Shades of Jihad in Syria
Shades of Jihad in Syria
Podcast / Middle East & North Africa 20+ minutes

Shades of Jihad in Syria

This week on Hold Your Fire! Richard Atwood talks to experts Dareen Khalifa and Jerome Drevon about ISIS in Syria after the death of its leader Abdullah Qardash, the precarious calm that prevails across the country and the evolution of al-Qaeda’s former affiliate in the north west, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.

On 3 February, U.S. President Joe Biden announced that American special forces had killed the leader of the Islamic State (ISIS), Abdullah Qardash, in a house where he was hiding out in Idlib province, in north west Syria. Idlib is held by another militant group, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a former al-Qaeda affiliate and supposedly a sworn enemy of ISIS. Qardash’s killing came just after ISIS’s largest attack in the country for years on a prison holding many ISIS prisoners in the north east, and a two-week long pitched battle between ISIS and the mostly Kurdish forces, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), that control that area. Other ISIS attacks over recent years in the north east and the desert in central Syria suggest that despite having lost the territory it controlled for some years, ISIS remains a resilient insurgency. Moreover, its enemies are largely antagonistic toward each other and new fighting among them could open more space for jihadists. 

This week on Hold Your Fire! Richard Atwood talks to Crisis Group experts Dareen Khalifa, Senior Analyst on Syria, and Jerome Drevon, Senior Analyst on Jihad and Modern Conflict, about ISIS in Syria, its global footprint and the evolution of HTS. They assess the strength of ISIS, the nature of its insurgency and Qardash’s role before his death. They look at links between ISIS in Syria and affiliates in other parts of the world, notably Africa, where more local militants now fight under ISIS’s banner. They talk about the challenges faced by the largely Kurdish SDF, which leads the ISIS fight in the north east, their relations with Arabs in areas they control, their enmity with Turkey and their reliance on U.S. protection. They also discuss HTS and its rule in Idlib, where Qardash was killed, drawing on frequent visits to that area. They discuss the state of play in Syria more broadly – the U.S.’s presence in the north east, the uneasy ceasefire brokered by Turkey and Russia in the north west and the precarious calm that prevails after years of brutal war. 

Click here to listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

For more on Syria, check out Crisis Group’s extensive analysis on our Syria country page.

Podcast Transcript

N.B. This transcript was generated using speech recognition software and human transcription. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting or if in doubt.

Clip 00:06
Operating on my orders, the United States military forces successfully removed a major terrorist threat to the world. Knowing that this terrorist had chosen to surround himself with families, including children, we made the choice to pursue a special forces raid at a much greater risk to our own people rather than targeting him with an airstrike.

Richard  00:27 
Hi, this is Hold Your Fire!, a podcast by the International Crisis Group. I’m Richard Atwood. On 3 February, U.S. President Joe Biden announced that U.S. special forces had killed the leader of the Islamic State (ISIS), Abdullah Qardash, in a house where he was hiding out in Idlib province, in north west Syria. Idlib is held by another militant group, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, a former al-Qaeda affiliate and supposedly a sworn enemy of ISIS.

Clip 00:51
Many in the Idlib region say they will never be able to live safely under Assad's government. Much of the area is controlled by Hay’at Tahir al-Sham (HTS). The group describes itself as an amalgamation of Syrian nationalist opposition groups. But HTS is also listed as a terrorist organisation by the U.S. and other countries because of its former ties to al-Qaeda.

Richard  01:16
Qardash’s killing came just after ISIS’s largest attack in Syria for years, on a prison holding many ISIS prisoners in Syria’s north east, and a two week-long pitched battle between ISIS and Kurdish forces, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), who control that area.

Clip 01:30
The so-called Islamic State has launched the largest-scale attack in Syria since it was defeated there in 2019. Their target: a prison holding Jihadists in the north east, and the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces say they've repelled the attackers and recaptured all or most of the inmates who escaped in the chaos.

Richard  01:51
So what should we make of ISIS and the counter-ISIS campaign after Qardash’s killing and the attacks on the SDF-held prison? What about the relationship between the ISIS core in Syria and affiliates in other parts of the world? And how should we understand Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham’s rule in Idlib and the aspirations of its leader, Abu Mohammad al-Jolani? To talk about all this, I’m very happy to welcome on Dareen Khalifa, Crisis Group’s Syria expert, and Jerome Drevon, who’s our expert on Islamist militancy across the world. Dareen, Jerome, welcome on.

Jerome  02:21
Thank you, Richard.

Dareen  02:22
Thank you so much, Richard, for having us.

Richard  02:25
So, why don't we start then. As we just heard, a couple of things have happened recently. First, there was the jailbreak in Hasakah in north east Syria, with this sort of protracted ISIS attack on the jail. And then the ISIS leader, Abdullah Qardash, was killed in the north west in Idlib. What are these things broadly speaking? What do they tell us about what ISIS is now and the danger it poses?

Dareen  02:52
I think both incidents are more telling of the limitations and shortcomings of the counter-ISIS forces than they are of the ISIS capabilities. For example, let's take the Ghwaryan attack, the prison attack. What happened with the January 22 attack on the prison was incredibly alarming, yet not at all surprising. Prison breaks have always been a major part of ISIS strategy, and they've been very vocal about it in their media. Before the attack, there were several less publicised ISIS foil plots in the prison. What we have in north east Syria is that the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, or the SDF, currently run over 27 detention facilities holding tens of thousands of ISIS fighters, their family members, and often even minors. To their credit, or in their defence, the SDF have never really overstated their ability to guard these prisons and have always mentioned privately, and publicly, that they're stretched thin, and that they're not going to be able to guard these facilities forever. Many of these detention centres are basically just converted schools, hospitals and warehouses that are just not meant or designed to hold prisoners indefinitely. The January attack itself in the events that followed were a glaring reminder that these facilities are a growing flashpoint. ISIS cells basically were able to bribe the prison guards and smuggled in phones to coordinate the attack with inmates inside. They then drove two car bombs to the prison and set them off at the main gate. While the inmates didn't arrive at the same time, they overpowered their guards and they managed to break out and spread out in nearby neighbourhoods. Simultaneously, ISIS activated its cells in Raqqa, and they started shooting at SDF checkpoints and warning people to stay in their homes. The fight between SDF and ISIS lasted for over two weeks. Over 200 SDF fighters were killed. But just imagine the fact that this prison that holds thousands of ISIS fighters, some of the most dangerous people, was guarded by unarmed members of the SDF self-defence units, which is basically a volunteer force of mostly eighteen-year-olds who received an average of 45 days of training. That undertrained and underequipped force was, of course, quickly overrun by ISIS, and ISIS was able to kill 65 of them, and they took twenty other captives. And the fact that ISIS cells were able to drive through multiple SDF checkpoints with two car bombs and reach that prison that is located in a populated area only a few kilometres away from a U.S. base really underscores the shortcomings of the existing security mechanisms in the area. But I think it's important not to exaggerate ISIS capabilities. The group is at an overall low point. And the sustained U.S. presence in Syria, that helped with the killing of Qardash, of course, is keeping a lid on the group. But it's also important to remember that ISIS has been at even lower points previously in earlier incarnations in Iraq, between 2008 and 2011. But what ISIS has shown over the years is that they have a resilient ability to stay in the game when they're weakened, and feed off their enemies’ weaknesses. So that's why I say that these two incidents you highlighted, Richard, show that the shortcomings that need to be addressed with the counter-ISIS forces more than the two of the ISIS strength itself.

Richard  06:23
Do we have a sense of how many of those ISIS fighters that were in that prison have actually escaped?

Dareen  06:33
So that's a really good question. And I think that was a major security vulnerability as well that the SDF was not able and has not been able to give consistent numbers on who managed to escape and who was captured, and who actually died on the ISIS side. And I do think that's because they don't have solid databases of the ISIS prisoners and of their families, which is a huge problem. They themselves acknowledge that it is a problem. So the numbers that were given were pretty much all over the place.

Richard  07:06
So in reality, the SDF don't actually know who's in the jails, or they know but they don't have the information recorded in a credible way.

Dareen  07:14
They know roughly, but they don't have archives, they don't have solid databases. And it's important to also remember that it's a paramilitary force, it's not a state, it doesn't have the capabilities of a state. It's also a nascent force, only a few years old, so they definitely don't have solid information on the camps, for instance, that have large numbers of women and children. With the detention facilities, it depends on which facility but for some of the bigger ones, they don't have concrete numbers of who's inside.

Richard  07:50
So let's back up a little bit. And I mean it was 2017 really, that ISIS lost most of the territory it controlled during its heyday. But then the last town it lost was the Syrian town of Baghouz, near the Iraqi border, and that was March 2019. What's happened since then? Because although the jailbreak got a lot of attention and was very prominent, as you say, there were signs that ISIS, you know, was not making a comeback but was still kind of around, was still resilient. There have been signs for the last couple of years. So, how has ISIS survived? And where are most of its fighters at the moment?

Dareen  08:29
So you're absolutely right, ISIS lost its effective territorial control in March 2019. But once they started losing territorial control, they quickly shifted their strategy from this dual civil military governing one to a more localised insurgency where ISIS leaders appear to just provide broad strategic guidance to the group's affiliates and sympathisers, through online messaging, rather than day-to-day command.

Richard  08:53
And, sorry Dareen, when you're talking about the affiliates, you're talking about units in Syria and Iraq itself?

Dareen  09:00
Correct. Yes, I'm talking about the Syrian and Iraqi ISIS contingent basically. Since they lost historic control, the once-controlled land has basically fallen under the control of several parties. So you have the Iraqi military and the Popular Mobilisation Forces or Hashd al-Sha’bi in Iraq, you have the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces backed by the U.S. in north east Syria, you have Turkey and its allies in Aleppo, the Islamist group Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham in Idlib, and you also have Russia, the Syrian regime and Iran in central Syria. So you have four zones of influence in Syria, and ISIS has been able to maintain communication and transit networks across these regions, and has been also able to tailor its insurgency to specific roles in each one of these places. For example, it uses central Syria as its main training hub for new recruits and a base for its operations. It uses the north east as a financial and logistical hub, and uses northern and north-western Syria more as a transit point and hideout for mid- and senior-level commanders who can enjoy a degree of anonymity among the large number of displaced communities there. But I think the two key things that allowed ISIS to maintain its insurgency across Syria despite its territorial defeat, and despite the military pressure put on it, is the fact that some of these counter-ISIS forces are quite antagonistic to each other and have at times prioritised the fight against each other over the fight against ISIS. And also that the internal artificial borders between these various areas of control are very porous and easily exploited by ISIS cells, who are able to move personnel equipment and even often livestock between different places very easily, whenever they see an opportunity or whenever they face pressure in one area basically.

Richard  10:59
And so let's focus on Syria for now. Most of the fighting itself, or the sort of violence that involves ISIS has taken place in the north east, which we’ll come to, in the Kurdish-held areas. And in the desert, the Badia, in central Syria, where it seems as though units of ISIS operate, how have they put their tentacles in or remained a presence in that area of central Syria?

Dareen  11:25
Right, so central Syria is the area also known as the Badia, and is basically this remote desert in a mountain region that stretches from the eastern Homs to the Euphrates, and from Iraq to southern Aleppo, and it encompasses much of Homs, Hama, southern Raqqa and western areas, so it's a large swathe of territory. And many have really overlooked the significance of this area, partly because there's very limited access there. The global coalition to fight ISIS is not present on the ground. The Syrian regime, Russia and Iran have been fighting an ISIS insurgency there for a bit over four years now, but have only found some success in 2021. What happened really with the Badia is that once the SDF started capturing territory in the north east, ISIS quickly made central Syria their base for their insurgency. They started storing weapons and supplies there, they set up training camps, and established safe houses that they basically retreat to when under pressure on other fronts. They were able to feed off the local population and made a lot of money extorting from regime-affiliated businessmen who were transferring oil from eastern Syria to Damascus via this area. It seems to me that the current strategic goal in central Syria today is to defend its supply lines and training camps, by preventing regime forces from establishing any firm control over the region. For years, the Syrian regime has really prioritised the fight against the opposition over the fight against ISIS. So they were only sending a mix of militias, and no army units, to fight ISIS in the Badia without providing them with air cover. So these soldiers were mostly ambushed and killed by ISIS there. It wasn't until late 2020 and early 2021 that the regime finally began sending significant reinforcements and coupled with air power to central Syria to fight ISIS. I think the turning point for the regime really came in late 2020, when ISIS conducted a major operation that killed over 30 regime soldiers. And it was only then that Damascus started sending significant troops to central Syria, I think they launched the biggest counter-ISIS operation they have launched since 2017. This really led to a significant drop in ISIS attacks in central Syria throughout 2021. But it also led to an increased flow of fighters moving into north east Syria. So far, there's a general sense of quiet. Of course, it's very precarious, and that might change if there's any significant changes in the regime’s military postures. For instance, if the regime decides to prioritise a renewed offensive on Idlib, for instance, that could really shift the balance of power in central Syria.

Richard  14:14
So then let's come to the north east. If that's sort of ISIS in the desert under pressure from the regime for now, at least, you know, and as you say, that could change, but for now, regime forces are taking seriously the need to contain ISIS in the desert. So if ISIS is under pressure there, what does that mean for its operations in the Kurdish-held areas in the north east, so, you know, some of its former heartlands: Raqqa, Deir ez-Zor, or some of these areas up by the Iraqi border.

Dareen  14:46
Right, so the north east and central Syria are very much intertwined. And what happens in one of these theatres really has a direct impact on the other. The north east in the last couple of years has become a central pillar for the ISIS strategy. It's a lucrative hub in its rich natural resources, including oil and gas. It has deep economic links with the rest of Syria and with Iraq. And there, ISIS generally relies on three sources of funding, basically, they have: protection money (racketeering, basically); they impose taxation on people; and there's a lot of smuggling going on between the various parts of Syria and between the north east and Iran. This basically allows them to continue to fund their operations in the north east and elsewhere. It allows them to recruit and allows them to pay bribes to get fighters in their families out of detention facilities and often out of Syria altogether. The SDF basically today controls most of the former ISIS strongholds east of the Euphrates. This includes Hasakah, Deir ez-Zor, Raqqa, Kobani, and they've been really an indispensable partner to the International Coalition. They've achieved major strides in the battles against ISIS. Yet they are struggling to contain the growing ISIS insurgency or the growing ISIS presence in the area. What we've seen is that ISIS has been pursuing a local insurgency, it's been keeping this drumbeat of low-level violence, mainly in the Arab-majority areas and mostly targeting Arabs working or collaborating with the SDF. They do this through roadside bombs, drive-by shootings and targeted assassinations. And, you know, a number of factors are really undermining the SDF’s ability to contain the ISIS insurgency there. And perhaps the biggest of these challenges is this lingering fear that the U.S. may abruptly end its military protection over the air and, by extension, its support to the SDF’s counter-ISIS efforts. And while the Biden administration has signalled that they're staying, there just remains this residual trauma of Trump’s withdrawal announcement that ended with a partial retreat of U.S. forces. In addition, of course, to Biden's messy withdrawal from Afghanistan. So, the perception that the U.S. is not there for the long haul has deterred many locals from cooperating with the SDF’s counter-ISIS efforts, this has significantly hindered the SDF’s ability to build intelligence networks, in communities, in majority-Arab areas, and has been really impacting their ability to contain the insurgency altogether there.

Richard  17:28
Just sort of to recap, the Trump threat to pull out that you mentioned: this was when President Trump abruptly announced that he would pull all U.S. forces out of north east Syria. That was back in 2019. And then, in reality, it seemed that some of his military commanders sort of walked him back. And then he kind of reversed that decision. But that was the sort of shock that you've talked about and, Dareen, we should come back to some of the dilemmas that the U.S. presence poses for the SDF, but in addition to that, aren't there are also challenges that the SDF faces in its relations with, as you say, particularly the majority-Arab areas? There are problems that aren't related to the U.S. presence and people's suspicions that it's not going to be there forever?

Dareen  18:12
No, absolutely. I think the SDF has a major trust issue with the predominantly Arab population. I mean, the SDF just doesn’t trust the population. They think many of them have joined ISIS. So they don't trust their ideology or their allegiances. And the majority Arab population think that the SDF is just marginalising them from decision-making, and that they're quite exclusive in their reliance on people who are Kurds, whom they trust. And they also think that the SDF is just too cosy with the Syrian regime in Damascus. And because they have maintained these economic linkages with Damascus, and they've also had, or have, political conversations with Damascus. So the perception among many Arabs is that the SDF might end up selling them out to the Syrian regime in return for a quid pro quo to protect Kurdish areas, for instance. So, I don't think that fear is grounded, but it's very much the perception in the north east, and then if everyone believes it, it really does undermine the trust between between the population and the SDF, and again, this lack of trust has hindered their ability to build solid intelligence networks and to get locals to buy into their counter-ISIS mission.

Richard  19:35
So I mean, one thing is poor relations or distrust among the local, particularly Arab, population and the SDF, and another thing is the local Arab populations’ distrust of the regime and fear that the SDF might sell them out to the regime. But that doesn't necessarily presumably lead to support for ISIS? Presumably the trauma of what ISIS did when it held Raqqa or Deir ez-Zor or other areas, that's still a sort of fresh memory.

Dareen  20:07
No, you're absolutely right. And I should have clarified that I don't necessarily mean that people are supportive of ISIS, but they're not supportive of the SDF’s efforts. So they don't want to be seen or perceived as supporting the SDF. So, for instance, if you're living in the countryside of Deir ez-Zor, and you know that there's this ISIS member or ISIS element that is living in a house nearby or renting a house nearby, you have two choices: either to stay quiet, or to inform the SDF. So if you don't trust that the SDF really has your back, that it is going to offer you the protection you need, you won't report it, you'll fear for your life. And that's exactly what's happening.

Richard  20:53
Dareen, on the dilemma that the Kurds face, and which obviously has big implications for the fight against ISIS – I mean, you've met several times SDF leader Mazloum Kobani and other SDF commanders, so I’m interested to know how you think they understand this. It’s one thing to say that they're perceived as being too cosy to the regime. But the SDF are in a pretty tricky spot right? They are entirely reliant on U.S. protection. When ISIS was seen as this big threat, I mean, they could rely on enormous support, but presumably they realise that is unlikely to last forever. At the same time, they have very difficult relations with Turkey, because Turkey perceives that the YPG, which is part of the SDF, is basically part of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (the PKK), the Turkish insurgency. Now, U.S. President Joe Biden has said that he has no intention of pulling troops out of Syria for now. But clearly the U.S. presence, on which Kurds rely for protection, hinges on U.S. politics in Washington. So if you think that the SDF are, what, not only guarding the jails, where you have thousands of former ISIS fighters, and even larger numbers of women and children that were associated with ISIS, but also it’s keeping ISIS at bay in those areas of Syria’s north east where it was so dominant a few years ago, how does the SDF view that dilemma? How are they hedging – if they are hedging – against the U.S. not being there forever? And how are they thinking about their own sort of survival over the longer term?

Dareen  22:35
Well, as you said, Richard, I think they recognise the very difficult conundrum they're in. They are surrounded, as you've mentioned correctly, the SDF is in an ongoing conflict with the Turkish state. The backbone of the SDF, so that is the YPG or the YPJ, which is the Syrian affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party group, designated by Turkey as a terrorist organisation, and a group that has been entangled in war with the Turkish state for decades. Turkey sees the SDF, basically, as an extension of the PKK and sees its control over a large swathe of territory and resources south of its borders as a national security threat. And as such, they've made several military moves against the group in Syria. And this ongoing risk of further Turkish military moves is looming constantly on the north east, both on SDF but also the local population there, so it's an ongoing threat. It's something that we've also written extensively, saying: this is the main conundrum in the north east, the Turkish-SDF dynamics. And that's the main problem that needs to be resolved. There needs to be political and diplomatic efforts and back-channelling being done by the U.S. and by other Western countries in order to try to find a détente that would spare the area further conflicts and that would spare, honestly, the SDF a war that is going to obliterate them. But it's also going to derail the counter-ISIS efforts and probably reverse a lot of the gains that have been achieved throughout the last few years. Many have thought that the SDF looks at Damascus as a way out of that dilemma. Perhaps that was the case at some point within some of the SDF’s leadership who thought, you know, “maybe we can strike a deal with Damascus” and that would allow for partial or nominal return of the Syrian state to the north east, and that would offer some kind of protection against a Turkish incursion. I think increasingly the SDF leadership does not think that's the case. I think they're right to think that. Damascus doesn't really budge, and doesn't compromise much in their negotiation. So if they do strike a deal with the SDF, it'll be a full surrender deal. But more importantly, I don't think that will stop Turkey at all. The way Ankara sees this is that if there is a deal between the SDF and Damascus (a deal that will protect the SDF), they see it more like a return to the 1990s situation where the Syrian regime was protecting the PKK’s operations in Syria. So they don't think that's going to address their national security concerns. On the contrary, they think it will just exacerbate it.

Richard  25:15
And so then if the regime isn't an answer, we've spoken about this and written about this before, presumably the answer has to lie somehow in the SDF severing its ties or convincing Turkey that it's disassociated from the PKK. And yet, there's been zero progress towards doing that. If anything, they're more deeply interwoven now than they were a few years ago.

Dareen  25:38
Correct. I think the SDF has very tough choices. But what they don't have is the ability to basically continue to control a quarter of Syria and continue to have links and connections to the PKK. While the PKK continues its insurgency in Turkey, I think they're going to have to give up one of these things. And I think it's incredibly difficult to sever ties between the YPG and the PKK. But at the end of the day, finding a way to end the insurgency in Turkey, or put a halt on the insurgency in Turkey might be very difficult and the atmosphere might not be conducive in Ankara for it at the moment. But it's not impossible, and there were peace talks in the past between them. And I think no matter who you talk to in Ankara, even the more hardline elements on this will tell you that there's no military solution. And there ultimately needs to be a political process of some sort. But again, it's very difficult and the time might not be right for it right now. But I think it's important for the U.S. and others who are involved with the YPG to continue to lay the groundwork for that.

Richard  26:47
And sort of what you're describing then is that the U.S. presence, which isn’t very big in north east Syria, it's not that it's crucial for fighting ISIS in itself (although clearly the support it gives to the SDF definitely helps), but it is crucial to stop an escalation among ISIS’s enemies. So whether that's between Kurds and Turkey, whether it's between the Kurds and the regime, or some sort of free-for-all in the north east that ISIS would almost certainly profit from. So it’s sort of another case where it’s harder for the U.S. to pull out than it is to deploy forces?

Dareen  27:21
Absolutely. The U.S. is effectively deterring a violent free-for-all in the north east. So, they are not on the front lines fighting ISIS. They never have been. They've only been offering air protection for the SDF. So they've been offering support, the SDF has done all the heavy lifting on the ground. They've lost a lot of their fighters in the fight against ISIS and they are the ones currently governing the north east. So the U.S. presence there is a light footprint, but it has rewards in terms of keeping the area protected. And in terms of keeping the lid on ISIS insurgency there as well.

Jerome  28:01
If I may add something about this. If we look at the pattern of violence of ISIS, as Dareen mentioned earlier, we have a growing insurgency. It's been represented by what happened with the prison break, but we should still be mindful about what ISIS is doing and about its potential at the moment. We are not in the early 2010s, when ISIS similarly was doing jailbreaks in Iraq, and then managed to take over large parts of territory. At the moment, it's not possible. And that’s specifically because of the U.S. presence. At the moment ISIS is not trying to rebuild its state, it knows that the U.S. presence, even though it's quite limited in numbers, is actually a major impediment to them. So what they're trying to do is to continue to free prisoners, continue to structure its networks to survive, to expand, to destabilise the region. But in the current circumstances, they can’t take over territory, and the most clear evidence was what happened when they try to take over the prison, they control  some neighbourhoods for two weeks afterwards, but then you had very quickly a military intervention supported by Western military troops, including American and British special forces. But if the situation changes regionally or internationally with the U.S. involvement, things could transform very quickly on the ground.

Richard  29:26
And Jerome: Dareen has talked about what ISIS is doing in the Badia and then also in the north east, where units are operating very locally. Is this a sort of centrally-directed ISIS strategy? I mean, how much is that even feasible, if the last leader was killed hiding in a house in Idlib, quite far from where these groups are operating? I mean, how much should we see this as a sort of one, coherent strategy of ISIS in Syria? And how much are a lot of different groups remnants of what was ISIS operating with a large degree of autonomy?

Jerome  30:06
I think we really have to differentiate what you can do as a group, when you're controlling a large part of the territory, and when you're not. When you're controlling a large part of the territory, you can actually be very centralised, the way ISIS was. You can have ministries, you can have regulations, you can impose consistent laws and impose them throughout the territory. That's possible. And you can also very easily prepare attacks abroad, because you can train people in public. You're not trying to survive. And so you have more time and resources to actually plan the things, especially because you can attract foreign fighters, and so on, that are more efficient, if they come back to their own countries to launch attacks. Now, we are in a very different situation. ISIS inside Syria is not controlling territory. And so  you have very broad strategic guidance. But then, as a leader, you don't need to actually have a grand control over every single armed operation, because those cells, they know what they're doing. So they can get that money locally. They can train, they can recruit, and so on. You don't actually even need to control that in detail. And so what we got from our interlocutors, for example, about the prison break is quite representative. It seems that Qardash, the caliph at the time, actually agreed about the principle of the operation. But then he agreed about the principle, and he probably coordinated with his commanders through exchange of letters, but that doesn't give him control of other operational details, like when exactly it happens, how many soldiers you have, how much military equipment, etc. That's very much delegated to people on the ground, who are actually more able to organise that in detail. So you can have this centralisation of the strategic decisions, while the operation is very much decentralised, because in the current circumstances, you don't even require to have something more than that.

Richard  31:58
And the guys that he's communicating with – the commanders on the ground – these are the same people that were fighting with ISIS when it captured big chunks of Syria and Iraq or these are new recruits and it's a movement that's constantly regenerating?

Jerome  32:12
Mostly the commanders are people who have been involved in the group for quite a long time. So there are people who trust one another, who know one another. But then you can have a commander, a veteran on the ground in Deir ez-Zor, and others, but then he can recruit locally, and use those local recruits to participate in the operation.

Richard  32:31
And mostly we're talking about Syrians and Iraqis.

Jerome  32:35
Yes, because you don't really have foreigners anymore in the area. And that's actually, that's also not possible during the current circumstances. Because when you're becoming more local again, Iraqis and Syrians can very much mix with the local population. It's much harder if you are a foreigner. So the foreigners are either jailed, or many of them have simply escaped from the country.

Richard  33:01
And the command or the control that you talk about, even if it's broad brush, that Qardash (before he was killed) enjoyed, that presumably the current leader enjoys in a similar way, over commanders in Syria – I mean, that also applies in Iraq? I mean, we should still see it as one cross-border insurgency.

Jerome  33:15
Yes, exactly. According to our interlocutors, some armed attacks are continuing in some parts of Iraq, for example around Kirkuk. ISIS regularly claims limited attacks against local security forces, which is something that’s at a very, very low scale because the ability of the group to actually launch armed attacks in Iraq is much lower than in Syria, because there is not as much space simply for the group to expand there.

Richard  33:45
So Jerome what we’re talking about is a group that is very rooted in parts of Syria, parts of Iraq. And yet you have a lot of people talking about ISIS’s expansion in Africa, for example, or the local ISIS affiliate in Khorasan province in Afghanistan, where different militant groups in essence pledge allegiance to ISIS’s leader. How does that sort of global story fit with what, from what you’ve described, is basically a sort of underground, resilient but not very potent, and entirely locally focused insurgency in the Levant?

Jerome  34:25
Actually, what you see is that the localism that we find in those places in Syria, you see it elsewhere in Africa. For example, we have witnessed the growth of an ISIS-affiliated network in central and east Africa. So we speak about eastern DRC, we speak about northern Mozambique and so on. So there have been people who have claimed to belong to the group and ISIS has recognised them as such, as an affiliate. And so we've travelled to the region, and we've been given private documentation that was retrieved from an operational cell that belonged to ISIS, and that was trying to plan IEDs in the region. And what I found striking when we're looking at this information–

Richard  35:10
And that’s the group, the ADF – the Allied Democratic Forces, a former Ugandan rebel group that now operates in the eastern DRC, that we actually talked about on the podcast last week.

Jerome  35:21
Yes, exactly. They were planning to launch armed attacks in Kigali. So the cell was dismantled, but we got access to the data from the laptop of the cell. And when you look at the laptops, you see that in terms of the videos, the songs, the frames of references, etc., everything is very local, or at best regional, to the Swahili region. We have people who sing in their local languages, whose reference and immediate objective is to take over the region. And so they identify with the Islamic State as a broader set of principles. But for them, it's not even very clear what it means ideologically, there is not necessarily an ideological coherence. When you look at their data, they're mixing things from the Taliban, from al-Qaeda, from ISIS, even from Hamas. For them, they don't really understand those differences between these groups, because they just refer to them as a general set of principles like: “We want an Islamic state locally”. And where ISIS has been successful is that they can tell them: “Look, your solution is to create your local Islamic state”. And that very much resonates with local grievances. What are some of these radicalised militants’ immediate objectives, so they can just refer to ISIS as a set of references, as a pattern to reproduce locally in terms of how you structure your Islamic state. But in practice, whatever remains of ISIS-central does not control what happens on the ground.

Richard  36:58
So, again, staying with the ADF, does that mean there's communication between, or there would have been communication between, Qardash himself, the ISIS leader holed up somewhere in north west Syria, and commanders on the ground in the eastern DRC? Or is it much looser than that?

Jerome  37:16
I think it's a bit in between. What you have with those local affiliates – whether it is the ADF in the eastern DRC, or the group called Shabaab in northern Mozambique, which is not the Somali Shabaab but the Shabaab that's affiliated to ISIS – they do centralise some of their communications. So if there are non-specific armed attacks, they do send it to some centralised infrastructures that publicise it in the weekly publication of ISIS, but then it seems to us, from the documentation that we had access to, that the type of coordination that you have between different affiliates is internal within Africa. So finally, we got documents showing that the Shabaab group in northern Mozambique that’s affiliated to ISIS was reporting to ISIS in northern Somalia. They were telling them: “These are our capabilities, the number of weapons that we have, number of militants, and so on, and those are the attacks that we are organising”. So there is not a command and control but they are somehow trying to report what they are doing. And so then we can assume that there could be some more communication from ISIS in Somalia to some central command, but it's very loose, and it's not really institutionalised.

Richard  38:32
And so what you're describing – and this is kind of a bit of a parody of the debate – but broadly speaking, you have a view where ISIS is kind of centrally directed, that it's part of a plan directed by ISIS leaders to build a global presence. You know, that view on the one hand against the other view, which is, you know, that these are largely just local insurgencies. They call themselves ISIS, but that actually doesn't mean very much. But what you're describing is something in between. That, predominantly, groups are local, they're rooted in local dynamics. Mostly, the people fighting in them are local. They're explained by local politics much more than they are by global trends. But it's also not completely irrelevant, their ISIS connection? I mean, it does mean something?

Jerome  39:15
Exactly. There is some exchange of information, they are trying to replicate similar models, and to implement it in their own context. So I very much fit it into the middle: it’s neither. There is some type of connection. In Africa, it seems it’s not really very advanced, very developed, very institutionalised, because at the same time to what extent, if you're Qardash in Idlib, to what extent can you really impose your decisions over north east Nigeria, or over the eastern DRC and so on? But you can provide general guidance. And then there can be some commanders with additional information telling you how to orchestrate this or that military operation. But we have to be mindful when we just focus on those local affiliates’ ideologies, in thinking that it's really all consistent and coherent. I think for most of them, it's really a set of general principles, like we identify with the idea of reviving the caliphate worldwide, it's an appealing idea. That doesn't mean that they really know what ISIS stands for in detail, the intricacies of its theology. That usually does not happen because they are fighting for more immediate and local objectives.

Richard  40:32
And so then, if we sort of come back to the ISIS core in Syria. From what you’ve both described, it seems that if things sort of carry on as they are, if this sort of relative calm among ISIS’s enemies – the regime, the SDF, Turkey – holds, then ISIS is unlikely to grow much in strength. But what could lead to a change would be either the regime and its allies sort of shifting resources away from central Syria, or alternatively the U.S. changing policy, rethinking its presence in the north east. I mean, that seems to be the only way that ISIS could make a comeback to anything like the strength that it had some years ago? Is that right?

Dareen  41:11
Yes. Well, I would say there's a number of things that could happen that would really shake the current stalemate in Syria. The U.S. pulling out is definitely one of them, but also: renewed Turkish offensives on the north east, fighting between (we're talking about potential fighting) between Turkey and the SDF, renewed regime offences on Idlib (for instance, that would create chaos in Idlib and change the Russian regime military posture in central Syria), a major economic collapse in the country, a collapse in SDF civil and military institutions. There's a wide array of potential scenarios that could really create enough chaos that could be exploited by ISIS. If and when that happens.

Richard  41:56
And so let's talk then about the north west, where Qardash was killed. As we heard up top, it’s an area controlled by Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, or HTS, a former al-Qaeda affiliate that broke with the global movement over the past few years. It’s now sort of focused on governing Idlib. And there’s been this ceasefire since early 2020 between rebels in that area and the regime and its allies. Turkey has deployed troops to deter a regime offensive. Dareen, you were there shortly after Qardash’s killing and you visited the site there. I mean, can you tell us a little bit about where he was killed and what he was doing?

Dareen  42:34
So in early February, the U.S. raided a house in a small town in north west Syria called Atma. They killed Qardash, who's an Iraqi National also known as Abu Ibrahim al-Qurayshi. He became leader in 2019 when Baghdadi was killed and, as you mentioned Richard, we managed to visit the area right after. Just going there and speaking to his neighbours and to the landlord of the house where Qardash was killed, it really helped me understand how such a high-profile designated terrorist could live under the radar in such a place. So we drove to the house of Qardash and his family, and also his aid, the guy that the U.S. referred to as his lieutenant. The house is basically located in the suburbs outside the town of Atma. It is very close to two big IDP camps hosting more than 80,000 displaced Syrians from all over the country. The house itself that Qardash lived in had so many tenants, the landlord put a number on at around 50 in the two years prior to his arrival in early 2021. This large number of displaced people in the area just simply doesn't allow for cohesive communities. People simply don't know each other. Houses are unregistered and most tenants either don't have IDs or have forged ones that they use to rent out flats for a few months before they move to a different spot. So this ongoing movement is really happening on a daily basis. And, unfortunately, that hasn't stopped with the ceasefire. The UN estimates that despite the ceasefire, there are 30,000 people displaced monthly in Idlib because of the small – relatively small – Russian regime bombardment on the front lines. So it's a very transient IDP community, people don't know each other. We've heard conflicting stories about what happened but people asserted that Qardash did not blow himself up as the U.S. claimed. They showed us photos of his body that was found completely intact the next day and was buried. There was also a lot of frustration and fear among the people I spoke to. Fear that such a notorious figure was living in close proximity to them and that the area would be tainted for it. But also there was frustration that the Coalition was very quick to announce the lack of casualties. People woke up seeing bodies of at least one child and a woman, without being given an explanation as to what had happened. We also spoke to the children of Qardash’s lieutenant or his aide, who survived the raid. I mean, the kids were incredibly traumatised. The little boy described what happened to us as if it was a movie he watched. You know, these kids really have nowhere to go. They're victims of a crime committed by their parents, and they will be stigmatised for life for it. And of course, they're just not alone. There are tens of thousands of Syrian Iraqi children of ISIS members who are just facing the same fate.

Richard  45:46
And over the last few years, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, the militant group that controls the north west, it’s publicised a lot the fact that it's kind of cracked down on ISIS cells. It has a long and complicated relationship with ISIS, but had been fighting ISIS for some time. How could Qardash be sort of operating under the nose of HTS, of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, in an area that it normally controls.

Dareen  46:17
So, I mean, the U.S. killing of not one but two ISIS leaders in Idlib is certainly not a good look for HTS. It raises questions about the group's ability to prevent Idlib from becoming a staging ground for transnational jihadists. That said, I think it's a bit of a stretch for anyone to assume that HTS might have known about his presence. As you mentioned, it's important to know that – and as we've mentioned before also – these internal artificial borders between the various areas of control in theory are so porous, and ISIS constantly moves people and equipment across them. So it's highly likely that both ISIS leaders probably went through different parts of Syria before landing in Idlib, including the north east itself, where the U.S. and the Global Coalition is present. And also the fact that HTS has been in full blown war with ISIS since 2014. And this intra-jihadist fighting between HTS and ISIS really left hundreds killed on both sides here. This bloody history between HTS and ISIS is really reflected in their counter-ISIS strategy. They have been working systematically to thwart ISIS attempts to build covert networks in Idlib. And their counter-ISIS raids have really driven the group underground and significantly degraded their capabilities in Idlib. So they probably didn't know that Qardash was there. And if they did, they would have likely raced to be the first to capture the guy. But because it's a large IDP community – and to put numbers on it, there are over 3.5 million people living in Idlib, two million of which are displaced Syrians from different parts of Syria, and 70 per cent of that number are living in IDP camps. So it's something that is very hard for one party to keep a grip on. It's a major security vulnerability they have.

Jerome  48:15
And I would actually add something. We have to differentiate two things. First, you have Qardash and his lieutenant, and then you have other ISIS operational networks within north west Syria. When you speak about Qardash, we have to envision a very low footprint. We have somebody who is not leaving his house. Who just relies on maybe one or two couriers to get messages in and out. This is extremely difficult to dismantle because you need to have information from people knowing the courier and so on. At the same time, when you have other types of operational networks – so, members of small cells that actually want to orchestrate and perpetrate armed attacks within Idlib – HTS has been much more efficient. And that's not a contradiction, because those second types of network are much, much heavier. Because here you need from five to fifteen-twenty people, you need people to get money to get recruits, to get finance, to observe specific areas and then to organise the attack. So those types of network have mostly been dismantled by HTS. And it has been unable to actually perpetrate any attacks within Idlib province.

Richard  49:32
And Jerome, this, from what I understand, is not only a continuation of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham’s fight against ISIS. It’s also part of its efforts to consolidate control in Idlib. So, first wiping out or consuming more mainstream groups (all the while fighting ISIS), and then turning to al-Qaeda-linked and other militant groups?

Jerome  49:53
Yes. Basically, we've started to go to Idlib in 2019. And we have seen, we have witnessed since then, that HTS has grown in confidence. So initially, they broke up with al-Qaeda because they thought it was counterproductive to their strategic decision to embed themselves and to survive within the province of Idlib. But then they couldn't totally crack down on more radical groups immediately because they're still facing, initially, opposition from mainstream armed groups. And so what they did with more radical groups, especially those linked to al-Qaeda, was to condition the approach to them. They imposed conditions on them. Do not orchestrate any external operation (so, armed activities outside Syria). Do not have your own checkpoints, do not have your own courts of justice, and so on. What al-Jolani and other HTS leaders were telling us was that they didn't want to arrest them and have a totally heavy hand over them. So they wanted to impose a more gradual approach. So many of their permanent commanders would be arrested for some time, then would be freed on condition that they don't remain involved in armed activities.

Dareen  51:04
Just what to conclude I think it's important to know that today HTS doesn't just distance itself from transnational jihad, it really works to disallow any other group from taking part in transnational operations. It's ready at any given point to crack down on those who do. And also they don't just abide by ceasefire arrangements mediated or negotiated by Turkey and Russia. They also crack down on any other group that is trying to undermine these ceasefires. So, in their attempt to consolidate their monopoly over use of force, they have basically reined in any group that goes against what they stand for. And this can be seen as somewhat a continuation of the same policy they adopted with more moderate rebel groups prior to the ceasefire or in the past. So it's a very similar strategy, it’s just a different threat and a different target, if that makes sense.

Richard  52:09
We talked a year ago, the last time you were on the podcast, Dareen – about Abu Muhammad al-Jolani, the HTS commander. He's still young, but I mean, he's had this sort of experience starting as a fighter and then commander with the group that turned into ISIS in Iraq, before being deployed by Baghdadi into Syria, to sort of be ISIS’s man to build a group in Syria. When ISIS broke with al-Qaeda, Jolani stuck with al-Qaeda, sort of then fought with ISIS, and then since then has himself broken with al-Qaeda. It's hard to think of another leader that's previously declared his affiliation, declared loyalty to bin Laden or to al-Zawahiri, who's broken in such a prominent way that pledge of allegiance. When you meet with Jolani, that al-Qaeda break in particular, what does he say about that now?

Dareen  53:07
The way he described his thinking behind pledging allegiance to al-Qaeda to us in the past, is basically he was saying that this was a completely tactical manoeuvre. And Nusra at the time, the previous iteration of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, was losing to ISIS, they were facing a lot of defections from the group. And they needed some kind of jihadist backing and support. But over the years, it became very obvious that that kind of connection to al-Qaeda is more of a liability, rather than an asset, because it both prevented other Syrian rebel groups from going into alliances with Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, or working with them, out of fear of being designated or targeted by the U.S. and by the International Coalition. And they claim that they weren't really getting any support from al-Qaeda whatsoever, and that the al-Qaeda leadership were not completely familiar with what was happening in Syria and that it wasn't very useful for them. So Jolani’s thinking at the time was that he can have it all. He can publicly disassociate himself from al-Qaeda while maintaining kind of good relations with them in private. That's not how Zawahiri saw it. Zawahiri saw it as a betrayal. The guy seemed to have been still traumatised by what Baghdadi did when he separated himself from his group. So he reacted very aggressively to it publicly but also in private communiques that were later revealed. So what was intended to be a kind of smooth de-linking from al-Qaeda later on became a major, major fight between the two groups. Since then, what Jolani and a small contingent of his inner circle who are Syrians and who share his mindset have been doing is that they've been not only trying to recast the group as more of a local Syrian organisation, but they've also been systematically marginalising everyone who disagreed with them. So if you look at Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham today, the balance of power within the group has fundamentally changed. What started as this joint venture between Jolani and the Iraqi side of the group has really changed, where many of these more hardline elements have either left or were killed or completely marginalised and sidelined from the decision-making within Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, and the power is mostly in the hands of Jolani and those who share his ideology and his plan, basically, to govern.

Richard  55:56
I mean, one thing about sort of pledging allegiance to al-Qaeda, as Jerome said earlier, is the external operations, the goal of the “far enemy”. But there's a lot else that Salafi jihadists believe that is not just related to the far enemy, right? I mean, there's the role of Islam in public life, there's the amount of space you give to different sects, or your treatment of non-Muslims. I mean, the break on the external operations is clear enough, but how does someone who has fought first with the precursor to ISIS, and then as part of what was at the time the biggest al-Qaeda affiliate, break with it? I mean, how much do those other aspects of jihadist ideology still run through Jolani's thinking?

Jerome  56:43
I think we have to see what has happened since the break with al-Qaeda in 2017. So, before that, there was no real ideological change. What HTS is saying is, they mostly did not agree with them about the external operations, but otherwise they still aligned with a similar worldview in terms of their view of Islam and so on. And some of the changes that happened only happened afterwards, after the break. So by imposing their governance project through the salvation governments through the province of Idlib, they had to accommodate other religious and political forces on the ground. So, for example, even though they are Salafis, they had to become more compromising about other Muslims, so about Sufi Muslims and non-Salafi Muslims, and to integrate them into the governance project, integrate them into their local mosque.

Richard  57:43
And they’ve done that in Idlib? I mean if you’re not Salafi for example, or if you’re from a minority, or Christian or Jewish, do you enjoy the same rights in Idlib as other parts of the population?

Jerome  57:54
So there are Jewish populations and Christian populations in the region. So first what they did is they opened up to other Muslims and they came back to traditional schools of jurisprudence, distancing from the previous position that was endorsed by most Salafi jihadists. But then because they have a governance project, they tried to reach out to other religious confessions. So, to reach out to the Christian communities. And when we speak to the Christian communities, the main issues are very much daily issues. For example, about houses. Many Christians’ houses have been occupied. And that was not a sectarian phenomenon. It just happened that in the province, most people come from elsewhere. So for most of the local indigenous Syrians who left, their properties, villas and apartments have been seized by other Syrian refugees. So many of the issues that HTS had to face, for example, with regard to the Christians, were to solve this issue of property.

Dareen  58:53
Well, first of all, I'm going to qualify what I'm about to say by pointing out that visiting the area, even for extended periods, is nothing like living in it. So my views are not at all an attempt to speak on behalf of Syrians in Idlib. That said, what I've seen on my trips to Idlib in the last few years is that life there is nothing like what you can imagine life under a former al-Qaeda affiliate would look like. The form of government HTS is undertaking is a conservative, Islamist one, right. But in contrast to other jihadist groups, they have not, for instance, imposed their own curriculum in schools, though they still compel gender segregation at schools, in universities. They have not, for instance, enforced harsh interpretations of Sharia law.

Richard  59:35
Just to clarify, Dareen, I mean, there's no Taliban style banning of girls going to school.

Dareen  59:41
Not at all. On the contrary, HTS leadership say with a lot of pride that Idlib University is full of women. It's a high percentage of women in the university. And they also haven't compelled women, for instance, to veil their faces or banned mixed-gender gatherings at restaurants. They haven't tried to impose a dress code on men even, or banned them from smoking, for instance. And driving through Idlib, you don't see any jihadist slogans or flags anywhere, they have deliberately removed those that existed in the past. And they haven't created a religious police, what is known as al-Hisbah. Of course, that bar is very low. And we have to admit that many Syrians in Idlib and beyond will rightly insist that HTS should be pressed to allow more room for personal freedoms and should be held accountable for things they've done in the past. Also HTS remains highly intolerant of voices of dissent. That includes civil society, it includes activists, it includes really any individual who opposes what they're doing. The main criticism we hear about HTS governance is from activists and oppositionists talking about HTS’s authoritarian tendencies. And that is a real problem. And it is really undermining the quality of life for a lot of people. Though, I have to say it's not comparable to the scope and depth of the horror stories that you hear about the Syrian regime, for instance. Yet it's still very problematic. And they should be pressured to do more on that. Because they've been trying to recast the group and trying to open up to external powers, I think this is an opportunity for external actors to pressure them to adjust their behaviour towards civil society, to allow more room for freedom of speech as well, to do more and minority rights, to rectify some of the mistakes that happened in the past with minority groups.

Richard  1:01:47
So there’s clearly been this evolution that HTS, and Jolani himself, have undergone. Whether it’s just pragmatic, about his survival, or a genuine change of heart is unclear. Of course, one could lead to the other. But the movement has changed. Yet if you look at the course of the Syrian war, people like Jolani – in fact Jolani himself – have done enormous harm to the revolution, right? I mean, first he led an ISIS-linked militant group (or a group linked to what became ISIS), then he led an al-Qaeda linked one that basically, over time, fought, sidelined or defeated all more mainstream opposition groups. The fact you had people like Jolani playing these very prominent roles in the war really clouded how people saw the revolution, especially in Western capitals, and especially in DC. Now, obviously we don’t know what would have happened absent that. I mean, you’re reliant on a very big counterfactual. Who knows if the U.S. would ever have got more involved and who knows what would have happened had it done so? But having spoken to officials in the Obama administration, clearly the presence of sectarian, militant groups with ties to transnational jihadists informed the way that they saw the revolution and probably also their policies. I mean, this would probably make for an awkward conversation with Jolani when you next see him, but how much does he recognise that, to put it bluntly, it is all very well sitting in control of Idlib now and presenting this pragmatic face, but in essence you’ve just sort of eaten the revolution from the inside and, in essence, done a lot to keep Assad in power?

Dareen  1:03:36
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think the sectarian rhetoric, a lot of the violations that happened against the Jews, the Christian and Alawite communities, the suicide bombs against military targets, bombing military targets, in very close proximity to civilian centres: all of these things really hurt the appeal of the Syrian revolution and impacted its image externally, and amongst Western audiences. And it is a major criticism that the opposition has of HTS, that they both hijacked the revolution and undermined it at the same time. And I can't speak to how Jolani thinks about this. But I do think that he has come to realise that they can only survive through appealing to and cooperating with the outside world. And this is, of course, frustrating for many Syrians, because he realised that many years after they did, and many years after he had spent that time criticising them furiously for exactly what he's doing today. But I do recall, in my first interview with him, he admitted that they have made mistakes in the past, that they're working to rectify it. Of course, it's something that he also got a lot of heat for saying. But just him admitting that I think is a realisation in itself. Again, it might be too late now to rectify some of the mistakes. But it does seem that they've reached the same conclusion, even, albeit, a few years after the opposition has, if that makes sense.

Jerome  1:05:13
I think one of their main issues is that, I mean, they continuously argue that they've been taken by the circumstances. Initially, they wanted to contribute and be part of the revolution, despite the affiliations to al-Qaeda. They even say that they should have been dealt differently, that al-Qaeda in Syria was different from what it was in Afghanistan after 2001, and so on, which is a line of argument that's not really aligned with the perception of Western countries of what al-Qaeda is. Then there was the thing that they're just taken by the circumstances, that they had to give allegiance to al-Qaeda and survive. Then, once they understood that this was negative, they withdrew from it and they broke up with them. But sometimes they want to have it both ways. And that's actually about what happens next. Because their vision is to say: “Yes, it happened in the past, now we should look toward the future”. And then the things that they are doing now. Mainly: protecting the area, establishing some forms of governance, repressing foreign fighters and preventing them from launching foreign attacks. They think that they are doing it for their own interests, and they think that it is aligned with Western expectations. But that's also the issue, because then if you are already as a group doing what Western countries would want you to do in exchange for some times of collaboration, then there is no incentive for Western countries to actually reach out to HTS. Because anything that Western countries would want to achieve, HTS is already doing on the ground. And so that’s a bit the conundrum which they are in now, where Western countries don't really have any incentive in reaching out to them, despite HTS’s interest in doing so.

Richard  1:06:54
So, let’s wrap up, if we can then, with one broader question. Overall in Syria, the picture that comes from this is – I mean, it'd be wrong to describe the war as frozen, but you have this sort of pause. Levels of violence are nothing like what they were a few few years ago. But it seems very precarious. In the north east, as we discussed, the relative calm that prevails amongst ISIS’s enemies and that the counter-ISIS fight relies on, hinges on the U.S. presence – which again is open to the whims of DC politics. In the north west, in Idlib, it is controlled by a former al-Qaeda affiliate that might have reformed, as we talked about, but it is still regarded with a lot of suspicion by the outside world. And the only thing stopping a regime offensive in the north west is Turkey’s understanding with the Russians. Basically, Turkey has been prepared to deploy troops to deter a regime offensive that would push potentially millions more Syrians over the Turkish border, and Russian President Vladimir Putin doesn’t want to upend his relationship with his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Plus, of course you have the regime itself. There’s been some normalisation and re-establishment of relations with some Arab governments, but basically it’s still viewed as a pariah by much of the world. Still brutal, still predatory, and there’s been this economic collapse you described, in areas it controls. It just seems overall that there's a lot of unfinished business. There’s a lot still to come. Is that the right way to sort of understand where Syria is now? That this is just a pause before something else happens?

Dareen  1:08:28
It does look very much like an uneasy stalemate. I don't necessarily like to use the word “sustainable”, or whether or not these very fragile ceasefires are “sustainable”, because what really looks or might look like an unsustainable situation could last for decades, right? Whether it's the U.S. presence in the north east, or the Turkish presence in the north west, or Iranian and Russian involvement in Syria, it all looks very precarious. It's all contingent on a few individuals making the call, whether it's in the Kremlin or the White House or in Ankara. That said, I think at this point in the conflict, there is a mutual understanding amongst the various protagonists that they benefit more out of a stalemate rather than continuing the conflict.

Richard  1:09:17
And that's true, Dareen, on the regime side, or it's true of the Russians?

Dareen  1:09:20
Yeah, I was gonna say: with the caveat of the Syrian regime that still holds on, at least rhetorically, to the desire to regain every inch of Syria and to reinstate its territorial control over every inch of Syria. That said, the regime is very much limited in what it can do without Russian backing. Of course, Russia remains a wild card, it can go in any direction. But so far, the reason why the ceasefires have been holding for a bit over two years now is that the powers behind the local forces have come to the realisation that they benefit more out of the status quo. And how long that would last is unclear, I don't think anyone can know. And while it's incredibly hard to predict the future, I think what we can actually do is think about the status quo now and what could be done. As you rightly pointed out, Richard, the status quo is that we ended up as a result of eleven years of war with very problematic actors controlling these territories, whether it's the YPG in the north east or Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham in the north west, or the Turkish-backed factions in parts of Aleppo, or the Syrian regime. These are all groups that either have links to transnational designated organisations, or have transnational connections themselves, or are sanctioned by the U.S. and by Western countries. So they are all problematic in their own right. And that's something policymakers need to start contemplating: how do we deal with these problematic actors?

Richard  1:10:54
And realistically, there's no settlement imaginable among them, right? I mean, that's the other thing. It's not just that they're problematic. It's also that it's almost impossible to envisage them all getting around the table and working out the future of Syria together.

Dareen  1:11:07
Absolutely. The peace process has been in a deadlock since it was created. There's no way forward for a grand settlement to the entire conflict. But again, this current state of calm in the country gives us an opening and an opportunity to start thinking of more political and diplomatic initiatives to try to resolve some of the sub-conflicts that were created throughout the war. We mentioned a bunch of them. We mentioned the YPG-Turkey relations, we mentioned the jihadist question in Idlib, the economic situation in the regime areas, and, of course, the regime behaviour that has been the main driver of this conflict. So, all these sub-conflicts are equally important for the millions of Syrians still living in the country, and for those who have been displaced out. And I think this is an opportunity to start thinking about some of these questions.

Richard  1:12:08
Dareen, Jerome, thanks so much for coming on.

Dareen  1:12:10
Thank you so much, Richard. Thanks, Jerome.

Jerome  1:12:13
Thank you, Richard. Thank you, Dareen.

Richard  1:12:16
Hold Your Fire! is a production of the International Crisis Group. I’m Richard Atwood. You can find all of our work on Syria, ISIS and islamist militancy more broadly around the world on our website, You can also follow us on Twitter, @crisisgroup. Thanks as ever to our producers, Sam Mendnick, Kevin Murphy and Finnian Dunbar-Johnson. And thank you very much, of course, to all our listeners. Please do get in touch if you have any ideas for the podcast, if you have any suggestions. You can write to me directly, [email protected], or you can write to the general address, [email protected]. If you like the show, please leave us a positive rating or review. Next week, we’re probably going to talk about Somalia after the elections, and whether the new government opens some space for a new approach. So I very much hope you’ll join us again for that.


Executive Vice President
Senior Adviser for Dialogue Promotion
Senior Analyst in Jihad and Modern Conflict

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.