Can Hayat Tahrir al-Sham be defeated by an alliance of Syrian rebels in northern Syria?

Ultimately the conflict can be described as one between Salafists and more hardline Salafists.

Members of al-Qaida's‏ Nusra Front [File] (photo credit: REUTERS)
Members of al-Qaida's‏ Nusra Front [File]
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Nusra Front, which later became Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), has never been a reflection of the Syrian people who revolted against the regime in 2011. There are two main factors responsible for HTS becoming one of the most powerful organizations in northern Syria.
The first is the chaos created by the war and the second is the Free Syrian Army being left to face the Syrian regime and its Iranian ally alone. The Western countries, especially the United States, worked hard to prevent the flow of materiel to the FSA, especially effective and necessary weapons such as anti-aircraft weapons.
The jihadist Islamists initially appealed to the hearts of the Syrians opposed the regime through their fighting ability; they did well against the regime. At the same time they managed to hide their real agenda.
After the jihadists in Syria managed to secure vast territories they divided into two main groups, Islamic State (ISIS) and Nusra Front, in late 2013. These two groups hated and even fought each other. Each claimed it was the real representative of jihad. ISIS eventually revealed its true face after seizing Raqqa in 2014. Meanwhile the Nusra Front did the same after seizing Idlib. There was one essential difference: Nusra was more gradual and moderate in dominating the area it sought to enter and take control of. This was in contrast to ISIS which dominated the areas under its control through the persecution and execution of any other groups.
Nusra Front was a part of a group called the Jaish al-Fatah (The Army of Conquest) which liberated Idlib from the regime. This Army of Conquest consisted of many groups including the FSA and other Islamist movements such as Ahrar al-Sham (Salafists) and Faylaq al-Sham (moderates). After the victory in Idlib, Nusra started to disclose its agenda.
First it decided to get rid of the FSA groups, starting with the weakest, using accusations of corruption as a pretext. The simple people of Idlib believed Nusra and its claims to be fighting corruption and securing the area. After defeating the FSA, Nusra decided it had to defeat the biggest group in Syria, called Ahrar al-Sham, which had more than 25,000 fighters. Through this process the Nusra Front declared that it had severed its link with al-Qaida, changing its name to Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.
HTS was aware that it would lose if it directly attacked Ahrar al-Sham, so it worked on inviting a part of Ahrar al-Sham to join HTS and fighting the remaining part, or paying them off to leave. A large number of high-level commanders of Ahrar al-Sham defected and joined HTS, and Ahrar al-Sham lost 80% of its strength.
After getting over the hurdle of Ahrar al-Sham’s opposition, HTS became the strongest group in Idlib and Aleppo’s western countryside and in Hama’s northern countryside. It set down roots, with its own government and governing institutions, and prevented the government established by the Syrian opposition coalition from functioning inside its territories. It fired and arrested the staff of the opposition.
Up until this point everything went well for HTS. However it began to face problems after Turkey and Russia agreed to establish monitoring posts and watch towers as part of a deescalation area in northern Syria. Turkey and Russia deployed observers in September 2017.
Turkish intelligence presented HTS with two options: either Turkey could fight a war against HTS to allow the Turkish army to do its job in Idlib, or Turkey would commit not to intervene in local matters outside of the watch points it wanted to establish and HTS would allow Turkey access. HTS choose the second option.
In January, Russia and the Syrian regime launched a massive operation and seized a wide area in the southeastern countryside of Idlib. HTS withdrew in the face of the offensive and did nothing to prevent it. Russia and the regime seized Abu al-Duhur airbase from HTS on January 20. The local people alleged that there was a shared plan among Russia, Turkey and HTS and that the main goal of HTS was not to fight the regime but rather to establish an “Islamic emirate” in the area that it would be allowed to keep after withdrawing from the airbase.
HTS turned out to be more pragmatic than it appeared, aiming for a new type of Islamic governance, and it started actually to move away from the al-Qaida model and form a unique type of Islamic system. It sought to situate itself between al-Qaida’s brand and Salafism, making itself more hard-line than average Salafists but less hardline than al-Qaida. HTS then put distance between itself and al-Qaida, resulting in a group defecting from it and establishing a new group, but not fighting against HTS.
At this point public anger against HTS increased and clashes between HTS and local residents broke out in several places. They erupted after HTS took down the flag of the Syrian revolution in several towns and attacked people carrying the Syrian rebel flag.
The remaining members of Ahrar al-Sham and a group called Nur ed-Din al-Zinki united under the name of the Syrian Liberation Front (Jabhat Tahrir Souriya) fearing that HTS would attack them and become the only power in the field. They launched a massive attack on HTS and managed to take control of many villages, especially in Aleppo’s western countryside. The clashes continue to this day and HTS is trying to save its strongholds.
Ultimately the conflict can be described as one between Salafists and more hardline Salafists.
Faylaq al-Sham, a group supported by Turkey, has not intervened in the conflict yet due to its involvement with the Turkish Olive Branch operation in Afrin. If Olive Branch, which was launched in late January to drive the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Turkey views as terrorists, out of Afrin, and if those areas then fall under FSA and Turkish control then Aleppo’s north countryside will be connected to other FSA-held areas. This will create a major change in the balance of power in northern Syria and HTS will lose its advantage as the strongest group, and we might see its end very soon as more radical groups within the FSA unite against HTS.
The author is a Syrian journalist. This article was first published by the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis (MECRA).