In Syria, Al Nusra’s Reincarnation Has Been Crippled on the Battlefield by Divided Al Qaeda Loyalties

Haid Haid

The former Al Qaeda affiliate, Hayat Tahrir Al Sham (HTS), is experiencing its most significant battlefield setback since its emergence in Syria in late 2011. In the space of a week, the formidable faction lost control of at least 36 strategically valuable towns and cities across northwestern Syria. Perhaps even more importantly, the force has seen its reputation as one of the most militarily capable rebel groups in the country seriously damaged.

Formerly known as Al Nusra Front, HTS’s recent losses reflect the group’s struggle to redefine itself, including its links to international jihadism. In early 2017, Al Nusra merged with other groups – some of which it is now fighting – after earlier renouncing its connection to Al Qaeda. In the complex landscape of Syria’s civil war, involving dozens of rebel factions that are often at odds with each other, the current infighting will surely affect the ultimate outcome of the larger conflict and the durability of an eventual peace.

Recent defeats inflicted in February by the newly established group Jabhat Tahrir Souria (JTS), or Syria Liberation Front, have changed power dynamics. While HTS’s subsequent counteroffensives were successful in recapturing some of its lost territory, the group fell short of achieving a decisive victory – and revealed its military vulnerability in its rivalries with other rebel factions. The infighting has undoubtedly prolonged the war and benefited the Russian- and Iranian-backed regime in Damascus. Since mid-2014, HTS has frequently attacked other anti-Assad factions, including, prominently, Jabhat Thowar Suriya, an alliance of local insurgency groups operating in Idlib under the umbrella of the Free Syrian Army; the Hazzm Movement, which was an alliance in northwestern Syria that has since reformed into different groups; Jaysh Al-Mujaheedin, or the Mujaheedin Army, a coalition of Islamist factions that was primarily formed in early 2014 to fight ISIS in northern Syria; and Ahrar Al-Sham, the Salafist militant group that previously fielded one of the strongest rebel fighting forces

While its opponents varied widely in terms of size and military capabilities, HTS had previously been able to achieve swift victories on the battlefield. The unexpectedly abrupt surrender of Ahrar Al Sham in the second half of 2017, which until then had been considered one of the strongest rebel factions in northern Syria, saw HTS crowned as the most dominant force in Syria’s rebel-held northwest territory.

It was divisions within its own house that dethroned HTS and the myth that it was an unstoppable military force. In fighting in November against the Nour Al-Din Al-Zenki Movement – one of the groups brought into the HTS coalition with Al Nusra earlier in the year – the erstwhile dominant force failed for the first time to bring an opponent to its knees. Despite its relatively modest fighting force and estimated military capability, Zenki repelled HTS attacks. After a short period of fighting, a ceasefire was reached under pressure from other rebel groups and civilians, who insisted that resources should be directed to the fight against the Syrian regime. A ceasefire was negotiated, but given HTS’s inability to live up to its reputation, the result looked like a defeat.

That reputational damage appeared to be a factor in the resumption of hostilities as HTS sought to rehabilitate its image by finishing what it had started. The group resumed attacks against Zenki on February 20, following the announcement of the formation of JTS, representing a merger between Ahrar Al Sham and Zenki, which was viewed by HTS leaders as a serious strategic threat.

But instead of restoring its prominence, the recent fighting has seen HTS suffer its worst battlefield defeats. JTS was able to push HTS out of dozens of strategically valuable towns and military positions in opposition-held western Aleppo and Idlib province. Sources on the ground have told this writer that HTS suffered at least five times as many casualties as JTS forces. To add further humiliation, JTS’s swift territorial gains forced HTS to seek help from the Turkistan Islamic Party, a Uyghur jihadi group seeking an autonomous region in China’s Xinjiang region, which also has forces in Syria. The climbdown was seen as further damaging HTS’s status.

On closer analysis, however, HTS’s stunning defeat was mainly due to the group’s internal weaknesses and strategic miscalculations rather than the strength of its rivals. Since its transformation, HTS has been going through an existential ideological rivalry between its pragmatist and hardliner wings, with the former seeking to turn the movement into a more politically acceptable Islamist group by breaking away from Al Qaeda and portraying itself as a local Syrian actor.

After the group’s leaders broke ties with Al Qaeda in 2016, there were several defections among hardline factions, including Jaysh Al Badiya and Jaysh Al Malahim, both of which continue to promote Al-Qaeda propaganda. Prominent members of the coalition’s consultative council, including Abu Julaybib Tobas, Abu Khadija Al Orduni, Sami Al Aridi and Abu Abdul Rahman Al Makki, also left the group and recently formed an Al Qaeda-allied military formation called Horras Al Din, the so-called “guards of religion.” Similarly, HTS’s attacks against rebel groups over the objections of many group members also led to defections.

Despite recent losses, however, the group remains one of Syria’s most prominent rebel factions, controlling large areas around Idlib and able to call on hundreds of committed and experienced fighters across much of northern Syria. While the results of a war of attrition with JTS, which now appears to be the more numerous group, remain unclear, HTS seems to have lost, at least for now, its standing as a dominant military force.

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.