In the past ten days, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS)– a radical group whose leaders are former IS and al Qaeda members – has dispatched its fighters from Idlib into the district of Afrin, moved into north capturing towns, border crossings, mostly without a fight. The areas that the HTS captured was under control of the Syrian Interim Government (SIG) and their armed forces the Syrian National Army (SNA), a pro-Turkish Syrian rebel alliance. This event became the first major exchange of territory between warring factions in two years.
The group has begun to retreat from the region due to Turkish pressure. Even though they are withdrawing, they still retain influence in the region through their allies within the Syrian National Army. These allies largely consist of Turkmen-dominated groups who sided with the HTS during the battle. They have been left in place to govern the areas.
The sudden surge of HTS forces in Northwestern Syria has shattered the fragile peace that had been present since mid-2020. Initially a reluctant governor, this radical group, which is recognised as a terrorist organisation by the UN, has been seeking to expand its grasp and solidify its status as Syria’s second largest rebel governor.
HTS’ move defied logic of international and regional diplomacy
After a decade of fighting both domestically and internationally—with Iran, Russia, Turkey, and the United States all playing major roles— things have settled into an uneasy calm with no political solution on the horizon. Although there are still skirmishes, aerial attacks and incidents of violence, the large-scale conflict has not restarted.
HTS’ seizure Afrin, which was mostly Kurdish until the Turkish incursion in 2018, coincided with two ongoing developments: President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he would meet with Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad, and Ankara increased its efforts to mediate between Moscow (Syrian regime’s main backer) and Kyiv. Though it would have been logical for Turkey to decrease its support of pro-Turkish rebels in Syria after these developments, the opposite occurred. The HTS, which is the main target of Russia and the regime, gained control beyond Afrin into surrounding areas.
The HTS’ victory became Afrin’s third exchange of hands since the beginning of the Syrian conflict in 2011. The historically Kurdish town, home to mountains known as the Kurdish Mountains, had strong support for the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) since the 1980s and 90s. Building up on the existing support, the PKK’s allies, the People’s Protection Forces (YPG), took control of the area from the earlier phases of the Syrian conflict and run the region until 2018.
In 2018, a Russian green-lighted attack saw Turkiye, with political support from Europe, taking control of Afrin from the YPG. The PKK called for resistance against Turkey in the form of urban fighting within Afrin city, however YPG decided and left the city with little fight.
HTS: From an armed group into hesitant governors
The HTS is the latest reincarnation of a group that was once operated as an expeditionary force dispatched to Syria by the Islamic State of Iraq. The organisation later severed ties with the IS and pledged allegiance to al Qaeda, becoming its official affiliate in SyriaAlthough the HTS was founded by individuals with ties to al Qaeda, the group has since distanced itself and now takes a more pragmatic approach adopting the Syrian uprising’s secular language and engaging with external stake holders such as Turkiye. Originally a reluctant governor, the HTS leadership started to adopt a rhetoric where they partly replaced their strategic focus on military struggle with running day-to-day affairs of people. This new modus operandi sees them working as the primary force behind the Syrian Salvation Government (SSG), which controls an estimated 2.6 million residents in Idlib, Northwest Syria. The SSG government is sustained mainly through economic ties to the outside world through Turkiye. The international aid flowing into the region is also significant. The Turkish military is the only reason that the Syrian regime, supported by Russia and Iran, has not attacked and probably destroyed the HTS-backed government. The HTS’ renewed focus on governance was one of the drivers behind the its desire to expand the territory under its control.
The Syrian National Army (SNA), the pro-Turkish Syrian rebel alliance, on the other hand, is, on paper, the armed forces of the Syrian Interim Government (SIG) that controls around 2,3 million Syrians. In reality, the SNA is not a unified force, but is instead composed of various factions that form different legions that do not necessarily follow the guidance of the SIG’s Defence Minister Salim Idriss. This lack of unity and infighting allows for chaos to reign within the over 8 thousand square km area under control of the SIG. However, at a deeper level of reality, both the SIG and the SNA are strategically controlled by Turkiye. Despite the infighting and chaos, the SIG administrations and the armed groups within the SNA operate strictly within the limits designated by Ankara.
The three outcomes of the HTS’ seizing Syria’s Afrin
The HTS’s victory in Afrin demonstrated that they are a force to be reckoned with even beyond Idlib. Against the SNA factions, the HTS didn’t fight alone but reportedly received backing by SNA groups such as Ahrar al-Sham, Sultan Suleyman Shah Brigade and Hamzah Divison. The HTS forces faced little resistance beyond some light skirmishes. With the reports that the HTS forces withdrawing from areas they had previously captured following to negotiations between SNA factions and Turkiye, their victory proved three things.
The HTS’s swift victory in Afrin has revealed the true nature of the Syrian National Army: that it is even weaker than generally thought, and will have no chance to survive even for a day without Turkish backing. Even though the opposing group had no air power and limited heavy weapons or advanced artillery, the SNA still collapsed. The Syrian National Army includes many fighters who have never battled the Syrian regime. The majority of them only put up a fight against the United States-backed Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces.
I compared governance performances of different groups in Syria are compared in a late-2017 field research study funded by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR). Many respondents interviewed during the research referred to groups that would later form parts of the SNA as ‘thieves’, rather than political groups. In fact, governance under different groups was found to be more respected and preferred in areas controlled by the SDF, the Islamic State and earlier incarnations of HTS. The current state of the SIG and their military force the SNA shows that despite Turkish backing and funding, they failed to grow into a resilient political or military force.
Secondly, the HTS takeover revealed that poor governance was a significant factor allowing for quick collapse of the SNA. Most Kurds in Afrin disdain the HTS both ideologically and politically; however, since 2018 Turkish incursions, some have stated they would prefer the HTS ran Afrin instead of SNA factions. The latter are known for their anti-Kurdish attitude and violence against Kurds as reported by UN and international human rights organizations. By contrast, the HTS holds more of Islamist rather than a nationalist outlook.
After it took complete control over the city, HTS communicated and assured citizens of all ethnic affiliations through a statement on Telegram. “Our focus and appreciation lies with the Arab and Kurdish people, or more specifically, the displaced.” The statement read, “We would like to extend a special mention to our Kurdish brothers; they are the original occupants of these areas. Thus, it is only right that we protect them and provide services to them. “
Lastly, the HTS takeover of Afrin demonstrated that neither the Syrian Interim Government (SIG), nor its parent organization the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, better known as Etilaf, are unlikely to have any role in Syria’s future.
Although the HTS-backed Syrian Salvation Government (SSG) and the SDF-backed Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) were not invited to any international platforms discussing a political solution to the Syrian Crisis, they would be forces that internal or external stakeholders would have to reckon with due the backing they secured from the public because of their relatively more reliable governance performance.
The Syrian Salvation Government and the Autonomous Administration of North East Syria have different governing styles. While the former is institutionally weak, with little structure in place; the ANES has a more developed bureaucracy with more sophisticated and wholistic governance structure.
The future looks bleak for the groups under Turkish control in Northern Syria. They are unable to establish themselves as a reliable political and military force, and they have poor governance practices. As Turkish and Syrian executives talk about a potential meeting, and Syria being only one part of the deepening complex relationship between Turkey and Russia where, the pro-Turkish Syrian groups will have very little agency to have a say on their own future.