While actions undertaken by external states are defining the trajectory of the conflict in many parts of Syria, it is the lack of any action or decision by external states that is defining the fate of Idlib. After six years of operations in Syria, during which it has behaved both pragmatically and ruthlessly, al-Nusra Front’s long-term strategic plan is beginning to enter its final stages. Having destroyed or subdued all of its potential rivals, the group now known as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham is exploiting its military dominance in Idlib governorate in order to forcefully guarantee the establishment of a civil administration body heavily under its control.
If it achieves sufficient buy-in for this initiative, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham will have won a significant victory for its project in Syria. This is an objective that Jabhat al-Nusra has long spoken about, as the necessary step that would precede the creation of an emirate. Though most mainstream Syrian opposition figures continue to resolutely reject the prospects for Hayat Tahrir al-Sham’s Idlib-wide administration, it is hard to ignore the likely inevitability of its introduction at some point in the future. After all, who in Idlib is willing or capable to step in and scupper it? And who abroad has an interest in preventing its formation, when its very creation would then represent the necessary grounds for intervention?
It is almost certainly impossible to roll-back Hayat Tahrir al-Sham’s gains altogether, but it is still possible to prevent the group from winning what would be its greatest victory. Despite al-Nusra’s long history of coordinating with Syria’s opposition on the battlefield, evolving geopolitical dynamics have forced the group’s successors (first Jabhat Fateh al-Sham and now, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham) to act in increasingly aggressive ways through 2016-2017, thereby eroding the trust won by the group in previous years. Today, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham is far from a popular actor within Syria’s mainstream opposition, but it is an actor whose sheer strength has frequently demanded subservience.
That Syria’s opposition was so openly willing to cooperate with al-Nusra for so long was a poisoned chalice that has arguably damaged the Syrian revolutionary cause more than any other factor. Over time, that history of cooperation meant that a critical mass of fighters simply refused to consider confronting al-Nusra or its successors. Today, more Syrians than ever stand in open opposition to Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, but they no longer have the capacity to push back against the group’s unequalled power. But this does not mean they do not want to. As has been said before, combating Al-Qaeda’s influence in Syria is not merely a military fight – it should be defined by a struggle to outcompete the group’s influence through the creation of more attractive and socially representative alternatives.
Hayat Tahrir al-Sham proponents have boasted recently that the group has acquired pledges of support for its civil administration project from more than 70 local councils across Idlib. However, what they have failed to reveal is that many of those councils proposed their support in exchange for Hayat Tahrir al-Sham agreeing to dissolve itself. Moreover, most of Idlib’s largest, elected local councils – in Idlib city, Saraqeb, Marat al-Numan and Jarjanaz – all refused to support Hayat Tahrir al-Sham’s project, while the opposition Interim Government, the ETILAF, the Free Syrian Army, Euphrates Shield and many other bodies and prominent individuals have similarly rejected it. Such widespread skepticism is unlikely to stop Hayat Tahrir al-Sham from pursuing its objective – Hayat Tahrir al-Sham’s attack on the Idlib city local council on August 28 underlined that clearly. However, this reality unquestionably underlines that any Hayat Tahrir al-Sham “success” would be far from popular.
Some influential Syrians who are personally concerned about Hayat Tahrir al-Sham’s intentions in Idlib, are nonetheless embracing the civil administration initiative with open arms. Why? As some of them have told me recently, they believe that a majority of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham members are not deserving of great concern, but that a minority of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham is indeed very dangerous. These Syrians tell me that therefore, the best way of constraining the behavior of the committed extremists is to engage with Hayat Tahrir al-Sham; to integrate Hayat Tahrir al-Sham into larger opposition bodies; and to empower civil initiatives that will depend on genuine popular support to succeed. This is precisely the same logic employed by many of the same people in their attempts to encourage al-Nusra to rebrand to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham in the Summer of 2016. It should be clear now that that logic failed – Jabhat Fateh al-Sham turned out to be a more confident and aggressive actor towards Syria’s opposition than al-Nusra before it.
Today, the immediate decision to be made is for Syria’s opposition: reject Hayat Tahrir al-Sham’s civil administration initiative, or risk total abandonment by the international community. Unite under a representative and credible political, civil and military leadership, or watch individual components of your revolution defect, surrender or join the extremist camp.
But it is also the civilized international community that now faces a choice: between protecting and bolstering mainstream opposition elements in northern Syria who genuinely represent their people, or leaving them to weaken, fade away and be replaced by extremists whose ultimate enemy is us, in London, Paris, or Washington.
Policymakers must begin to look beyond the surface-level reality and beyond the short-term. Nobody would challenge the assertion that Hayat Tahrir al-Sham is the dominant actor in Idlib today. But similarly, nobody should challenge the assertion that reversing that state of affairs is something achievable with jets and missiles. Should Idlib be abandoned to the fate bestowed upon it by the Assad regime, Russia and Iran, one thing will certainly result: popular support for Hayat Tahrir al-Sham will grow, not decline. Does it make sense to pursue a policy that strengthens the narratives of our terrorist enemies? Does any serious policymaker think that a coalition of Russia-Iran-Hezbollah-Assad will bring peace and stability to Idlib? Does anyone really believe that Syria’s opposition will not realize that an eventual campaign of Russian carpet bombing in Idlib would only have been possible if the ‘Friends of Syria’ had not chosen to close their eyes to it?
Terrorism is not something that can be defeated through weapons alone. If we are to have any chance of effectively challenging a group like Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, we must develop, protect and empower a superior counter-narrative and socio-political alternative to take its place. Our potential partners in such an endeavor are hardly strangers – our governments have supported them for six years. If we were to abandon them now, we only guarantee more death, destruction and instability, and sadly, a great deal more terrorism. Such an effort would take time, substantial resources and a not insignificant amount of risk, but that may well be a more favorable prospect than leaving Idlib to its current fate.
Charles Lister is Senior Fellow & Director of Counter-Terrorism Middle East Institute, Washington DC