A series of clashes broke out on 19 January between al-Qaeda’s rebranded Syrian branch, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS), and its heretofore close ally and portal into the Syrian rebellion, Ahrar al-Sham. By 23 January, JFS had expanded its targets, engaging in hostilities with mainstream rebel groups in the “Greater Idlib” area, and specifically trying—and succeeding—in dismantling the positions of Jaysh al-Mujahideen, a moderate group, west of Aleppo. The crisis continued to escalate, forcing many groups to merge with Ahrar al-Sham for protection, until 28 January, when a JFS-led merger was announced under the banner of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), or the Syrian Liberation Committee. HTS announced a ceasefire, and since then individuals and groups—including a significant number from Ahrar—have given allegiance to HTS. This radical reshaping of revolutionary dynamics in northern Syria has undoubtedly created antibodies going forward against al-Qaeda that could be capitalized on by the international community, but the present situation is highly favourable to al-Qaeda.
Al-Qaeda in Syria took great pains from the outset to hide its presence. Operatives of what is now the Islamic State (IS), believed at the time to be a branch of al-Qaeda, infiltrated Syria in the summer of 2011, but did not announce its Syrian wing, Jabhat al-Nusra, until January 2012, and the Qaeda link was hidden until al-Nusra revealed it under pressure as its parent organization tried to assert control over it in April 2013. When Ayman al-Zawahiri, who was brought in to adjudicate the dispute, ruled in al-Nusra’s favour—that IS should return to Iraq and al-Nusra remain in Syria as an independent al-Qaeda branch (a decision IS rejected)—al-Zawahiri nonetheless rebuked al-Nusra’s leader, Ahmad al-Shara (Abu Muhammad al-Jolani) for “showing his links to al-Qaeda”. The idea was to “deal with people well, and then … tell them, ‘The al-Qaeda that was smeared in the media? This is it’.” Al-Qaeda wishes to shape, more than directly rule, the revolutionary areas—it will give up the name for the sake of the thing, which is intended to be a deeply-rooted emirate that can be used in time for external attacks and expansion toward the restoration of the caliphate. With the ostensible split from al-Qaeda when al-Nusra rebranded as JFS in July 2016, it basically re-set the initial conditions, and the formation of HTS is a further obfuscatory measure.
During the five days of intense fighting leading up to 28 January, JFS dissociated from Jund al-Aqsa, a group founded initially by al-Nusra/JFS to be a refuge for al-Shara and his deputies if al-Zawahiri ruled the other way and dissolved al-Nusra. Five important groups—Kataib Thuwar al-Sham, Suqour al-Sham, the western Aleppo sections of al-Jabhat al-Shamiya (The Levant Front), the northern sections of Jaysh al-Islam, and Tajamu Fastaqim Kama Umrat—merged with Ahrar al-Sham, as would more than a dozen smaller groups. Without using all that much violence, al-Qaeda had already taken the initiative. Ahrar had—days earlier, when it appeared to have composed the internal differences that would soon explode—reaffirmed its “manhaji path,” and one pro-al-Qaeda commentator rejoiced at the situation:
The greatest losers are the foreign powers who are watching their treacherous projects melt away … If we did not know any better we would even say that this was an elaborate scheme between Jabhat Fatah al-Sham and Ahrar al-Sham, through a ‘good cop, bad cop’ routine, to reach that which they were unable to reach for months: to absorb the factions that keep refusing a merger.
HTS was announced several days later, led by Hashem al-Shaykh (Abu Jabbar), the leader of Ahrar al-Sham between September 2014 and September 2015. The groups included were: JFS, Jabhat Ansar al-Din, Harakat Nooradeen al-Zengi, Jaysh al-Sunna, and Liwa al-Haq.
Jabhat Ansar al-Din was formed as an umbrella group for “independent” jihadists during the fighting between al-Nusra and IS, but it has always been part of al-Qaeda’s project in Syria. Jaysh al-Sunna and Liwa al-Haq are small groups, the former originally a non-ideological group and the latter a Salafist group. Al-Zengi is now fairly well-known internationally after some of its fighters beheaded a child-soldier on video last summer, and there were some qualms among jihadists about taking it in, ultimately settled on the argument that al-Zengi has moved toward Islamism already and once inside the tent can be brought closer to the light.
A half-dozen jihadi clerics—Abdallah al-Muhaysini, Muslah al-Alyani, Abdul Razzaq al-Mahdi, Abu Harith al-Masri, Abu Yusuf al-Hamawi, and Abu Tahir al-Hamawi—immediately signed-up to HTS, all of them having been favourably disposed to al-Qaeda before this and in the case of al-Muhaysini, a Saudi who is to all-intents-and-purposes HTS’s lead cleric, he was secretly part of JFS’s leadership structure. Other notable early sign-ups were Abu al-Abed Ashidaa, who briefly led the unified insurgent forces in Aleppo City and has been engaged in political warfare on JFS’s behalf ever since; Abu Fatah al-Farghali, an Egyptian jihadi cleric who recently resigned from Ahrar; Abu Saleh al-Tahhan, the former military leader of Ahrar; and Ahrar’s former chief shar’i, Abu Muhammad al-Sadeq.
Al-Shaykh announced a ceasefire with Ahrar and Suqour al-Sham, the two main groups HTS had been clashing with, and intra-insurgent fighting has largely stopped in Idlib proper, though HTS has struck at groups in Latakia and Aleppo since then.
These developments leave three big currents in northern Syrian insurgent dynamics: HTS, Ahrar, and the Free Syrian Army (FSA). It is, in short, as one observer has put it, referring to the colours of their flags, a sorting between the green (FSA) and the black (jihadists). Ahrar tried to straddle that divide, succeeding only in allowing al-Qaeda to infiltrate the rebellion and co-opt large sections of it in the north, and Ahrar itself is splitting exactly along that seam, with a significant chunk of Ahrar favouring a merger with al-Qaeda and the rest recognizing this as suicide. As a former Ahrar official lamented, Ahrar had invited into its midst those that would destroy it—and perhaps take the whole rebellion down with them.
Ahrar is widely suspected in the West, and not without reason given that it had al-Qaeda-linked individuals among its founding members and donors and its connections to al-Qaeda are ongoing. So, a northern insurgency divided into two camps, one gathered around Ahrar and the other around JFS, offers no side about which Western policy-makers will be enthusiastic. If the pro-al-Qaeda elements clear out of Ahrar to HTS and the merger with Fastaqim, the Levant Front, and others is for real, diluting Ahrar’s power within the coalition, even if they keep the Ahrar name, then it might be different. This is doubtful, however, since Ahrar, even absent the structural links to al-Qaeda, is likely trapped by the jihadi-Salafism of its foundations, and has unlimited support from Turkey, while the FSA has notoriously unreliable external backers. A workable alternative is probably only possible if the mainstream rebels are empowered out of entanglement with HTS and Ahrar. The West can wait to see if this remote possibility arises, or it could try to shape the outcome.
The danger is that without a serious Western effort to bolster the mainstream armed opposition in northern Syria, to keep alive an alternative that can be worked with—eventually in anti-terrorism operations, too—it is going to leave HTS as the only viable option for Syrians who want to continue the anti-regime struggle. This is the situation that has effectively been reached in Iraq, where the levers of societal influence are so thoroughly controlled by the Islamic State in the Sunni areas that anyone who wants to move against the established order has to channel their energies through IS. Allowing al-Qaeda a similar victory in Syria is foolish, but that is the current trajectory.
Al-Qaeda’s enemies folded quickly and all efforts at push-back have come to naught. Inside Syria, al-Qaeda has re-written the battlefield, forcibly removing those it felt were most threatening, using that threat to have others fall in line, chipping away at its strongest rivals by annexing their fighters and leaders, and working (rather successfully so far) to legitimize this outcome and thus blunt the possibility of a backlash. Beyond Syria, al-Qaeda is already probably capable of striking Europe; it abstains because of a strategic decision to lower the focus on itself while it embeds into the fabric of Syria’s society. As the airstrikes against al-Qaeda in Syria escalate, that calculus might change, and whether it does or not airstrikes alone cannot uproot al-Qaeda in Syria.
This is not to say all is lost; there are already antibodies present in Syria that can be turned to mutual advantage for the West and the Syrian opposition. For example, there were several clerical rulings issued during the fighting that are going to be very difficult to walk back from. JFS had justified its attacks by saying it was pre-empting a foreign conspiracy against it using the rebel groups it victimized, who were guilty—at least at a leadership level—of treason and “ideological terrorism”. JFS never quite used takfir (excommunication) against the rebels, but it came close. The Turkey-based Syrian Islamic Council, which is an authority for a number of mainstream rebel groups, issued a fatwa calling JFS “Khawarij,” a loaded term in any context but in the post-IS world clearly intended to make an equivalence to them, with the corollary that everyone should fight them. SIC made this explicit and called on JFS’s honourable members to defect. Some have taken to calling HTS “Hetish,” an acronym like “Daesh” that is meant pejoratively. The comparison with IS is a good one—and one that is occurring to more and more people, even if they currently lack the capacity to weaponize their view.
It was soon announced that Abu Saleh al-Tahhan was the general military emir of HTS and al-Shara was the leader of military raids (ghazawat). As Hassan Hassan and Bassam Barabandi pointed out when JFS was announced, al-Qaeda in Syria is following on the model from Iraq, where al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) became al-Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen (MSM) and then the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), and HTS is a continuation of that.
When MSM was formed in January 2006, AQI did not take all the senior positions. AQI’s leader, Ahmad al-Khalayleh (Abu Musab al-Zarqawi), was a deputy to Abdullah Ibn Rashid al-Baghdadi, better-known as Abdurrahman al-Qaduli (Abu Ali al-Anbari). The very important position of official spokesman was given to Muharib al-Jiburi, who was known to the AQI set but led his own independent unit, Saraya al-Ghuraba. And the “prime minister” position went to Abdul Rahman al-Falahi, Saraya al-Jihad’s leader. In other words, to secure a merger, AQI was prepared to divide the spoils. After al-Khalayleh was killed and al-Qaduli was imprisoned, Abdul Munim al-Badawi (Abu Hamza al-Muhajir) became the head of MSM, where AQI remained at least primus inter pares. On formation of ISI, which again broadened the “front” by including more groups and tribes, without changing AQI’s ideology, al-Badawi was the deputy and war minister to Hamid al-Zawi (Abu Umar al-Baghdadi)—roughly the position al-Shara now occupies in HTS.
Hussam Atrash, the religious leader of al-Zengi, seems to have had this analogy in mind, when he said: “Yes, we failed in one thing, which is not to have finished factionalism and united [the insurgents] by force.” The concept of taghalub (dominating with force) has split jihadi clerics, notably al-Muhaysini, who strenuously denies that al-Nusra/JFS believes or acts in this way, and another of al-Qaeda’s clerics and JFS’s supporters and authorities, Issam al-Barqawi (Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi), who recommends it as the only way forward. The Islamic State drew on this idea when it monopolized power across the rebel-held areas in the name of “stability”. Al-Barqawi, of course, was among the mentors to the Islamic State’s founder, and al-Nusra/JFS is an offshoot of the Islamic State. The apple didn’t fall far from the tree, and what differences there are this time around show a jihadi learning curve in terms of neutralizing the possibility of backlash.
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UPDATE: On 20 July 2017, Harakat Nooradeen al-Zengi withdrew from HTS. A statement from Tawfiq Shahabuddin explained this decision as due to HTS’s “lack of applying the rule of shari’a”, by which Shaykh Tawfiq meant HTS issuing statements without consulting all of its constituent parts and taking the decision to renew its attack on Ahrar al-Sham likewise without consent from HTS’s shura council. Tawfiq defended taking al-Zengi into HTS as “for the sake of unity”, to “bring together the Sunnis in Syria to implement the ruling of God’s law”, and “now the compass has deviated from its path”, so al-Zengi is separating from the organization.
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 One might technically include Faylaq al-Sham as a fourth trend. Faylaq al-Sham has fought as part of the JFS/Ahrar-dominated Jaysh al-Fatah and is an Islamist group that has eschewed the FSA label, but it has also left Jaysh al-Fatah at times and is very much in the spirit of—and works in collaboration with—the FSA-branded groups. In December, Faylaq al-Sham was involved in a unity initiative with the FSA and signed a statement in the name of the “Free Syrian Army”. Faylaq al-Sham has also been vetted by the United States, a status reserved for FSA-style groups.
 These divisions within Ahrar are not ideological, exactly. At its crudest the division of opinion is whether al-Qaeda or Turkey is the best ally. Though Ankara’s credibility among the opposition is low, after it gave up Aleppo City to the regime coalition in exchange for an unmolested sphere of influence in northern Syria, Turkey is still an inescapably-powerful actor in northern Syria, so it matters that “the Turks have made it clear to [mainstream rebels and Ahrar al-Sham] … that if they join with Fatah al-Sham … they’re done”.
Originally published at The Henry Jackson Society