Twenty Years After 9/11: The Fight for Supremacy in Northwest Syria and the Implications for Global Jihad.

Date01 September 2021
AuthorLister, Charles

Over the past decade, nowhere in the world has exerted as profound and transformative an impact on the global jihadi landscape as Syria. It was on Syrian soil that the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) first emerged in 2013 and where its behavior then sparked its expulsion from al-Qa'ida. That break-up and the Islamic State's mid-2014 unilateral declaration of a caliphate caused shockwaves worldwide, catalyzing a split of the jihadi community into two rival and later globally hostile movements. As the world collectively mobilized against the Islamic State, al-Qa'ida was left reeling when faced by the Islamic State's unprecedented challenge to its authority.

In response to the Islamic State's transnational challenge, al-Qa'ida chose Syria as the focal point for its push back, dispatching many of its most senior and experienced operatives there to reinforce al-Qa'ida's standing, through its affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra. While the arrival of the so-called "Khorasan Group" drew U.S. counterterrorism strikes, it also catalyzed internal tensions and an erratic process of introspection within Jabhat al-Nusra that eventually led to its departure from al-Qa'ida in 2017 and the advent of a third model of salafi-jihadi activity: Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and its nationally oriented effort.

The subsequent consolidation of HTS as the de facto governor of northwestern Syria, thanks in large part to its cooperation with Turkey, would have been considered controversial enough within al-Qa'ida's global movement, but the fact that it was achieved while aggressively and effectively cracking down on al-Qa'ida and the Islamic State has stirred intense reaction. Syria and the conflict that has persisted there since 2011 has therefore fostered not two but three worldwide jihadi currents--and the nature of all three, and how they emerged and how they have engaged with each other since, has had significant consequences for the kinds of threats and challenges presented by jihadism across the world.

As a result of events in Syria and indeed elsewhere, today's global jihadi landscape differs significantly from the threats faced in 2001 when the U.S. homeland was hit so dramatically by al-Qa'ida on September 11. In fact, while the United States and its allies may have become particularly adept at the kinetic aspects of counterterrorism, success in that regard has amounted to a string of tactical victories but continued strategic failure. Two decades later, the challenge posed by jihadi terrorism and ideology has never been more diverse, globally distributed, better experienced, or present in so many conflict theaters. Far from defeating terrorism, we have won many battles, but we are losing the war.

This is a story of al-Qa'ida in Syria and how an affiliate's pursuit of self-preservation catalyzed its eventual exit from the global movement and evolution into something altogether new. Through its embrace of local jihad, or 'revolutionary Islamism,' HTS has broken many taboos within the salafi-jihadi world, but created a modus operandi now being replicated in the Middle East, Africa, and further afield. With a semi-technocratic governing body and an active desire to engage external actors, HTS seeks legitimacy, but remains autocratic and politically authoritarian. For al-Qa'ida, Syria might have represented its most promising front of operation five years ago, but its former affiliate is now its local conqueror, having methodically subjugated and later crippled its operations in Syria. The counterterrorism implications and lessons to be learned from developments in northwestern Syria are many, and they relate directly to troubling emerging trends in Afghanistan, Mali, and elsewhere.

This article is composed of two core sections, the first of which is an in-depth analysis of HTS' emergence in January 2017 and how the movement has sought to methodically consolidate its rule and dominance ever since. From initially pre-empting threats posed by mainstream members of Syria's armed opposition to taking the consequential decision of acquiescing to Turkey; countering HTS' jihadi competitors, al-Qa'ida, and the Islamic State; establishing and empowering a semi-technocratic governing body known as the Salvation Government; and restricting dissent and employing sophisticated attempts to control narratives within its territories, HTS' comprehensive and taboo-busting strategy to dominate northwestern Syria is laid out in detail. Second, the article turns to assessing the emergence and subsequent downfall of Tanzim Hurras al-Din (HAD), a faction established by veteran al-Qa'ida loyalists as a counter to HTS. HAD's creation represented a determined attempt by al-Qa'ida to reassert itself in Syria, but HTS swiftly enforced severe restrictions on its ability to operate and later added to that with a campaign of arrests, killings, and then fullblown hostilities. By mid-2020, HAD had been driven to ground and HTS had begun turning its attention to weakening HAD allies.

Through deep research, interviews with actors involved, and extensive monitoring of jihadi social media material, this article is a tale of jihadi rivalries, adaptations, and intra-jihadi and geopolitical intrigue. HTS' pursuit of local dominance saw it evolve in ways few might have expected and, for now, seal its survival. Al-Qa'ida's intransigence, on the other hand, and its absolutist view against change appear to have secured its downfall in the Syrian context, especially when confronted with the more flexible and opportunistic HTS. Ultimately, as the article's concluding section states, this might have dealt a substantial blow to any international terrorist threat emanating from Syria, but it also raises troubling dilemmas for counterterrorism.

Part One: Consolidation of HTS

Today in September 2021, HTS stands as the unchallenged, de facto governor of opposition-controlled northwestern Syria, a small pocket of territory that constitutes roughly three percent of the country but contains 3.5 million people, or more than 20 percent of the in-country population. Within the Syrian context, HTS' significance is therefore considerable, particularly as it controls the most populous region of Syria outside of regime control, the fate of which will almost certainly play a key role in determining the viability and shape of any future political process. Moreover, HTS' evolution and the decisions and actions it has taken to consolidate its control in Syria's northwest have had a profound impact on the Islamist and jihadi milieu worldwide.

As this author explained in CTC Sentinel in February 2018, (1) Jabhat al-Nusra's methodical integration and assimilation into Syria's broader opposition movement, combined with Russia's 2015 intervention and the resulting decline in opposition fortunes on the ground created conditions that led to Jabhat al-Nusra's evolution away from al-Qa'ida and transition into Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS) and then HTS. There can be no doubt that self-preservation and opportunism played key roles in driving this transformation. HTS is unquestionably a very different organization to Jabhat al-Nusra, but the extent to which that is sustainable remains to be seen.

Ultimately, HTS' emergence and continued adaptation fit within the group's longstanding and overriding quest to subjugate rivals and exert unilateral dominance. The path that led to today was far from straight, and the strategy that facilitated it could best be described as a constant balancing act, managed and forced forward by its longstanding leader, Abu Mohammed al-Julani. Whether balancing complex internal dynamics unique to the group (local versus foreign, hardline versus opportunistic or pragmatic); inter-factional relationships (with the Free Syrian Army, mainstream Islamists, salafis, and groups linked to the Islamic State and al-Qa'ida); or geopolitics involving the West, the Gulf, Turkey, Russia, and Iran, al-Julani's strategy of balancing had always been oriented toward minimizing internal and external threats, while sustaining group advancement.

Until late 2016, al-Julani's guiding agenda had been to achieve legitimacy in the eyes of Syria's opposition while retaining at least a semblance of credibility within the al-Qa'ida-aligned jihadi community. By then, however, accomplishing progress on both of those tracks was no longer a tenable objective, and as such, the formation of HTS in January 2017 represented not just the final nail in its relationship with al-Qa'ida, but also the most consequential step taken in pursuit of supremacy within territories still controlled by Syria's armed opposition.

Preempting Threats

The decision in January 2017 to rebrand for a second time and establish HTS appears to have represented the beginning of the end of al-Julani's balancing strategy. After months of negotiations, HTS' desire to force a broad merger of armed factions in the northwest had repeatedly hit brick walls. In January 2017, it lashed out, preemptively attacking opposition groups deemed to be possible threats and coercing the most vulnerable to subsume themselves into the newly formed HTS. (2)

Despite its best attempts to frame HTS' establishment as a "unity" initiative, it was nothing of the sort. By undertaking such an aggressive reformation, HTS burned years of hard-won trust in many opposition circles, abruptly earning the moniker, "Hitish"--a verbalization of the HTS acronym that by design sounded like the opposition's derogatory use of "Da'ish" to refer to the Islamic State. The term "Julani or we burn the country" caught on across opposition circles too, as a play on a phrase embraced by regime loyalists since 2011 to threaten their opponents: "Assad or we burn the country."

With HTS established, the broad spread of opposition groups in the northwest pulled together. Leading figures within Jabhat al-Nusra's most consistent opposition ally, Ahrar al-Sham, began taking to the streets...

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