Al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate faces battlefield reversals and loss of territory

Al-Qaeda-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) is being forced back in Idlib and Aleppo by the Syria Liberation Front (JTS).
Thursday 15/03/2018
Fighters from the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham fire missiles from a village near al-Tabanah in Syria's Idlib province, in January. (AFP)
Fighters from the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham fire missiles from a village near al-Tabanah in Syria's Idlib province, in January. (AFP)

TUNIS - Al-Qaeda-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) is experiencing its most significant battlefield defeats since the group’s 2012 emergence within the Syrian conflict.

HTS has been pounded by regime and Russian air strikes in the Damascus suburb of Eastern Ghouta and forced back in Idlib and Aleppo by the Syria Liberation Front (JTS), a new coalition of HTS allies Nour al-Din al-Zenki and the ultraconservative Ahrar al-Sham.

Despite the setbacks, HTS remains one of Syria’s most prominent jihadist militias, controlling large areas around Idlib and able to call on thousands of committed and experienced fighters across much of northern Syria.

However, the dominance that established the group as one of Syria’s pre-eminent jihadist forces is being challenged. Claiming up to 25,000 fighters, JTS appears intent on displacing HTS in northern Syria. That commitment was apparent in weeks of violence and bloodshed between JTS fighters and HTS, already beset by internal division and defections.

In the Damascus suburb of Eastern Ghouta, the presence of approximately 300 HTS fighters among a rebel cohort estimated at 20,000 has allowed the regime bombardment to continue past the UN-imposed ceasefire of February 24.

However, the tide appears to be turning. The New York Times reported that 13 HTS fighters had been ejected from the enclave and boarded buses to Idlib under the direction of the region’s other rebel militias. An unknown number is also said to be in the custody of Jaysh al-Islam, Eastern Ghouta’s dominant rebel group.

Though there is no suggestion that JTS may be acting on the instructions of an external government, HTS’s entrenched position within Idlib and the region’s potential as a launchpad for foreign attacks has caused growing international concern.

Brett McGurk, the US envoy for the coalition against the Islamic State, characterised the province last year as the largest al-Qaeda haven since Osama bin Laden’s days in Afghanistan. JTS’s current offensive looks to be testing that dynamic.

The experienced HTS fighters appear to be holding much of their ground. Yazan Mohammed, a media activist in Idlib province, told the Associated Press (AP) that, despite the loss of territory, HTS was far from defeated in Syria. Their fighters, Mohammed said, were “not scouts. They are an organised and powerful group.”

Reinforcing Mohammed’s comments was an HTS counteroffensive in early March, which saw the group regain some lost territory.

Before the counterattack, senior HTS commander Abu Yaqzan al-Masri released an audio recording describing how HTS would crush the JTS offensive before returning its focus “to fight infidels,” an apparent reference to the West.

“They will not be able to defeat the committee (another term for HTS),” Abu Dardaa al-Shami, an occasional fighter with HTS told the AP. Shami said he refused to take part in the offensive, explaining that he only fought government forces.

“This is mission impossible,” he said.