Who and What Is Behind the Surge of Assassinations in Rebel-held Syria? Those are the Wrong Questions

Haid Haid

In a country at war with itself, death is tragically the norm in the battle for territorial domination. But even by the standards of the seven-year-long civil war in Syria, the spate of assassinations witnessed recently is unheard of. For while assassinations are not uncommon, the intensity, apparent coordination and timing of these incidents make them stand out. Something appears to be going on. And something must be done. However, appearances can be deceptive, and a deeper analysis of the situation is necessary to determine strategy, lest the wrong faction be allowed to take advantage of the facts.

And the facts are these: On April 26, an unprecedented wave of assassinations began in Idlib, in the western countryside of Aleppo and in the northwest of Hama. Over the span of two days, at least 20 militants and prominent commanders of Hay’at Tahrir Al Sham (commonly known by the acronym HTS, it is the reincarnation of Al Qaeda in Syria), Jabhat Tahrir Souria (JTS) and the Free Syrian Army (FSA) were killed, along with at least nine civilians. The unidentified perpetrators carried out most of the attacks through ambush, while the rest were accomplished with improvised explosive devices, or IEDs.

Intriguingly, the assassinations followed the announcement of a ceasefire between HTS and JTS in the northwest. Consequently, this sparked speculation that the assassinations were an attempt by a third party to instigate new clashes between the two. According to this theory, the “proof” lies in the fact that the campaign began with the killing of a local HTS commander and his bodyguard. While HTS and the JTS have not officially responded to the killings, a war of recrimination has been launched by their supporters on social media.

But here’s the problem: the vast majority of the over-25 attacks did not target the two groups – just two each against HTS and JTS. This means that the assassinations could not conceivably have been designed with them in mind.

No other theories, so far, have surfaced to answer the “why” question. But maybe the “who” might provide an answer for “why”?

Many of my sources tell me they blame sleeper cells affiliated with ISIS. Those suspicions gained traction after HTS announced it had captured a member of an “assassination cell” who confessed to being affiliated with ISIS. In addition, the pro-opposition news website, Neda Souria, linked the assassinations to the rebel-led offensive in February to oust ISIS from the last remaining area it controlled in the northwest, which led to the capture of around 300 ISIS members. Since then, some rebel factions that participated in the operation have received threats from ISIS-affiliated cells, attempting to pressure them to release the ISIS prisoners. Neda Souria further linked the timing of the attacks to the release of dozens of ISIS members captured by HTS.

Meanwhile, other sources say sleeper cells affiliated with the Syrian regime committed the assassinations to destabilize the rebel-held region.

Then, here’s the other problem: it has become a knee-jerk reaction to immediately assign blame for almost anything either to the Assad regime or to ISIS or both. This is partly because the regime and ISIS have together secretly targeted opponents for elimination. Still, an automatic resort to ascribing blame to the enemy is too convenient, lazy and lacks analytical rigor. For example, the assumption that the attacks were all carried out by the same party is too convenient. For what if they were not?

Apart from the fact that they all happened at about the same time, there is no evidence that they were conducted or ordered by the same group or people. While it must be conceded that the timing might imply coordination, it may also be the case that different groups saw similar opportunities at the same time.

In fact, precedents show that assassinations increase significantly when there is a lull in fighting. In other words, peace provides better conditions for assassinations than times of intense warfare. The end of fighting usually sees a reduction in the number of checkpoints, and people tend to lower their guard. Such conditions make it a favorable time for assassination attacks.

Next, differences in the profiles of the targets, which includes business owners, displaced people, locals, activists and fighters from different factions, also strongly imply that the targets were chosen for a variety of reasons. Theft, personal disputes and internal group divisions, among other reasons, could be the motives behind the attacks.

More crucially, it may not matter who is responsible for those assassinations, but rather what may come of them. There is real concern that HTS might take advantage of the panic that have followed the assassinations to increase its dominance and, even, popularity. The attacks could conceivably push people to seek help from any faction they deem capable of bringing about security and stability. This puts HTS in a sweet spot, as it has, unlike other rebel groups, the willingness and the capacity to provide both. Indeed, it has already started to take advantage of the situation to launch a large-scale security campaign under the pretext of capturing the perpetrators of the assassinations. HTS in the past has used similar opportunities to arrest opponents and to bolster its presence and dominance. In some cases, this has actually increased its popularity among the population.

Therefore, it is both prudent and important for Syrian groups, as well as the countries involved in supporting different police forces in Syria – such as the Western-backed Free Syrian Police force and the Turkish-backed police force – to invest more greatly in protecting local communities from such attacks. While this might seem a small matter against the greater scale of the war, it is a necessary action to take in order to prevent HTS from profiting more greatly from misery. The incidence of assassinations has decreased, but the opportunity to cause further mischief on the part of HTS has only begun.

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.