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

Syria’s Metastasising Conflicts

While a diplomatic settlement of the Syrian war is unrealistic at present, it remains the only viable option. It will require difficult steps by local, regional and international actors to accommodate competing interests.

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Executive Summary

Two years, scores of thousands of dead, a mushrooming regional sectarian war and millions of refugees and internally displaced later, the Syrian war is tying the international community in knots largely of its own making. Once confident of swift victory, the opposition’s foreign allies shifted to a paradigm dangerously divorced from reality: that military pressure would force the regime to alter its calculus so that it would either negotiate its demise or experience internal cracks leading to its collapse. That discounted the apparent determination of Iran, Hizbollah and Russia to do what it takes to keep the regime afloat and bring the armed opposition to its knees. It counted without the fecklessness of an opposition in exile fighting for a share of power it has yet to achieve. And it assumed that the Assad regime has a “calculus” susceptible to be changed, not merely a fighting mode designed to last. It is past time to get over false hopes and confront a harsh truth. The options that dominate the policy debate would deepen the crisis, not produce a credible exit from it.

If the goal is to end this horrendous war, the choice is between massive Western military intervention – with attending risks and uncertainties – to decisively shift the ground balance; acceptance of regime victory with the moral and political price that would entail; and a diplomatic solution driven jointly by the U.S. and Russia. The latter is the preferred but today illusory option, in which regime and opposition would settle for a less-than-satisfactory power-sharing agreement, and the region’s main rival camps (led, respectively, by Iran and Saudi Arabia) would acquiesce in a Syria aligned with neither. A fourth option – in which allies give both sides enough to survive but not prevail – would perpetuate a proxy war with Syrians as primary victims. It is the present stage and the likeliest forecast for the foreseeable future.

For now, the focus should be on immediate steps to de-escalate the conflict and on mapping out in more detail an endgame that could serve as the basis for a diplomatic settlement. This entails answering core questions: What kind of power-sharing solution can protect regime and opposition interests alike? What kind of state could emerge from a political process and be the foundation of a lasting solution? How must existing institutions change for this vision to gain substance? Is there a way to accommodate the concerns of rival regional actors? This is where most agreement can be found among Syrians and their allies’ concerns can be addressed. This report suggests ideas for further discussion.

That choices are so unpalatable, unrealistic or both owes much to the dynamics of a war that is often misdiagnosed. It is not a zero-sum game in which one side’s gains definitely mean the other side’s loss. Both regime and opposition can be strong on some fronts, frail on others. Both have undergone consolidation processes and enjoy sufficient domestic and foreign support to endure. Its fighters more battle-hardened and its allies more hands-on, the regime has scored important tactical military victories. It retains loyal constituencies; some once on the fence, well aware of Assad’s atrocities yet alarmed by the opposition’s desultory record of governance as well as increasingly Islamist and sectarian disposition, hold their nose and lean toward a regime that claims to be fighting on behalf of a significant national cross-section. Most importantly, the regime has evolved in ways that largely make it impervious to its innumerable failings.

This is one good reason to rapidly discard the tipping-point theory, the fiction that once the opposition reached a critical mass (taking over Aleppo; moving into Damascus; bringing the business class to its side, among other hypotheticals) it would overwhelm the regime. One should do the same with the notion that, under growing pressure, the power structure would turn against itself, in a military coup or by desertion of significant personalities. The regime comes as a package deal – an inseparable whole, whose more acceptable elements cannot be dissociated from its least tolerable ones without bringing the entire edifice down. Assad supporters, often among his harshest private critics, remain persuaded that the remnants of the state would crumble were he to step down.

In its own way but with much the same result, the opposition is nearly impossible to eliminate. There are differences, of course. It is pluralistic and deeply divided, its structures improvised and shifting and its foreign backers less consistent and more uncoordinated. Still, and not unlike the regime, it has acquired a critical and resilient mass of support at least partially immune to the ups and downs of its performance. The large underclass that is its core constituency has suffered such extreme regime violence that it can be expected to fight till the end.

International support has been inconstant in the best of times, ineffectual at others. Yet even the opposition’s most reluctant foreign supporters are unlikely to fundamentally reverse course; as the recent decisions by Washington to deliver some weapons and then by others to significantly ramp up their own assistance suggest, they are more likely to do the opposite. Too much has been invested in demonising the regime, and too much is riding on the contest with Iran and Hizbollah for it to be otherwise. For those who view the conflict as a proxy war with Tehran, Assad’s survival would be a strategic body blow.

In short, the evolution of regime and opposition alike has made both military and negotiated solutions even more elusive, while transformation of the broader strategic context has made prospects for escalation even more probable. In the words of a former U.S. official, what once was a Syrian conflict with regional spillover has become a regional war with a Syrian focus. That is frightening.

The war is metastasising in ways that draw in regional and other international actors, erase boundaries and give rise to a single, transnational arc of crisis. The opposition increasingly resembles a Sunni coalition in which a radicalised Sunni street, Islamist networks, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, Gulf states and Turkey take leading roles. The pro-regime camp, encompassing Iran, Hizbollah, Iraq and Iraqi Shiite militants, likewise appears to be a quasi-confessional alliance.

By its own admission, Hizbollah is directly engaged in a far-reaching battle against those it denounces as Sunni fundamentalists (takfiris) allied with Israel, thereby laying the predicate for long-term involvement. Iraqi Shiite fighters are growing in numbers, and Iran’s participation is expanding. Sunni sheikhs around the region are themselves using uninhibited sectarian language to urge followers to join the fight. The conflict has reignited tensions in Syria’s most fragile neighbours – Iraq and Lebanon – which recently had their own civil wars.

Stakes have risen for the U.S. and Israel as well. For Washington, acquiescing in the regime’s success arguably has acquired graver significance than living with a weakened regime ruling a rogue state and broken society. It is likened by some to empowering an increasingly integrated, Iranian-led axis of resistance, while handing Moscow a victory in a Cold War replay. The fusion of Iranian, Hizbollah and Syrian military assets could alter Israel’s cautious posture, making determination of what weapons system has been transferred to whom highly uncertain and thus a decision to use force more probable.

What is to be done? Already overdue is to vastly increase humanitarian aid within Syria, whether in regime- or opposition-held territory. There is need, too, for a “periphery” strategy for avoiding instability in vulnerable neighbours: giving economic help to Jordan and Lebanon and the refugees they host; prevailing upon regional countries not to further incite sectarian tensions in Lebanon; pressing Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki to adopt a far more inclusive policy toward his Sunni opposition.

Hardest of all is what to do about Syria. The priority should be to end the war; there are no easy choices, but there is at least need to face them squarely:

  • One option would be for the West to decisively tip the military balance. This, it almost certainly can do – albeit only by a far more massive intervention than is presently contemplated or, arguably, politically palatable. Even then, it is not clear whether the regime would be “defeated”, or merely reincarnated in a series of militias, and even less clear whether the war would be ended or only redefined. Iran, Hizbollah, perhaps even Russia would keep influence, fuel instability and ensure a chaotic transition (Tehran and the Shiite movement have elsewhere proved to be masters at this game), and the regional/sectarian Cold War would endure.
     
  • An arguably most expedient way to tamp down violence would be to starve the rebels of resources, acquiesce in de facto regime victory and seek an accommodation with Bashar. The moral, political and strategic costs would be huge, perhaps prohibitive, and it might well not end the tragedy: enraged Syrians likely would not surrender; an emboldened regime might seek revenge; and Damascus almost certainly would refrain from the domestic or foreign policy concessions necessary for its external enemies to save face.
     
  • The optimal solution – a negotiated, diplomatic one – at this stage belongs pretty much to the world of make-believe. Outside powers – beginning with Russia and the U.S. – would have to fundamentally shift their endgame approach. For Moscow, this means accepting, then pushing for a major transformation of the Syrian power structure; for Washington, it entails moving from implicit regime change to explicit power sharing. Any viable negotiated political outcome would have to empower and reassure Syria’s various constituencies. Regional actors, who will support a compromise only if they believe the new political framework gives them sufficient leverage to preserve their core interests, would need guarantees. The West’s apparent determination to exclude Iran from a peace conference (perhaps under review in the wake of that country’s presidential elections) is short-sighted: keeping Tehran from Geneva will not lessen its role in Damascus.

The West’s current trajectory – urging diplomacy while resorting to half-way measures such as arming the opposition or, conceivably in the future, targeted airstrikes and a limited no-fly zone – is an option as well, and one that might produce sizeable ancillary benefits: eroding the regime’s military; boosting Western influence over the rebels; and recalibrating the balance of power among rebel groups. But it would not produce what its promoters typically claim as justification: moving the regime to seriously negotiate a genuine transition. Nor is there any reason to believe it could arrest sectarian polarisation, contain violence, limit jihadi groups or persuade Syria’s allies to back down. Ultimately, it would mean getting further sucked into a dangerously intensifying and malignant Sunni/Shiite sectarian regional conflict in which the West would be running a risk by picking favourites.

If Russia and the U.S. wish to signal seriousness, they should start with efforts to de-escalate the conflict. Moscow should press the regime to end the most gratuitous forms of violence (notably massacres of civilians in the presence of army troops and use of ballistic missiles against civilians) and curtail the use of its foreign fighters (especially those of an overtly sectarian nature). Washington should push the opposition to act against its own most extreme armed groups and implement ceasefires along specified front lines. None of this would fundamentally alter the trajectory of the conflict or truly point to its resolution. But at least it would be a start, which is far more than one can say has been achieved at this sorry stage.

Damascus/Cairo/Brussels, 27 June 2013

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