HTS, in control of Idlib, preserving ties to al-Qaeda

“Throughout its numerous iterations, HTS has not altered its ideology and is still widely thought to maintain links with al-Qaeda.”
Friday 25/01/2019
Syrian fighters attend a mock battle in anticipation of an attack by the regime on Idlib province and the surrounding countryside, August 14, 2018. (AFP)
Coming showdown. Syrian fighters attend a mock battle in anticipation of an attack by the regime on Idlib province and the surrounding countryside, August 14, 2018. (AFP)
The jihadist group controlling Idlib province in north-western Syria claims to have broken with al-Qaeda but analysts said that, despite several rebrandings, there’s no sign it has changed its ideology.
 
Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) has changed both names and leaders and statements posted on the internet suggest it severed ties with al-Qaeda, the Sunni Islamist terror group founded by Osama bin Laden. However, experts dismiss such claims, saying the organisation is attempting to confuse intelligence agencies.
 
Jabhat al-Nusra, the rebel faction that gave birth to HTS, announced in July 2016 it had broken with al-Qaeda but this was just “rebranding while maintaining a secret pledge of allegiance,” said Hassan Hassan, of the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy in Washington. “HTS maintained links with al-Qaeda’s loyalists in northern Syria and even allocated areas and resources for its supposed rivals,” he said.

Some jihadist groups in Idlib officially pay allegiance to al-Qaeda, led by Ayman al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian, since bin Laden’s death. These include Hurras al-Din, a faction of a few thousand jihadists, mainly Syrians and foreign veterans of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The group includes members of the Turkistan Islamic Party, a jihadist group dominated by Uighur fighters, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has its headquarters in the United Kingdom.Hurras al-Din fought alongside HTS when it took control of Idlib from other rebel groups backed by Turkey.

HTS claims more than 25,000 fighters, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Jean-Pierre Filiu, a professor at the Sciences Po university in Paris said: “Al-Qaeda remains a centralised organisation, with a strong top-to-bottom line of command. There are a number of indications suggesting that HTS has only staged its ‘break’ from al-Qaeda.,”

Jabhat al-Nusra might have sought to distance itself from al-Qaeda because an association would put its fighters in the crosshairs for US air strikes.

“While HTS proclaims that it is an independent entity not affiliated with al-Qaeda, the organisation grew out of al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra, following a series of strategic rebrandings,” US think-tank Soufan said. “Throughout its numerous iterations, HTS has not altered its ideology and is still widely thought to maintain links with al-Qaeda.”

HTS has extended its administrative hold on Idlib under its so-called Salvation government after years of cultivating grassroots ties with residents.

On January 14, Syria’s National Coalition, the leading exiled opposition group, branded the HTS a “terrorist organisation,” a designation applied by the US Embassy in Damascus since May 2017.

“The core of HTS is Nusra, a designated terrorist organisation. This designation applies regardless of what name it uses or what groups merge into it,” the embassy said via Twitter at the time.

(AFP)