Jihadist control of northwest Syria ‘not tenable,’ says Sam Heller

Hardline rebel coalition Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham wields the most powerful military and civil force in northwestern Syria. It is also is an internationally designated terrorist group led by a former Al-Qaeda affiliate.

Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham (HTS) has outmaneuvered its political and military rivals in the northwest in recent weeks, taking control of most major population centers in Idlib province, dissolving local governance and monopolizing civil authority.

As a result, HTS is “everywhere” in Idlib province, says Syria analyst Sam Heller, a Beirut-based writer and fellow at The Century Foundation.  

HTS “can just reach out and touch anything they want to,” Heller tells Syria Direct’s Justin Clark. “If they want to be there, then they can be.”

The hardline coalition’s rule over the northwest has created what Heller calls a “critical mass of jihadist control,” making it an unsustainable mini-state.

The Syrian government launched a major offensive in southern Idlib province last December, retaking large swathes of the province. The latest push by the government is likely the first phase of a “regime re-conquest of the northwest,” Heller tells Syria Direct.

Q: Is Idlib, or northwest Syria more broadly, becoming an Al-Qaeda mini-state?

For now. But how long do you think this is going to last? This is why I have been ringing the alarms about this for a while. As soon as you get past this threshold, this critical mass of jihadist control—whether it’s technically Al-Qaeda or not—then this is not tenable.

I think that the appetite on the regime side was always there to reconquer the entirety of the northwest. I see the extent of jihadist control in the northwest is primarily affecting opposition backers’ willingness and ability to defend this area against these regime pressures. I don’t think it’s possible—not anymore. It’s debatable if that was ever going to happen. Certainly not now.

Q: Now that Idlib appears to be heavily controlled by HTS or the Syria Salvation Government (SSG), how should the international community operate in an Idlib province ruled ostensibly by a hardline extremist group?

[Ed.: The Syrian Salvation Government (SSG) is a civil authority formed in in Idlib province in early November and backed by HTS. Since then, the SSG has dissolved local councils and threatened rival governmental bodies in northwest Syria.]

The current international approach seems to make sense to me: continued humanitarian assistance with practical and reasonable checks and monitoring mechanisms.

[There’s also continuing with] stabilization assistance, but likely with a move away from governance and service provision, for which I don’t think there is a really compelling logical case for, particularly now that HTS is assimilating these local bodies more and more into its administrative apparatus.

Beyond that, it depends on the trajectory of Idlib and the northwest as a whole, which is difficult to divine. I personally tend to be pessimistic. Pessimistic in that I think the regime and its allies are going to consume the northwest in pieces. What we’re seeing now is most likely the first of several phases of a regime re-conquest of the northwest.

Q: What would you say is the extent of SSG and HTS control in Idlib?

They’re not comprehensive and totalitarian the way the Islamic State is—or was—in part because they don’t have the sort of resources—the oil money that IS had and cross-border access to Iraq to ferry supplies.

I think that Nusra, JFS and now HTS, have existed as part of something that has insinuated itself into this larger opposition milieu, and has exerted control and influence through indirect [means].

[Ed.: Jabhat a-Nusra was formed in 2012 as an official branch of Al-Qaeda in Syria. In summer 2016, Nusra rebranded itself as Jabhat Fatah a-Sham (JFS), severing ties with Al-Qaeda. In January 2017, JFS became the main component and lead faction of the hardline rebel coalition HTS.]

I’d say that some people—I don’t know if this is a serious position—tend to assess the extent of HTS influence by zones of control on a map, which some say is about 40 or 50 percent of the province.

Even if you can identify rural areas or low population areas outside their control, it matters less than when they have Idlib city and indirectly administer the Bab al-Hawa crossing [into Turkey]. They control these key nodes and junctures in the province.

As far as I know, the only area where HTS is really excluded from is Zinki areas.

[Ed.: Harakat Nour e-Din a-Zinki was one of the five rebel factions that merged to form Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham in January 2017. Zinki defected from the hardline coalition in July, citing Jabhat Fatah a-Sham’s unwillingness to put an end to rebel infighting in Syria’s northwest.]

Zinki’s core continuous territory is in western Aleppo. That’s basically it. You can identify specific towns or cluster of villages or areas where one faction or another might be more present or rooted, but HTS is also there. They’re everywhere.

Then there’s the extent to which they can just reach out and touch anything they want to. If they want to be there, then they can be. They can muster a convoy to roll in. Nobody stops them.

Q: If we take a broader glance at the northwest, in recent weeks we’ve seen HTS and the SSG outmaneuver its political and military rivals, gradually monopolizing civil and military authority in Idlib province. How is this going to affect international organizations working there?

Humanitarian assistance has continued to go in, but it does sound like the extending of HTS control has had a sort of chilling effect. It’s raised general concerns about inadvertently providing material support to a designated [terrorist] organization—among relief agencies themselves or through pressure from donors concerned about falling into that.

[International organizations] are dealing with pressures on multiple sides, since they’re also operating from Turkey in many instances. Turkey has become a less hospitable place for international relief NGOs and stabilization implementers.

Displaced Syrians flee fighting in Idlib province's southeast on January 7, 2018. Photo by Omar Haj Kadour/AFP.

Q: I see Idlib as a feedback loop, in which the more HTS consolidates its power over the province, the more humanitarian groups and international organizations tend to pull away and reduce their operations. Can we expect to see that kind of dynamic develop?

That kind of cause and effect is something that we’ve already seen and is likely to continue. If we’re talking about a feedback loop, it’s more debatable. The question is whether decreased assistance somehow makes some of these organizations or local governing bodies more vulnerable to an HTS takeover.

That is, when you close the circle and it becomes cyclical. That’s a case that people make—that continuing assistance keeps some of these local bodies autonomous and independent, and may actually check the expansion of HTS influence.

There’s been a lot of debate, I think, among people who are involved in assistance—particularly in stabilization assistance—about the real reach of the SSG.

Obviously it’s not possible to get an entirely clear sense of this from outside the country, or maybe even from the inside, especially given the sort of local variation you see in terms of control from one area to the next or between individual towns.

My impression as to why the SSG is relevant and why its writ—its control—continues to expand regardless of whatever legitimacy or support it has behind it, is because it has HTS as its enforcer.

When they move in and shut things down, they have the coercive power of HTS on their side and it gives them authority on the ground.

Q: The SSG is a strong civil authority that’s backed by the military might of HTS. There’s not a lot that a local governing body can do when the SSG or HTS rolls in and says they need to shut down, is there?

It doesn’t seem like there is an effective countervailing military force, and popular civilian rejection only goes so far. Local civilian sentiment is relevant, but I also think that it tends to have limited impact ultimately in deciding issues of power and control.

This is not a democracy.

Q: It will be interesting to see whether the Syrian government’s recent advances in Idlib are sustainable, whether they are able to link up with territory in west Aleppo province and cut Idlib in half. The progress of pro-government forces in southern Idlib over the past few weeks has been swift.

The big question that is not really answerable now is how far the regime and its allies push, whether they advance beyond the Hejaz Railway, which marks off east Idlib, a more desert section. They are definitely going to take that. That’s happening. We’re watching it now.

My impression is that this is a long, not fully defensible line that HTS and other rebels aren’t really capable of maintaining. It is wide-open, flat terrain in which they can’t really mount a defense, and in which they are left exposed to Russian airpower. When that aerial bombing is turned on, it doesn’t seem like there’s a way to resist or hold out. It’s an open question whether it will be different in the Idlib interior when it’s a bit more rugged, semi-mountainous, but certainly not in the desertous east.

They also have less of a social base in this area. It’s debatable to what extent HTS is grounded in any of these [Idlib] communities, but in the east in particular it sounds like they have not recruited heavily from these areas. So you have some fighters who are willing to stick it out and then mount a defense to the end. Then, many others who are from west Idlib or west Aleppo, who are happy to retreat and then make their stand in the denser, more populous Idlib interior.


Justin Clark

Justin studied Arabic at Western Michigan University. He continued his studies at Bethlehem University in the West Bank and the Qasid Institute in Jordan. Justin's work and studies have taken him to Jordan, the West Bank, Egypt and Greece.