While the world is looking to Russia and Turkey to determine the fate of greater Idlib, Syria’s former Al Qaeda affiliate, Hayat Tahrir Al Sham (HTS), is attempting to shape the future of the region. Following military gains earlier this year against rival opposition groups in the last rebel-held pocket in the country, HTS is establishing new civilian and military administrations to consolidate power.
In doing so, the group is trying to increase its legitimacy and popularity by consulting with local communities and encouraging their participation through local elections. This strategy is seen as essential – to prevent a possible battle of annihilation, to embed the group in society and to permanently reshape the balance of power in the region.
HTS leader Abu Mohammad Al Jolani first introduced the new project during an appearance on a talk show broadcast by the group’s Amjad media channel in mid-January. Al Jolani argued that there needed to be new administrations that separated civil and military affairs, but he did not elaborate how that would be achieved.
Then on February 10, the HTS-affiliated Salvation Government, which governs most of the region, organized a conference to discuss how to encourage the participation of regional residents. During the event, dozens of civilians and fighters discussed the establishment of a new consultative shura council for Idlib, which in theory will lead to the formation of a new administration.
Following approval of the proposal, 10 conference attendees were selected to form an electoral commission to oversee the process and determine the number and distribution of shura council seats. Instead of conducting direct elections, however, HTS organized a poll involving only a small number of representatives from local communities who nominated and elected people to the council. The process allowed HTS to participate in the selection of representatives and candidates, giving it influence over both the process and the results.
The limited elections took place on March 27, with the selection of 107 representatives from 55 local communities, 23 from internally displaced communities in Idlib and 29 from civilian bodies such as the tribes and the professional associations of doctors, businessmen and lawyers. An official announcement heralding the new council and the next steps is expected soon. The council is also expected to meet later to form a new government that could, in theory, replace the current Salvation Government, although the structure of the new administration is still highly speculative.
In parallel with the work to establish new governance institutions, HTS military commanders are leading consultations with rebel commanders in greater Idlib to create a unified structure that would include all armed factions. At this point, however, it is not clear whether HTS will be able to create something resembling a unified force, although it should at least be able to expand joint operations by encouraging larger groups, such as the National Front, to join while using force to co-opt smaller groups. As with the proposed civilian administration, HTS seems willing to cede formal leadership of a proposed military entity, as long as it can still pull the strings from behind the scenes.
On both governance and the military front, HTS is making pragmatic attempts to keep up with changing circumstances and ensure the group’s long-term survival, clearly understanding that fully controlling greater Idlib is beyond its current financial and structural capabilities. The group is also aware that its increased power in the region will probably trigger an attack by the regime, a fight HTS would be unlikely to win.
As a result, HTS is fashioning the new administrative structures to put local residents on center stage, while the group retains control, or at least a veto, over strategic decisions. Doing so allows the group to share the burden of governance and to deflect responsibility for its failures – both military and administrative. HTS is trying to lead from behind the scenes to increase its popularity, which seems to be plan B to ensure the survival of its project and ideology even after a potential territorial defeat.
Idlib residents’ reactions to the new administrative structures have been varied, but there seems to be a general sense of resentment. A sizeable number of local councils and communities in greater Idlib have publicly rejected the consultative council because of the HTS’s extensive influence. This defiance is driven by the failure of the Salvation Government to provide basic services, as well as the rejection of HTS ideology and fears about the consequences of its dominance, which could result in the termination of Western aid or cause further military conflicts.
There is also a shadow over the legitimacy of the council and its members because of HTS’s extensive involvement in a process that many consider to have been staged. Similarly, most armed groups remain hesitant to participate in the proposed military administration, especially the majority of groups that are affiliated with Turkey. Although HTS has won significant battlefield victories recently, the power struggle among opposition groups continues and many are hesitant to become affiliated with a designated terrorist group.
Despite these significant challenges, HTS seems determined to establish administrations to resist future efforts to erase its influence in the northwest. This approach relies on co-opting the local communities. To counter the group’s influence, the international community must come up with a comprehensive strategy to counter its dominance by working with and through those same local communities.
Haid Haid is a research fellow at the International Center for the Study of Radicalization at King’s College London. He is also a consulting research fellow of Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa program.