At the end of 2021, prominent organization in Northern Syria called the Committee for the Liberation of the Levant, in Arabic “Hayat Tahrir al-Sham” (HTS), may be on the eve of a profound change that involves ideological and operational levels. Founded in January 2017 as the successor of Jabhat al-Nusra, the movement has remained, so far, the leading Salafi-Jihadist force in Idlib enclave; however, over the last years it faced a number of internal and external challenges. In fact, Syrian army campaigns and Russian airstrikes affected its military capacity and eventually brought to the loss of many villages in southern province Idlib and northwestern governorate of Aleppo. In addition, the never solved competition within the Salafi-Jihadist galaxy emerged as one of the most concerning issues. For instance, the Guardians of the Religion, a faction loyal to al-Qaeda, contested its hegemony and between 2020 and 2021 carried out a series of attacks and kidnappings among the local population, provoking the immediate reaction of the inhabitants who protested against the Committee for lack of security and patrol.
For this reason, Abu Muhamad al-Jawlani, leader of Tahrir al-Sham, set out a new agenda that should re-launch his organization in the Syrian scenario transforming it into a “quasi-state”. Firstly, he is, apparently, distancing from transnational Jihadism ideology: after having severed its ties with al-Qaeda and reduced the presence of foreign fighters within his ranks, the leader is now adopting a “moderate” Islamist approach, with the aim of make HTS a recognized actor before the international community and regional powers, following Taliban’s modus operandi in Afghanistan. Secondly, he strengthened police forces and security apparatus; as a consequence, in the last months the group increased its effort in contrasting not only rival movements like the Guardians of Religion, but also common crime, thus giving a feel of safety for the Syrians living in rebel-held territories. Third, he shifted progressively policy focus from warfare to welfare: the institution of a civil or, more precisely, non-military body named Syrian Salvation Government (SSG) has been intended for this purpose.
This “moderate” path, together with a more conciliatory propaganda, became evident in December 2021, when al-Jawlani attended, for the first time in civilian clothes, the inauguration of a new market in Idlib. At the beginning of January 2022, he made another appearance at an official event for the reopening of the street that connects Aleppo with Bab al-Hawa, the key crossing border with Turkey . According to him, these actions represent the first steps of a broader project of reconstruction, investments, and economic recovery .
Notwithstanding, such reformist program hides several problems. The Committee, as a matter of fact, is still considered as a terrorist organization by the US and state actors involved in Syrian civil war. During the last “International Meeting on Syria” held in Nur Sultan on 22nd December 2021, delegations of Turkey, Russia and Iran “reaffirmed the need for continued cooperation in order to ultimately eliminate the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), Hayat Tahrir al-Sham/Jabhat al-Nusra and all other individuals” . In addition, SSG remains a branch of the military base and its peaceful intentions contrast with latest recruitment campaign , hinting that warfare remains a pillar of the movement.
Furthermore, Tahrir al-Sham stability continues to be precarious due to a negative economic conjuncture: recent droughts in Syria have diminished wheat production and the Turkish Lira depreciation have caused a sensible rise of food prices. In the light of this, it is possible that this recent political shift may be reversed, revealing the extremist nature that characterized the organization in the past.
Ph.D. in Institutions and Policies, researcher at OASIS International Foundation and Teaching Assistant in Geopolitics, History of Islamic Asia, History of Civilization and Political Culture at the Catholic University of Milan. His research areas include Arab and Mediterranean geopolitics, history of MENA region, Arab secular and religious movements.