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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 Mutating Conflict

As fighting rages in Aleppo, the combination of a regime morphing into a formidable militia and an Alawite community fearing for its survival leaves Syria’s opposition – itself threatened with radicalisation – with a difficult task: to tackle its own demons, reach out to the Alawites and focus on restoring strife-torn institutions.

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I. Overview

At a distance, Syria’s conflict can resemble a slow, painful slog, punctuated by intermittent accelerations and apparent tipping points, influenced by international activity. Zoom in, and one can cast such impressions aside. Diplomatic manoeuvrings have ended up being little more than inertia masquerading as motion. The West used them to pretend it was doing more than it was; Russia exploited them to feign it backed the Syrian regime less than it actually did. Meanwhile, in Syria, one sees neither deadlock nor abrupt transformation; virtually everything has been changing but at a steady pace: the shape of the conflict; civil society dynamics; sectarian relations; and the very nature of the regime the opposition seeks to depose.

Not all is heading in the wrong direction; some developments have been surprisingly uplifting. But there are more than enough ominous trends, none more alarming than these: a regime seemingly morphing into a formidable militia engaged in a desperate fight for survival; an Alawite community increasingly embattled and persuaded its fate hinges entirely on the regime’s; and an opposition that, despite sometimes heroic efforts to contain them, is threatened by its own forms of radicalisation. Together, this could portend a prolonged, ever more polarised, destructive civil war.

The regime almost certainly will not change its ways, and so the burden must fall on the opposition to do what – given the immensity of its suffering – must seem an improbable undertaking: seriously address the phenomena of retaliatory violence, sectarian killings and creeping fundamentalism within its ranks; rethink its goal of total regime eradication and instead focus on rehabilitating existing institutions; profoundly reassess relations with the Alawite community; and come up with forward looking proposals on transitional justice, accountability and amnesty.

First things first: Syria indeed has become an arena for outside meddling, but the meddling has been far more effective at sustaining the fighting than ending it. The joint UN/
Arab League envoy, Kofi Annan, sought to mediate, but Syrians and non-Syrians alike backed him for opposite reasons and in entirely self-serving ways. Because the mission’s success was predicated on finding middle ground when most parties yearned for a knockout punch, few truly wished it well, even as no one wanted to be caught burying it.

International attitudes might yet change: an especially large-scale massacre or, more likely, regime use or loss of control of chemical weapons could trigger Western military action; Turkey or Jordan, alarmed at the rate of refugee inflows, could establish a safe-haven in Syrian territory; in the event of Western intervention, Iran or Hizbollah could reciprocate on the regime’s behalf. For now, such scenarios are entirely hypothetical. The bottom line at this stage is that the conflict will be sustained and influenced by outside parties but not determined by them. That unenviable role will fall on Syrians.

That is why by far the more significant dynamics are those unfurling on the ground. One is tempted to say that the regime has been uniformly cold-blooded and indiscriminate from the start, but that is not so. The conflict experienced several phases: from the regime’s political concessions, both half-hearted (which prompted stronger popular demands) and coupled with brutal repression (which further undermined their credibility); to its so-called security solution (which, by seeking to force entire communities into submission further energised the opposition and pushed it toward armed resistance); and, finally, to its so-called military solution (a scorched earth policy of rampant destruction and looting that turned what once was viewed as a national army into a broadly reviled occupation force).

With each stage, the regime burned yet another bridge, leaving it with neither way back nor way out. Just as the political solution undermined those involved in politics and the security situation wrecked the security services’ ability to operate, so did the military solution eviscerate the army’s credibility.

Social dynamics have evolved as well, a case of what one might call the good, the bad and the ugly. The good was better than anticipated: a remarkably vibrant, courageous and resilient civil society that has mobilised networks of assistance and kept in check some of the worst forms of violence to which any armed opposition operating in a poisonous environment might have resorted. Intensified regime brutality failed to subdue popular protests; if anything, it gave them a shot in the arm. Surprising none more than itself, Syria’s opposition rediscovered a sense of solidarity, community and national pride.

The bad involves those features (sectarianism, fundamentalism, jihadi and foreign fighters) that a prolonged battle virtually was bound to unearth and attract and that the regime did its utmost to exacerbate. Several opposition groups have adopted an increasingly fundamentalist discourse and demeanour, a trajectory that mirrors the conflict’s gradually deadlier and more confessional turn; popular loss of faith in the West; as well as mounting pledges of support from Gulf Arab states such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar. All this could be – and, looking back, was predicted to be – far worse. In the tug of war between society’s demons and its ability to resist them, the most encouraging aspect has been Syrians’ at times striking self-awareness, grasp of dangers ahead and attempts at course correction. Yet, this hardly justifies complacency.

That is because the ugly is truly alarming. From the start of the crisis, the gulf between pro-opposition and pro-regime constituencies has grown exponentially. As if living in parallel worlds, each ostracises the other, meeting almost only in battle. Among armed rebels, activists and protesters, deeply-rooted, atavistic anti-Alawite (and anti-Shiite) prejudice resurfaces more intensely as time goes by: the minority community’s ways are alien, their mores primitive, their presence unnatural. Likewise, when evoking the fate of their foes, even mainstream Alawites can resort to bloodcurdling language.

Whether it be their perceptions of past, present or future, the two sides stand poles apart. Opposition circles tend to focus on the injustices perpetrated by a minority, Alawite-dominated regime; identify their current oppressors as mostly Alawite security forces; celebrate a newly discovered culture of solidarity and social cohesion; and look forward to the day the present power structure will be undone.

Alawites for the most part recall centuries of discrimination and persecution at the hands of distant rulers and urban elites, often drawn from the surrounding Sunni majority. They can see nothing of the revived sense of camaraderie from which, their own tremendous losses and pain notwithstanding, they have been excluded. They experience solely the darkest side of a merciless conflict. And, whether or not they took part in regime brutality, they expect to pay a heavy price should President Bashar Assad be toppled: the existing security services will be wiped out; the Baath party probably will be outlawed; and bureaucratic purges likely will occur. Contrary to conventional wisdom, Syria’s is not an Alawite regime, and that community hardly lives in opulence. But it is a regime thanks to which the Alawites overcame their second-class status and escaped a history of harassment and massacres. Members of the opposition might contemplate triumphant success. Alawites worry about collective eradication.

Of all the ongoing changes, perhaps the most significant and least appreciated is what, over time, has become of the regime. The one that existed at the outset of the conflict almost certainly could not have survived the spectacular killing of top officials in the heart of its traditional stronghold; street combat in Damascus, Aleppo and a string of other towns; the loss of important border crossings with Turkey and Iraq; all amid near-total economic devastation and diplomatic opprobrium. That, a year and a half later, its new incarnation not only withstood those blows but vigorously counterpunched sends a message worthy of reflection.

As its political backbone disintegrates, the regime is being reduced to its repressive apparatus, while the latter itself gradually morphs into an entity more akin to a militia than an army in both make-up and ethos. The regime essentially has been stripped down to a broadly cohesive, hardcore faction fighting an increasingly bitter, fierce and naked struggle for collective survival. It is mutating in ways that make it impervious to political and military setbacks, indifferent to pressure and unable to negotiate. Opposition gains terrify Alawites, who stand more firmly by the regime’s side. Defections solidify the ranks of those who remain loyal. Territorial losses can be dismissed for the sake of concentrating on “useful” geographic areas. Sanctions give rise to an economy of violence wherein pillaging, looting and smuggling ensure self-sufficiency and over which punitive measures have virtually no bearing. That the regime has been weakened is incontrovertible. But it has been weakened in ways that strengthen its staying power.

These multiple mutations carry practical implications. First, from a military standpoint, it is becoming clearer by the day that the outcome will be much messier than either party to the conflict once hoped. The regime will not succeed in suppressing the armed groups; if anything, its ruthless practices have guaranteed a virtually limitless pool of recruits prepared to fight with the opposition at any cost. Conversely, both the regime – by design – and its opponents – through negligence – appear to have ensured that a large portion of the Alawite community now feels it has no option but to kill or be killed.

Secondly, there can be nothing more to expect from a regime that, by its very nature – never much of an institutionalised state, no longer genuinely a political entity – has ceased being in a position to compromise, respond to pressure or inducement or offer a viable solution. Which means that the traditional international panoply of actions, from public blandishments to condemnation, from threats to sanctions, is not about to work. And that, while one still can hold out hope for a “clean break”, that moment when the regime neatly collapses or surrenders, it hardly warrants holding one’s breath.

Thirdly, the opposition should rethink how it deals with pro-regime constituencies in general and Alawites in particular – how it acts, speaks and plans. No single indiscriminate massacre of Alawites has yet to be documented, but given current dynamics one almost assuredly lies around the corner. The opposition has tended to downplay its less attractive characteristics: it blames rising sectarianism solely on the regime’s divisive tactics; dismisses increasingly religious, if not fundamentalist, overtones as reversible side-effects of the crisis; attributes armed groups’ alleged crimes to mere indiscipline; and shrugs off the still-limited but increasingly visible presence of jihadis and foreign fighters. There are logical reasons for all these tendencies to appear. There is no justification for belittling them. Failing to seriously address them now could haunt all Syrians later. The danger of widespread sectarian reprisals, indiscriminate killings and large-scale displacement is frighteningly real.

Rhetoric also matters, as does the content of transition plans. When the opposition says it will topple the regime, what Alawites hear is that their source of income, employment, and physical protection will be eliminated. When it evokes the undoing of the system and all its institutions, they hear a return to second-class citizenry. When it speaks of justice and accountability, they hear the threat of collective retribution. On all these issues, the opposition should engage in intensive efforts to clarify its meaning, reassure minorities and reassess the scope and speed of the changes it intends to introduce.

For those Syrians who have endured seventeen months of repression at the hands of a ruthless regime, for whom the instinct of revenge, understandably, must be hard to suppress, these must seem callous, inappropriate, perhaps even offensive questions. Yet raising them is a necessity if the transition for which they are struggling is to be worthy of the sacrifices they will have endured getting there.

Damascus/Brussels, 1 August 2012

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