7 min read  | Idlib, Politics

HTS seeks greater engagement with the West, but the impact on humanitarian access is uncertain

May 3, 2021

AMMAN — On April 2nd, American news channel PBS released surprising excerpts of an interview with Abu Muhammad al-Jolani, the leader of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), ex-Jabhat al-Nusra, which controls the last opposition-held enclave of Idlib in northwestern Syria. Dressed in a suit in lieu of his traditional outfit and turban, al-Jolani attempted to project a conciliatory image in his first-ever interview with an American journalist. 

A former al-Qaeda franchise, HTS is on the designated terrorist entities list of various countries and bodies, including the UN and US. But the organization is attempting to shed the label, arguing it has cut ties with global jihad.

For some in Idlib, al-Jolani’s interview has raised cautious hopes to see the first dents in the walls of Idlib’s international isolation. “If al-Jolani’s relationship with America improves, this will reflect positively on [the people of Idlib] at all levels – political, economic and social,” Thara al-Ali (a pseudonym), a journalist and women’s empowerment activist living in Idlib province, told Syria Direct

Calls to re-examine HTS’ role and the usefulness of its terrorist designation are gaining momentum within some policy circles. In February, a report from the European University Institute argued it was time for greater engagement between HTS and Western states. The same month, analysts from the think tank International Crisis Group argued that the ‘terrorist’ label affixed to HTS is no longer useful: “It has a chilling effect on Western support for essential service provision in Idlib, worsening the humanitarian crisis”.

Concerns for the humanitarian situation in Idlib will undoubtedly play a key role in the evolution of Western policy towards the group. But could greater engagement with HTS actually improve the humanitarian space in Idlib, and benefit its people?

Terrorist designation and humanitarian constraints

Since taking over Idlib province in 2019 after subjugating its last major rivals, HTS has sought to project itself as a local group with a local agenda, away from the tagmark of global jihad. 

“HTS has made a big effort to marry its senior members into locally powerful, notable families in Idlib, which provides HTS with organic and perennial roots into the local socio-politics in Idlib,” Nicholas Heras, Senior Analyst for Newlines Institute, a Washington-based think tank, told Syria Direct. “HTS has made it a policy to be intertwined with as many local institutions as possible in Idlib.”

Despite this, the accession to power of a listed terrorist organization immediately raised concerns that humanitarian assistance would be impacted. These fears were quickly confirmed.

“We are not allowed to sit with the de-facto authorities, talk to them, coordinate with them to secure the required access to the people in need due to antiterrorism mitigation measures. Being seen with them is a reputational risk and we fear losing access to our funding.”

“International donors started to change their way of dealing with local authorities and to limit the funding of interventions which were not purely humanitarian, such as stabilization programs and governance support,” the CEO of a local NGO active in Idlib told Syria Direct

To prevent the possibility of aid diversion towards a terrorist organization, “donors increased risk mitigation measures, which impacted the whole humanitarian response,” the CEO added. “They started to restrict long-term activities. For example, donors started to limit interventions targeting water management units managed by the authorities, and turned towards water trucking, which is less sustainable.”

The ‘terrorist’ label raised additional red flags for financial institutions, adding to the hurdles faced by NGOs to channel their funds to Syria, due to international sanctions and to counterterrorism measures. Syria has effectively become a financial red zone, pushing NGOs to rely on informal transfer networks (hawalas), despite their lack of transparency and traceability.

Many organizations became reluctant to work directly in Idlib, fearing the reputational cost of embroilment with HTS. These fears were aggravated by the behavior of the group, which attempted to extort taxes on aid shipments or add their fighters to lists of beneficiaries.

This has led to the adoption of a “zero tolerance” policy, meaning NGOs must prevent any trickling of aid or funding towards the group, its members and affiliates. In practice, this is nearly impossible to achieve given HTS’ reach in Idlib, governed by the Salvation Government (SG), an entity established in 2017 and often considered  HTS’ civilian facade.

“The SG taxes some trade activities and services, so effectively NGOs cannot ensure that there is zero tolerance, considering that beneficiaries live in Idlib, use local services and buy from local markets,” the head of the local NGO said. ”[NGOs] started to do very hard homework to improve [their] risk mitigation measures. This required more staff, more resources.”

In parallel, “our staff on the ground started being put at risk because they were seen as enemies [of HTS],” he added. “We are not allowed to sit with the de-facto authorities, talk to them, coordinate with them to secure the required access to the people in need due to antiterrorism mitigation measures. Being seen with them is a reputational risk and we fear losing access to our funding.”

“[HTS’ rise in Idlib] affected the implementation  [of our projects] because we cannot solve some problems immediately as they require direct involvement and sometimes payment to the SG,” Abderraouf Shami (a pseudonym), the head of a local medical NGO who asked that the identity of his organization remain undisclosed, told Syria Direct

“We face problems when there is a need to pay taxes or fees or fines, or when we need to file a complaint,” Shami said, in addition to the severe screening measures the NGO had to set up for its recruitment.

Despite these constraints, the humanitarian response has continued. “Humanitarians navigating around HTS’s classification as a terrorist entity have been dealing with this issue through most of the conflict, and at least since 2013 when Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS assumed significant roles in conflict dynamics,” Rana B. Khoury, a PhD candidate in  aid and activism in Syria at Northwestern University, told Syria Direct. “They have also dealt with these questions elsewhere, such as in Gaza under Hamas.”

HTS and NGOs: A shifting relationship

“Initially, HTS did not have much interaction with foreign organizations,” Jerome Drevon, a Research Fellow at the Graduate Institute of International studies in Geneva and co-author of a recently released report arguing in favor of greater engagement with HTS, told Syria Direct.

NGOs had to develop alternative channels to coordinate with local authorities. “Over time, we developed working relationships notably with the local councils,” the director of the Syria office of a large medical INGO, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Syria Direct. “We have few direct relations with HTS but we work ‘by proxy’ with them through city leaders, local representatives.”

“The fact that there is a plausible deniability between HTS and the SG helped, because the SG says that it is an independent structure from HTS, and that it should not get affected by the terrorist designation,” Drevon highlighted. 

Through coordinated action, NGOs are able to exert a degree of pushback against the SG’s requests or interference attempts from local groups, which remain a reality.

“I think HTS interferes much more with NGOs that provide food baskets,” Shami added. “For us, every person in need of medical care is a beneficiary, but the distribution criteria for food or equipment are different and there are always challenges when choosing beneficiaries.”

HTS has also shown interest in improving its relationship with aid actors, recognizing its dependency on aid flows to serve the province’s large displaced population. In 2020, Jolani stated: “Our policy toward NGOs has changed. We are willing to facilitate the work of any organization that would like to return to work in Idlib, and we pledge non-interference.”

Overall, “HTS has been fairly practical with regards to local civilian organizations that remain focused on emergency relief,”  Khoury highlighted. “This is pragmatic compared to ISIS, for instance, which shut out all independent efforts.”

High strategic gains, low humanitarian impact

The prospect for a revision of HTS’ terrorist designation in the near future remains highly unlikely. 

“Western countries will never just delist the group and accept to collaborate with them from one day to another,” Drevon said. “But we believe that because the group is quite responsive to external pressure, there would be ways for a conditional engagement.”  

Idlib’s severely constrained humanitarian space hinges precariously on the UN cross-border aid mechanism, under constant pressure from Syria’s allies at the UN Security Council.

Increased collaboration with Idlib’s authorities, including the return of some stabilization programs, could be leveraged to obtain assurances from HTS regarding humanitarian access. 

However, this strategy comes with several pitfalls. First, it risks feeding pro-regime narratives that seek to reduce the Syrian opposition to Islamist factions supported from abroad. It could also spark backlash in Western public opinions against this conciliatory approach.

Most importantly, while strategic gains for HTS are obvious, the impact of HTS’ delisting on humanitarian aid is probably overplayed.

“The reality on the ground is that HTS has no problem accessing foreign assistance and making sure that assistance flows into the communities it controls in the region,” Heras said. “But delisting HTS would allow the group to have overt relations with foreign assistance organizations and foreign governments, in other words, a massive gain in HTS’ effort to present itself as a major powerbroker in a future Syria.”

At the same time, “if HTS is delisted, international aid organizations would remain wary,” Khoury argued. “They are risk-averse entities, not keen on being associated—even if indirectly or inadvertently—with HTS.”

Still, increased engagement could represent a breath of fresh air. Idlib’s severely constrained humanitarian space hinges precariously on the UN cross-border aid mechanism, under constant pressure from Syria’s allies at the UN Security Council.

Should HTS succeed in shedding its terrorist designation, “the floodgates for trade and greater Turkish-directed support into Idlib would certainly be thrown wide open,” Heras said. “This would make it far more challenging for the Assad regime and its allies to besiege and starve out Idlib.”

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