its affiliation with Al Qaeda and changed its name to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (The Front for the Conquest of the Levant). The group’s influence grew steadily throughout the conflict, bringing it into conflict with other opposition groups. After withstanding several periods of inter-jihadist conflict, Fatah al-Sham accepted mergers with several other Sunni opposition groups and changed its name to Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). Following its rebranding, HTS continued to consolidate its supremacy in Idlib, defeating its chief rivals Ahrar al-Sham and Hurras al-Din in 2017 and 2020, respectively. HTS has also withstood near-constant pressure from the Assad regime, its allies, and Turkey, the most noteworthy opposition-aligned state actor involved in Syria’s conflict. The group withstood several large-scale regime-led offensives against rebel territories in Idlib province, with the most recent offensive taking place between mid-2019 and early 2020. During this period, it is thought that HTS also formed a practical, pragmatic, and mutually beneficial relationship with Turkey, as both sides managed to set aside their strategic and political differences in the name of creating stability in Idlib. As of June 2021, observers estimate that HTS is the most powerful opposition group active in Syria.

 

Group Narrative

Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS, “The Assembly for the Liberation of Syria”), formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra (Al-Nusra) and as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, is a Sunni Syrian opposition umbrella group and designated terrorist organization that aims to overthrow the Assad regime and establish an Islamic emirate in Syria.[3] Al-Nusra was formed in late 2011 when Al Qaeda in Iraq emir and future Islamic State caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi sent AQI operative Abu Muhammad al-Julani to Syria to organize regional jihadist cells.[4] Though Al-Nusra began conducting operations in December 2011, the group formally declared its existence in January 2012.[5]  Since 2012, the group has expanded its operations to 11 of Syria’s 13 governorates, including parts of Aleppo, Raqqa, Deir el Zour, Daraa, and Idlib. The organization has also conducted operations in Lebanon’s Bekka Valley.[6] In 2012, Al-Nusra began harboring the Khorasan Group, an experienced cell of approximately two-dozen Al Qaeda jihadists sent to Syria by central AQ leadership to develop international terror plots.[7] Al-Nusra leader Muhammad al-Julani later denied the Khorasan group’s existence.[8]

Al-Nusra became prominent in early 2012 and was the first Syrian opposition group to claim responsibility for suicide attacks that caused civilian casualties.[9] At its inception, Al-Nusra received steady funding from Al Qaeda in Iraq and began to finance its operations by gaining control of oil fields.[10] Militarily, Al-Nusra began conducting operations with prominent Sunni opposition group Ahrar al-Sham and coordinating attacks with a wide range of opposition groups.[11] Although Al-Nusra initially faced hostility from other opposition groups, the organization developed a strong enough reputation that several groups, including fighters from the moderate Free Syrian Army, protested against the United States’ decision to designate Al-Nusra as a terrorist organization in December 2012.[12]

In April 2013, Al-Nusra came into conflict with Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). AQI leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, claimed, without consulting Al-Nusra or Al Qaeda, that Al-Nusra was to be considered the Syrian affiliate of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) under Baghdadi’s control.[13] In June 2013, AQ commander Ayman al-Zawahiri insisted that AQI and Al-Nusra had not merged, claiming that Baghdadi had "made a mistake on the merger announcement."[14] Al-Nusra leader Julani also denied the merger, maintaining Al-Nusra was an independent AQ branch and reaffirming his allegiance to AQ emir Ayman al-Zawahiri.[15] After a period of rising tensions, Al-Nusra began targeting ISI in January 2014 and drove the group out of the Syrian city of Raqqa in a combined offensive with Ahrar al-Sham and members of the Islamic Front umbrella organization.[16] After hostilities broke out between the two organizations, ISI, newly rebranded as the Islamic State (IS) began capturing Al-Nusra oil fields, which severely depleted Al-Nusra’s sources of income.[17] Despite this outbreak of conflict, IS and Al-Nusra still cooperated on few occasions in 2014. Al-Nusra had begun targeting Hezbollah in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley by March 2014. In August 2014, both Al-Nusra and IS released an anti-Hezbollah video after they took a unit of Lebanese soldiers hostage in the eastern mountains of Lebanon.[18] In addition to the Lebanese soldiers, Al-Nusra took many other high-profile hostages in 2014, including American journalist Peter Theo Curtis and 45 Fijian U.N. peacekeepers; the group ultimately released these hostages without conditions in August 2014.[19] In previous kidnappings, the group had usually secured between $4 million and $25 million in ransom for hostage releases, which Qatar often mediated.[20]

In September 2014, Al-Nusra’s relations with U.S.-backed groups soured after the United States began targeting the Khorasan Group and launching airstrikes against Al-Nusra bases in Idlib province.[21] Allegedly in response to U.S. strikes, Al-Nusra began a successful military campaign against the Syrian Revolutionary Front (SRF) and Harakat Hazzm, both U.S.-backed groups.[22]  Since these attacks, the group has continued targeting U.S.-backed groups because it believes opposition groups’ alliances with the United States threaten its autonomy.[23]

In late-2014 and early 2015, Al-Nusra began to increase its operations in Idlib province. Though some Free Syrian Army affiliated brigades coordinated with Al-Nusra, Al-Nusra’s most crucial ally in Idlib province was the Jaysh al-Fatah umbrella organization, which included Ahrar al-Sham and several smaller groups (among them Ferliq al-Sham, Ajnad al-Sham, Jaysh al-Sunnah, al-Haq Brigade, and Jund al-Aqsa).[24] In March 2015, Al-Nusra coordinated with the Jaysh al-Fatah umbrella organization to seize the city of Idlib from the Assad regime for the first time since the outbreak of the civil war.[25] Following this successful attack, Al-Nusra continued coordinating with Jaysh al-Fatah, eventually pushing the Assad regime out of Idlib province in June 2015.[26] Despite its cooperation with the umbrella organization earlier that year, Al-Nusra left Jaysh al-Fatah in October 2015, following the lead of its close partner Jund al-Aqsa.[27] It is believed that Al-Nusra left the group due to a dispute with Ahrar al-Sham over the application of Shari’ah in rebel-administered territories.

In late July 2015, Al-Nusra expanded its operations against U.S.-backed forces and attacked the U.S.-trained Division 30 (D30) in the town of Azzaz, kidnapping seven of its fighters.[28] Neither American intelligence officials nor D30 leaders had believed that Al-Nusra would attack because D30 had announced it would target the Islamic State and would not target Al-Nusra.[29] Nevertheless, Al-Nusra justified the attack by accusing D30 members of being American agents.[30] As a result, the United States deployed drones to defend D30 and reportedly killed between 30 and 40 Al-Nusra fighters in targeted airstrikes.[31] Though Al-Nusra later released seven of the D30 members it had kidnapped, the attack against the group and its surrender of U.S. weapons to Al-Nusra prompted the United States to end its training programs for Syrian opposition groups in October 2015.[32]

Despite the initial success of their military alliance, tensions rose between Ahrar al-Sham and Al-Nusra after the latter created governing bodies in Idlib province. Until mid-2015, Al-Nusra minimized the extent to which it exercised direct control over territory, opting instead to share power with other groups while working to endear itself to local Syrians. In addition, the group preferred to provide social services and food in an effort to embed itself with the local population before translating those social services into more concrete political power.[33] As a result, its influence within Idlib province skyrocketed, which led to violent skirmishes with Ahrar al-Sham over how to govern the area they jointly occupied.[34] The two groups also clashed over Al-Nusra’s relationship with Al Qaeda (AQ) and pursuit of global jihad, which Ahrar al-Sham deemed counterproductive to their jointly-held objective to foster and assist the Syrian revolution.[35] During this time, Al-Nusra began to question if it should maintain its AQ ties; however, cofounder Saleh al-Hamawi was forced out of the group after being branded a “regionalist” for prioritizing victory in Syria over advancing the global jihadist movement.[36]

In December 2015, Syrian opposition groups’ negotiations with the Assad regime threatened Al-Nusra’s standing within the rebel milieu. Analysts claimed that Al-Nusra’s value to the opposition was contingent upon its position as an irreplaceable military ally to non-jihadist opposition forces in the face of the comparatively more capable Assad regime and its allies. However, Al-Nusra was not a party to the negotiations due to its designation as a terrorist organization by the U.N., which had sponsored the talks.[37] As such, talks between the Assad regime and non-jihadist components of the opposition and the following cessation of hostilities empowered the non-jihadist Syrian opposition by diminishing Al-Nusra’s necessity to the moderate rebel core as a military partner. This weakening of Al-Nusra’s position allowed civilians to challenge Al-Nusra’s authority in Idlib province more openly, as many began to participate in protests and express support for the moderate Free Syrian Army.[38]

On July 28, 2016, Al-Nusra announced it had ended its affiliation with Al Qaeda (AQ), changing its name to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (“The Front for the Conquest of the Levant”).[39] Fatah al-Sham’s initial split from Al Qaeda prompted criticism from AQ leadership. Al Qaeda’s objections to Al-Nusra/Fatah al-Sham’s actions mainly concerned Fatah al-Sham’s perceived deviations from mainline jihadi ideology, the supposedly “nationalist” focus of its jihad, and its relationship with Turkey.[40] However, observers disagree on the extent and authenticity of Fatah al-Sham’s split with Al Qaeda. Some point to ideological distinctions between Fatah al-Sham/HTS and AQ and the former’s claim that it is “an independent entity and not an extension of previous organizations or factions” as evidence of its independence.[41] Others, however, note that the group’s leadership never abrogated its bay’ah – a pledge of allegiance to Al Qaeda’s central leadership – and that AQ emir Ayman al-Zawahiri did not explicitly consent to the split.[42]

Moreover, although Fatah al-Sham no longer had public, “external ties” with AQ following their rift, some observers have suggested that the group continued to receive strategic and operational guidance from AQ’s central leadership.[43] Analysts suggested that Fatah al-Sham sought to separate itself from AQ in part to improve its image among local Syrians and weaken the international community's justification for targeting the group, though some suggest that the split with AQ has not resulted in a substantial shift in the group’s ideology or goals.[44]

Fatah al-Sham also became active in the Jaysh al-Fatah umbrella organization’s campaign to recapture the Aleppo governorate. On August 7, 2016, Fatah al-Sham coordinated with Jaysh al-Fatah and the Fatah Halab control room to break through the Assad regime’s siege on Aleppo. On August 10, 2016, the Assad regime reportedly retaliated with a chlorine attack on opposition-held areas in Aleppo.[45]

In October 2016, tensions rose between Ahrar al-Sham and Jund al-Aqsa, a prominent Sunni-Salafi opposition group that was initially a subunit within Fatah al-Sham until it left to become an independent group in 2013. Tensions escalated after Jund al-Aqsa kidnapped a member of Ahrar al-Sham in response to Ahrar al-Sham's arrest of a Jund al-Aqsa fighter who allegedly worked for the Islamic State. As a result of this incident, Ahrar al-Sham began to target Jund al-Aqsa.[46] On October 10, 2016, Jund al-Aqsa re-merged into Fatah al-Sham, and Fatah al-Sham leaders negotiated a ceasefire with Ahrar al-Sham.[47] 

In January 2017, tensions among Syrian opposition groups rose due to increased U.S. airstrikes against Jabhat Fatah al-Sham. The airstrikes were part of an effort to dissuade Idlib opposition groups from merging with Fatah al-Sham.[48] However, inter-opposition violence escalated when Fatah al-Sham began attacking militant groups in the Aleppo and Idlib governorates that sent representatives to peace talks with the Assad regime in Kazakhstan. As a result of these attacks, Jaysh al-Mujahedeen, the Levantine Front’s Aleppo-based fighters, and Jaysh al-Islam’s Idlib-based fighters merged with Ahrar al-Sham. Following these mergers, Ahrar al-Sham stated that any attack on new Ahrar al-Sham factions would be considered “a declaration of war.”[49]

Following these attacks, Fatah al-Sham rebranded as Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). The organization merged with Sunni opposition groups such as Jaysh al-Ahrar, a sub-faction within Ahrar al-Sham, that was led by former Ahrar al-Sham leader Sheikh Hashim al-Sheikh.[50] As part of this merger, Abu Muhammad al-Julani abdicated his role as the group’s overall leader, a position assumed by Sheikh Hashim al-Sheikh, and became HTS’s top military commander.[51] On February 9, 2017, Sheikh Hashim al-Sheikh released his first public statement since becoming HTS’s leader and called for unity in the Syrian insurgency.[52] However, mere months later, in October 2017, Hashim al-Sheikh resigned as HTS’s leader and was succeeded by Abu Muhammad al-Julani.[53]

The dispute between HTS and Al Qaeda’s leadership continued throughout 2017. The disagreement between the two mainly concerned Al Qaeda’s objections to HTS’s perceived deviations from mainline jihadi (Al Qaeda’s) ideology, the supposedly “nationalist” focus of HTS’s jihad, and HTS’s relationship with Turkey.[54] This rivalry appears to have played out within HTS’s ranks, becoming increasingly violent throughout 2017. From September to November 2017, IED attacks and ambushes killed several of HTS’s hardline, Al Qaeda loyalist leaders.[55] In February 2018, several combat units and figures loyal to Al Qaeda defected from HTS and, alongside the remnants of Ahrar al-Sham, formed Hurras al-Din (HD, “Guardians of the Religion”), which many observers have identified as Al Qaeda’s new proxy in Syria.[56] HD and HTS have remained rivals since HD’s founding, frequently competing for influence, recruits, and weaponry. Given HD’s enduring ties to Al Qaeda and its hardline positions, HD appeared to be a more attractive option for ideologically committed extremists; in contrast, HTS positioned itself as a more “moderate” group to increase its standing in areas under its control.[57]

In 2017, HTS and several allied groups played a significant role in establishing the Syrian Salvation Government to solidify its administrative authority in territories under its control.[58] Based in Greater Idlib (Idlib governorate and rural areas surrounding Aleppo), the explicitly Islamist Salvation Government forms a competing opposition government to the moderate Syrian Interim Government, which is aligned with the Free Syrian Army. Its objectives in doing so were twofold: 1) to assert its own authority among the rebel milieu; and 2) deny the Assad regime and its allies the opportunity to exploit divisions among the opposition.[59]

Throughout 2018 and 2019, HTS carried out offensive operations against the National Front for Liberation (NFL), a Turkish-backed coalition of eleven rebel factions operating in northwest Syria, including HTS rivals Ahrar al-Sham and Faylaq al-Sham, as well as several groups affiliated with the FSA.[60] The NFL is part of the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army, a coalition of numerous former FSA affiliates created in the wake of Al-Nusra’s offensive against the FSA in early 2017.[61] In January 2019, HTS launched an offensive against the NFL, capturing several strategically valuable rebel-held towns.[62] Following nine days of fighting, HTS had captured “about 80%” of all non-HTS rebel-held territory in Idlib province.[63] The NFL ultimately capitulated to HTS, ceding territories captured by HTS to the Syrian Salvation Government, HTS’s civilian counterpart, and agreeing to an immediate ceasefire and prisoner exchange.[64]

Between 2017 and 2020, HTS continued to cement its military and political hegemony in Idlib and its surrounding areas. By 2020, it had militarily defeated Ahrar al-Sham and Hurras al-Din, its most significant rivals in Idlib, established key governing institutions in Idlib province, and survived several regime-led offensives against rebel-held territory in Idlib.[65] As of June 2021, observers estimate that HTS is not only the most powerful rebel group in Idlib province but is likely the most powerful non-state opposition group in Syria.[66]

 

[1] “UN Security Council condemns Syria suicide attacks.” BBC, December 24, 2011; Lister, Charles. “Profiling Jabhat al-Nusra.” The Brookings Institution, July 6, 2016.

[2] “Striving for Hegemony: The HTS Crackdown on al-Qaida and Friends in Northwest Syria.” Jihadica, September 15, 2020.

[3] Joscelyn, Thomas. “Hay’at Tahrir al Sham leader calls for ‘unity’ in Syrian insurgency.” The Long War Journal, Foundation for Defense of Democracies, February 10, 2017; Hubbard, Ben. “Islamist Rebels Create Dilemma on Syria Policy.” The New York Times, April 27, 2013; Khodr, Zeina. "Syrians Decry US Blacklisting of Rebel Group." Al Jazeera, December 15, 2012; Lister, Charles. “Profiling Jabhat al-Nusra.” The Brookings Institution, July 6, 2016.

[4] Lister, Charles. “Profiling Jabhat al-Nusra.” The Brookings Institution, July 6, 2016.

[5] “UN Security Council condemns Syria suicide attacks.” BBC, December 24, 2011; Lister, Charles. “Profiling Jabhat al-Nusra.” The Brookings Institution, July 6, 2016.

[6] “Syria's Insurgent Landscape.” Rep. IHS, Sept. 2013; "Lebanon car bomb kills local Hezbollah leader." Al Jazeera, March 16, 2014.

[7] Lund, Aron. "What Is the “Khorasan Group” and Why Is the U.S. Bombing It in Syria?" Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, September 23, 2014; Mazzetti, Mark. "A Terror Cell That Avoided the Spotlight." The New York Times, September 24, 2014.

[8] "Al-Qaeda 'orders Syria's Al-Nusra Front Not to Attack West'" BBC, May 28, 2015.

[9] Arango, Tim, and Anne Barnard. "Syrian Rebels Tied to Al Qaeda Play Key Role in War." The New York Times, December 8, 2012.

[10] Iraqi al-Qaeda and Syrian group 'merge'." Al-Jazeera, April 9, 2013; Robertson, Ric and Paul Cruickshank. "Sources: Pro Al Qaeda Group Steps Up Suicide Bombings in Syria." CNN, October 4, 2012; “UN to Vote on Measure to Combat Al-Qaida Fighters." The Associated Press, August 14, 2014.

[11] Lister, Charles. “Profiling Jabhat al-Nusra.” The Brookings Institution, July 6, 2016.

[12] Arango, Tim, and Anne Barnard. "Syrian Rebels Tied to Al Qaeda Play Key Role in War." The New York Times, December 8, 2012; Khodr, Zeina. "Syrians Decry US Blacklisting of Rebel Group." Al Jazeera, December 15, 2012.

[13] Joscelyn, Thomas. "Al Qaeda in Iraq, Al Nusrah Front Emerge as Rebranded Single Entity." The Long War Journal, Foundation for Defense of Democracies, April 9, 2013.

[14] “Iraqi al-Qaeda chief rejects Zawahiri orders.” Al Jazeera, June 15, 2013.

[15] “Iraqi al-Qaeda chief rejects Zawahiri orders.” Al Jazeera, June 15, 2013.

[16] Barnard, Anne, and Rick Gladstone. "Rebel Infighting Spreads to an Eastern Syrian City." The New York Times, January 6, 2014.

[17] Lister, Charles. “Profiling Jabhat al-Nusra.” The Brookings Institution, July 6, 2016.

[18] "Lebanon car bomb kills local Hezbollah leader." Al Jazeera, March 16, 2014; Branford, Nicholas. "After Foley murder, more jihadi threats to murder hostages." Christian Science Monitor, August 24, 2014.

[19] Associated Press. "US Says American Held in Syria Has Been Freed." The New York Times, August 24, 2014; "Syria's Nusra Front Releases U.N. Peacekeepers in Golan." The New York Times, September 10, 2014.

[20] Branford, Nicholas. "After Foley murder, more jihadi threats to murder hostages." Christian Science Monitor, August 24, 2014.

[21] Lund, Aron. “What Is the ‘Khorasan Group’ and Why Is the U.S. Bombing It in Syria?” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 23 September 23, 2014.

[22] "Jihadists Edging out US Allies in Syria." BBC, November 4, 2014.

[23] Gazaintep, Ruth Sherlock. “Syrian rebels armed and trained by US surrender to al-Qaeda.” The Telegraph, November 2, 2014.

[24] Roggio, Bill. "Al Nusrah Front, Free Syrian Army Launch Joint Operation." The Long War Journal, Foundation for Defense of Democracies, March 14, 2014; “Syria Frontlines Update.” Syria Conflict Mapping Project, The Carter Center, October 9, 2015.

[25] Graham-Harrison, Emma. "Blow for Assad as Islamist Militants Take Strategically Important City of Idlib." The Guardian, 28 March 28, 2015.

[26] “Syria Frontlines Update.” Syria Conflict Mapping Project, The Carter Center, October 9, 2015.

[27] MacDonald, Alex and Mary Atkinson. “Reports: Al-Nusra Front leaves Jaish al-Fatah coalition in Syria.” Middle East Eye, October 28, 2015.

[28] Barnard, Anne, and Eric Schmitt. "Rivals of ISIS Attack U.S.-Backed Syrian Rebel Group." The New York Times, July 31, 2015; "Nusra Front Frees Several U.S.-trained Syrian Rebels." Agence France-Presse, August 16, 2015.

[29] Barnard, Anne, and Eric Schmitt. "Rivals of ISIS Attack U.S.-Backed Syrian Rebel Group." The New York Times, July 31, 2015.

[30] Barnard, Anne, and Eric Schmitt. "Rivals of ISIS Attack U.S.-Backed Syrian Rebel Group." The New York Times, July 31, 2015.

[31] Ignatius, David. "U.S. Drone Strikes Batter Jabhat Al-Nusra, Encouraging Moderates." The Washington Post, August 28, 2015.

[32] "Nusra Front Frees Several U.S.-trained Syrian Rebels." Agence France-Presse, August 16, 2015; Amman, Nabih Bulos. “U.S-trained Division 30 rebels ‘betray US and hand weapons over to al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria.’” The Telegraph, September 22, 2015; Shear, Michael D., Cooper, Helene, and Schmitt, Eric. “Obama Administration Ends Effort to Train Syrians to Combat ISIS.” The New York Times, October 9, 2015.

[33] Lister, Charles. “Profiling Jabhat al-Nusra.” The Brookings Institution, July 6, 2016.

[34] Lister, Charles. “Profiling Jabhat al-Nusra.” The Brookings Institution, July 6, 2016.

[35] Kaouny, Miriam. “Syrian rebel splits deepen after failed ‘merger’ with al Qaeda arm.” Reuters, January 29, 2016.

[36] "Insight - Syria's Nusra Front May Leave Qaeda to Form New Entity." Reuters, March 4, 2015; Lund, Aron. “The Nusra Front’s Internal Purges.” Syria in Crisis, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, August 7, 2015.

[37] “Syrian opposition seeks unified front at Riyadh conference.” BBC, December 8, 2015; Abboud, Samer. “Syria War: What you need to know about the ceasefire.” Al Jazeera, February 28, 2016; DeYoung, Karen. “U.S.-Russia cooperation frays as Syria truce falls apart.” The Washington Post, April 27, 2016.

[38] Lister, Charles. “Profiling Jabhat al-Nusra.” The Brookings Institution, July 6, 2016.

[39] Jones, Bryony, Clarissa Ward, and Salma Abdelaziz. “Al-Nusra rebranding: New name, same aim? What you need to know.” CNN, August 2, 2016; Joscelyn, Thomas. “Analysis: Al Nusrah Front rebrands itself as Jabhat Fath Al Sham.” Long War Journal, July 28, 2016; John, Tara. “Everything You Need To Know About the New Nusra Front.” Time Magazine, July 28, 2016.

[40] Joscelyn, Thomas. “Pro-Al Qaeda ideologue criticizes joint bombings by Russia and Turkey in Syria.” Long War Journal, January 23, 2017; Joscelyn, Thomas. “Hay’at Tahrir al Sham leader calls for unity in Syrian insurgency. The Long War Journal, Foundation for Defense of Democracies, February 10, 2017; Joscelyn, Thomas. “Analysis: Ayman al Zawahiri calls for ‘unity’ in Syria amid leadership crisis.” Long War Journal, December 2, 2017.

[41] Kelly, Fergus. “Al-Qaeda in Idlib? Examining bonds between Syria’s largest jihadi groups.” The Defense Post, November 3, 2017; Jones, Seth et al. “Al Qaeda’s Struggling Campaign in Syria.” CSIS, April 2018

[42] Kelly, Fergus. “Al-Qaeda in Idlib? Examining bonds between Syria’s largest jihadi groups.” The Defense Post, November 3, 2017; Jones, Seth et al. “Al Qaeda’s Struggling Campaign in Syria.” CSIS, April 2018

[43] Hassan, Hassan. “Jabhat Al Nusra and Al Qaeda: The Riddle, the Ruse and the Reality.” The National, November 1, 2017; Attun, Abdul Raheem. “A Comprehensive History—How Jabhat al Nusra Broke its Ties with Al Qaeda,” Al- Maqalaat, December 1, 2017.

[44] Lister Charles. “The Nusra Front is Dead and Stronger Than Ever Before.” Foreign Policy, July 28, 2016; Sanchez, Ray and Paul Cruickshank. “Syria’s al-Nusra rebrands and cuts ties with al Qaeda.” CNN, August 1, 2016.

[45] Joscelyn, Thomas. “Jihadists and other rebels claim to have broken through siege of Aleppo.” The Long War Journal, Foundation for Defense of Democracies, August 7, 2016; “Weekly Conflict Summary August 4-10.” The Carter Center, August 10, 2016; “Syria conflict: Aleppo ‘chlorine gas attack’ investigated.” BBC, August 11, 2016.

[46] Antonopoulos, Paul. “Ahrar al-Sham and Jund al-Aqsa alliance in northern Hama showing cracks.” Al-Masdar News, October 6, 2016; Joscelyn, Thomas. “Amid infighting, Jund al-Aqsa swears allegiance to Al-Qaeda’s rebranded branch.” The Long War Journal, Foundation for Defense of Democracies, October 9, 2016.

[47] “Weekly Conflict Summary.” The Carter Center, October 12, 2016.

[48] Jawad al-Tamimi, Aymenn. “The Formation of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham and Wider Tensions in the Syrian Insurgency.” CTC Sentinel, CTC at West Point, Feb. 2017.

[49] Mroue, Bassem. “Syrian rebels and insurgents battle in split over peace push.” The Associated Press, February 6, 2017; Petkova, Mariya. “Syrian opposition factions join Ahrar al-Sham.” Al Jazeera, January 26, 2017.

[50] Heller, Sam. “The Strategic Logic of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.” Perspectives on Terrorism 6, no. 11 (2017).

[51] Joscelyn, Thomas. “Hay’at Tahrir al Sham leader calls for unity in Syrian insurgency. The Long War Journal, Foundation for Defense of Democracies, February 10, 2017.

[52] Joscelyn, Thomas. “Hay’at Tahrir al Sham leader calls for unity in Syrian insurgency. The Long War Journal, Foundation for Defense of Democracies, February 10, 2017.

[53] Kelly, Fergus. “Al-Qaeda in Idlib? Examining bonds between Syria’s largest jihadi groups.” The Defense Post, November 3, 2017.

[54] Joscelyn, Thomas. “Pro-Al Qaeda ideologue criticizes joint bombings by Russia and Turkey in Syria.” Long War Journal, January 23, 2017; Joscelyn, Thomas. “Hay’at Tahrir al Sham leader calls for unity in Syrian insurgency. The Long War Journal, Foundation for Defense of Democracies, February 10, 2017; Joscelyn, Thomas. “Analysis: Ayman al Zawahiri calls for ‘unity’ in Syria amid leadership crisis.” Long War Journal, December 2, 2017.

[55] Shelton, Tracey. “Syria: Deadly feud rips through Al Qaeda's leadership as terrorist group takes more 'moderate' line.” ABC News Australia, December 22, 2017.

[56] “Syria group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and al-Qaeda legacy.” BBC, May 22, 2019; Ali, Zulfiqar. “Syria: Who's in control of Idlib?” BBC, February 18, 2020; Carenzi, Silvia. “A Downward Scale Shift? The Case of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham.” Perspectives on Terrorism 14, no. 6 (December 2020): 96.

[57] “Three moves: ‘Tahrir al-Sham’ moves against ‘extremist currents’ in Idlib (ثلاثة تحركات.. “تحرير الشام” تصعّد ضد “التيار المتشدد” في إدلب).” Enab Baladi, June 22, 2020; Jawad al-Tamimi, Aymen. “From Jabhat al-Nusra to Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham: Evolution, Approach and Future.” Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, June 29, 2018; Hamming, Tore, Pieter Van Ostaeyen. “The True Story of al-Qaeda’s Demise and Resurgence in Syria.” Lawfare, April 8, 2018.

[58] Mehchy, Zaki, Haid Haid and Lina Khatib. “Assessing control and power dynamics in Syria: De facto authorities and state institutions.” Chatham House, November 2020. 9; Zelin, Aaron. “Jihadi Movements 2021: ISIS, al-Qaeda, and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.” The Washington Institute, March 17, 2021; Heller, Sam. “The Strategic Logic of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.” Perspectives on Terrorism 6, no. 11 (2017); Jawad al-Tamimi, Aymenn. “Idlib and Its Environs: Narrowing Prospects for a Rebel Holdout.” The Washington Institute, February 2020. 3.

[59] Heller, Sam. “The Strategic Logic of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.” Perspectives on Terrorism 6, no. 11 (2017); Jawad al-Tamimi, Aymenn. “Idlib and Its Environs: Narrowing Prospects for a Rebel Holdout.” The Washington Institute, February 2020. 4, 5; Jawad al-Tamimi, Aymen. “From Jabhat al-Nusra to Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham: Evolution, Approach and Future.” Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, June 29, 2018. 6.

[60] Ali, Zulfiqar. “Syria: Who's in control of Idlib?” BBC, February 18, 2020.

[61] Sly, Liz and Zakaria Zakaria. “‘Al-Qaeda is eating us’: Syrian rebels are losing out to extremists.” The Washington Post, February 23, 2017.

[62] Vohra, Anchal. “HTS offensive could draw in Syria and Turkey.” Al Jazeera, January 9, 2019.

[63] “After 9 days of bloody clashes, Hayyaat Tahrir al-Sham with the ‘jihadi’ factions control about 80% of the area of ​​what is left for the opposition factions within Syrian territory.” Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, January 9, 2019.

[64] “Peace Agreements Database – Agreement for a ceasefire and exchange of prisoners between Tahrir al-Sham and the National Liberation Front (NLF) in Idlib.” The University of Edinburgh, January 10, 2019. https://www.peaceagreements.org/viewmasterdocument/2284.

[65] Al-Khalidi, Suleiman. “Jihadist group cements control of Syria's Idlib province: rebels.” Reuters, July 24, 2017; Heller, Sam. “The Strategic Logic of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.” Perspectives on Terrorism 6, no. 11 (2017); Jawad al-Tamimi, Aymenn. “Idlib and Its Environs: Narrowing Prospects for a Rebel Holdout.” The Washington Institute, February 2020. 4, 5; “A shameful response to the tragedy in Idlib.” Financial Times, February 20, 2020.

[66] Heller, Sam. “The Strategic Logic of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.” Perspectives on Terrorism 6, no. 11 (2017); Jawad al-Tamimi, Aymenn. “Idlib and Its Environs: Narrowing Prospects for a Rebel Holdout.” The Washington Institute, February 2020. 4, 5; Jawad al-Tamimi, Aymen. “From Jabhat al-Nusra to Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham: Evolution, Approach and Future.” Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, June 29, 2018. 6; Ali, Zulfiqar. “Syria: Who's in control of Idlib?” BBC, February 18, 2020; “In Syria’s Idlib, Washington’s Chance to Reimagine Counter-terrorism.” International Crisis Group, February 3, 2021.

Organizational Structure

Leadership, Name Changes, Size Estimates, Resources, Geographic Locations
Leadership
  • Leadership
  • Name Changes
  • Size Estimates
  • Resources
  • Geographic Locations

Leadership

Muhsin al-Fadhli (Unknown to 2015): Fadhli, also known as Muhsin Fadhil ‘Ayyid al Fadhli, Muhsin Fadil Ayid Ashur al Fadhli, Abu Majid Samiyah, and Abu Samia, was a Kuwaiti national who reportedly commanded the Khorasan Group, an Al Qaeda (AQ) cell reportedly harbored by Al-Nusra. Fadhli moved to Syria after the U.S. State Department identified him as the leader of AQ in Iran in 2012. Fadhli was killed in a U.S. drone strike in July 2015.[1]

Maysar Ali al-Juburi (2011 to 2014): Juburi, also known as Abu Maria al-Qatani, helped found Al-Nusra and was its top religious official. Juburi first came to Syria in 2010 after he was wounded in Iraq as a member of the Islamic State. He served as Al-Nusra’s top religious official until he was replaced by Sami al-Oreidi in 2014 and was demoted to a standard member.[2]  

Saleh al-Hamawi (2011 to 2015): Hamawi, also known as Abu Muhammad, is a Syrian national from the Hama governorate. Hamawi allegedly helped found Al-Nusra and held a leadership position in Al-Nusra’s Shura Council until he was expelled from his leadership role in 2015. Hamawi claims that tensions erupted between him and the rest of the council after he was branded a “regionalist” for prioritizing victory in Syria over the global jihad movement.[3]

Abu Muhammad al-Julani (January 2012 to Present): Julani is HTS’s current overall leader. Julani, a Syrian national, moved to Iraq shortly after the U.S. invasion of the country to join the ongoing insurgency in that country.[4] Julani briefly left Iraq after Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Al Qaeda’s former leader in Iraq, was killed in a U.S. drone strike in 2006. Julani was arrested by U.S. forces at some point during the insurgency in Iraq, spending time in a U.S. military prison camp known as Camp Bucca. After his release, he resumed militant work with future Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.[5] Julani outlined his plan for an Iraqi-style jihadist insurgency in Syria in a research document he shared with Baghdadi. Julani was dispatched to Syria in 2011 to connect with local AQ networks alongside six other Al Qaeda veterans and, with funding from Al Qaeda, founded Al-Nusra the following year. In 2017, Julani abdicated his role as the group’s leader (a position assumed by Sheikh Hashim al-Sheikh) and became Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham’s military leader.[6] However, in October 2017, Julani assumed HTS’s leadership after Hashim al-Sheikh resigned amid turmoil among the group’s leadership.[7]

Abdul Mohsen Abdullah Ibrahim al-Sharikh (2013 to 2015): Sharikh, also known as Sanafi al-Nasr, was a senior leader and strategist within HTS. Prior to 2013, Sharikh coordinated AQ financial networks in Pakistan and Iran. Sharikh reportedly also led the Khorasan Group following former Khorasan leader Muhsin al-Fadhli’s death in June 2015.[8] As a result, Sharikh was on Saudi Arabia’s list of most-wanted terrorists and was on the U.S. Treasury Department’s Specially Designated Global Terrorists list.[9] In October 2015, Sharikh was killed in a U.S. airstrike in northwestern Syria.[10]

Sami al-Oreidi (2014 to 2017): Oreidi, also known as Abu Mahmoud al-Shami, is HTS’s top religious figure and second in command. Oreidi reportedly played a central role in developing Al-Nusra/HTS’s theological basis and its messaging, invoking his religious credentials to reinforce HTS’s Syria-centric jihadist outlook while issuing sectarian attacks against Syria’s Alawite community.[11] In 2017, one year after the group reorganized as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham and split from Al Qaeda, Oreidi left the organization,[12] decrying the “illegality” of the group’s separation from Al Qaeda.[13] Oreidi allegedly joined Al Qaeda’s new Syrian proxy Hurras al-Din after its formation in 2018, reportedly rising to hold a seat on the new group’s shura council.[14]

Sheikh Hashim al-Sheikh (January 28, 2017 to Present): Sheikh, also known as Abu Jaber, became Ahrar al-Sham’s interim leader after Hassan Abboud’s death. Sheikh was imprisoned by the Assad regime in 2005 for transferring foreign fighters to Islamist insurgents in Iraq but was released in September 2011. Before joining Ahrar al-Sham’s Shura Council, Sheikh commanded units in the Free Syrian Army and then Ahrar al-Sham battalions in Aleppo. Under his leadership, Ahrar al-Sham launched a successful military campaign in Idlib and moderated its rhetoric in an attempt to appeal to the West. In September 2015, Sheikh stepped down as commander to found Jaysh Halab, an umbrella organization of Aleppo-based militant groups, including Ahrar al-Sham. In late 2016, Sheikh formed a sub-faction with Ahrar al-Sham known as Jaysh al-Ahrar in response to contested leadership elections. After Jaysh al-Ahrar merged with Jabhat Fatah al-Sham to form the umbrella group HTS, Sheikh became HTS’s leader.[15] However, in October 2017, Hashim al-Sheikh resigned as HTS’s leader amid turmoil among the group’s leadership and was succeeded by Abu Muhammad al-Julani; Sheikh reportedly assumed leadership of HTS’s Shura council.[16] Little has been reported about Hashim al-Sheikh’s activities following his resignation.

Abu Julaybib (2011 to 2016): Abu Julaybib, born Iyad Nazmi Salih Khalil, was a Jordanian jihadist and veteran Al Qaeda fighter affiliated with Al-Nusra from its founding until its split from Al Qaeda in 2016. As a longtime member of Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), Abu Julaybib reportedly maintained a close relationship with AQI founder Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, having fought alongside Zarqawi in Afghanistan and Iraq; Abu Julaybib was also Zarqawi’s brother-in-law.[17] Abu Julaybib was one of the initial six AQI fighters sent to Syria by AQI leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in 2011 to connect with local Al Qaeda networks.[18] Abu Julaybib founded the Al-Nusra Front alongside current HTS leader Abu Muhammad al-Julani, becoming the group’s “emir” for Syria’s coastal area. He reportedly rose to become Al-Nusra’s third-highest official by 2016.[19] Abu Julaybib was one of Julani’s main supporters when Al-Nusra split from Baghdadi’s Islamic State (AQI’s successor) in 2013. However, Abu Julaybib broke from Al-Nusra in 2016 following the group’s public split from Al Qaeda; he subsequently renewed his pledge of allegiance (bay’ah) to Al Qaeda emir Ayman al-Zawahiri.[20] In 2017, the U.S. Department of the Treasury, following the United Nations’ lead, listed Abu Julaybib as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist, owing to his prior connections to Al-Nusra, Al Qaeda, and the Islamic State.[21] In December 2018, several jihadist-affiliated outlets claimed that Abu Julaybib was killed in Syria, though no reports have since confirmed this claim.[22]

 

[1] Schmitt, Eric. "Leader of Qaeda Cell in Syria, Muhsin Al-Fadhli, Is Killed in Airstrike, U.S. Says." The New York Times, July 21, 2015; “Rewards for Justice-al Qaida Reward Offers.” Office of the Spokesperson, U.S. State Department, October 18, 2012.

[2] Lund, Aron. “The Nusra Front’s Internal Purges.” Syria in Crisis, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, August 7, 2015.

[3] Lund, Aron. "The Nusra Front's Internal Purges." Syria in Crisis, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, August 7, 2015.

[4] “The Jihadist – Abu Mohammad al-Jolani.” Frontline, February 2021.

[5] “The Jihadist – Abu Mohammad al-Jolani.” Frontline, February 2021.

[6] "Treasury Designates Additional Supporters of the Al-Nusrah Front and Al-Qaida." Press Center, U.S. Department of the Treasury, August 22, 2014; Abdul-Zahra, Qassim and Zeina Karim. “Elusive Al-Qaeda leader in Syria stays in Shadows.” The Times of Israel, November 4, 2013; Lister, Charles. “Profiling Jabhat al-Nusra.” The Brookings Institution, July 6, 2016; Joscelyn, Thomas. “Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham leader calls for ‘unity’ in Syrian insurgency.” Long War Journal, Foundation for Defense of Democracies, February 10, 2017.

[7] Kelly, Fergus. “Al-Qaeda in Idlib? Examining bonds between Syria’s largest jihadi groups.” The Defense Post, November 3, 2017.

[8] Joscelyn, Thomas and Bill Roggio. “US military confirms it killed senior al Qaeda strategist Sanafi al Nasr in airstrike in Syria.” Long War Journal, October 18, 2015.

[9] "Treasury Designates Additional Supporters of the Al-Nusrah Front and Al-Qaida." Press Center, U.S. Department of the Treasury, August 22, 2014.

[10] “Statement on Airstrike in Syria that Killed Sanafi al-Nasr.” U.S. Department of Defense, October 18, 2015; Starr, Barbara and Tim Hume. “Top al Qaeda leader Sanafi al-Nasr killed in U.S. airstrike, Pentagon says.” CNN, October 18, 2015.

[11] Heller, Sam. “Al-Qaeda Speaks The Language Of Syrian Sectarianism.” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, June 9, 2016.

[12] Bunzel, Cole. “Abandoning al-Qaida: Tahrir al-Sham and the Concerns of Sami al-‘Uraydi.” Jihadica, May 12, 2017.

[13] Hamming, Tore. “What we learned from Sami al-Uraydi’s testimony concerning Abu Abdullah al-Shami.” Jihadica, October 24, 2017.

[14] Hamming, Tore and Pieter Van Ostaeyen. “The True Story of al-Qaeda’s Demise and Resurgence in Syria.” Lawfare, April 8, 2018.

[15] Roggio, Bill. "New leader of Ahrar al Sham previously led Free Syrian Army unit." The Long War Journal, Foundation for Defense of Democracies, September 11, 2014; Lund, Aron. “Abu Yahia al-Hamawi, Ahrar al-Sham’s New Leader.” Syria Comment, September 12, 2015; Jocelyn, Thomas. “Allepo-based rebel groups reportedly unite behind Ahrar al Sham’s former top leader.” The Long War Journal, Foundation for Defense of Democracies, February 20, 2016; Lister, Charles (@Charles_Lister). “This move comes as Jaish al-Ahrar’s leader ‘Abu Jaber’ saw himself increasingly isolated from Ahrar al-Sham.” 10 Dec. 2016. Tweet. 25 Feb. 2017; Joscelyn, Thomas. “Hay’at Tahrir al Sham leader calls for unity in Syrian insurgency. The Long War Journal, Foundation for Defense of Democracies, February 10, 2017.

[16] Kelly, Fergus. “Al-Qaeda in Idlib? Examining bonds between Syria’s largest jihadi groups.” The Defense Post, November 3, 2017.

[17] Ma'ayeh, Suha Philip. "Jordanian Jihadists Active in Syria.” CTC Sentinel 6(10) (CTC at West Point, October 2013): 12; Joscelyn, Thomas. “Jihadis claim US-designated terrorist killed in Syria.” Long War Journal, December 29, 2018.

[18] Joscelyn, Thomas. “Jihadis claim US-designated terrorist killed in Syria.” Long War Journal, December 29, 2018; “Treasury Sanctions Senior Al-Nusrah Front Leaders Concurrently with UN Designations.” Press Center, U.S. Department of the Treasury, February 23, 2017.

[19] “Treasury Sanctions Senior Al-Nusrah Front Leaders Concurrently with UN Designations.” Press Center, U.S. Department of the Treasury, February 23, 2017.

[20] Joscelyn, Thomas. “Treasury, UN sanction 2 senior leaders in al Qaeda’s Syrian branch.” Long War Journal, February 24, 2017.

[21] “Treasury Sanctions Senior Al-Nusrah Front Leaders Concurrently with UN Designations.” Press Center, U.S. Department of the Treasury, February 23, 2017.

[22] Joscelyn, Thomas. “Jihadis claim US-designated terrorist killed in Syria.” Long War Journal, December 29, 2018.

Name Changes

  • July 28, 2016: Jabhat al-Nusra ended its affiliation with Al Qaeda and changed its name to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (“The Front for the Conquest of the Levant”).[1]
  • January 28, 2017: Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, after merging with several smaller factions, changed its name to Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS, “The Assembly for the Liberation of Syria”)[2]
 

[1] Jones, Bryony, Clarissa Ward, and Salma Abdelaziz. “Al-Nusra rebranding: New name, same aim? What you need to know.” CNN, August 2, 2016.

[2] Joscelyn, Thomas. “Hay’at Tahrir al Sham leader calls for ‘unity’ in Syrian insurgency.” The Long War Journal, Foundation for Defense of Democracies, February 10, 2017.

Size Estimates

  • 2012: 300-400 (Hurriyet)[1]
  • 2013: 7,000 (The Economist)[2]
  • 2014: 5,000-6,000 (RAND Corporation)[3]
  • 2016: 5,000-10,000 (BBC)[4]
  • 2016: 7,000 (Brookings Institution)[5]
  • 2020: 15,000 to 20,000 (BBC)[6]
 

[1] Solomon, Ariel Ben. "Al-Qaida linked group doubles size in Syria." Hurriyet, March 28, 2013.

[2] “Competition among Islamists.” The Economist, July 20, 2013.

[3] Jenkins, Brian M. “The Dynamics of Syria's Civil War.” RAND Corporation, 2014.

[4] “Syrian war: Who are Jabhat Fateh al-Sham?” BBC, August 1, 2016.

[5] Lister, Charles. “Profiling Jabhat al-Nusra.” The Brookings Institution, July 6, 2016.

[6] Ali, Zulfiqar. “Syria: Who's in control of Idlib?” BBC, February 18, 2020.

Resources

Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra (Al-Nusra), receives funding from various sources. A large portion of its resources and funding initially came from foreign donors, such as Kuwaiti national Hamid Hamad Hamid al-Ali, also known as Hamid bin Hamad al-Ali.[1] Before the conflict between Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and Al-Nusra, the group received half its operating budget from AQI.[2] Over time, the group began to finance its arms and attacks by gaining control of oil fields.[3] The group’s increased dependence on oil fields led to a financial crisis in mid-late 2014 when the Islamic State captured Al-Nusra’s oil fields in Deir ez-Zour. The loss of the Conoco gas field alone cost Al-Nusra $5 million in February 2014.[4] The group also receives funding through ransoms, typically receiving between $4 million and $25 million for hostage releases.[5] These releases have historically been mediated by Qatar, which observers have accused of facilitating Al-Nusra’s rise to prominence after it paid the group $150 million to ensure the release of nine Shiite Iranian pilgrims in 2013.[6]

In summer 2017, HTS seized several key assets in Idlib, including the provincial capital and the vital Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey.[7] Though it later relinquished direct control of the border crossing to civilian authorities, HTS maintained military control of the strategic towns and rural areas near the crossing, effectively allowing the group to regulate most traffic into and from the Idlib region. Moreover, local officials reported that the Syrian Salvation Government, the local authority in Idlib and HTS’s administrative counterpart, would continue to receive revenues generated from informal taxes on commercial vehicles crossing through the border. Based on Turkish export statistics and average figures for customs duties at the border crossing port, observers estimated revenues from the Bab al-Hawa crossing amounted to nearly $25 million in 2016.[8]

Al-Nusra/HTS has long maintained financial contacts with wealthy donors in the Gulf States – most notably Qatar – and has benefited from lax financial regulations in those countries that allow donors to discreetly fund the group’s efforts. Documents released as part of a lawsuit filed in a U.S. federal court in January 2020 accused Qatar Islamic Bank, one of the largest banks in the country, of facilitating a money-laundering network to channel funds to Al-Nusra and several other jihadist groups in Syria.[9] Moreover, in June 2021, the British High Court of Justice accepted a case that accused several Qatari individuals and organizations of “funneling hundreds of millions of dollars” to Al-Nusra/HTS in Syria through an elaborate money-laundering scheme.[10] The claim alleged that some top Qatari politicians, businessmen, charities, and civil servants used one of the Qatari emir’s private offices and two banks – Qatar National Bank and Doha Bank – to discreetly fund al-Nusra through overpriced construction contracts, inflated property purchases, and the over-payment of Syrian migrant workers.[11]

HTS became one of the best-equipped Syrian opposition groups by purchasing weapons from Iraqi arms dealers and seizing equipment from the Syrian regime.[12] HTS also targets U.S.-backed groups in order to capture their weapons. In 2014, the group allegedly captured ten tanks and eighty TOW anti-tank missiles from the U.S.-backed Syrian Revolutionaries Front.[13] Additional reports indicate that some U.S. trained fighters have surrendered machine guns, ammunition, and vehicles in exchange for safe passage through HTS-controlled areas.[14]
Second only to the Islamic State, HTS attracts the most foreign fighters among Syrian opposition groups. These fighters mostly come from the Middle East. Still, HTS has also accepted recruits from Chechnya and European states and a few fighters from more distant countries like Australia and the United States. In June 2015, Julani claimed that 30% of the group’s fighting force was foreigners.[15] Due to its intensive recruiting process, HTS receives highly skilled fighters. With the exception of fighters from groups already allied with HTS, all recruits must receive a personal recommendation from an existing member of HTS to be accepted into the group’s training program, where they receive religious, physical, and military instruction for six to eight weeks.[16]

HTS appears to recruit primarily from the greater Idlib area, its traditional stronghold.[17] From February to June 2016, the group added 3,000 fighters from northern Syria to its ranks.[18] HTS offers fighters a salary of roughly $100 per month to attract recruits. Married fighters receive approximately $125 per month.[19] HTS reportedly also provides its fighters and their families with food aid and monthly rations.[20]

HTS is among a number of Syrian opposition groups, including the Islamic State and Ahrar al-Sham, that employ child soldiers.[21] In April 2021, UN investigators reported that HTS was responsible for 36% of all documented cases of child soldier recruitment in Syria between 2018 and 2020.[22]

 

[1] "Treasury Designates Additional Supporters of the Al-Nusrah Front and Al-Qaida." Press Center, U.S. Department of the Treasury, August 22, 2014; Joscelyn, Thomas. “Treasury Designates 2 ‘Key’ al Qaeda Financiers.” The Long War Journal, Foundation for Defense of Democracies, August 22, 2014.

[2] “Iraqi al-Qaeda and Syrian group 'merge'." Al-Jazeera, April 9, 2013.

[3] Robertson, Ric and Paul Cruickshank. "Sources: Pro Al Qaeda Group Steps Up Suicide Bombings in Syria." CNN, October 4, 2012; “UN to Vote on Measure to Combat Al-Qaida Fighters." The Associated Press, August 14, 2014.

[4] Lister, Charles. “Profiling Jabhat al-Nusra.” The Brookings Institution, July 6, 2016.

[5] Branford, Nicholas. "After Foley murder, more jihadi threats to murder hostages." Christian Science Monitor, August 24, 2014.

[6] Lister, Charles. “Profiling Jabhat al-Nusra.” The Brookings Institution, July 6, 2016.

[7] Jawad al-Tamimi, Aymenn. “Idlib and Its Environs: Narrowing Prospects for a Rebel Holdout.” The Washington Institute, February 2020. 4; Tokmajyan, Armenak. “The War Economy in Northern Syria.” The Aleppo Project, December 2016. 3.

[8] “The border crossings of Syria's northwest.” Syria Direct, December 21, 2017; Tokmajyan, Armenak. “The War Economy in Northern Syria.” The Aleppo Project, December 2016. 4.

[9] Koduvayur, Varsha. “American Citizen Sues Qatari Bank for Funding Terror.” Foundation for Defense of Democracies, January 31, 2020.

[10] Norfolk, Andrew. “Qatar ‘funneled millions of dollars to Nusra Front terrorists in Syria.’” The Times of London, June 4, 2021; Weinthal, Benjamin. “Qatar has sent hundreds of millions of dollars to terror group – report.” The Jerusalem Post, June 6, 2021.

[11] Weinthal, Benjamin. “Qatar has sent hundreds of millions of dollars to terror group – report.” The Jerusalem Post, June 6, 2021.

[12] “Who is supplying weapons to the warring sides in Syria?” BBC, June 14, 2013; Mahmood, Mona, and Ian Black. "Free Syrian Army Rebels Defect to Islamist Group Jabhat Al-Nusra." The Guardian, May 8, 2013; Robertson, Ric and Paul Cruickshank. "Sources: Pro Al Qaeda Group Steps Up Suicide Bombings in Syria." CNN, October 4, 2012; “UN to Vote on Measure to Combat Al-Qaida Fighters." The Associated Press, August 14, 2014.

[13] Bacchi, Umberto. “Syria: Al-Nusra Jihadists ‘Capture US TOW Anti-Tank Missiles’ from Moderate Rebels.” International Business Times, November 3, 2014.

[14] “Pentagon confirms US-trained rebels gave weapons to al-Nusra.” Middle East Eye, September 26, 2015; Porter, Tom. “Syria conflict: Jabhat al-Nusra jihadists show off weapons allegedly seized from –US trained rebels.” International Business Times, October 1, 2015.

[15] Barrett, Richard. “Foreign Fighters in Syria.” The Soufan Group, June 2014; "Nusra Leader: No End to Conflict with ISIL in Syria." Al Jazeera, June 4, 2015.

[16] Lister, Charles. “Profiling Jabhat al-Nusra.” The Brookings Institution, July 6, 2016.

[17] al-Khateb, Khaled. “Hayat Tahrir al-Sham expands recruitment to all of Idlib province.” Al-Monitor, May 15, 2021.

[18] Lister, Charles. “Profiling Jabhat al-Nusra.” The Brookings Institution, July 6, 2016.

[19] al-Khateb, Khaled. “Hayat Tahrir al-Sham expands recruitment to all of Idlib province.” Al-Monitor, May 15, 2021.

[20] al-Khateb, Khaled. “Hayat Tahrir al-Sham expands recruitment to all of Idlib province.” Al-Monitor, May 15, 2021.

[21] “Maybe We Live, Maybe We Die: Recruitment and Use of Children by Armed Groups in Syria.” Human Rights Watch, June 22, 2014; “Children and armed conflict in the Syrian Arab Republic - Report of the Secretary-General (S/2021/398).” UN Security Council, April 23, 2021. 4.

[22] “Children and armed conflict in the Syrian Arab Republic - Report of the Secretary-General (S/2021/398).” UN Security Council, April 23, 2021. 4.

Geographic Locations

Disclaimer: This is a partial list of where the militant organization has bases and where it operates. This does not include information on where the group conducts major attacks or has external influences.

In 2013, Al-Nusra was active in 11 of Syria’s 13 governorates, including parts of Aleppo, Raqqa, Deir ez-Zour, Daraa, and Idlib.[1] By June 2015, the group had pushed the Syrian Army out of Idlib province after coordinating attacks against the Assad regime with the Jaysh al-Fatah umbrella organization.[2] In early August 2015, Al-Nusra announced that it would withdraw from the frontline against the Islamic State in northern Syria due to increasing Turkish and U.S. involvement in the region.[3] HTS has also targeted Hezbollah in the Bekaa valley in Lebanon, near the border with Syria.[4]

Since HTS’s merger in 2017, the group has been most active in the Greater Idlib area, encompassing much of Idlib and parts of Aleppo provinces. Additionally, the group participated in operations in Daraa and Quneitra provinces in southern Syria prior to the regime’s recapture of the area in 2018.[5] In March 2019, HTS claimed responsibility for an attack on regime forces in Deir ez-Zour province in eastern Syria.[6] The attack marked HTS’s first and, as of June 2021, only confirmed operation east of the Euphrates river – which has traditionally marked the frontline between regime and rebel forces in eastern Syria. HTS has also clashed with regime forces in Alawite-majority Latakia province, a traditional stronghold for the regime and the Assad family.[7]

 

[1] “Syria's Insurgent Landscape.” Rep. IHS, September 2013.

[2] Rifai, Ryan. “Syrian group claims control of Idlib province.” Al Jazeera, 9 June 9, 2015.

[3] Hubbard, Ben. "Nusra Front Announces Withdrawal from Front Line Against ISIS in Syria." The New York Times, August 10, 2015.

[4] "Lebanon car bomb kills local Hezbollah leader." Al Jazeera, March 16, 2014.

[5] Jawad al-Tamimi, Aymenn. “From Jabhat al-Nusra to Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham: Evolution, Approach and Future.” Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, June 29, 2018. 5; Jones, Seth G., Charles Vallee, and Maxwell B. Markusen. “Al Qaeda’s Struggling Campaign in Syria: Past, Present, and Future.” Center for Strategic and International Studies, April 2018. 11.

[6] “’Tahrir al-Sham’ strikes a blow to Assad's forces in Deir Ezzor... and a source reveals to ‘Al-Durar Al-Shamiya’ the details of the operation ("تحرير الشام" توجه ضربة لقوات الأسد بدير الزور.. ومصدر يكشف لـ"الدرر الشامية" تفاصيل العملية).” El-Dorar Esh-Shamiyah, March 28, 2019; “NEW - #HTS's Eba'a News Agency has issued a formal claim of responsibility for an attack on #Assad regime forces in Deir ez Zour - the first such attack in nearly 5yrs. Questions still remain re. details, but this could be a big, big development. #Syria.” Tweet from Charles Lister (@Charles_Lister), March 28, 2019. https://twitter.com/Charles_Lister/status/1111297075214462976?s=20.

[7] “12 Pro-Regime, 6 Rebel Fighters Die in Syria Clashes: Monitor.” Agence France Presse, August 3, 2020.

Strategy

Ideology, Aims, Political Activities, Targets, and Tactics
Ideology and Goals
  • Ideology and Goals
  • Political Activities
  • Targets and Tactics

Ideology and Goals

Ideology

Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) seeks to overthrow the Assad regime and establish an Islamic state in the Levant governed by Shari’ah.[1] However, in 2014, Abu Muhammad al-Julani clarified that the group would not declare such a state until it had consensus from "the sincere mujahideen and the pious scholars."[2] Though HTS stresses its Syrian focus, it still supports establishing multiple Islamic emirates and a caliphate over time. Its ambitions for a caliphate, however, are not nearly as expansive as those of Islamic State and Al Qaeda, as the latter groups sought worldwide expansion while HTS focused its efforts within Syria. Initially, the group operated as an AQ affiliate.[3] Though the group nominally split from AQ’s central organization in mid-2016, analysts have argued that the group’s decision does not constitute a distinct ideological split with AQ but is, in fact, part of a strategy to increase the group’s appeal within Syria.[4] HTS draws upon its Salafi-jihadist ideology to elicit recruits and financial support for its military operations and humanitarian efforts in Idlib. Its propaganda materials mix messages of commitment to combat with appeals to Islamist “duty of care” and “responsibility to protect,” positioning the group as a “supporter” for “oppressed Muslims in Syria.”[5]

Goals

HTS has primarily sought to achieve: 1) unity among the Syrian rebel milieu; 2) the creation of an effective governance structure; and 3) greater strategic independence from foreign backers.[6] HTS has pursued each objective with varying degrees of success. On the first objective, observers have generally concluded that HTS has attained a state of relative military hegemony in and around Idlib province, having defeated its most significant rival groups – Ahrar al-Sham and Hurras al-Din – in 2017 and 2020, respectively.[7] On the second, HTS has reached a position of administrative hegemony over the Idlib area, having played a crucial role in forming and backing the Syrian Salvation Government in November 2017 (see below). The group has also provided welfare services, delivered essential goods, and administered food aid programs in areas under its control.[8] On the third, HTS has attempted to separate its strategic priorities from foreign parties’ interests – particularly Turkey’s – to limited effect. Nevertheless, observers have noted a significant overlap between HTS and Turkey’s interests, which have reportedly fomented limited cooperation between the two.[9] Moreover, Turkey has actively supported so-called “pragmatist” members of HTS’s leadership who are amenable to cooperation with Turkey while subverting the more radical, jihadist-inclined members.[10]

HTS remained committed to overthrowing the Assad regime, despite this objective’s dwindling prospects. In a 2020 interview, HTS’s leader Abu Muhammad al-Julani clarified that the group remained opposed to a settlement with or capitulation to the regime, stating that “[the Syrian opposition] voted with their feet. The least [the Syrian] people deserve is to live in safety.”[11]

 

[1] "Nusra Leader: Our Mission Is to Defeat Syrian Regime." Al Jazeera, May 28, 2015; Lister, Charles. “Profiling Jabhat al-Nusra.” The Brookings Institution, July 6, 2016.

[2] Joscelyn, Thomas. "Al Nusrah Front issues 'clarification' on the creation of an Islamic emirate." The Long War Journal, Foundation for Defense of Democracies, July 13, 2014.

[3] Lister, Charles. “Profiling Jabhat al-Nusra.” The Brookings Institution, July 6, 2016.

[4] Jones, Bryony, Clarissa Ward, and Salma Abdelaziz. “Al-Nusra rebranding: New name, same aim? What you need to know.” CNN, August 2, 2016.

[5] Zartman, Jonathan K. “Conflict in the Modern Middle East: An Encyclopedia of Civil War, Revolutions, and Regime Change.” ABC-CLIO, (2020): 120.

[6] Jawad al-Tamimi, Aymen. “From Jabhat al-Nusra to Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham: Evolution, Approach and Future.” Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, June 29, 2018. 13; Heller, Sam. “The Strategic Logic of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.” Perspectives on Terrorism 6, no. 11 (2017).

[7] Heller, Sam. “The Strategic Logic of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.” Perspectives on Terrorism 6, no. 11 (2017); Jawad al-Tamimi, Aymenn. “Idlib and Its Environs: Narrowing Prospects for a Rebel Holdout.” The Washington Institute, February 2020. 3.

[8] Zartman, Jonathan K. “Conflict in the Modern Middle East: An Encyclopedia of Civil War, Revolutions, and Regime Change.” ABC-CLIO, (2020): 120.

[9] Jawad al-Tamimi, Aymen. “From Jabhat al-Nusra to Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham: Evolution, Approach and Future.” Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, June 29, 2018. 12; Yüksel, Engin. “Strategies of Turkish proxy warfare in northern Syria: Back with a vengeance.” Netherlands Institute of International Affairs Clingendael, November 2019. 13.

[10] Yüksel, Engin. “Strategies of Turkish proxy warfare in northern Syria: Back with a vengeance.” Netherlands Institute of International Affairs Clingendael, November 2019. 13, 15.

[11] “The Jihadist Factor in Syria’s Idlib: A Conversation with Abu Muhammad al-Julani.” International Crisis Group, February 20, 2020.

Political Activities

Al-Nusra was not invited to peace talks in Riyadh in 2015. It views negotiations with the Assad regime as a threat to its security.[1] In particular, Al-Nusra viewed Jaysh al-Islam’s decision to negotiate with the Assad regime in December 2015 as treason and established the Fustat Army political alliance to challenge Jaysh al-Islam’s political dominance in Eastern Ghouta.[2] In addition, Al-Nusra was not a party to the February 2016 U.N.-backed national ceasefire given its designation as a terrorist group.[3]

HTS administers territory under its control according to its interpretation of Islamic law, essentially following more moderate governing practices than the Islamic State.[4] Until mid-2015, the group minimized the extent to which it unilaterally controlled territory, instead opting to share power with other groups while working to endear itself to local Syrians. To this end, the group provided social services and food in an effort to embed itself with the local population as a means to develop political power.[5]

HTS has consolidated its control of Idlib to the point that analysts predict Idlib will play a crucial role in the group’s attempt to establish an Islamic emirate in Syria.[6] In November 2017, HTS and several allied groups played a significant role in establishing the Syrian Salvation Government (SSG) to solidify its administrative authority in the Idlib area.[7] The explicitly Islamist SSG forms a competing opposition government to the more moderate Syrian Interim Government, which is aligned with the Free Syrian Army. In establishing a parallel governing authority, HTS seeks to unify local religious courts and administrative systems under its authority to end disjointed governance in rebel-controlled areas. Though HTS’s military dominance in the area helped create and support the SSG, HTS itself does not participate in its day-to-day administration.[8] Ali Keda, the SSG’s prime minister as of April 2021, is a former member of Jaysh al-Fatah, an umbrella organization with which Al-Nusra/HTS has closely cooperated in the past.[9]

 

[1] Khodr, Zeina. “Syrian opposition groups discuss peace push.” Al Jazeera, December 8, 2015.

[2] Lund, Aron. “After Zahran: Rising Tension in the East Ghouta.” Syria in Crisis, The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, April 19, 2016.

[3] Abboud, Samer. “Syria War: What you need to know about the ceasefire.” Al Jazeera, February 28, 2016.

[4] Tabler, Andrew J., Jeffrey White, and Simon Henderson. "Field Reports on Syria and the Opposition." The Washington Institute, March 12, 2013; Barrett, Richard. “Foreign Fighters in Syria.” The Soufan Group, June 2014.

[5] Lister, Charles. “Profiling Jabhat al-Nusra.” The Brookings Institution, July 6, 2016.

[6] Lister, Charles. “Profiling Jabhat al-Nusra.” The Brookings Institution, July 6, 2016; Lister, Charles. “Al Qaeda Is Starting to Swallow the Syrian Opposition.” Foreign Policy, March 15, 2017.

[7] Mehchy, Zaki, Haid Haid and Lina Khatib. “Assessing control and power dynamics in Syria: De facto authorities and state institutions.” Chatham House, November 2020. 9; Zelin, Aaron. “Jihadi Movements 2021: ISIS, al-Qaeda, and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.” The Washington Institute, March 17, 2021; Heller, Sam. “The Strategic Logic of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.” Perspectives on Terrorism 6, no. 11 (2017); Jawad al-Tamimi, Aymenn. “Idlib and Its Environs: Narrowing Prospects for a Rebel Holdout.” The Washington Institute, February 2020. 3.

[8] Mehchy, Zaki, Haid Haid and Lina Khatib. “Assessing control and power dynamics in Syria: De facto authorities and state institutions.” Chatham House, November 2020. 17; “The Jihadist Factor in Syria’s Idlib: A Conversation with Abu Muhammad al-Julani.” International Crisis Group, February 20, 2020.

[9] "Ali Keda, a dissident officer and security official, is now new head of Salvation Government". SMART News Agency, September 25, 2020.

Targets and Tactics

Initially, Al-Nusra targeted Assad regime forces and the groups that support Assad, such as Hezbollah and state-backed militias known as shabiha (“ghosts”). While the group has a wide range of targets, it concentrates most of its attacks against the Assad regime and other regime-aligned actors within Syria to maintain good relations with moderate Syrian opposition groups.[1]

In January 2014, Al-Nusra began targeting the Islamic State (IS) in a successful opposition campaign to drive IS out of the city of Raqqa. Despite a formal rivalry between the two groups, there have been instances of cooperation since January 2014.[2] Additionally, the group targets U.S.-linked forces in Syria; its attacks on Harakat Hazzm, the Syrian Revolutionary Front, and D30 caused all three groups to collapse in 2015.[3] 

In 2015, Al-Nusra claimed that it did not target non-combatant members of groups, such as Alawites and Druze, that it considers to be heretics.[4] However, the group has reportedly attacked non-Sunni civilians despite Abu Muhammad al-Julani’s past objections to sectarian violence. In June 2015, Al-Nusra reportedly targeted Druze villagers in Idlib.[5] Additionally, Al-Nusra commander Julani encouraged attacks against Alawite civilians in response to alleged indiscriminate Russian attacks against Sunni Muslim civilians in October 2015.[6] In perhaps its most notable episode of sectarian violence, HTS attacked Shiite pilgrims visiting the Bab al-Saghir cemetery in Damascus in a series of bombings in March 2017, killing 74 and wounding an untold number of additional victims.[7] HTS later claimed responsibility for the attack, stating it had targeted “Iranian-backed militias.”[8] HTS has also been accused of targeting civilians in regime-controlled areas. In 2019 and 2020, UN investigators accused HTS of indiscriminately firing rockets into civilian neighborhoods, which the UN has described as a war crime.[9]

HTS has rejected Al Qaeda’s internationalist outlook and has forgone AQ’s willingness to conduct attacks outside of Syria.[10] In a rare interview with an international outlet, HTS leader Abu Muhammad al-Julani stated that it is “completely against [HTS’s] policies to carry out external operations from Syria to target European or American people,” though HTS has previously targeted U.S.- and internationally-backed groups active within Syria.[11] Analysts have distinguished HTS's strategy in Syria from that of other jihadist groups due to its willingness to subscribe to the “regional order,” noting HTS’s apparent recognition of “de-escalation zones” between rebel forces and the Syrian regime, its willingness to restrict its activities to Syria, and, most significantly, its amenability to cooperating with regional governments.[12]

Al-Nusra’s involvement in the Syrian civil war began with car bombs and suicide bombings, most of which targeted government forces.[13] The group used both regular suicide bombers and “inghimasi,” well-trained guerilla fighters who battle enemies with light arms before detonating suicide vests. As the group’s membership increased, suicide bombers came to be used only in battles that the group’s leadership deemed especially important.[14] Abu Muhammad al-Julani, HTS’s leader, confirmed that the group employed suicide bombers “out of necessity” against the regime and the shabiha, as well as against Iranian and Russian forces.[15] Most recently, and perhaps most extensively, HTS utilized sophisticated car-based suicide bombings as part of its effort to repel the 2019-2020 regime-led offensive against rebel-held territory in Idlib province.[16] The group conducted at least 15 such attacks in January and February 2020 alone, causing an indeterminable number of casualties.[17] Several of these suicide attacks targeted Turkish forces positioned in Idlib, with whom the group had reportedly begun to cooperate by this point – further complicating the relationship between Turkey and the militant group. Despite these attacks, the group reportedly “renounced” the use of suicide car bombs against the regime later that year as part of a bid to improve its image on the international stage.[18]

HTS has also conducted kidnappings to raise money through ransom or to motivate political and military action. The group has taken Lebanese soldiers and members of United States-backed opposition forces as well as Western reporters and UN peacekeepers as hostages.[19] While the group has kidnapped Western civilians in the past and targeted Western-backed groups active within Syria, the group has disavowed attacks against Western targets outside of Syria.[20]

 

[1] Lister, Charles. “Profiling Jabhat al-Nusra.” The Brookings Institution, July 6, 2016.

[2] Branford, Nicholas. “After Foley murder, more jihadi threats to murder hostages.” Christian Science Monitor, August 24, 2014.

[3] "Nusra Leader: Our Mission Is to Defeat Syrian Regime." Al Jazeera, May 28, 2015"Jihadists Edging out US Allies in Syria." BBC, November 4, 2014; "U.S. Pulls Plug on Syria Rebel Training Effort; Will Focus on Weapons Supply." Reuters, October 9, 2015.

[4] "Nusra Leader: Our Mission Is to Defeat Syrian Regime." Al Jazeera May 28, 2015; "Syria Conflict: Al-Nusra Fighters Kill Druze Villagers." BBC, June 11, 2015.

[5] “Syria conflict: Al-Nusra fighters kill Druze villagers.” BBC, June 11, 2015.

[6] “Syria’s Nusra Front leader urges wider attacks on Assad’s Alawite areas to avenge Russian bombing.” Reuters, October 13, 2015.

[7] Perry, Tom. “Death Toll Climbs To 74 In Damascus Bombings Targeting Shi’ites.” Reuters, March 11, 2017.

[8] Perry, Tom. “Death Toll Climbs To 74 In Damascus Bombings Targeting Shi’ites.” Reuters, March 11, 2017.

[9] “Report of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic.” UN Human Rights Council, August 15, 2019. 9; Nebehay, Stephanie. “Deadly Syrian, Russian air strikes in Idlib amount to war crimes, U.N. says.” Reuters, July 7, 2020.

[10] Jawad al-Tamimi, Aymenn. “Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham's Abu Abdullah al-Shami on Meeting Western Analysts.” Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, March 20, 2020; Cornish, Chloe, Asmaa al-Omar, and Laura Pitel. “Syrian jihadi overhauls image in effort to hang on to power.” Financial Times, February 15, 2021.

[11] “The Jihadist – Abu Mohammad al-Jolani.” Frontline, February 2021.

[12] Ali, Mohnad Hage. “Guarding the Al-Qa‘eda Flame.” Carnegie Middle East Center, June 6, 2018.

[13] "Militant Group Al-Nusra Claim Suicide Bombings in Aleppo." Reuters, October 4, 2012.

[14] Joscelyn, Thomas. “Syrian military intelligence official killed in suicide assault in Homs.” The Long War Journal, Foundation for Defense of Democracies, February 25, 2017; Joscelyn, Thomas. “Jihadists and other rebels assault Syrian regime positions in southern city.” The Long War Journal, Foundation for Defense of Democracies, February 13, 2017.

[15] “The Jihadist – Abu Mohammad al-Jolani.” Frontline, February 2021.

[16] Kaaman, Hugo. “Shifting Gears: HTS’s Evolving Use of SVBIEDs During the Idlib Offensive of 2019-20.” The Middle East Institute, October 28, 2020.

[17] Weiss, Caleb. “HTS utilizes suicide bombings against advancing regime forces.” Long War Journal, February 6, 2020.

[18] “Syria's HTS 'renounces' use of suicide car bombings in latest rebrand attempt.” The New Arab, September 24, 2020; Kaaman, Hugo. “Shifting Gears: HTS’s Evolving Use of SVBIEDs During the Idlib Offensive of 2019-20.” The Middle East Institute, October 28, 2020.

[19] Branford, Nicholas. "After Foley murder, more jihadi threats to murder hostages." Christian Science Monitor, August 24, 2014; Ignatius, David. "U.S. Drone Strikes Batter Jabhat Al-Nusra, Encouraging Moderates." The Washington Post, August 28, 2015; Barnard, Anne, and Eric Schmitt. "Rivals of ISIS Attack U.S.-Backed Syrian Rebel Group." The New York Times, July 31, 2015; Callimachi, Rukmini. "U.S. Writer Held by Qaeda Affiliate in Syria Is Freed After Nearly 2 Years." The New York Times, August 24, 2014; Hubbard, Ben. "Qaeda Group Has Released 45 Members of U.N. Force." The New York Times, September 11, 2014.

[20] Jawad al-Tamimi, Aymenn. “Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham's Abu Abdullah al-Shami on Meeting Western Analysts.” Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, March 20, 2020; Cornish, Chloe, Asmaa al-Omar, and Laura Pitel. “Syrian jihadi overhauls image in effort to hang on to power.” Financial Times, February 15, 2021; “The Jihadist – Abu Mohammad al-Jolani.” Frontline, February 2021.

cardinal red photo

Major Attacks

Disclaimer: These are some selected major attacks in the militant organization's history. It is not a comprehensive listing but captures some of the most famous attacks or turning points during the campaign.

December 23, 2011: Two Al-Nusra suicide bombers attacked military intelligence facilities in Damascus. This was Al-Nusra’s first official attack (44 killed, 150+ injured).

March 17, 2012: Al-Nusra conducted two suicide bombings in the Damascus governorate against the Assad regime (27+ killed, 100+ wounded).[1]

November 5, 2012: Al-Nusra carried out a suicide bombing in the Hama governorate against the Assad regime. At the time, this bombing represented the highest number of casualties inflicted on the Assad regime through an attack by opposition forces (50+ killed, unknown wounded).[2]

August 4, 2013: Al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham, the Islamic State (IS), Jaysh Muhajireen wal-Ansar, and Suqquor al-Izz attacked Alawite villages as part of an offensive in the Latakia governorate. They killed 190 civilians, as Al-Nusra only lost three fighters. IS and Jaysh Muhajireen wal-Ansar took 200 hostages (193+ killed, unknown wounded).[3]

March 16, 2014: Jabhat al-Nusra began targeting Hezbollah with a suicide bombing in Bekaa Valley in Lebanon, near the border with Syria (4 killed, unknown wounded)[4]

March 2015: Al-Nusra coordinated with the Jaysh al-Fatah umbrella organization to seize the city of Idlib from the Assad regime. It was the first time that opposition groups controlled the city of Idlib since the outbreak of the civil war (unknown casualties).[5]

July 31, 2015: Al-Nusra kidnapped several members of D30, an opposition group that received weapons and training from the United States, and began an offensive against the group (35-45 killed, 18+ wounded).[6]

August 7, 2016: Jabhat Fatah al-Sham coordinated with the Jaysh al-Fatah umbrella organization and the Fatah Halab control room to break through the Assad regime’s siege on the city of Aleppo. On August 10, the Assad regime reportedly retaliated with a chlorine attack on opposition-held areas in the city of Aleppo (unknown casualties).[7]

February 25, 2017: Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham fighters carried out a suicide attack in Homs. The attack killed General Hassan Daabul, a senior military intelligence advisor close to Syrian President Bashar Assad, and critically wounded Ibrahim Darwish, the head of the State Security Branch (40 killed, 50+ wounded).[8]

March 11, 2017: HTS attacked Shiite pilgrims visiting the Bab al-Saghir cemetery in Damascus in a series of bombings (74 killed, unknown wounded).[9]

January 1-10, 2019: Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham carried out an offensive against the National Front for Liberation.[10] Over nine days of fighting, HTS captured “about 80%” of all rebel-held territory in Idlib province.[11] The NFL ultimately capitulated to HTS, ceding territories captured by HTS to the Syrian Salvation Government, HTS’s civilian counterpart, and agreeing to an immediate ceasefire and prisoner exchange (unknown casualties).[12]

June 22-27, 2020: After Hurras al-Din (HD) and other Al Qaeda-aligned groups formed their own operations room (known as “So Be Steadfast”) and established checkpoints in Idlib, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham issued a statement forbidding any group aside from itself from taking military action in rebel-held territories in Idlib. Both groups quickly mobilized their forces, leading to six days of clashes (100+ killed, unknown wounded).[13]

 

[1] Roggio, Bill. “Al-Nusrah Front claims 3 more suicide attacks in Daraa.” Threat Matrix, Foundation for Defense of Democracies, November 27, 2012.

[2] Karouny, Miriam and Tom Perry. “Suicide bomber kills 50 Syrian men: opposition.” Reuters, November 5, 2012.

[3] “Syria: Executions, Hostage Taking by Rebels.” Human Rights Watch, October 10, 2013.

[4] "Lebanon car bomb kills local Hezbollah leader." Al Jazeera, March 16, 2014.

[5] Graham-Harrison, Emma. "Blow for Assad as Islamist Militants Take Strategically Important City of Idlib." The Guardian, March 28, 2015; “Syria Frontlines Update.” Syria Conflict Mapping Project, The Carter Center, October 9, 2015.

[6] Barnard, Anne, and Eric Schmitt. "Rivals of ISIS Attack U.S.-Backed Syrian Rebel Group." The New York Times, July 31, 2015; Ignatius, David. "U.S. Drone Strikes Batter Jabhat Al-Nusra, Encouraging Moderates." The Washington Post, August 28, 2015.

[7] Joscelyn, Thomas. “Jihadists and other rebels claim to have broken through siege of Aleppo.” The Long War Journal, Foundation for Defense of Democracies, August 7, 2016; “Weekly Conflict Summary August 4-10. The Carter Center, August 10, 2016; “Syria conflict: Aleppo ‘chlorine gas attack’ investigated.” BBC, August 11, 2016.

[8] Joscelyn, Thomas. “Syrian military intelligence official killed in suicide assault in Homs.” The Long War Journal, Foundation for Defense of Democracies, February 25, 2017; “Army intelligence chief killed in deadly Homs attack.” Al Jazeera, February 25, 2017.

[9] Perry, Tom. “Death Toll Climbs To 74 In Damascus Bombings Targeting Shi’ites.” Reuters, March 11, 2017.

[10] Vohra, Anchal. “HTS offensive could draw in Syria and Turkey.” Al Jazeera, January 9, 2019.

[11] “After 9 days of bloody clashes, Hayyaat Tahrir al-Sham with the ‘jihadi’ factions control about 80% of the area of ​​what is left for the opposition factions within Syrian territory.” Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, January 9, 2019.

[12] “Peace Agreements Database – Agreement for a ceasefire and exchange of prisoners between Tahrir al-Sham and the National Liberation Front (NLF) in Idlib.” The University of Edinburgh, January 10, 2019. https://www.peaceagreements.org/viewmasterdocument/2284.

[13] “Striving for Hegemony: The HTS Crackdown on al-Qaida and Friends in Northwest Syria.” Jihadica, September 15, 2020.

Interactions

Foreign Designations and Listings, Community Relations, Relations with Other Groups, State Sponsors and External Influences
Designated/Listed
  • Designated/Listed
  • Community Relations
  • Relationships with Other Groups
  • State Sponsors and External Influences

Designated/Listed

  • U.S. State Department Foreign Terrorist Organizations list: December 11, 2012 to present.[1]
    • Designation updated to include new aliases Jabhat Fatah al-Sham on November 10, 2016, and Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham on May 31, 2018.[2]
  • U.S. State Department Specially Designated Global Terrorists list:
    • Abu Muhammad al-Julani: May 16, 2013 to present.[3]
  • U.N. Security Council ISIL (Da’esh) & Al-Qaida Sanctions list: May 14, 2014 to present.[4]
    • Designation updated to include new aliases Jabhat Fatah al-Sham on June 7, 2017, and Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham on June 5, 2018.[5]
  • Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs Designated Organizations list: June 4, 2014 to present.[6]
    • Re-designated under the alias Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham on August 31, 2018.[7]
 

[1] Gordon, Michael and Anne Barnard. “U.S. Places Militant Syrian Rebel Group on List of Terrorist Organizations.” The New York Times, December 10, 2012.

[2] “State Department Amendments to the Terrorist Designation of al-Nusrah Front.” Office of the Spokesperson, U.S. Department of State, November 10, 2016; “Amendments to the Terrorist Designations of al-Nusrah Front.” Office of the Spokesperson, U.S. Department of State, May 31, 2018.

[3] “Terrorist Designation of Al-Nusrah Front Leader Muhammad Al-Jawlani.” Office of the Spokesperson, U.S. Department of State, May 16, 2013.

[4] “Security Council Al-Qaida Sanctions Committee Amends Three Entries on Its Sanctions List.” UN Security Council, May 14, 2014.

[5] “Security Council ISIL (Da’esh) and Al-Qaida Sanctions Committee Amends One Entry on Its Sanctions List.” UN Security Council, June 7, 2017; “Security Council ISIL (Da’esh) and Al-Qaida Sanctions Committee Amends One Entry on Its Sanctions List.” UN Security Council, June 5, 2018.

[6] Jones, Dorian. “Turkey Designates Al-Nusra Front as a Terrorist Organization.” Voice of America, June 4, 2014.

[7] “Turkey designates Syria's Tahrir al-Sham as terrorist group.” Reuters, August 31, 2018.

Community Relations

Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) governs according to its interpretation of Islamic law in areas it controls, essentially following more moderate governing practices than the Islamic State.[1] HTS typically provided social services and food aid in an effort to ingratiate itself with the local population before translating those social services into more overt forms of governance.[2] HTS’s messaging stresses its commitment to the Islamist “duty of care” and “responsibility to protect,” establishing itself as a “supporter” for “oppressed Muslims in Syria.”[3] To this end, the group provides welfare services, delivers essential commodities, and administers food aid programs in areas under its control. To an extent, local Syrians are dependent on HTS in areas it controls for basic services.

Observers and aid organizations active in Idlib have reported that HTS has assumed a more obtrusive role in providing humanitarian aid to the area’s beleaguered civilian population in recent years. HTS has reportedly attempted to regulate the entry of humanitarian aid into areas under its control, demanded portions of aid goods, and has required non-governmental aid organizations working in areas under its control to register with its civilian counterpart, the Syrian Salvation Government.[4] The group’s more intrusive role has alarmed Turkish authorities, who typically facilitate aid provision to Idlib and its environs. Moreover, HTS’s status as a designated terrorist group has forced many aid organizations active in the area to cease operations to avoid cooperating with a designated entity, leading many observers to express concern over the future viability of humanitarian operations in Idlib.[5] In the areas where HTS has created more formal governing bodies, it has also created courts that provide judgement on issues related to military, criminal, and administrative law and settle disputes between civilians and militant groups.[6] For instance, in October 2014, Al-Nusra reportedly began stoning men and women to death for adultery and prosecuting people for “witchcraft.”[7]

Syrian citizens have mixed perceptions of HTS. While secularists deplore HTS, many citizens protested when the United States designated the group as a terrorist organization in 2012.[8] Observers have often reported that HTS regularly arrests, kidnaps, and tortures its critics, including civilian dissenters, and brutally suppresses protests in areas under its control.[9] HTS has similarly curbed independent and foreign journalists’ ability to report freely within areas the group controls. Notably, HTS arrested high-profile American journalist Bilal Abdul Kareem in August 2020 but released him six months later.[10] Moreover, UN investigators have repeatedly accused HTS of indiscriminately firing rockets into civilian neighborhoods in areas controlled by the regime, an act the UN has described as a war crime.[11]

The group has reportedly attacked non-Sunni civilians despite Abu Muhammad al-Julani’s past objections to sectarian-motivated violence. In June 2015, Al-Nusra reportedly targeted Druze villagers in Idlib.[12] Additionally, Al-Nusra commander Julani encouraged attacks against Alawite civilians in response to alleged indiscriminate Russian attacks against Sunni Muslim civilians in October 2015.[13] In perhaps its most notable episode of sectarian violence, HTS attacked Shiite pilgrims visiting the Bab al-Saghir cemetery in Damascus in a series of bombings in March 2017, killing 74 and wounding an untold number of additional victims.[14] HTS later claimed responsibility for the attack, stating it had targeted “Iranian-backed militias” in response to the militias’ role in supporting President Bashar al-Assad’s “tyrannical rule,” ultimately holding them responsible for “killing and displacing” countless Syrians.[15]

 

[1] Tabler, Andrew J., Jeffrey White, and Simon Henderson. "Field Reports on Syria and the Opposition." The Washington Institute, March 12, 2013; Barrett, Richard. “Foreign Fighters in Syria.” The Soufan Group, June 2014.

[2] Lister, Charles. “Profiling Jabhat al-Nusra.” The Brookings Institution, July 6, 2016.

[3] Zartman, Jonathan K. “Conflict in the Modern Middle East: An Encyclopedia of Civil War, Revolutions, and Regime Change.” ABC-CLIO, (2020): 120.

[4] Heller, Sam. “Syrian Jihadists Jeopardize Humanitarian Relief.” The Century Foundation, June 1, 2017; “As Hunger, Malnutrition Rise in Syria, Security Council Must Ensure Border Crossing Remains Open, Aid Flows to Millions, Humanitarian Affairs Chief Stresses.” United Nations Security Council, March 29, 2021; “Syria's Idlib: What future for the rebel holdout?” France 24, April 8, 2021; “The Jihadist Factor in Syria’s Idlib: A Conversation with Abu Muhammad al-Jolani.” International Crisis Group, February 20, 2021.

[5] Heller, Sam. “Syrian Jihadists Jeopardize Humanitarian Relief.” The Century Foundation, June 1, 2017; Hooper, Simon. “Charities warned that sending aid to Syria's Idlib could be a 'terror offence.’” Middle East Eye, December 8, 2018.

[6] Sosnowski, Marika. “The Syrian Southern Front: Why it Offers Better Justice and Hope than Northern Front.” Syria Comment, July 9, 2015; Maayeh, Suha and Phil Sands. “Rebels’ court in southern Syria an alliance of convenience against Assad.” The National, December 13, 2014; Lister, Charles. “Profiling Jabhat al-Nusra.” The Brookings Institution, July 6, 2016.

[7] Lister, Charles. “The Free Syrian Army: A decentralized insurgent brand.” The Brookings Institution, November 2016. 16.

[8] Hubbard, Ben. “Islamist Rebels Create Dilemma on Syria Policy.” The New York Times, April 27, 2013; Khodr, Zeina. "Syrians Decry US Blacklisting of Rebel Group." Al Jazeera, December 15, 2012.

[9] “Syria: Arrests, Torture by Armed Group.” Human Rights Watch, January 28, 2019; “Statement by Mr. Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, Chair of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, at 43rd Human Rights Council session.” United Nations Human Rights Council, March 9, 2020; “Report of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic.” UN Human Rights Council, August 15, 2019. 4; Varfolomeeva, Anna. “Last battlefield: The future of Syria’s Idlib after HTS militant takeover.” The Defense Post, January 19, 2019.

[10] “Jihadists Detain American In NW Syria: Monitor.” Agence France Presse, August 14, 2020.

[11] “Report of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic.” UN Human Rights Council, August 15, 2019. 9; Nebehay, Stephanie. “Deadly Syrian, Russian air strikes in Idlib amount to war crimes, U.N. says.” Reuters, July 7, 2020.

[12] “Syria conflict: Al-Nusra fighters kill Druze villagers.” BBC, June 11, 2015.

[13] “Syria’s Nusra Front leader urges wider attacks on Assad’s Alawite areas to avenge Russian bombing.” Reuters, October 13, 2015.

[14] Perry, Tom. “Death Toll Climbs To 74 In Damascus Bombings Targeting Shi’ites.” Reuters, March 11, 2017.

[15] Perry, Tom. “Death Toll Climbs To 74 In Damascus Bombings Targeting Shi’ites.” Reuters, March 11, 2017.

Relationships with Other Groups

Al Qaeda in Iraq/The Islamic State

Al-Nusra initially received funding and personnel from Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) at the beginning of the Syrian conflict and had proposed spinning off from AQI to begin conducting an insurgency in Syria. However, the two groups came into conflict when AQI leader and future IS caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi claimed, without consulting Al-Nusra or AQ, that Al-Nusra was considered a part of the Islamic State of Iraq.[1] In June 2013, Zawahiri insisted that AQI and Al-Nusra had not merged, claiming that Baghdadi had "made a mistake on the merger announcement."[2] Al-Nusra leader Abu Muhammad al-Julani also denied the merger, maintained that Al-Nusra was an independent AQ branch, and reaffirmed his allegiance to Zawahiri.[3] In addition to their conflicting visions for their relationship, Al-Nusra’s dispute with IS stemmed from the former’s objection to elements of the latter’s strategy and ideology. Speaking several years after the fact, Al-Nusra/HTS leader Abu Muhammad al-Julani noted that the group’s “fundamental reason for breaking up from the Islamic State” included “[Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s] deviation from the rules and parameters” of the jihad that Julani had proposed to Baghdadi several years prior during Julani’s affiliation with Al Qaeda in Iraq.[4] Chiefly, Julani’s vision of a Syria-focused jihad dedicated to ousting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and establishing an Islamist state in its stead conflicted with Baghdadi’s vision for a globally-focused jihad.[5] Moreover, Julani objected to Baghdadi/IS’s sectarian outlook that called for violence against non-Sunnis – a tactic Julani initially believed would be counterproductive in his Syrian jihad.[6]

After a period of rising tensions between the Islamic State (IS, formerly AQI) and Al-Nusra in 2013, Al-Nusra began targeting IS in January 2014 when it drove IS out of the Syrian city of Raqqa.[7] However, the tide turned in IS’s favor by late summer 2014 after IS drove Al-Nusra from eastern Syria, forcing the group to withdraw to Daraa in the country’s south.[8] Despite their larger conflict, Al-Nusra and IS still cooperated in a few instances in 2014. Both groups released an anti-Hezbollah video together in August 2014 after taking a unit of Lebanese soldiers hostage in Lebanon's eastern mountains.[9] After fighting intensified in 2015, Julani claimed that there was no foreseeable end to the conflict with IS and that the two groups would continue fighting each other.[10] However, Zawahiri released a series of recorded statements between September 2015 and September 2016 that simultaneously decried Baghdadi’s Islamic State as illegitimate and, perhaps counterintuitively, suggested that IS cooperate with Al-Nusra to combat their common enemy in the Assad regime.[11]

IS and HTS frequently clashed during IS’s period of rule over territory in Iraq and Syria. In northwest Syria between February 2018 to January 2019, conflict monitors recorded at least 36 clashes between IS and HTS, the dominant security force in the area.[12] Monitors also reported 32 arrests of IS members in and around Idlib during that period. Conflict monitors have attributed the relatively small number of IS-claimed attacks in Syria between 2018 and IS’s defeat at Baghouz in 2019 to HTS’s consistent offensive stance against the group, and have credited HTS with playing an important role in IS’s eventual territorial defeat.[13] Moreover, analysts have also argued that the international community’s preoccupation with rolling back IS’s “caliphate” in Iraq and Syria in the ensuing years ultimately allowed Al-Nusra to fill, with little resistance, the “power vacuum” among jihadists and jihadist sympathizers in Syria created by IS’s weakening and eventual defeat.[14] In the wake of IS’s territorial defeat in late 2019, HTS continued offensive operations against suspected IS sleeper cells, arresting or killing former members and foreign fighters.[15]

 

Al Qaeda

Between 2015 and 2016, Al-Nusra was Al Qaeda’s only claimed affiliate in the Syrian conflict after global AQ emir Ayman al-Zawahiri publicly disowned the Islamic State. However, Al-Nusra’s reported deviations from Al Qaeda and its strategy prompted criticism from AQ leadership. Al Qaeda’s objections to Al-Nusra/Fatah al-Sham’s stance and behavior mainly concerned Fatah al-Sham’s perceived deviations from Al Qaeda’s mainline ideology, the supposedly “nationalist” focus of its jihad, and its relationship with Turkey.[16] Speaking several years after the fact, HTS’s leader Abu Muhammad al-Julani confirmed that HTS had opposed Al Qaeda’s globalist outlook “even at the time when we were with Al Qaeda,” and noted that it is “completely against [HTS’s] policies to carry out external operations from Syria to target European or American people.”[17]

On July 28, 2016, Al-Nusra announced it had split from Al Qaeda and had renamed itself Jabhat Fatah al-Sham.[18] However, observers disagree on the extent and authenticity of Al-Nusra/Fatah al-Sham’s split with Al Qaeda. Some point to ideological distinctions between Fatah al-Sham/HTS and AQ and the former’s claim that it is “an independent entity and not an extension of previous organizations or factions” as evidence of its independence.[19] Others, however, note that the group’s leadership never abrogated its bay’ah – a pledge of allegiance to Al Qaeda’s central leadership – and that AQ emir Ayman al-Zawahiri did not explicitly consent to the split.[20] Shortly after HTS’s breakaway, AQ emir Zawahiri criticized the Syrian focus of HTS’s jihad, stating that “the jihad in [Syria] is a jihad of the entire Muslim Ummah...not a jihad of the people of Syria,” and accused HTS of “seek[ing] not to be hostile to America” and “planning to evade [its] pledges of bay’ah.”[21]

Although Fatah al-Sham no longer had public, “external ties” with AQ following their 2016 rift, some observers have suggested that the group continued to receive strategic and operational guidance from AQ’s central leadership.[22] In 2018, the United Nations reported that, at the very least, some communication remains between HTS and Al Qaeda’s leadership.[23] Nevertheless, official reconciliation between HTS and Al Qaeda does not appear likely. The dispute between AQ loyalists and independence supporters within HTS’s leadership became increasingly violent throughout 2017: from September to November, IED attacks and ambushes killed several of HTS’s hardline, Al Qaeda loyalist leaders.[24]

 

Other Islamist Opposition Groups

While Al-Nusra maintained military alliances with many Sunni opposition groups, Ahrar al-Sham was among its closest initial allies. The two groups began coordinating attacks together in late 2012 as members of the Islamic Front, an umbrella organization of which Ahrar al-Sham was an influential member.[25] The groups ostensibly coordinated operations through the Jaysh al-Fatah (“Army of Conquest”) umbrella organization, which led a successful campaign to push the Syrian army out of Idlib province in mid-2015.[26] While Al-Nusra’s close military relationship with Ahrar al-Sham helped facilitate the former’s rise to power, the two groups have engaged each other in violent skirmishes over disagreements on how to govern the areas they jointly occupy: whereas Al-Nusra favored a Salafist system of governance similar to Al Qaeda, Ahrar al-Sham espoused a nationalistic-oriented vision of governance.[27] The two groups also clashed over Al-Nusra’s relationship with Al Qaeda and the pursuit of global jihad, which Ahrar al-Sham deemed counterproductive to the Syrian revolution.[28] As such, Ahrar al-Sham welcomed the formation of Fatah al-Sham and the split with Al Qaeda.[29]

Prior to Fatah al-Sham’s inception, analysts indicated Al-Nusra’s AQ ties were the last obstacle preventing a merger with Ahrar al-Sham.[30] However, attempts to achieve a merger between Fatah al-Sham and Ahrar al-Sham failed. The primary reasons for this failure included: 1) Ahrar al-Sham’s fear of losing support from Turkey, its main backer and, at the time, one of Fatah al-Sham’s central rivals in Syria; 2) its fear of being blacklisted by the U.S. due to its association with a known Al Qaeda affiliate and, thus, becoming a direct target of their military campaign; and 3) concerns that Fatah al-Sham would exploit the merger as a means to expand its power without respecting the positions of Ahrar al-Sham.[31] Following a series of skirmishes in the Idlib and Aleppo governorates, prominent opposition groups that Fatah al-Sham had attacked merged with Ahrar al-Sham.[32]

Following these skirmishes, Fatah al-Sham accepted mergers with Sunni opposition groups such as Jabhat Ansar al-Din, Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zinki, Liwa al-Haqq, and Jaysh al-Sunna, rebranding as Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) on January 28, 2017.[33] Observers have concluded that Fatah al-Sham pursued unification of like-minded groups to overcome the Syrian opposition’s fragmentation and strengthen HTS and the Syrian opposition’s relative strength vis-à-vis its opponents.[34] Others, however, contend the unification and rebranding effort was motivated by Fatah al-Sham’s desire to reinforce its independence from Al Qaeda and increase its standing among the Syrian populace.[35]

Following a series of clashes in July 2017, HTS drove Ahrar al-Sham from much of Idlib province.[36] The skirmishes also prompted hundreds of Ahrar al-Sham’s fighters to defect to HTS. At the same time, several other units surrendered ammunition and weapons depots to HTS and decided to disband.[37] In early 2018, HTS once again clashed with Ahrar al-Sham and Harakat Nouri al-Din al-Zenki, who had jointly formed the Syrian Liberation Front (SLF) that year.[38] The conflict, which took place mainly in Idlib and Aleppo provinces, ended in April 2018 after the SLF captured several villages from HTS. This peace was short lived, as fighting between HTS and Ahrar al-Sham and Harakat Nouri al-Din al-Zenki, whose SLF had since joined the National Front for Liberation (NFL), resumed in January 2019.[39] The NFL is itself part of the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army, a coalition of numerous former FSA affiliates created in the wake of Al-Nusra’s offensive against the FSA in early 2017.[40] An HTS-led offensive against the NFL in January 2019 resulted in HTS’s capture of several strategically valuable towns.[41] Over nine days of fighting, HTS captured “about 80%” of all non-HTS rebel-held territory in Idlib province, effectively cementing HTS’s control of Idlib.[42] The NFL ultimately capitulated to HTS, ceding territories captured by HTS to the Syrian Salvation Government, HTS’s civilian counterpart, and agreeing to an immediate ceasefire and prisoner exchange.[43]

In February 2018, several combat units and senior HTS figures loyal to Al Qaeda defected from HTS and formed Hurras al-Din (HD, “Guardians of Religion”), which many observers have identified as Al Qaeda’s new proxy in Syria.[44] Following Al Qaeda’s line, HD has frequently criticized HTS and Julani for sowing division (fitnah) among the jihadist milieu in Syria through its revisionist ideology and Syrian focus.[45] While the roots of HD’s formation are to be found in the strategic and ideological differences between Al-Nusra/Fatah al-Sham/HTS and Al Qaeda, the “last straw” for the Al Qaeda loyalists in HTS appears to have been HTS’s acceptance of Turkish observation posts in Idlib province – a proposal anathema to the Al Qaeda loyalists’ hardline views.[46]

Since HD’s formation, HD and HTS have remained rivals, frequently competing for influence, recruits, and weaponry. Given HD’s enduring ties to Al Qaeda and its hardline positions, HD appeared to be a more attractive option for ideologically committed extremists; in contrast, HTS positioned itself as a more “moderate” group to increase its standing in areas under its control.[47] Abu Muhammad al-Julani, HTS’s leader, has described HTS’s relationship with HD as “convoluted,” noting that HTS has sought to keep HD under control by warning the group against “using Syria as a launching pad for external jihad” and demanding it recognize the Syrian Salvation Government and its courts.[48] For its part, HTS has sought to prevent HD from operating autonomously and challenging its hegemony among jihadists in Idlib. After HD and other Al Qaeda-aligned groups formed their own operations room (known as “So Be Steadfast”) and established checkpoints in Idlib, HTS issued a statement forbidding any group aside from itself from taking military action in rebel-held territories in Idlib. Both groups mobilized their forces, leading to six days of clashes that likely killed over 100.[49] Analysts estimate that as of June 2021, HTS’s efforts have substantially weakened HD’s operational capabilities. Although the group has continued to attack its enemies, HD’s attacks are fewer, further between, and less potent.[50]

 

Free Syrian Army

Al-Nusra’s relationship with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) has been complex, subject to periods of cooperation and conflict. The FSA is an ideologically and strategically diverse, largely decentralized coalition of armed groups united in opposition to the Assad regime. From the onset of the civil war, the FSA’s nationalist outlook clashed with Al-Nusra’s jihadist views, while many of its moderate and nationalist elements objected to Al-Nusra’s then-substantial relationship with Al Qaeda.[51] However, the FSA’s ideological and strategic diversity did not preclude initial cooperation with Al-Nusra, as some brigades fought alongside Al-Nusra in offensives against the Assad regime between 2012 and 2015.[52] However, tensions between the groups persisted as Al-Nusra grew in strength and capacity. Al-Nusra reportedly conducted kidnapping operations and attacks against other FSA-linked opposition brigades throughout the war.[53] In 2013, several FSA soldiers joined Al-Nusra, considering it the better-armed and more influential group.[54]

Al-Nusra sought to unify the Syrian opposition under its banner and at the expense of the FSA.[55] Remarking on the FSA’s state in 2013, Al-Nusra commanders derided the decentralized FSA’s inability to effectively administer territory and pointed to its failure to achieve battlefield successes as the main reason for Salafist groups’ rise to prominence among the Syrian opposition.[56] FSA commanders themselves have cited these weaknesses as the primary reason for Al-Nusra’s eventual eclipsing of the FSA.[57] Following several years of setbacks for the FSA, Al-Nusra leader Abu Muhammad al-Julani stated in December 2015 that “there is no such thing as the Free Syrian Army.”[58]

Fearing destruction in the face of setbacks at the hands of the regime and its allies, weaker FSA-affiliated units gradually began to align more closely with the much-stronger Al-Nusra for protection.[59] Ideological and strategic differences further drove tensions between the FSA and Al-Nusra, with their relationship growing increasingly violent following Al-Nusra’s withdrawal to southern Syria in mid-2014. Al-Nusra’s defeat at IS’s hands and relocation empowered hardline elements of the group’s leadership, who soon initiated an assassination campaign against the FSA’s leadership.[60] After U.S. airstrikes targeted the Khorasan Group at Al-Nusra bases in Idlib province, Al-Nusra attacked and defeated the U.S.-backed FSA affiliates Syrian Revolutionary Front (SRF) and Harakat Hazzm in November 2014.[61]

In late July 2015, Al-Nusra attacked the U.S.-trained FSA affiliate Division 30 (D30) in the Syrian town of Azzaz and kidnapped seven of its fighters after D30 returned to Syria from its training camps in Turkey.[62] Neither U.S. intelligence officials nor D30 leaders believed that Al-Nusra would attack because D30 had announced that it would target the Islamic State and not Al-Nusra.[63] Al-Nusra justified the attack by accusing D30 of being U.S. agents.[64] The U.S. deployed drones to defend D30, reportedly killing between 30 and 40 Al-Nusra fighters.[65] Though Al-Nusra later released seven of the D30 members it had kidnapped, the United States eventually ended its training programs for Syrian opposition groups in October 2015.[66]  

The enmity between Al-Nusra and the FSA grew throughout 2014 and 2015, after which the FSA’s southern command announced it would cease all cooperation with Al-Nusra.[67] In response to the 2016 ceasefire between the regime and the FSA, to which Al-Nusra was neither a party nor supportive of, Al-Nusra fighters launched a series of attacks on FSA positions in Idlib. The attacks forced several FSA units to withdraw from the province.[68] In the offensive’s aftermath, Al-Nusra banned the display of the FSA flag in Idlib, only permitting its own flag or its affiliates to be flown.[69]

After its reorganization as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, the group attacked and overran several FSA positions west of Aleppo in January 2017. The attack coincided with U.N.-sponsored peace negotiations between the regime and rebel forces in Astana, Kazakhstan. Fatah al-Sham was excluded from the negotiations as the U.N. had designated it as a terrorist group.[70] Fatah al-Sham later stated it had been forced to preemptively attack FSA positions in order to “thwart conspiracies” being hatched against it and accused rebel factions that attended the Astana negotiations of seeking to “isolate” Fatah al-Sham from the broader Syrian opposition.[71] After several more months of fighting in 2017, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, following its rebrand from Fatah al-Sham, signed a ceasefire agreement in June 2017 with the Free Idlib Army, the command unit which oversaw the FSA’s operations in Idlib province.[72] This agreement brought hostilities between HTS and the FSA to a close.

Throughout 2018 and 2019, HTS carried out offensive operations against the National Front for Liberation (NFL), a Turkish-backed coalition of eleven rebel factions operating in northwest Syria, including HTS rivals Ahrar al-Sham and Faylaq al-Sham, as well as several groups affiliated with the FSA.[73] The NFL is itself part of the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army, a coalition of numerous former FSA affiliates created in the wake of Al-Nusra’s offensive against the FSA in early 2017.[74] In January 2019, HTS launched an offensive against the NFL, capturing several strategically valuable rebel-held towns.[75] Over nine days of fighting, HTS captured “about 80%” of all non-HTS rebel-held territory in Idlib province, effectively cementing HTS’s control of Idlib.[76] The NFL ultimately capitulated to HTS, ceding territories captured by HTS to the Syrian Salvation Government, HTS’s civilian counterpart, and agreeing to an immediate ceasefire and prisoner exchange.[77]

 

Other Groups

Al-Nusra began targeting Hezbollah, a Shiite Islamist group supporting the Assad regime, with several suicide bombings in Lebanon in 2014.[78] The groups clashed throughout 2015 and 2016, though few clashes have occurred in subsequent years.[79]

Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham harbored the Khorasan Group, an experienced cell of approximately two-dozen Al Qaeda (AQ) jihadists. The Khorasan Group was sent to Syria to develop international terror plots and initially took orders from both Al Qaeda in Iraq and AQ’s central leadership.[80]

Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham also opposes Syrian Kurdish groups, such as the Peoples Protection Units (YPG).[81] Throughout 2015 and 2016, Al-Nusra clashed with YPG units near Kurdish-controlled areas in Aleppo province.[82] In 2019, HTS leader Abu Muhammad al-Julani pledged to help Turkey fight Kurdish militant groups in exchange for Turkey’s acceptance of HTS’s territorial control in Idlib.[83] Regarding the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), Julani stated that HTS “[considers] the PKK to be an enemy of [the Syrian] revolution. It controls areas inhabited by large numbers of Sunni Arabs,” adding that “[HTS is] in favor of this region being liberated from the PKK ... We would not stand in the way of an operation against an enemy of the revolution.”[84] However, as of June 2021, there have been no reports of major clashes between HTS and any Kurdish armed groups since then.

 

[1] Joscelyn, Thomas. "Al Qaeda in Iraq, Al Nusrah Front Emerge as Rebranded Single Entity." The Long War Journal, Foundation for Defense of Democracies, April 9, 2013.

[2] “Iraqi al-Qaeda chief rejects Zawahiri orders.” Al Jazeera, June 15, 2013.

[3] “Iraqi al-Qaeda chief rejects Zawahiri orders.” Al Jazeera, June 15, 2013.

[4] “The Jihadist – Abu Mohammad al-Jolani.” Frontline, February 2021.

[5] Roberts, David. “What drove Syria's Nusra Front to detach itself from al-Qaeda?” BBC, July 29, 2016.

[6] “The Jihadist – Abu Mohammad al-Jolani.” Frontline, February 2021.

[7] Barnard, Anne, and Rick Gladstone. "Rebel Infighting Spreads to an Eastern Syrian City." The New York Times, January 6, 2014.

[8] Lister, Charles. “The Free Syrian Army: A decentralized insurgent brand.” The Brookings Institution, November 2016. 15.

[9] Branford, Nicholas. "After Foley murder, more jihadi threats to murder hostages." Christian Science Monitor, August 24, 2014.

[10] “Nusra Leader: No End to Conflict with ISIL in Syria.” Al Jazeera, June 4, 2015.

[11] Lister, Tim. "Al Qaeda's Al-Zawahiri to ISIS: We Can Work Together." CNN, September 14, 2015; Joscelyn, Thomas. “Zawahiri calls for jihadist unity, encourages attacks in West.” Long War Journal, September 13, 2015; Joscelyn, Thomas. “Al Qaeda chief calls for jihadist unity to ‘liberate Jerusalem.’” Long War Journal, November 2, 2015; Gohel, Sajjan. “Deciphering Ayman Al-Zawahiri and Al-Qaeda’s strategic and ideological imperatives.” Perspectives on Terrorism 11(1) (2017): 55.

[12] “A Review of ISIS in Syria 2016 – 2019: Regional Differences and an Enduring Legacy.” The Carter Center, March 2019. 11.

[13] “A Review of ISIS in Syria 2016 – 2019: Regional Differences and an Enduring Legacy.” The Carter Center, March 2019. 11.

[14] Clarke, Colin. “Al Nusra Is Stronger Than Ever.” RAND Corporation, November 2, 2016; Lister, Charles. “Profiling Jabhat al-Nusra.” The Brookings Institution, July 6, 2016. 16.

[15] Petkova, Mariya. “After the Sochi agreement, HTS is facing internal divisions.” Al Jazeera, September 27, 2018.

[16] Joscelyn, Thomas. “Pro-Al Qaeda ideologue criticizes joint bombings by Russia and Turkey in Syria.” Long War Journal, January 23, 2017; Joscelyn, Thomas. “Hay’at Tahrir al Sham leader calls for unity in Syrian insurgency. The Long War Journal, Foundation for Defense of Democracies, February 10, 2017; Joscelyn, Thomas. “Analysis: Ayman al Zawahiri calls for ‘unity’ in Syria amid leadership crisis.” Long War Journal, December 2, 2017.

[17] “The Jihadist – Abu Mohammad al-Jolani.” Frontline, February 2021.

[18] Joscelyn, Thomas. “Analysis: Al Nusrah Front rebrands itself as Jabhat Fath Al Sham.” Long War Journal, July 28, 2016; John, Tara. “Everything You Need To Know About the New Nusra Front.” Time Magazine, July 28, 2016.

[19] Kelly, Fergus. “Al-Qaeda in Idlib? Examining bonds between Syria’s largest jihadi groups.” The Defense Post, November 3, 2017; Jones, Seth et al. “Al Qaeda’s Struggling Campaign in Syria.” CSIS, April 2018

[20] Kelly, Fergus. “Al-Qaeda in Idlib? Examining bonds between Syria’s largest jihadi groups.” The Defense Post, November 3, 2017; Jones, Seth et al. “Al Qaeda’s Struggling Campaign in Syria.” CSIS, April 2018

[21] Hassan, Hassan. “Jabhat Al Nusra and Al Qaeda: The Riddle, the Ruse and the Reality.” The National, November 1, 2017; Attun, Abdul Raheem. “A Comprehensive History—How Jabhat al Nusra Broke its Ties with Al Qaeda,” Al- Maqalaat, December 1, 2017.

[22] Hassan, Hassan. “Jabhat Al Nusra and Al Qaeda: The Riddle, the Ruse and the Reality.” The National, November 1, 2017; Attun, Abdul Raheem. “A Comprehensive History—How Jabhat al Nusra Broke its Ties with Al Qaeda,” Al- Maqalaat, December 1, 2017.

[23] “Twenty-second report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team submitted pursuant to resolution 2368 (2017) concerning ISIL (Da’esh), Al-Qaida and associated individuals and entities.” United Nations Security Council, July 27, 2018.

[24] Shelton, Tracey. “Syria: Deadly feud rips through Al Qaeda's leadership as terrorist group takes more 'moderate' line.” ABC News Australia, December 22, 2017.

[25] Roggio, Bill. "Al Nusrah Front Claims 2 Suicide Attacks, Joint Operations with Jihadist Groups in Syria." The The Long War Journal, Foundation for Defense of Democracies, November 15, 2012; Barnard, Anne, and Rick Gladstone. "Rebel Infighting Spreads to an Eastern Syrian City." The New York Times, January 6, 2014.

[26] Rifai, Ryan. “Syrian group claims control of Idlib province.” Al Jazeera, June 9, 2015; “Syria Frontlines Update.” Syria Conflict Mapping Project. The Carter Center, October 9, 2015; Joscelyn, Thomas. “Jihadists and other rebels claim to have broken through siege of Aleppo.” The Long War Journal, Foundation for Defense of Democracies, August 7, 2016.

[27] Lister, Charles. “Profiling Jabhat al-Nusra.” The Brookings Institution, July 6, 2016.

[28] Kaouny, Miriam. “Syrian rebel splits deepen after failed ‘merger’ with al Qaeda arm.” Reuters, January 29, 2016.

[29] Alami, Mona. “Jabhat al-Nusra’s rebranding is more than simple name change.” Al-Monitor, August 5, 2016.

[30] Lister, Charles. “Profiling Jabhat al-Nusra.” The Brookings Institution, July 6, 2016.

[31] Jawad al-Tamimi, Aymen. “From Jabhat al-Nusra to Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham: Evolution, Approach and Future.” Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, June 29, 2018. 12.

[32] Mroue, Bassem. “Syrian rebels and insurgents battle in split over peace push.” The Associated Press, February 6, 2017; Petkova, Mariya. “Syrian opposition factions join Ahrar al-Sham.” Al Jazeera, January 26, 2017.

[33] Jawad al-Tamimi, Aymen. “From Jabhat al-Nusra to Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham: Evolution, Approach and Future.” Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, June 29, 2018. 12.

[34] Carenzi, Silvia. “A Downward Scale Shift? The Case of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham.” Perspectives on Terrorism 14, no. 6 (December 2020): 95.

[35] Mehchy, Zaki, Haid Haid and Lina Khatib. “Assessing control and power dynamics in Syria: De facto authorities and state institutions.” Chatham House, November 2020; Cornish, Chloe, Asmaa al-Omar, and Laura Pitel. “Syrian jihadi overhauls image in effort to hang on to power.” Financial Times, February 15, 2021.

[36] al-Khalidi, Suleiman. “Jihadist group cements control of Syria's Idlib province: rebels.” Reuters, July 24, 2017.

[37] al-Khalidi, Suleiman. “Jihadist group cements control of Syria's Idlib province: rebels.” Reuters, July 24, 2017.

[38] al-Nofal, Walid and Tariq Adely. “Two of the largest factions in Syria’s northwest merge, challenge HTS dominance.” Syria Direct, February 22, 2018.

[39] “After 9 days of bloody clashes, Hayyaat Tahrir al-Sham with the ‘jihadi’ factions control about 80% of the area of ​​what is left for the opposition factions within Syrian territory.” Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, January 9, 2019.

[40] Szuba, Jared. “Turkey-backed rebels announce unification under ‘Syrian National Army.’” The Defense Post, October 4, 2019; Sly, Liz and Zakaria Zakaria. “‘Al-Qaeda is eating us’: Syrian rebels are losing out to extremists.” The Washington Post, February 23, 2017.

[41] Vohra, Anchal. “HTS offensive could draw in Syria and Turkey.” Al Jazeera, January 9, 2019.

[42] “After 9 days of bloody clashes, Hayyaat Tahrir al-Sham with the ‘jihadi’ factions control about 80% of the area of ​​what is left for the opposition factions within Syrian territory.” Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, January 9, 2019.

[43] “Peace Agreements Database – Agreement for a ceasefire and exchange of prisoners between Tahrir al-Sham and the National Liberation Front (NLF) in Idlib.” The University of Edinburgh, January 10, 2019. https://www.peaceagreements.org/viewmasterdocument/2284.

[44] “Syria group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and al-Qaeda legacy.” BBC, May 22, 2019; Ali, Zulfiqar. “Syria: Who's in control of Idlib?” BBC, February 18, 2020; Carenzi, Silvia. “A Downward Scale Shift? The Case of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham.” Perspectives on Terrorism 14, no. 6 (December 2020): 96; Zelin, Aaron. “Huras al-Din: The Overlooked al-Qaeda Group in Syria.” September 24, 2019; al-Kanj, Sultan. “Jihadist In-fighting and the Birth of Horas ad-Deen.” Chatham House, April 2018; Schmitt, Eric. “U.S. Sees Rising Threat in the West From Qaeda Branch in Syria.” The New York Times, September 29, 2019.

[45] “Striving for Hegemony: The HTS Crackdown on al-Qaida and Friends in Northwest Syria.” Jihadica, September 15, 2020.

[46] Özkizilcik, Ömer. “Russia, Turkey, and the Fate of Idlib.” Carnegie Endowment, August 7, 2018; al-Jablawi, Hosam. “What is the future of HTS in Idlib?” Atlantic Council, October 23, 2018.

[47] “Three moves: ‘Tahrir al-Sham’ moves against ‘extremist currents’ in Idlib (ثلاثة تحركات.. “تحرير الشام” تصعّد ضد “التيار المتشدد” في إدلب).” Enab Baladi, June 22, 2020; Jawad al-Tamimi, Aymen. “From Jabhat al-Nusra to Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham: Evolution, Approach and Future.” Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, June 29, 2018; Hamming, Tore, Pieter Van Ostaeyen. “The True Story of al-Qaeda’s Demise and Resurgence in Syria.” Lawfare, April 8, 2018.

[48] “The Jihadist Factor in Syria’s Idlib: A Conversation with Abu Muhammad al-Julani.” International Crisis Group, February 20, 2020.

[49] “Striving for Hegemony: The HTS Crackdown on al-Qaida and Friends in Northwest Syria.” Jihadica, September 15, 2020.

[50] al-Khateeb, Khaled. “Is al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria’s Idlib on its way to demise?” Al-Monitor, April 11, 2021; al-Khateb, Khaled. “Is Al-Qaeda affiliate expanding attacks beyond Syrian town of Idlib?” Al-Monitor, January 11, 2021.

[51] Cambanis, Thanassis. “The Syrian Revolution Against Al-Qaeda.” Foreign Policy, March 29, 2016.

[52] Gordon, Michael, and Anne Barnard. "U.S. Places Militant Syrian Rebel Group on List of Terrorist Organizations." The New York Times, December 10, 2012; Roggio, Bill. “Al Nusrah Front, Free Syrian Army seize border crossing to Jordan.” The Long War Journal, Foundation for Defense of Democracies, September 29, 2013; Roggio, Bill. "Al Nusrah Front, Free Syrian Army Launch Joint Operation." Long War Journal, Foundation for Defense of Democracies, March 14, 2014.

[53] “Al Qaeda seizes territory from moderate Syrian group.” Reuters, October 28, 2014.

[54] Mahmood, Mona, and Ian Black. "Free Syrian Army Rebels Defect to Islamist Group Jabhat Al-Nusra." The Guardian. May 8, 2013.

[55] Lister, Charles. “Al Qaeda Is Starting to Swallow the Syrian Opposition.” Foreign Policy, March 15, 2017; Sly, Liz and Zakaria Zakaria. “‘Al-Qaeda is eating us’: Syrian rebels are losing out to extremists.” The Washington Post, February 23, 2017.

[56] Lister, Charles. “The Free Syrian Army: A decentralized insurgent brand.” The Brookings Institution, November 2016. 9.

[57] Nassief, Isabel. “The Campaign for Homs and Aleppo,” Institute for the Study of War, January 2014. 18.

[58] Lister, Charles. “The Free Syrian Army: A decentralized insurgent brand.” The Brookings Institution, November 2016. 20.

[59] Lister, Charles. “Under Pressure, Syria's Rebels Face al-Nusra Quandary.” The Middle East Institute, July 18, 2016.

[60] Lister, Charles. “The Free Syrian Army: A decentralized insurgent brand.” The Brookings Institution, November 2016. 15.

[61] "Syria Conflict: Jihadists 'beating America's Allies' - BBC News." BBC, November 4, 2014.

[62] Barnard, Anne, and Eric Schmitt. "Rivals of ISIS Attack U.S.-Backed Syrian Rebel Group." The New York Times, July 31, 2015; "Nusra Front Frees Several U.S.-trained Syrian Rebels." Al-Arabiya. AFP, August 16, 2015.

[63] Barnard, Anne, and Eric Schmitt. "Rivals of ISIS Attack U.S.-Backed Syrian Rebel Group." The New York Times, July 31, 2015.

[64] Barnard, Anne, and Eric Schmitt. "Rivals of ISIS Attack U.S.-Backed Syrian Rebel Group." The New York Times, July 31, 2015.

[65] Ignatius, David. "U.S. Drone Strikes Batter Jabhat Al-Nusra, Encouraging Moderates." The Washington Post, August 28, 2015.

[66] "Nusra Front Frees Several U.S.-trained Syrian Rebels." Al-Arabiya. AFP, August 16, 2015; Shear, Michael D., Helene Cooper, and Eric Schmitt. “Obama Administration Ends Effort to Train Syrians to Combat ISIS.” The New York Times. October 9, 2015.

[67] Lister, Charles. “The Free Syrian Army: A decentralized insurgent brand.” The Brookings Institution, November 2016. 17, 18.

[68] Cambanis, Thanassis. “The Syrian Revolution Against Al-Qaeda.” Foreign Policy, March 29, 2016; Lister, Charles. “The Free Syrian Army: A decentralized insurgent brand.” The Brookings Institution, November 2016. 21.

[69] Lister, Charles. “The Free Syrian Army: A decentralized insurgent brand.” The Brookings Institution, November 2016. 21.

[70] “Hardline rebels ambush Syria's moderate factions.” Deutsche Welle, January 26, 2017; Perry, Tom. “Jihadists crush Syria rebel group, in a blow to diplomacy.” Reuters, January 25, 2017; Lister, Charles. “Al Qaeda Is Starting to Swallow the Syrian Opposition.” Foreign Policy, March 15, 2017.

[71] Perry, Tom. “Jihadists crush Syria rebel group, in a blow to diplomacy.” Reuters, January 25, 2017.

[72] “Peace Agreements Database - Agreement between Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and Free Idlib Army.” The University of Edinburgh, June 9, 2017. https://www.peaceagreements.org/viewmasterdocument/2162.

[73] Ali, Zulfiqar. “Syria: Who's in control of Idlib?” BBC, February 18, 2020.

[74] Szuba, Jared. “Turkey-backed rebels announce unification under ‘Syrian National Army.’” The Defense Post, October 4, 2019; Sly, Liz and Zakaria Zakaria. “‘Al-Qaeda is eating us’: Syrian rebels are losing out to extremists.” The Washington Post, February 23, 2017.

[75] Vohra, Anchal. “HTS offensive could draw in Syria and Turkey.” Al Jazeera, January 9, 2019.

[76] “After 9 days of bloody clashes, Hayyaat Tahrir al-Sham with the ‘jihadi’ factions control about 80% of the area of ​​what is left for the opposition factions within Syrian territory.” Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, January 9, 2019.

[77] “Peace Agreements Database – Agreement for a ceasefire and exchange of prisoners between Tahrir al-Sham and the National Liberation Front (NLF) in Idlib.” The University of Edinburgh, January 10, 2019. https://www.peaceagreements.org/viewmasterdocument/2284.

[78] Morris, Loveday. "Al-Qaeda Builds Networks in Lebanon as Security Slips." The Washington Post, March 18, 2014.

[79] "Hezbollah Vows to Attack Al-Nusra Front on Syria Frontier - BBC News." BBC News, May 6, 2015; “Aleppo battle: Assad sends thousands of reinforcements.” Al Jazeera, August 9, 2016.

[80] Lund, Aron. "What Is the “Khorasan Group” and Why Is the U.S. Bombing It in Syria?" Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, September 23, 2014; Mazzetti, Mark. "A Terror Cell That Avoided the Spotlight." The New York Times, September 24, 2014; Entous, Adam, Siobhan Gorman, and Nour Malas. "CIA Expands Role in Syria Fight --- Agency Feeds Intelligence to Certain Rebels, in Move that Deepens U.S. Involvement in the Conflict." The Wall Street Journal, March 23, 2013.

[81] "Kurds expel jihadists from flashpoint Syrian town." Ahramonline. Agence France-Presse, July 17, 2013.

[82] “Syrian forces, Russia planning Aleppo offensive as fragile cease-fire unravels.” Deutsche Welle, April 10, 2016; “Clashes erupt between YPG and Nusra near Syria’s Afrin.” ARA News, July 31, 2015; “Kurds clash with Qaeda militants in Aleppo.” ARA News, September 27, 2015; “Islamist rebels attack Kurdish town northwest Syria.” ARA News, September 12, 2016.

[83] Yüksel, Engin. “Strategies of Turkish proxy warfare in northern Syria: Back with a vengeance.” Netherlands Institute of International Affairs Clingendael, November 2019. 13.

[84] “PKK is ‘enemy’ of Syria revolution, says jihadist leader.” Rudaw, January 14, 2019.

State Sponsors and External Influences

Qatar

Qatar has historically facilitated hostage negotiations between foreign countries and HTS.[1] In 2015, the U.S. Treasury designated Sa’d bin Sa’d Muhammad Shariyan Al Ka’bi, a Qatari national who had negotiated hostage transfers with Al-Nusra, as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist after discovering his fundraising campaign for Al-Nusra.[2]

In March 2015, rumors surfaced that Al-Nusra considered severing ties with Al Qaeda (AQ) to receive support from a group of hitherto unnamed Gulf states. Sources close to the group alleged that several intelligence officials from these unidentified Gulf states had met with Al-Nusra commander Abu Muhammad al-Julani throughout 2015 and promised to fund the group if it rebranded; however, it is unclear if the group began receiving direct funding from these Gulf states as a result of this rebranding.[3]

In the past, Qatar has served as a significant conduit through which the group receives funds from overseas donors. Documents released as part of a lawsuit filed in a U.S. federal court in January 2020 accused Qatar Islamic Bank, one of the largest banks in the country, of facilitating a money-laundering network to channel funds to Al-Nusra and several other jihadist groups in Syria.[4] Moreover, in June 2021, the British High Court of Justice accepted a case that accused several Qatari individuals and organizations of “funneling hundreds of millions of dollars” to Al-Nusra/HTS in Syria through an elaborate money-laundering scheme.[5] The claim alleged that some top Qatari politicians, businessmen, charities, and civil servants used one of the Qatari emir’s private offices and two banks – Qatar National Bank and Doha Bank – to discreetly fund al-Nusra through overpriced construction contracts, inflated property purchases, and the over-payment of Syrian migrant workers.[6]

 

Turkey

Turkey, undoubtedly the most significant opposition-aligned state actor involved in Syria’s civil war, has had a complicated relationship with Al-Nusra/Fatah al-Sham/HTS. Owing to the group’s jihadist ideology and its historical ties to Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, Turkey designated HTS as a terrorist organization in 2018.[7] To this end, the Turkish government has previously arrested individuals with suspected links to Al-Nusra/HTS within Turkey.[8] Additionally, Turkey has viewed the group as a potential challenger to its influence among Syrian opposition groups. Al-Nusra, for its part, has not shared Turkey’s interest in such a partnership. For instance, Al-Nusra refused to support Turkey’s 2015 proposal to create a “safe zone” free of IS and Kurdish forces for two reasons: 1) the group did not wish to ally, however informally, with Turkey and, by way of Turkey’s status as a NATO member state, the United States; and 2) the group argued that Turkey’s proposal primarily seeks to achieve Turkish objectives – namely, weakening the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, a Kurdish insurgent group active in both Turkey and Syria – rather than advancing rebel interests or undermining the Assad regime.[9]

HTS’s rise to administrative and military hegemony in Idlib has also threatened to marginalize Turkish authority among rebel groups in northwestern Syria. In the wake of Al-Nusra’s offensive against FSA positions in early 2017, Turkey, seeking to capitalize upon disorder among the FSA’s ranks and check Al-Nusra’s growing strength, offered beleaguered moderate groups the opportunity to leave the Al-Nusra-controlled Idlib area and join Turkey’s Operation Euphrates Shield against the Islamic State.[10] Facing pressure from Russia to rein in HTS after it signed the Sochi agreement in 2018, Turkey reportedly encouraged HTS’s leadership to merge into a Turkish-friendly rebel coalition, expel its foreign fighters, and withdraw itself and its weaponry from areas demarcated as part of the Turkish-backed “buffer zone” on the Turkey-Syria border.[11] HTS unsurprisingly rejected this proposal.

Despite their past tensions, Turkey and HTS have maintained what analysts have described as a practical, pragmatic relationship, owing to their mutual opposition to the Assad regime and other Al Qaeda-aligned militant groups in Idlib. Observers have noted that Turkey has sought to subvert the radical, jihadist-inclined components of HTS’s leadership while supporting so-called “pragmatists” amenable to cooperation with Turkey – among whom Turkey reportedly considers HTS’s leader Abu Muhammad al-Julani.[12] Some observers have argued that Turkish support allowed the pragmatic wing of HTS’s leadership to re-establish dominance within the organization while forcing out the radical, Al Qaeda loyalist elements – many of whom regrouped to form Hurras al-Din in 2018.[13] Moreover, in supporting factions within HTS’s leadership, Turkey seeks to develop greater strategic influence over HTS while utilizing the group’s primacy within Idlib to stabilize northern Syria.

Turkish cooperation with HTS reportedly began in earnest after the group’s formation in 2017. The so-called “pragmatic,” Turkish-friendly elements within HTS have voiced support for Turkish operations against the Kurdish nationalist Democratic Union Party east of the Euphrates river in exchange for Turkey’s support in “fortifying and defending” northwestern Syria against the regime and its allies.[14] In perhaps the most obvious indicator of positive relations, HTS fighters – rather than NFL forces – escorted Turkish Army troops during the initial phase of the Turkish de-escalation deployment into Idlib in October 2017.[15] Moreover, in late 2017, HTS accepted a Turkish military presence in Idlib, the group’s stronghold, in the wake of the Astana negotiations – negotiations which most jihadist groups, including Al Qaeda, rejected outright.[16] HTS leader Abu Muhammad al-Julani also agreed to form a “joint operation room” with the NFL, SNA, and Hurras al-Din in part to effectively coordinate resistance against any regime offensives against Idlib.[17] Furthermore, Julani pledged to help Turkey fight the Kurdish People’s Protection Units in exchange for Turkey’s acceptance of HTS’s territorial control in Idlib.[18] HTS and Turkey reportedly share an interest in weakening Hurras al-Din, Al Qaeda’s main proxy in Syria.[19]

Despite this overlap in objectives, Turkey and HTS have clashed violently, albeit infrequently. In the most recent confirmed instance of violence between HTS and Turkey, HTS conducted at least 15 suicide bombings between January and February 2020, several of which targeted Turkish forces positioned in Idlib.[20] Turkey has also arrested suspected HTS members based within Turkey.[21] These episodes occurred well after the two began limited cooperation – suggesting that the relationship between Turkey and the group remains complicated and fraught with mutual distrust.

In choosing limited cooperation with Turkey, some observers have argued that HTS has opted to prevent a direct confrontation with Turkey while preserving its autonomy. By forgoing militant activities and ceasing its resistance to Turkish policies in northern Syria, HTS likely seeks to forestall a Turkish effort to neutralize the group.[22] Such an act would be in line with the terms of the 2018 and 2020 ceasefire agreements reached between Russia and Turkey, in which Turkey agreed to rein in HTS in return for a ceasefire between Russian- and Turkish-backed forces in Syria.[23] Moreover, HTS is thought to believe that limited acquiescence to Turkish directives would be far less harmful in the long run than risking Turkish intervention or another Russian-backed, regime-led offensive against HTS in Idlib.

 

[1] Lister, Charles. “Profiling Jabhat al-Nusra.” The Brookings Institution, July 6, 2016.

[2] “Insight - Syria's Nusra Front May Leave Qaeda to Form New Entity.” Reuters, March 4, 2015.

[3] “Insight - Syria's Nusra Front May Leave Qaeda to Form New Entity.” Reuters, March 4, 2015.

[4] Koduvayur, Varsha. “American Citizen Sues Qatari Bank for Funding Terror.” Foundation for Defense of Democracies, January 31, 2020.

[5] Norfolk, Andrew. “Qatar ‘funneled millions of dollars to Nusra Front terrorists in Syria.’” The Times of London, June 4, 2021; Weinthal, Benjamin. “Qatar has sent hundreds of millions of dollars to terror group – report.” The Jerusalem Post, June 6, 2021.

[6] Weinthal, Benjamin. “Qatar has sent hundreds of millions of dollars to terror group – report.” The Jerusalem Post, June 6, 2021.

[7] “Turkey designates Syria's Tahrir al-Sham as terrorist group.” Reuters, August 31, 2018.

[8] “Turkey detains 7 HTS/Nusra Front-linked terrorists in Ankara.” Daily Sabah, May 26, 2021; “Turkey arrests 16 foreigners including Daesh, HTS terrorists.” Daily Sabah, February 21, 2021; “Turkey arrests 12 in raids on 'terrorist' organization.” Reuters, May 30, 2013.

[9] Groll, Elias. “Jabhat al-Nusra Abandons Fight North of Aleppo as Turkey and U.S. Plot ‘Safe Zone.’” Foreign Policy, August 10, 2015.

[10] Sly, Liz and Zakaria Zakaria. “‘Al-Qaeda is eating us’: Syrian rebels are losing out to extremists.” The Washington Post, February 23, 2017.

[11] Petkova, Mariya. “After the Sochi agreement, HTS is facing internal divisions.” Al Jazeera, September 27, 2018; “Russia, Turkey agree on borders of demilitarised zone in Idlib.” Al Jazeera, September 22, 2018; Yüksel, Engin. “Strategies of Turkish proxy warfare in northern Syria: Back with a vengeance.” Netherlands Institute of International Affairs Clingendael, November 2019. 13, 15, 16; Varfolomeeva, Anna. “Last battlefield: The future of Syria’s Idlib after HTS militant takeover.” The Defense Post, January 19, 2019.

[12] Yüksel, Engin. “Strategies of Turkish proxy warfare in northern Syria: Back with a vengeance.” Netherlands Institute of International Affairs Clingendael, November 2019. 14.

[13] Özkizilcik, Ömer. “HTS ile mücadele nasıl olabilir?” Suriye Gundemi, 2018; Yüksel, Engin. “Strategies of Turkish proxy warfare in northern Syria: Back with a vengeance.” Netherlands Institute of International Affairs Clingendael, November 2019. 15.

[14] Yüksel, Engin. “Strategies of Turkish proxy warfare in northern Syria: Back with a vengeance.” Netherlands Institute of International Affairs Clingendael, November 2019. 13.

[15] Yüksel, Engin. “Strategies of Turkish proxy warfare in northern Syria: Back with a vengeance.” Netherlands Institute of International Affairs Clingendael, November 2019. 13.

[16] Hussein, Akil. “Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham’s Deal With Turkey Further Alienates It From Other Jihadists” Chatham House, November 2017; Charles Lister, “Turkey’s Idlib Incursion and the HTS Question: Understanding the Long Game in Syria,” War on the Rocks, October 31, 2017.

[17] Lister, Charles. “The Urgency of Idlib: the Impending Regime Offensive and Delicate Balance in Syria’s Northwest.” War on the Rocks, August 3, 2018.

[18] Yüksel, Engin. “Strategies of Turkish proxy warfare in northern Syria: Back with a vengeance.” Netherlands Institute of International Affairs Clingendael, November 2019. 16. Varfolomeeva, Anna. “Last battlefield: The future of Syria’s Idlib after HTS militant takeover.” The Defense Post, January 19, 2019.

[19] Carenzi, Silvia. “A Downward Scale Shift? The Case of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham.” Perspectives on Terrorism 14, no. 6 (December 2020): 98.

[20] Weiss, Caleb. “HTS utilizes suicide bombings against advancing regime forces.” Long War Journal, February 6, 2020.

[21] “Turkey arrests 16 foreigners including Daesh, HTS terrorists.” Daily Sabah, February 21, 2021.

[22] Petkova, Mariya. “After the Sochi agreement, HTS is facing internal divisions.” Al Jazeera, September 27, 2018; al-Kanj, Sultan. “Who is behind recent attacks against Turkish presence in Idlib?” Al-Monitor, January 21, 2020; Yüksel, Engin. “Strategies of Turkish proxy warfare in northern Syria: Back with a vengeance.” Netherlands Institute of International Affairs Clingendael, November 2019. 13.

[23] Petkova, Mariya. “After the Sochi agreement, HTS is facing internal divisions.” Al Jazeera, September 27, 2018; al-Kanj, Sultan. “Who is behind recent attacks against Turkish presence in Idlib?” Al-Monitor, January 21, 2020; Varfolomeeva, Anna. “Last battlefield: The future of Syria’s Idlib after HTS militant takeover.” The Defense Post, January 19, 2019.

Maps

The project develops a series of interactive diagrams that “map” relationships among groups and show how those relationships change over time. The user can change map settings to display different features (e.g., leadership changes), adjust the time scale, and trace individual groups.