Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (Arabic: هيئة تحرير الشام) “Organization for the Liberation of the Levant” or “Levant Liberation Committee“), commonly referred to as Tahrir al-Sham and abbreviated HTS, also known as al-Qaeda in Syria, is an active Salafist jihadist militant group involved in the Syrian Civil War. The group was formed on 28 January 2017 as a merger between Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly al-Nusra Front), the Ansar al-Din Front, Jaysh al-Sunna, Liwa al-Haqq, and the Nour al-Din al-Zenki Movement. After the announcement, additional groups and individuals joined. The merged group is currently led by Jabhat Fatah al-Sham and former Ahrar al-Sham leaders, although the High Command consists of leaders from other groups. Many groups and individuals defected from Ahrar al-Sham, representing their more conservative and Salafist elements. Currently, a number of analysts and media outlets still continue to refer to this group by its previous names, al-Nusra Front, or Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. The Ansar al-Din Front and Nour al-Din al-Zenki Movement have since split off from Tahrir al-Sham.
Despite the merger, Tahrir al-Sham has been accused of working as al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch on a covert level, and that many of the group’s senior figures, particularly Abu Jaber, held similarly extreme views. However, Tahrir al-Sham has officially denied being part of al-Qaeda and said in a statement that the group is “an independent entity and not an extension of previous organizations or factions”. Additionally, some factions such as Nour al-Din al-Zenki, which was part of the merger, were once supported by the US. Russia claims that Tahrir al-Sham shares al-Nusra Front’s goal of turning Syria into an Islamic emirate run by al-Qaeda.
Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham traces its beginnings to the outset of the Syrian civil war and has remained a dangerous opposition force throughout the duration of the conflict. In May 2018, the group was added to the State Department’s existing designation of its predecessor, the al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO). Today, HTS can be thought of as a relatively localized Syrian terrorist organization, which retains a Salafi-jihadist ideology despite its public split from al-Qaeda in 2017.
Jabhat al-Nusra, HTS’s precursor organization, was formed in Syria in 2011 as al-Qaeda’s affiliate within the opposition to the Assad regime. Nusra’s leader, Abu Mohammad al-Jolani, quickly established a capable organization, which secured its own donors in the Persian Gulf, collected revenue from taxation and asset seizures in the territories under its control, became adept at conducting insurgent attacks, and attracted a growing number of fighters. Jabhat al-Nusra maintained its ties to al-Qaeda even after al-Qaeda’s highly publicized split with the Islamic State, whose leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, had been instrumental in Jabhat al-Nusra’s initial establishment. In late July 2016, however, al-Jolani announced the dissolution of Jabhat al-Nusra and the establishment of a new group, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham. The group no longer had “external ties” with al-Qaeda, which many analysts suggested was an indication that while al-Jolani had formally severed its public relationship with al-Qaeda, the group would, in theory, continue to have a secret relationship with al-Qaeda and receive strategic and operational guidance. However, al-Jolani’s announcement was undertaken without consulting Ayman al-Zawahiri, the emir of al-Qaeda, and created significant tension within the organization.
HTS remains under the leadership of Abu Mohammad al-Jolani, but the group’s goals have shifted somewhat since announcing its independence from al-Qaeda. Though al-Jolani’s public statements do occasionally suggest broader aims (e.g., “With this spirit… we will not only reach Damascus, but, Allah permitting, Jerusalem will be awaiting our arrival”), the far-reaching “global caliphate” rhetoric favored by al-Qaeda is largely absent in HTS publications today. Instead, the group is locally focused, with its primary objective being the establishment of Islamic rule in Syria via “toppling the criminal [Assad] regime and expelling the Iranian militias.”
To this end, al-Jolani has promoted a multi-pronged strategy. The first stage, which HTS claimed to have completed in August 2018, was the removal of “Iranian militias and the militants from the towns of Fu’a and Kafriya, who were a threat to the entire region and an incentive for sectarian mobilization, and which the regime exploits to achieve its goals.” The second stage, which remains ongoing as of October 2018, is a campaign against the Islamic State and its allies in Syria, who al-Jolani has decried as “destabilizing.” The third stage is one of entrenchment, or “fortifying and defending” northern Syria in order to prevent the loss of further territory. Complementing this military strategy is a political one, in which HTS pursues unity amongst jihadist groups in Syria—referring to this unity as “one solid rank”—while maintaining a policy of “no negotiations” or reconciliation with the Assad regime.
Most of the international community considers Tahrir al-Sham to be a terrorist organisation. The US embassy in Syria confirmed on May 2017 that HTS had been designated a terrorist organization in March 2017. The United States Ambassador to Syria stated that “HTS is a merger and any group that merges into it becomes part of al-Qaeda’s Syrian network.” and “the core of HTS is Nusra, a designated terrorist organization. This designation applies regardless of what name it uses or what groups merge into it.”
Canada designated Tahrir al-Sham as a terrorist organization on 23 May 2018.
In August 2018, Turkey designated Tahrir al-Sham as a terrorist organization.
Moving forward, HTS’s future is uncertain. Turkey has pressured the group to dissolve and join a larger Turkish-backed opposition coalition, though HTS leaders have remarked that “matters relating to the organizational structure of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham are non-negotiable.” The group also faces an assault by the Syrian regime and its allies, including Russia, in Idlib. Finally, HTS has numerous competitors among the Syrian opposition, including from the National Liberation Front, which includes groups like Ahrar al-Sham, Jaysh al-Ahrar, and Suqour al-Sham.