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As Assad Turns to Syria's Southwest, Washington Faces a Choice
As Assad Turns to Syria's Southwest, Washington Faces a Choice
In Syria’s Idlib, Washington’s Chance to Reimagine Counter-terrorism
In Syria’s Idlib, Washington’s Chance to Reimagine Counter-terrorism

As Assad Turns to Syria's Southwest, Washington Faces a Choice

Originally published in War on the Rocks

The United States faces a critical decision in southwestern Syria. For weeks, Syrian military forces have been massing on the northern edge of the mostly opposition-held “de-escalation zone” jointly negotiated last year by the United States, Russia, and Jordan. With this deal, Washington secured a ceasefire for this geopolitically sensitive corner of the country, which borders Jordan and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. Since then, however, the Trump administration has pursued a broader Syria policy that serves the southwest poorly and undercuts the de-escalation agreement.

A Syrian military offensive on the southwest now seems imminent. Clashes broke out on the area’s eastern edge on Tuesday, and the Syrian military bombed rebel-held towns from the air, an unambiguous breach of the de-escalation agreement. Time is short. Still, there may still be a chance for an alternative. In our latest report at the International Crisis Group, Keeping the Calm in Southern Syria, we urge all sides – the de-escalation agreement’s three sponsors as well as, indirectly, Israel and the Syrian government – to broker a deal to prevent a bloody fight for the southwest.

For the Trump administration, that means it has to choose: Will it deal with the southwest on the area’s own terms, helping to spare civilian life and promoting the interests of Jordan and Israel, two close allies? Or will it fail to engage seriously in negotiations and allow events to take a more brutal course, one that crushes the southwestern opposition, rends the area’s remaining social fabric, and squanders whatever terms and guarantees Washington and its allies might have been able to negotiate in advance?

The Terms and Logic of De-Escalation

Then-U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced the de-escalation ceasefire on July 7, 2017, following U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s first in-person meeting at the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany. The three sponsors of the de-escalation deal further agreed in August to establish a joint monitoring center in Amman. In November, they finalized the agreement’s terms with a “memorandum of principles.” Trump and Putin announced the agreement, lending it their personal imprimatur. Along the edge of the de-escalation zone, the deal established a buffer area that would exclude Iranian-backed foreign militias supporting the Syrian government, with a concomitant commitment to eventually expel jihadists inside the de-escalation zone. The text of the original ceasefire agreement and the de-escalation agreement’s memorandum of principles have not been released publicly.

The de-escalation agreement froze the Syrian civil war in the southwestern provinces of Dara’a and al-Quneitra. The war’s southern front had been mostly dormant since Russia’s September 2015 intervention in Syria, which prompted Jordan to cut a bilateral deal with Russia to keep calm in Syria’s south. Intense fighting broke out in Dara’a’s eponymous provincial capital in the months before the de-escalation ceasefire was announced last July. Since then, however, the ceasefire has mostly held, with only a handful of exceptions.

The sponsors of the de-escalation agreement discussed expanding the size of the buffer area, but higher-level trilateral negotiations faltered late last year. The Amman-based ceasefire monitoring center has continued to meet, but any expansion of the buffer zone and other substantive developments to the de-escalation agreement are the province of trilateral political talks among the United States, Russia, and Jordan. Those talks last convened in November 2017 – and since then, the agreement has been on autopilot.

U.S. interests in southwestern Syria are basically derived from those of its regional allies, Jordan and Israel. Jordan has feared a resumption of armed conflict that could send a new wave of refugees towards its border and empower jihadists and Iranian-backed militias. Jihadists in the southwest, including Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and the Islamic State, are relatively few in number and geographically limited in their reach. If war returned to the south, however, these fighters could take on renewed relevance as they spearhead armed resistance against the Syrian military. As for Israel, its concerns revolve more specifically around Iran’s presence, both near the Golan and nationwide across Syria.

The southwest is critically important to an ongoing struggle between Israel and Iran over the nature and duration of Iran’s presence in Syria, a regional conflict that has run parallel to the country’s civil war. The intervention of Iran and Hizballah in defense of their Syrian ally has given them a political prominence and military role in Syria with no precedent prior to the 2011 uprising. Israel has become convinced that Iran’s expanded presence risks upsetting the two countries’ tenuous deterrent balance across the region and has declared it will not allow Iran to establish a lasting strategic military presence in Syria. It has outlined a set of “red lines” that, if crossed, would prompt Israeli military action. These red lines include Iranian-backed militias taking up offensive positions in the southwest, opposite the occupied Golan. Israel has attempted to establish its red lines with an escalating series of strikes against what it alleges are Iranian or Iranian-linked targets in Syria. These strikes have recently come dangerously close to escalating into open interstate war.

The ceasefire and buffer zone established by the de-escalation agreement were meant to serve both Jordanian and Israeli security needs. Israel was not a participant in the de-escalation talks, but it was briefed throughout on the negotiations and has robust bilateral relationships with all three of the deal’s sponsors. Israeli leaders have nonetheless voiced discontent about the agreement and about the width of the buffer. Within the limited buffer, Israeli defense official told my organization in March that most Hizballah fighters had left and “only a handful” remained. A senior Hizballah official denied the existence of a buffer and rejected the notion that the group was obliged to withdraw its forces.

America’s Syria Policy and an Endangered De-Escalation

The de-escalation agreement was meant to be not just a ceasefire, but also the basis for a more complete, evolving deal in the rebel-held southwest. Yet the Trump administration’s shifting policy has undermined the de-escalation deal, and, since last fall, prevented negotiated progress to advance the agreement.

U.S. Syria policy over the past year has involved a series of decisions with little relation to the southwest, each of which has worked against the de-escalation agreement. First, as de-escalation negotiations were ongoing last summer, Washington made the apparently unrelated decision to end covert support for Syrian rebels, including arms and salaries. Regardless of the merits of that decision, it threatened the cohesion of southwestern “Southern Front” rebels and whatever military balance underpinned the ceasefire.

Then the Trump administration adopted a new Syria strategy in late 2017, which Tillerson laid out publicly in January 2018. That strategy took a confrontational approach to Damascus, pressing for the removal of President Bashar al-Assad by denying the Syrian government access to large sections of the country beyond its current control and by starving it of economic resources, including normal trade with Syria’s neighbors. The administration’s new Syria strategy led it to veto the reopening of the Nasib border crossing between Jordan and Syria to commercial traffic. The de-escalation agreement’s sponsors had considered reopening Nasib an outcome of a successful de-escalation, and one that Jordan desperately needed to revive its struggling economy. With a U.S. Syria strategy aimed at unseating Russia’s ally in Damascus, there was little of substance for Washington and Moscow to discuss and trilateral meetings dried up.

The de-escalation agreement was also meant to be underwritten by an influx of stabilization assistance to support governance and services and restore some normality to the rebel-held southwest, led by the United States and the United Kingdom. The Trump administration’s abrupt decision to freeze stabilization aid in March again undercut the de-escalation agreement and left both Jordan and the British hanging. Trump’s announcement that the United States would withdraw its troops from Syriafurther confused U.S. allies. The United States has no forces on the ground inside the southwest, but the news nonetheless alarmed U.S. allies and raised doubts about Washington’s commitment in Syria.

Besides Israel, the agreement had another silent partner: the Syrian government in Damascus. With no prospects for further developing the de-escalation deal and satisfying Damascus’ own political needs, it had limited incentive to let the rebel-held southwest alone after it finished off the last opposition enclaves elsewhere. Now those enclaves are gone.

“We’ve now headed south,” Assad told an interviewer this month. “We’re giving space for the political process; if it doesn’t succeed, there will be no choice but liberation by force.”

Militarily speaking, the rebel-held southwest seems unlikely to be a difficult target to capture for the Syrian army, particularly if Russia provides air support for an offensive. Rebel territory can be cut at a few key junctures and then defeated in pieces. The government has also been engaging in talks with rebel-held towns across the southwest to make sure they don’t act when the Syrian military marches south.

The main deterrent to a Syrian military offensive had been the danger that the involvement of Iranian-backed militias would set off Israeli intervention. That meant an offensive posed a real danger to Damascus and might have discouraged crucial involvement by Russia, which has invested in its relationships with both Israel and Jordan. Yet Damascus can muster newly mobile Syrian forces, after its victories elsewhere, and energetic Russian diplomacy may have neutralized the risk of Israeli action. According to news reports and Israeli officials who spoke to my organization, Israel and Russia have arrived at a preliminary understanding on the return of the Syrian state to the southwest, conditional on the exclusion of Iranian-backed elements from that area and Israel’s continued freedom to strike inside Syria. Israel prefers the continuation of the de-escalation agreement, Israeli officials tell my organization, but if a Russian-backed Syrian offensive is coming, Israel can hardly afford not to coordinate with Russia. Iranian officials have publicly voiced support for Russia’s efforts to restore Syrian state control in the southwest and said Iran will not participate in an offensive, while also rejecting the idea of withdrawing entirely from Syria, per Israel’s latest demands. Whether Moscow, Damascus, or any party can promise to sustainably keep Iranian elements out of the southwest is unclear.

The U.S. State Department has warned Damascus against violating the de-escalation agreement and repeatedly promised “firm and appropriate measures.” But there is no indication of what that entails, or even if that language is backed by an actual threat. The U.S. government previously told rebels that if the Syrian military attacked, it would “do everything in [its] ability” to preserve the ceasefire – a reassurance that rebels told the International Crisis Group they found ambiguous and underwhelming.

One Chance for a Negotiated Alternative

Barring some surprise development, the Syrian government is coming south. Yet there are different ways the Syrian state can return to what is now the rebel-held southwest. No side – least of all Washington’s regional allies – is well-served by a chaotic, deadly fight for the south. The United States has a compelling interest in negotiating a settlement that avoids open war and mitigates the harm to the southwest’s residents and Syria’s neighbors.

It will have to act fast, though. In our latest report, we at the International Crisis Group argue for the de-escalation agreement’s sponsors re-convene through its trilateral mechanism to preserve the ceasefire and negotiate an evolution of the deal.

As an interim step, the de-escalation agreement’s sponsors should adopt a Jordanian proposal to shift the agreement’s focus to a “stabilization zone.” Stabilization would mean new steps toward the institutional and economic integration of the rebel southwest into its Syrian government-held surroundings – including trade both cross-line and cross-border through a Nasib crossing returned to Syrian state control – and draw in a broader set of international stakeholders, including Russia. The result would hopefully reassure the Syrian government and Russia that negotiated progress is possible and forestall a military attack.

From there, all sides would need to work from the existing de-escalation agreement to negotiate a more complete settlement in the southwest. The basic outlines are clear: the return of the Syrian state to the southwest and the Syrian military to Syria’s borders; a zone parallel to the Golan Heights free of Iranian-backed groups; and the restoration of Syria and Israel’s 1974 Separation of Forces Agreement, including the return of U.N. observers to their positions.

Beyond that, the details of an agreement are up for negotiation – whether it entails the entrance of only the Syrian state’s less controversial civilian institutions or, if that proves unworkable, then at least preferential terms for the southwest’s “reconciliation” and surrender.

Many southern rebels will resist any deal. But a negotiated resolution is better than a crushing military defeat at the hands of the Syrian military and the Russian air force, followed by unforgiving, prejudicial surrender deals that rip out large sections of the southwest’s clan-based society and expel southerners to Syria’s rebel-held north. Southern Syrians are better served by a deal that spares pointless bloodshed and preserves their tightly knit social fabric by keeping southern communities intact, preventing social breakdown that encourages crime, radicalism, and recruitment by Iranian-linked elements. Syria’s neighbors are better served, too. So is America.

The United States has privately signaled it will not object to Israeli and Jordanian deal-making for the south but has scaled back its own participation in negotiations.

This is a mistake. With no comprehensive deal for the southwest, a wrenching military conclusion is the alternative and, for everyone, a worse outcome. Jordan and Israel may be able to engage with Russia to minimally “de-conflict” a Syrian offensive and protect themselves. Yet they are highly unlikely to secure the sort of terms they could with Washington on their side, as part of an agreement with consensual, international approval and the sort of legitimacy that only Washington’s endorsement could provide. At this point, anything short of this seems unlikely to dissuade Damascus. If the United States hopes to achieve something better than “de-confliction,” it urgently needs to engage in talks and to make a special effort for the southwest.

And whatever the United States decides to do, it will also need to communicate that decision clearly. Threats of “firm and appropriate measures” may make Damascus think twice, but they also seem likely to confuse southern rebels about the extent of America’s commitment and encourage them to fight a lonely, doomed defensive battle.

Syria’s southwest matters. If the United States is going to protect its interests and the interests of its closest regional allies in this corner of Syria’s war, it needs to invest in talks and produce a solution specifically for the southwest – for the southwest’s sake and for America’s.

Jihadists of former al-Qaeda affiliate Hayat Tahrir al-Sham block demonstrators from approaching the Bab al-Hawa crossing between Turkey and Syria’s north-western Idlib province on 20 September 2019. Omar HAJ KADOUR / AFP

In Syria’s Idlib, Washington’s Chance to Reimagine Counter-terrorism

The “terrorist” label affixed to Idlib’s strongest rebel group undermines a crucial ceasefire and blocks potential paths to avert a military showdown. It also reflects a gap in Western policy. Creative ideas from Washington could help break the impasse and set a useful precedent.

If the Biden administration is looking to correct Washington’s overly militarised foreign policy, one opportunity to redefine U.S. counter-terrorism strategy lies in Idlib, an area which U.S. officials once described as “the largest al-Qaeda safe haven since 9/11”. The north-western Syrian province is no longer that, for reasons explained below. But, in other respects, it remains what it has been for much of the Syrian war: a crowded refuge for three million civilians, the site of looming potential humanitarian disaster and a last stronghold of Syrian rebel groups. Its fate could also prove pivotal for the future of – and U.S. policy toward – Islamist militancy in the region.

The dangers in Idlib are well known. In 2019, the Syrian regime, backed by Russian airpower, mounted offensives that pushed back rebel forces, killing at least 1,600 civilians and driving 1.4 million others from their homes. A Russian-Turkish ceasefire has held for ten months. If it breaks down, the regime could launch another offensive that would result in massive civilian casualties and displace hundreds of thousands toward (and potentially far beyond) the Turkish border, while scattering insurgents far and wide. In other words, Syria’s conflict, for now largely locked in an uneasy standoff, could re-emerge as an epicentre of international instability.

This worst-case scenario is not inevitable but still very possible. The expansion of Turkey’s military role in Idlib over the past year has bought time. Hei’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the former al-Qaeda affiliate that is Idlib’s dominant rebel group, has broken with transnational jihadist networks and now seeks entry into the realm of political engagement on Syria’s future. In theory, that development should open opportunities for averting renewed violence.

HTS’s continued status as a “terrorist” organisation presents a major obstacle.

In practice, however, HTS’s continued status as a “terrorist” organisation (as designated by the U.S., Russia, the UN Security Council and Turkey) presents a major obstacle. It has a chilling effect on Western support for essential service provision in Idlib, worsening the humanitarian crisis. It has also precluded discussions with HTS itself about its conduct and the future of the territory it controls, as Western states and the UN avoid contact completely while Turkey restricts itself to the bare minimum needed to facilitate its military presence in Idlib. The absence of engagement undermines the ceasefire and stops outside powers from pressing HTS to take further constructive steps.

There is an urgent need for creative ideas for how to sustain the fragile calm, including by directly addressing the question of HTS’s status. Yet it is difficult to imagine these ideas emanating from the protagonists in Syria’s north west: Ankara is reluctant to engage diplomatically with HTS (absent international backing); Moscow and Damascus prefer an outright military victory over the group; and HTS itself is focused on defending Idlib from further regime advances. There is a policy vacuum, and Washington is now well placed to fill it.

The Biden administration should work with European allies and Turkey to press HTS into further action that addresses key local and international concerns, and to define clear benchmarks which (if met) could enable HTS to shed its “terrorist” label.

In doing so, the U.S. could reduce risk of a violent eruption in north-western Syria while simultaneously addressing two additional policy challenges. Through cooperation with Ankara on this issue of mutual concern, Washington could improve strained relations with a key North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) ally. Moreover, the Biden administration could establish a new approach to counter-terrorism that gives as much weight to diplomatic tools as it does to military ones. Such an approach would have wider value: it could lay out what a conditional roadmap looks like for other groups on today’s battlefields that have been designated “terrorists” but show willingness to forego their pursuit of transnational agendas and attacks on civilians, among other criteria.

A view from Idlib looking over the Turkish border CRISISGROUP

The Case for U.S. Engagement

U.S. officials have thus far largely avoided grappling with the policy challenges that Idlib presents. While U.S. humanitarian aid continues – as do occasional drone strikes upon individuals allegedly linked to al-Qaeda and aligned with HTS’s jihadist rivals – a sense prevails in Washington policy circles that there is not much the U.S. can or should do to address the risk of renewed military escalation. This conclusion, while understandable, is short-sighted. It tends to rely on some combination of three assumptions: that a regime military takeover of Idlib might be desirable from a counter-terrorism perspective; that such a takeover is inevitable, in any case; or, alternatively, that Turkey is now sufficiently engaged in Idlib to deter regime attacks and address the HTS conundrum on its own, without U.S. assistance. All three assumptions are mistaken.

The first is easiest to rebut. Put simply: if a major regime offensive does occur, it will sharply exacerbate counter-terrorism challenges. The calm created by the March 2020 ceasefire has provided space and incentives for HTS to intensify its crackdown on transnational jihadists, hunting down remaining Islamic State (ISIS) cells and defanging the al-Qaeda-linked faction Hurras al-Din. So long as HTS can govern Idlib – its declared top priority – it will have ample reason to suppress elements that oppose the ceasefire or otherwise threaten local stability. Yet renewed regime attacks would reduce HTS’s capacity to sustain that effort, as its priority would switch to mobilising all available fighters in its own and Idlib’s defence.

Moreover, if regime forces advance deep into the province, the offensive would eventually push Idlib’s rebels to shift from territorial defence to guerrilla tactics, thus lending new relevance to senior figures in al-Qaeda and its affiliates, who have long criticised HTS for prioritising control of Idlib over fighting the regime and for abandoning the cause of transnational jihad. Rather than ending the war, such a regime advance would likely give way to a new phase of insurgency emanating from ungoverned spaces, with already overstretched regime forces unable to control Idlib’s hilly border areas, which were the first to slip from the regime’s grip in 2012 and remain home to many of its most dedicated opponents.

As for the second and third assumptions, the situation is neither as hopeless as the fatalists suggest nor as stable as the optimists profess. Further offensives and a regime takeover are not inevitable, as Turkey’s role in Idlib has opened the possibility of sustained calm in north-western Syria. With nearly four million Syrian refugees already in Turkey and popular resentment of the associated burden rising, Ankara is treating the threat of further regime advance as a major national security concern, recognising that it could push hundreds of thousands more Syrians over its border. Thus, Turkey launched a counter-intervention blunting the regime’s offensive in early 2020 – which succeeded in convincing Russia to negotiate the ceasefire – and has since deployed some 12,000 troops along Idlib’s front lines. These Turkish actions have underlined to Damascus and its backers that any future offensives would entail higher risks and costs.

Yet the ceasefire remains fragile, and Turkey’s role may ultimately prove insufficient to avert the resumption of major regime attacks in coming months and years. Joint Turkish-Russian patrols along the M4 highway have essentially halted since August; tit-for-tat shelling across the front lines continues; and Russia has resumed occasional airstrikes. Moreover, HTS’s “terrorist” status undermines the truce’s durability. The March 2020 agreement between Russia and Turkey explicitly calls for both sides to “combat all forms of terrorism, and to eliminate all terrorist groups in Syria as designated by [the UN Security Council]”. Moscow has repeatedly pointed to HTS’s designation by the Security Council to justify previous regime attacks on Idlib, emphasising that military campaigns against the group should continue and that the ceasefire is a temporary arrangement.

If the Biden administration is willing to sharpen its diplomatic engagement on Idlib, its role could be essential to averting an unnecessary escalation of destabilising violence.

In contrast, Ankara realises that HTS is too entrenched to be defeated militarily without causing mass casualties and precipitating a disastrous wave of refugees, and that HTS’s adherence to the ceasefire – and its pressuring other groups to do the same – is a paramount benefit. All this leads Turkish officials to prefer a political solution to the HTS problem, but they are wary of unilateral engagement toward that end exposing them to accusations of whitewashing and supporting jihadists. Key officials are also simultaneously handling a range of complex Syrian and regional files, leaving Ankara little bandwidth to look beyond immediate crisis management in Idlib.

Worryingly, Russian-Turkish dialogue on the future of Idlib is deadlocked and UN-facilitated Syria talks are moribund. In effect, there is no meaningful diplomatic process for addressing the divergence between the Russian and Turkish positions on HTS or for consolidating the ceasefire politically.

In short, the situation is salvageable yet volatile. If the Biden administration is willing to sharpen its diplomatic engagement on Idlib, its role could be essential to averting an unnecessary escalation of destabilising violence. The first step is to introduce ideas and incentives for political ways of solving Idlib’s HTS puzzle.

HTS’s Al-Qaeda Baggage

In Syria, and in foreign capitals, apprehension toward HTS is grounded in real concerns. HTS is the latest iteration of a faction originally known as Jabhat al-Nusra, whose Syrian founder (now HTS leader) Abu Muhammad al-Jolani participated in the post-2003 Iraqi insurgency as a member of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI, which later became ISIS), and in 2011 coordinated with ISI leadership to establish a branch in Syria. Although al-Jolani’s approach diverged from ISI’s, he did not sever ties with the Iraqi-led organisation until 2013. Even then, he kept his faction within the jihadist milieu by declaring allegiance to al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, until breaking with that transnational group in 2016.

Meanwhile, al-Nusra became feared among many Syrians (including within the anti-regime uprising) for its aggressive tactics early in the conflict, brutal and thuggish conduct by some of its members, and its strong-arming of rival opposition factions. In 2012, for example, non-jihadist Syrian opposition groups criticised al-Nusra’s bombings of regime forces and facilities in urban areas, recognising that they undermined efforts to broaden the opposition’s appeal and international support. Al-Nusra continued to employ suicide bombings against military targets in the years that followed, which provided it a tactical advantage over non-jihadist factions but also contributed to local and international perceptions that the rebellion was turning into an Islamist militant enterprise. Al-Nusra members were also implicated in some of the ugliest acts committed by rebel forces, including executions and hostage-taking during attacks on Alawite villages in 2013, and a 2015 incident in which a Tunisian al-Nusra commander (subsequently detained by and expelled from the organisation) murdered more than twenty residents of a Druze village in Idlib. Between late 2014 (as al-Nusra) and early 2019 (as HTS), the organisation gradually dismantled, sidelined or subdued most of the mainstream armed opposition in north-western Syria while reducing space for civil society, in a successful effort to consolidate itself as hegemon.

HTS Today

Through a series of internal transformations and security crackdowns, HTS has distanced itself from the Salafi-jihadist movement while reducing space for transnational jihadists to operate in north-western Syria. Breaking from its jihadist roots, HTS leadership has steadily recast the group as a local Syrian actor capable of governing Idlib and willing to ensure that outside militants will not use the area as a launching pad for operations. This evolution does not erase the past. Nor does it address the concerns of many Syrians who continue to denounce the group’s autocratic rule and repressive conduct.

Yet it appears to be more than a mere rebranding. Rather, it reflects years of gradually widening ideological and strategic divergence from al-Qaeda and ISIS on key defining issues, including HTS’s opposition to transnational jihadist operations; its prioritisation of territorial control and governance over anti-regime insurgency; and its compromise on the imposition of strict Islamist rule in Idlib.

The HTS leadership’s objection to using Syria as a staging ground for international operations appears central to the group’s series of breaks from transnational jihadists. In a recent conversation, al-Jolani told us his version of the story: that his rejection of international attacks emerged as a key fault line between him and the radical circle surrounding ISI leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (prior to al-Nusra’s break from the Iraqi-led organisation in 2013), notably when al-Jolani and likeminded allies refused an ISI demand to bomb a Syrian opposition gathering in Istanbul. Al-Jolani added that a similar dynamic occurred later amid the more drawn-out breakup with al-Zawahiri, when hardliners in his group who opposed the 2016 decision to cut ties with al-Qaeda renewed calls for conducting attacks outside Syria. He argues that although advocates of such attacks played roles within al-Nusra, they failed to impose their agenda and steadily broke from or were pushed out of the group. Though details of al-Jolani’s narrative are impossible to confirm, the overall track record appears evident: while both ISIS and al-Qaeda made international operations central to their identities and strategies, HTS has distanced itself from transnational attacks and the militants who advocate for them. U.S. officials are aware of these key breaks and distinctions, which helps explain why drone strikes in Idlib typically target jihadists operating outside HTS but not the group itself.

HTS has proved willing to compromise ideologically and militarily in order to preserve its control over Idlib.

Another core disagreement between HTS and global jihadists centres on HTS’s decision to value territorial control over conducting insurgent attacks on the regime and its backers. HTS has proved willing to compromise ideologically and militarily in order to preserve its control over Idlib, for example by largely halting its attacks on the regime and its backers during Turkish-Russian ceasefires and by welcoming the deployment of Turkish forces in Idlib. While it maintains its anti-regime rhetoric, HTS focuses today on achieving an extended freeze of the conflict, consolidating its governance in areas it controls, and gaining some form of international legitimacy through engagement with Turkey and (it hopes) other states it deems critical to Idlib’s survival. In contrast, al-Qaeda leader al-Zawahiri, in addition to strongly criticising HTS for distancing itself from transnational jihad, warned that the Turkish intervention was dangerous and called for shifting to a guerrilla war of attrition to weaken the regime and its backers. Other prominent Salafi-jihadists voiced similar criticisms, as did al-Qaeda loyalists within Syria. For their part, HTS leaders are increasingly explicit about the ideological and strategic divides separating them from more extreme rivals, for example by publicly slamming prominent Salafi-jihadist critics.

And HTS has not merely broken with hardline jihadist groups: it is combating them in Idlib. HTS has been at war with ISIS since 2014, and since the March 2020 ceasefire it has escalated its raids and arrests aimed at thwarting ISIS attempts to build a covert network of cells in Idlib following the latter’s loss of territorial control in eastern Syria. Meanwhile, HTS has contained non-ISIS foreign jihadists, and since March 2020 has forcibly dismantled elements who oppose HTS’s adherence to the Turkish-Russian truce – notably Hurras al-Din, an al-Qaeda-linked faction dominated by individuals who split with HTS over the latter’s relative pragmatism and who opposed the break from al-Qaeda. After first pursuing a policy of containment toward Hurras, HTS turned its guns upon the group in mid-2020 after Hurras attempted to consolidate an alliance with HTS defectors and other hardline factions opposed to the ceasefire. HTS raided the group’s headquarters, detained some of its leaders and forced Hurras and its partners to shut down their bases and checkpoints, hand over heavy weaponry and withdraw from the front lines. These measures have severely reduced (though not eliminated) Hurras’ ability to violate the ceasefire.

While HTS has used its military dominance and the relative calm to crack down on transnational jihadists, it has refrained from imposing a severe version of Islamist rule. Thus far at least, the form of governance applied by HTS and the “Salvation Government” (the civil administrative body it backs) is Islamist, but not draconian. For example, in contrast to groups such as ISIS or the Taliban, HTS has not imposed its own curriculum in schools (though it does compel gender segregation at schools and universities). It has not enforced the harshest interpretations of Sharia law. Nor has it compelled women to veil their faces or banned mixed-gender gatherings in restaurants. Its leadership says (with apparent pride) that women make up a significant proportion of the thousands of students at Idlib’s main university. Describing their approach to Islamist governance, HTS leaders emphasise the importance of remaining compatible with Syria’s mainstream religious traditions and mores. As al-Jolani put it: “Governance should be consistent with Islamic Sharia, but not according to the standards of ISIS or even Saudi Arabia”. Of course, this bar is very low – and many Syrians in Idlib and beyond will rightly insist that HTS should be pressed to allow more room for personal freedoms. (For more on HTS’s governance and broader evolution, see the work and forthcoming report by our colleagues Patrick Haenni and Jerome Drevon.)

To be clear: a former al-Qaeda affiliate governing three million Syrians and sharing a border with a NATO member is deeply problematic. It is understandable that many local and international observers remain highly sceptical of HTS’s evolution, given the group’s repression of opponents and the continued ambiguity as to how – in the medium to long term – it intends to balance its immediate priority of protecting Idlib with its ultimate goal of ending Bashar al-Assad’s rule over Syria. Moreover, the fact that HTS has separated and distinguished itself from ISIS, al-Qaeda and the Taliban does not make it “moderate” or democratic. Indeed, speaking with Christians in Idlib sheds light on the limitations of HTS’s evolution: during a recent visit, we heard cautious optimism from Christians that local authorities had improved their treatment of the population since HTS consolidated its governance, but frustration that armed factions (including HTS elements) had yet to return many properties they seized in previous years.

Toward a New U.S. Policy Approach

As the Biden administration settles in, the U.S. should revisit its approach to Idlib to ensure that it accounts for several factors. These include the significance of what is at stake for regional stability if the ceasefire breaks down; the HTS conundrum’s role in undermining the ceasefire; the lack of international initiative and political will to address the problem; and both the substance and limitations of HTS’s evolution to date.

Washington should also consider a broader internal void that has spanned multiple administrations: the U.S. has no clear policy – indeed, not even a playbook – for dealing with designated “terrorist” groups that show signs of being willing and able to forego the tactics and positions for which they were originally designated. This shortcoming is glaring. It should be particularly troubling to those in foreign policy circles who want the U.S. to reduce its reliance on primarily military means of addressing jihadists who are prominent protagonists in wars across the Middle East and Africa.

In Idlib, and potentially elsewhere, policymakers could avail themselves of additional options beyond whether or not to conduct drone attacks. The lack of clear, conditional pathways for designated groups to exit their “terrorist” box may discourage them from moving in a direction more amenable to Western interests and local concerns. Indeed, HTS leaders told us that first ISIS and later al-Qaeda-linked figures argued that refraining from international attacks was useless because the West would treat them as terrorists regardless.

These dynamics warrant a bold and more proactive U.S. policy that tests whether HTS is prepared to build upon the constructive steps it has taken thus far. The Biden administration should begin working with Turkey and European allies on the following steps:

  1. Define joint standards as to what HTS would need to do in order for NATO countries to eventually cease treating or labelling it as a terrorist organisation, to support a similar change at the UN and to engage in conversations with it on the area’s future. These standards should be sufficiently tangible to provide HTS clarity as to what precisely is expected, and sufficiently measurable to enable the U.S., Turkey and Europe to quickly respond if, when and so long as they are met.
     
  2. Introduce carrots and sticks aimed at encouraging HTS to not only meet those standards, but to do so on a continuous (medium- to long-term) basis while also taking further steps to address local and international concerns about its autocratic rule and repressive conduct. For example, Western countries could offer to conditionally increase stabilisation support for critical services in Idlib (much of which was cut following HTS’s takeover of the province in 2019), so long as HTS ceases crackdowns on its civilian critics, expands space for independent and Western-backed civil society organisations to operate, and demonstrates clear commitment to political and religious pluralism.
     
  3. Once the U.S., Turkey and European partners reach consensus on these steps, Washington should open dialogue with Moscow in an attempt to identify additional measures that could address distinct Russian concerns about attacks emanating from Idlib on its military base in western Syria or government-controlled areas, while avoiding military escalation.

These steps to test HTS’s evolution are not a magic wand. They can reduce the risk of further violence in Idlib, but they will not in and of themselves prevent a new regime offensive, and they may fail to significantly alter Russia’s desire to reinstate regime control over Idlib. While cooperating with Turkey on this approach could help improve U.S. relations with a key NATO ally, the effort may draw criticism from other U.S. allies in the region that oppose Ankara and favour broadening the definition of “terrorist” to encompass a much wider range of Islamists (including in some cases the Muslim Brotherhood).

Yet the potential benefits clearly outweigh the disadvantages, and the risks in an approach based on clear conditions appear minimal. By opening the door to direct discussions and conditional incentives, the U.S. and Europe would gain influence and leverage in an area of Syria where, at present, they have none. They would give themselves real and direct opportunities to further reduce the danger of Idlib becoming a staging ground for international militant activity, to improve conditions for its three million inhabitants, and to prevent it from becoming a new major source of refugees (as well as fleeing militants).

This approach would also help Washington define and test new tools for a diplomacy-first counter-terrorism policy. If successful in Idlib, the U.S. could apply a similar playbook toward other designated groups that show signs of shedding the baggage of transnational jihadism and demonstrate willingness to take meaningful steps in that direction. For U.S. officials interested in ending the “forever war”, with its over-reliance on military means, the situation in Idlib is a chance to start developing practical policy tools matching their rhetoric.

Contributors

Senior Analyst, Syria
dkhalifa
Former Senior Analyst, Syria
NoahBonsey