The Platform

U.S. soldiers stationed in Syria in 2021. (Jensen Guillory)

Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham has emerged as the next big threat in Syria.

In the global consciousness, the perception is growing that we are witnessing the final days of ISIS and that the war on terror waged by the United States and its allies in Syria is nearing its end. But in one overlooked corner of Syria, jihadists not only find safe haven but are flourishing. Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), otherwise known as Tahrir al-Sham, has effectively tightened its grip on Idlib province, operating as a de facto state within the micro-state it forged.

Tahrir al-Sham follows the Salafist school of thought, akin to al-Qaeda’s ideology. It has imposed a strict version of Islamic law in the regions it controls and stands accused of heinous human rights abuses—torture, forced disappearance, rape, and violence, including killings in detention. Tahrir al-Sham also harbors foreign fighters from Turkey, Chechnya, Uzbekistan, and China’s Xinjiang province. Their stance toward heterodox minorities such as the Druze, Christians, and Alawites remains unchanged. In fact, Tahrir al-Sham in Idlib province can be seen as both a facilitator and provider of an ecosystem for jihadist forces to function and regroup. However, Western policymakers remain fixated on defeating ISIS, overlooking Tahrir al-Sham and its affiliates.

In the past, Tahrir al-Sham has attempted to signal, through various mergers, that it severed ties with al-Qaeda. Yet these mergers don’t point to an ideological split with al-Qaeda, but rather a calculated strategy to bolster its appeal within Syria. Numerous smaller factions within Syria, proclaiming loyalty to al-Qaeda, including some Tahrir al-Sham defectors, have united to form a group called Hurras al-Din, or al-Qaeda in Syria. This group, officially announced in February 2018, is considered the official branch of al-Qaeda in Syria and operates primarily in Idlib province. It would be mistaken to think that Hurras al-Din exists apart from Tahrir al-Sham, as its dominance over Idlib ensures that the former cannot function independently or operate without the latter’s awareness.

The controversial leader of HTS, Muhammad al-Jawlani, has been designated a global terrorist by the United States, with a reward of $10 million for information leading to his arrest. Moreover, many ISIS leaders have found refuge in Idlib, evidenced by the fact that several were killed in special operations by the U.S. or Turkey, including ISIS founder Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in October 2019. Though HTS claims to be suppressing both al-Qaeda and Islamic State cells within its territory, evidence suggests this may be a facade, as remnants of ISIS appear to be regrouping in Idlib. A report released by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom in November 2022 corroborates that HTS continues to be a potent force, restricting the religious freedom of non-conforming Sunni Muslims and endangering minority groups.

Idlib, under the control of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, remains a ticking time bomb that arguably poses a greater long-term threat to regional stability and Syria itself. With one phase of the global war on jihad concluded, a new phase must begin, focused on eradicating Tahrir al-Sham. The West’s ability to combat and contain jihadist elements in northwest Syria is restricted, primarily due to exclusion from the regional de-escalation framework agreed between Turkey and Russia. This limits options like using precision airstrikes against the group. Nonetheless, coordination with Turkey and Russia should proceed without hesitation, as Tahrir al-Sham and its extremist network continue to represent one of the gravest long-term challenges for Western nations intent on eradicating extremism from Syria. Amid Syria’s complex and multifaceted conflict, one certainty remains: Tahrir al-Sham must be isolated, marginalized, and defeated before a stable peace can take hold in the region.

Manish Rai is a geopolitical analyst and columnist for the Middle East and Af-Pak region and the editor of geopolitical news agency ViewsAround (VA). He has done reporting from Jordon, Iran, and Afghanistan. His work has been quoted in the British Parliament.