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Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS)

Group Overview

Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), known more commonly as Tahrir al-Sham, is an active militant Sunni Islamist group active in the Syrian Civil War. The group was formed in early 2017 as a merger between multiple Islamist groups, including the Ansar al-Din Front, Jaysh al-Sunna, and Liwa al-Haqq, amongst others (Hummel 2017). The group is led by former members and leaders of multiple organisations such as Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (Davison 2017).

History & Foundations

Initially formed as a jihadist and Salafist response to the Assad regime, HTS quickly formed a unified anti-Assad front. Interestingly, one of the precursor organisations to HTS -- Jabhat al-Nusra -- was al-Qaeda’s affiliate organisation in Syria. Their leader, Abu Mohammad al-Jolani, had established his own source of funding through donors in the Persian Gulf and became a renowned insurgent leader. In July 2016, following the split of al-Qaeda from the Islamic State, Al-Nusra'a leadership announced a ‘rebranding’ of the organisation into Jabhat Fatah al-Sham and severed ties with al-Qaeda. However, many analysts speculated that this was just a severing of public relations and that the group would continue to have a secret relationship with al-Qaeda (Hassan 2017). The following year, the organisation (Jabhat Fatah al-Sham) rebranded itself into Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), and due to non-communication between the new HTS leadership and al-Qaeda, the split was viewed as illegal. Hence, the new Salafist organisation was publicly criticised for sowing fitna (division) by emphasising Syrian nationalism over the wider Salafist goal (Hummel 2018).

Objectives & Ideology

HTS has multiple objectives which are more locally focused on Syria and include the establishment of Islamic rule, as well as the toppling of the Assad Regime and the expelling of Iranian militias (Joscelyn 2017). Following the end of the Siege of Fu’a and Kafriya in 2018, HTS managed to remove Iranian-backed militias from the Syrian territory in which they operate (Al Jazeera 2018). One of HTS’s leaders, Abu Jaber, as well as several other of the leadership present within the group are known to hold Salafist Jihadist beliefs. This has influenced the group’s operations. However, a focus upon jihadism and the overthrow of a perceived anti-Islamist government within Syria has become the focus of HTS's objectives, much like the other AQ-aligned groups which are currently undertaking similar efforts in their own regions, such as AQIS (Al-Qaeda in Sinai Peninsula).

Insurgent Abilities

The military abilities of HTS are quite extensive due to the large number of recruits they claim to hold (12,000-15,000 militants), which has allowed them to conduct large-scale attacks. This has also allowed the jihadist group to participate directly in numerous large theatres of the Syrian civil war, such as the aforementioned siege of al-Fu’ah and Kafriya (or even the Daraa offensive in 2017). The group's tactics are very similar to other jihadist organisations and include suicide bombings. In 2017, Tahrir al-Sham suicide bombers attacked the headquarters of the Syrian Military Intelligence Directorate in Homs and killed dozens of people, including the head of military intelligence in the region (Miles 2017). The group also produces its own 120 mm and 160 mm mortar cannons which it uses both offensively and defensively. Additionally, the group possesses numerous small arms and has been known to utilise flatbed trucks with attached heavy machine guns (known as technicals). This specific equipment has also been used by the group to shoot down a Syrian Fighter jet (Reuters 2019).

Approach to Resistance

The militant actions of the group involve violence to a significant extent, notably in order to achieve the group's stated aims of removing Iranian influence from Syria and toppling the Assad regime in Damascus. This has resulted in the group attacking the Syrian Army directly, and even engaging in battles against Syrian allies such as Russian forces. Russian warplanes have responded by targeting HTS positions (IWS 2021). The group has also been accused of carrying out attacks on civilians, which has led to the group being referred to as ‘Hetesh’ -- which is meant as a negative nickname, similar to the label ‘Daesh’ which was applied to ISIL as they were seen as no different (Tweedie 2017).

International Relations & Potential Alliances

HTS has a strenuous relationship with Al-Qaeda as it is claimed the group is operating as a secret arm of AQ within Syria, despite previous claims of separation. However, Ayman al-Zawahiri has opposed the split of HTS from AQ, saying that it was done without his consent and several prominent members of AQ’s leadership have claimed that the military leader of HTS, Abu Muhammad al-Julani, is a tool of foreign powers (Katz 2018). There is a speculated alliance between HTS and Turkey, with the Turkish government designating HTS as a terrorist organisation whilst at the same time actively allowing it to fight alongside the TFSA (Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army). This has been speculated to be an attempt by the Turkish government to divide the elements of HTS from their more militaristic and dogmatic principles, and to bring it under Turkish control to combat the Assad regime and other Turkish-opposed groups in Northern Syria (Yüksel 2019).

Works Cited (MLA-style)

Al Jazeera. 2018. “Thousands Set to Be Evacuated from Two Syrian Towns.” July 18, 2018.

CSIS. 2018. “Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) | Center for Strategic and International Studies.” 2018.

Davison, John. 2017. “Syria Islamist Factions, Including Former al Qaeda Branch, Join Forces: Statement.” Reuters, January 28, 2017, sec. World News.

Hassan, Hassan. 2017. “Jabhat al Nusra and al Qaeda: The Riddle, the Ruse and the Reality.” The National. November 1, 2017.

Hummel, Kristina. 2017. “The Formation of Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham and Wider Tensions in the Syrian Insurgency.” Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. February 22, 2017.

———. 2018. “How Al-Qa`ida Lost Control of Its Syrian Affiliate: The inside Story.” Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. February 15, 2018.

IWS. 2021. “Russian Warplanes Responded to HTS Attacks in Idlib Countryside + Video.” Islamic World News. November 23, 2021.

Joscelyn, Thomas. 2017. “Hay’at Tahrir al Sham Leader Calls for ‘Unity’ in Syrian Insurgency | FDD’s Long War Journal.” February 10, 2017.

Katz, Rita. 2018. “Has Al-Qaeda Replanted Its Flag in Syria?” March 28, 2018.

Miles, John Irish, Stephanie Nebehay, Tom. 2017. “Bombings, Air Strikes in Syria Rattle Geneva Peace Talks.” Reuters, February 25, 2017.

Reuters. 2019. “Jihadist Group Claims It Shot down Syrian Warplane over Idlib.” Haaretz, August 15, 2019.

Tweedie, James. 2017. “Al-Qaida-Linked Hetesh ‘Stockpiling Chemical Weapons.’” Morning Star. October 29, 2017.

Yüksel, Engin. 2019. “Key Characteristics of Turkish Use of Syrian Armed Proxies | Strategies of Turkish Proxy Warfare in Northern Syria.” November 2019.


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