Crossroads in Idlib: HTS navigating internal divisions amid popular discontent

As the world focuses on Israel’s war in Gaza, northwest Syria is undergoing a significant political upheaval that could lead to major instability. For the last three months, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), an armed Sunni Islamist group that governs more 4.5 million people in the Idlib region, has been facing widespread protests. Rejecting the group’s policies, the demonstrators have called for the removal of its leader Abu Muhammad al-Jolani, the release of detainees, and the improvement of living conditions. The protests come at a difficult time for HTS, which has faced other recent challenges as well, including the assassination, on April 5, of one of its most senior figures, Abu Maria al-Qahtani, who was released from a prison run by the group after over six months in detention for what has been described as collaboration with external entities. Additionally, in December 2023, another high-ranking figure, Abu Ahmad Zakour, who was in charge of HTS’s relationships with the Syrian National Army (SNA), defected from the group and escaped to Turkish-controlled areas of Syria after HTS sent a heavily armed unit to apprehend him, resulting in the death of his associate.

This article examines these recent developments and argues that it is HTS’s shift, beginning in 2017, from a jihadi group primarily concerned with fighting the Syrian regime and its allies into a clientelist regime in which different internal factions compete for financial gain and influence that has led to the current political turmoil and likely the assassination of al-Qahtani. HTS now faces a critical juncture: Widespread public unrest and deepening internal divisions among the most influential figures within the group pose a formidable challenge that threatens HTS’s unity and cohesion. Should it fail to meet public demands and bridge the divides between its competing factions, northwest Syria’s future will be more uncertain than ever.1

Unrest

Public outcry in various areas of Idlib has been sparked by a confluence of factors, including the dire living conditions facing local communities. These difficulties have been exacerbated by the inadequate aid delivery to Idlib following the February 2023 earthquakes, as well as mismanagement and corruption within HTS. Economic instability is compounding these issues, driven in large part by the devaluation of the Turkish lira against the dollar, which has led to rising prices. Additionally, the scarcity of employment opportunities, the lack of income for many citizens, and the imposition of taxes and fees by the Public Authority for Zakat, which collects money and taxes from farmers, owners of fruit tree orchards, merchants, and industrialists in Idlib, have further strained living conditions. The Syrian Salvation Government, through which the group rules in Idlib, has retracted some of these taxes and fees in the face of demonstrations, highlighting the financial pressures contributing to the unrest.

The recent protests have been further fueled by HTS’s long-standing campaign of detaining opposition voices, including those from the unarmed Islamist group Hizb al-Tahrir, which is popular across northwest Syria. HTS accuses the group of provoking public opinion against it. Another critical driver of the unrest has been the protestors’ disillusionment with HTS’s handling of the so-called “collaborators’ case.” Over the past six months, HTS has detained more than 400 of its own members and officials, accusing them of collaborating with external entities such as the US-led international coalition, Russia, the Syrian regime, and Hezbollah. Although the majority were eventually released after being cleared of charges, many have since spoken out about the severe torture they endured while in detention. “We demand a transparent judicial process. We want to know why we were arrested in the first place and who will be held accountable for their torture. Al-Jolani’s apology is insufficient; we seek justice for these transgressions,” explained one of those recently released, as he recounted his experiences to the author.

Al-Qahtani

Among those who were released but never tortured was Abu Maria al-Qahtani. Originating from the Mosul region of Iraq and a prominent member of the al-Jabour tribe, which spans both Syria and Iraq, al-Qahtani has been pivotal in forging alliances with tribal leaders in north and northeast Syria. Known as al-Khal, or “the uncle,” among his followers, a title denoting respect in the Levant, he was arguably one of the most influential figures in HTS after its leader, Abu Muhammad al-Jolani. Together, they established HTS’s predecessor, Jabhat al-Nusra (JN), in late 2011. Al-Qahtani’s role in forging critical alliances was essential not only for HTS’s survival and unity but also during the group’s strategic splits from Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaeda (AQ) in 2013 and 2017, respectively, of which al-Qahtani was the architect. Moreover, he also worked to consolidate the group’s presence and enhance its image as a “partner” for the international community in its fight against terrorist groups. Until his arrest last August, al-Qahtani was in charge of the IS file (also known as the al-Khawarij file) within HTS and managed it effectively.2 According to Aaron Zelin, HTS conducted 59 counter-IS operations between 2018 and 2022. These led to the arrest of 279 individuals, with 40 people killed while being apprehended — either from HTS gunfire or because they detonated explosives to avoid capture. Al-Qahtani was also tasked with combating the AQ affiliate in Syria, Hurras al-Din (HaD), as indicated by the group’s loyalists.

Al-Qahtani’s assassination raises questions about who carried out the attack and the fragile state of security in Idlib. According to HTS, an IS suicide bomber visited al-Qahtani in his public majlis (a reception area for guests) and detonated himself. However, opponents of the group and al-Qahtani’s loyalists within HTS have quickly pointed fingers at the HTS leadership, accusing it of eliminating al-Qahtani along with the secrets he possessed. Rejecting the HTS narrative, they claim it was an explosive device hidden in a box holding a sword and sent by the HTS leadership to kill al-Qahtani. Some have also accused HaD of being behind the attack. While the true identity of the attackers remains unclear, a source who was present and injured in the explosion told the author, “It was a suicide bomber who detonated right in front of me, using a timed device,” corroborating the official HTS statement about the nature of the operation but revealing very little about the potential perpetrators.

One way to answer this question is to look at the interests of all those mentioned and their capacity to carry out suicide bombings. Arguably, all of those discussed had an interest in killing al-Qahtani, albeit to varying degrees. Indeed, al-Qahtani’s role in combating IS, HaD, and other local groups supported by Turkey, along with his recent tensions with the HTS leadership, made him a desirable target for all of them. Nevertheless, few are known to have such a modus operandi and the capacity to carry out such an attack. For example, there is little evidence to suggest that HaD was behind the operation, given that the group has apparently ceased to exist since its last known operation in December 2020, conducted in the south of al-Hasakah against Russian forces. Moreover, despite its intense fighting with HTS in 2020, when HaD was leading thousands of fighters under its military coalition, known as “So Be Steadfast,” it never adopted a strategy of targeting HTS figures in this manner. The Turkish-backed SNA also has limited capacity to infiltrate al-Qahtani’s inner circle, and it has never resorted to such attacks in the past, leaving HTS or IS as the likely suspects.

Although the HTS leadership may have reasons to wish for al-Qahtani’s disappearance, given his popularity and influence, such an action would likely provoke outrage from his loyalists within the group — and indeed, as expected, they have gone on alert since he was killed. Also, al-Qahtani’s release from prison and HTS’s semi-official welcome of his return suggest the HTS leadership was not interested in targeting him. Weeks before his killing, a well-placed source close to al-Qahtani indicated to the author that al-Qahtani’s release was the first step toward his reintegration into the group. Nevertheless, al-Qahtani’s opponents within HTS might benefit from his death, whether or not the HTS leadership was aware of the plot to kill him. As will be detailed later in this article, there is an influential faction within the group that not only had every reason to eliminate him but also had the ability to do so. For its part, IS, too, had both the motive, due to al-Qahtani’s effective countermeasures against its operatives, as well as the means to execute such an operation. More importantly, the method used is a signature of IS, as rightly noted by Aaron Zelin, mirroring the style of IS’s attack on Abu Khalid al-Suri, the leader of Ahrar al-Sham, in 2014.

Internal strife

Another recent challenge for HTS was the defection of Abu Ahamad Zakour, who had been a key figure within the group, albeit one with less influence than al-Qahtani. He is known for his extensive involvement in various capacities since the group’s early days, including his role as the JN leader in Aleppo. Zakour was also responsible for managing the group’s public relations, focusing on infiltrating SNA factions to weaken their ranks. His tribal roots and connections with rural Aleppo factions facilitated HTS’s advance into Afrin without resistance in October 2022. After fleeing to the SNA-controlled city of A’zaz, HTS brigades sought to arrest Zakour and a few of his associates before the SNA and the Turkish army intervened to save him. After his escape, Zakour leveled several serious accusations against HTS and its leader, including that al-Jolani was complicit in an August 2016 bombing in Atmeh on the Turkey-Syria border that resulted in the death of dozens of Free Syrian Army members and civilians. However, as Ayman Jawad al-Tamimi noted, IS had claimed responsibility for the attack, casting doubt on the likelihood that HTS was involved.

It has been argued that al-Qahtani’s arrest resulted from his involvement in, alongside Zakour, two potential coup plots against the HTS leadership in collaboration with the US-led international coalition. The first was to target a meeting attended by al-Jolani and other leaders, when both al-Qahtani and Zakour were absent. The second was to orchestrate an arrest during a meeting at the Bab al-Hawa crossing, after which al-Qahtani would assume leadership of HTS. Although Zakour denied his involvement in any coup plots, he acknowledged that the rumor has heightened al-Jolani’s sense of insecurity. Sources have echoed Zakour’s story, claiming that it was the HTS official in charge of the “collaborators” file within the General Security Apparatus, Abu Obayda Munazmat, who was behind al-Qahtani’s arrest, as he sought to undermine his influence and put an end to his career within HTS. In any event, Zakour does not seem to have the necessary popularity and influence to lead HTS post-al-Jolani, while al-Qahtani’s status as an Iraqi national significantly reduces his likelihood of leading a predominantly Syrian group.

From a strategic standpoint, it is implausible that the international coalition would be involved in or endorse such plots. First, al-Jolani is already effectively suppressing IS and AQ cells, thereby providing relative stability in the region — a result that Turkey values highly. As argued by Charles Lister, “Not only does HTS no longer represent the international terrorism threat that its predecessor once had, it has also almost entirely squashed the global threat posed by its more extreme rivals.” Second, despite Turkey’s alleged assistance in Zakour’s escape from HTS custody, both Washington and Ankara imposed sanctions on him in May 2023 for his involvement in financing terrorism, signaling their disapproval. This complicates any rationale for supporting Zakour and casts doubt on the feasibility of such plans.

According to HTS’s justifications, which were published after his arrest in August 2023, al-Qahtani “mishandled his communications, a serious lapse given the sensitive nature of his role. Consequently, he was relieved of his duties until the issue could be thoroughly and transparently resolved.” The HTS statement was carefully crafted in a way that did not explicitly accuse al-Qahtani of cooperation with the international coalition. The HTS leadership seems to be aware that such accusations would harm the group’s image and create the impression that it has been infiltrated at its most senior levels. Also, it makes little sense to believe that al-Qahtani’s communication with any foreign entity took place without the knowledge of the HTS leadership, implicating al-Jolani personally. Following his release, HTS acquitted al-Qahtani and promised to investigate the whole case.

Additionally, it is commonly believed in jihadist circles that al-Qahtani personally collaborated with the international coalition to target senior AQ members in Syria, thereby aiding in the elimination of HTS’s enemies. While this claim remains unverified, HTS’s collaboration with the international coalition to combat IS and AQ in Syria is an open secret. Despite the United States designating HTS as a terrorist organization and offering a $10 million reward for information leading to al-Jolani’s capture, it has thus far refrained from attacking HTS or its leader. Al-Jolani’s ability to attend public gatherings and move freely, even under the surveillance of international coalition drones, could partially be attributed to HTS’s effective management of the IS file.

From jihadism to clientelism

If plotting a coup against the HTS leadership is improbable and HTS’s collaboration with the international coalition does not appear to be a complicating factor, this raises two main questions: Why did HTS expel two key figures instrumental in its military dominance of northwestern Syria? And was al-Qahtani’s killing an inside job? Answering these requires understanding HTS’s evolution from a jihadi group with a limited governance role during wartime, when it faced existential threats, to a clientelist regime in a period of relative peace. In this latter phase, the group rules through the Syrian Salvation Government and competition for influence and financial gains has become the defining feature of its circles of power.

Following its last rebranding and divorce from AQ with its jihadi-Salafi ideology in early 2017, the HTS leadership has actively sought to dominate the religious field in Idlib and to reshape the ideological orientations within its rank and file. In March 2019, HTS established the High Council of Fatwa, run by al-Jolani’s advisers, to monopolize the production of fatwas — formal rulings or interpretations on a point of Islamic law by a qualified legal scholar. As noted by Jerome Drevon and Patrick Haenni, the establishment of a High Council of Fatwa, serving as a central religious authority, aims to reduce the sway of global jihadi-Salafi ideologues and lessen the influence of the remaining extremists within the group. Additionally, HTS has cracked down on IS cells and AQ loyalists, such as Sami al-Uraydi, Abu Farouk al-Shami, Abu Julaybib al-Urduni, and others who defected to form the AQ-affiliated group HaD in 2018. HTS also expelled members with relatively less extreme views, including figures from what is termed the “Egyptian current” within the group, specifically Abu Shu’ayb al-Masri, Abu al-Yaqzan al-Masri, Abu al-Fateh al-Farghali, and Abu al-Hareth al-Mesri. Except for the latter, who served as a judge in HTS, the others held the religious position of shar’i, responsible for the theological aspects of the group, including teaching religion, issuing fatwas, and motivating fighters before battles.

The purge of hardliners, often seen as an effort to polish HTS’s international image and potentially remove it from global terrorism lists, has prompted the group to adopt a more moderate approach in governance, its implementation of shari’a law, and in interactions with state and non-state actors in the Syrian conflict, such as Turkey and the SNA. Yet, despite the reduced influence of jihadi-Salafi ideology, which was once central to HTS’s internal structure and intra-group dynamics, this shift has not led to a formal institutionalization within the group itself. While HTS managed to establish a semi-technocratic government in Idlib in 2018, where officials are largely appointed based on merit with the endorsement of the HTS leadership, the group has not replicated this model in its own hierarchical structure.

Power struggle

Currently, the criteria for securing leadership roles within HTS hinge primarily on proximity to al-Jolani, which in turn depends on members’ social capital, encompassing factors such as tribal affiliations, regional influence, and popularity among fighters. In return for their loyalty, the HTS leadership provides resources, which can be material like jobs, contracts, and money, or non-material like protection and influence. A close look at HTS’s internal structure reveals that clientelism significantly influences its organizational dynamics. This is particularly evident in the three main currents within HTS. Each of these currents, while varying in their degree of influence, plays a distinct role in bolstering the HTS leadership, providing different levels of support and legitimacy (see chart below).3

The Eastern-Aleppo Current within HTS comprises two closely aligned blocs: the eastern bloc and the Aleppo bloc. The eastern bloc primarily consists of members from Syria’s eastern tribal regions loyal to al-Qahtani. His influence was evident when hundreds of HTS members and officials publicly celebrated his release and visited him to show their support. Prominent figures in this bloc include HTS Shura Council member Dr. Mazhar Luise, who according to a well-placed source played a major role in securing al-Qahtani’s release by mediating with al-Jolani. Idlib’s security official Abu Muhjen al-Haskawi and Abu Muhammad Shuhail, who was arrested following al-Qahtani’s detention in August, are also part of this bloc, as is Zaid al-Attar, head of the Political Affairs Department.4 Known as the HTS foreign relations officer, al-Attar is close to al-Jolani and exerts great influence over the Syrian Salvation Government. Al-Attar was with al-Qahtani when he was assassinated and was also injured in the attack. The second part of the Eastern-Aleppo Current, the Aleppo bloc, comprises fighters from Aleppo’s rural tribes loyal to Abu Ahmad Zakour. While the Eastern-Aleppo Current enjoys a significant degree of influence rooted in its tribal connections, it is constrained by its limited control over economic resources.

Conversely, the al-Sham-Idlib Current is deeply embedded within HTS and exerts substantial control over both the group and regional resources. The Benish bloc, a significant part of the al-Sham-Idlib Current, primarily consists of fighters from the Idlib region, especially the town of Benish. Its leading figures, the brothers Qutayba Badawi, also known as al-Mughira Benish, and Huzayfa Badawi, also known as Abu Hafes Benish, play pivotal roles. The former holds considerable influence over the Bab al-Hawa crossing with Turkey, while the latter, once the leader of the “Talha ibn al-Zubair” brigade — one of HTS’s 12 military brigades — resigned following the release of al-Qahtani. It should be noted that the town of Benish has been among the areas most affected by demonstrations, fueled by the Badawi brothers. Their marital connections to al-Jolani significantly enhance their influence and solidify their standing within the organization’s inner circle.5 Moreover, Abd al-Rahim Attoun, the general shar’i and highest religious authority within HTS, supports this current.

The al-Sham-Idlib Current also includes the al-Sham bloc led by Abu Ahmad Hdoud, also known as Wissam al-Shar’, al-Jolani’s first deputy and the director of general security, along with Obayda Munazmat, who is allegedly responsible for the arrest of al-Qahtani and his loyalists. Sources claims that Munazmat was detained and that Hdoud has recently resigned, developments that could be interpreted as signs of disapproval of al-Qahtani’s release. Hdoud is known as al-Jolani’s “black box,” safeguarding the organization’s secrets, particularly regarding truces with the regime, and overseeing al-Jolani’s personal security. Hdoud is believed to be the man who handled al-Qahtani’s arrest and initial interrogation. Additionally, this bloc also includes HTS’s financial officer Abu Majed al-Shami, who is married to the sister of al-Jolani’s wife. While the blocs of this current have their internal disagreements, they have managed to unify against the Eastern-Aleppo Current.

Lastly, there is al-Jolani’s Current, which consists of economically influential figures who have maintained their loyalty to the group’s leader, avoiding inter-bloc tensions. These include Mustafa Qadid, who wields control over a significant portion of Idlib’s economy and is regarded as al-Jolani’s economic representative in the region. Referred to as the “mastermind” behind HTS’s economic strategy, Qadid founded a money transfer and currency exchange enterprise, al-Waseet, which subsequently expanded into Sham Bank. Some also suggest that he was behind the establishment of the largest petroleum company in Idlib, Watad. His network is known to manage a range of economic activities, benefiting al-Jolani and a select group of associates, with ventures including bakeries, financial services, and the import of goods from Turkey. Another figure in this current is Abu Ibrahim Salameh, who controls the construction section through his company al-Raqi, which has secured contracts for paving each of the Aleppo-Bab al-Hawa roads connecting the cities of Sarmada and Dana in the northern part of Idlib. The current also include al-Jolani’s brother, Abu Majed, who has headed the Court of First Instance in Sarmada since its establishment in 2018. He also served as the general official of the Public Authority for Zakat, which, although intended to be an independent institution, essentially functions to channel money from taxes into HTS’s coffers.

Quantifying the number of fighters within each faction and assessing their influence is a challenging task. What can be stated, however, is that power struggles between them have played a significant role in shaping the group’s internal dynamics and the recent political turmoil. The release of al-Qahtani and hundreds of other HTS members from prison, after being acquitted of charges of collaboration with foreign entities, followed by the suspension and resignation of prominent figures from the al-Sham-Idlib Current, indicates that while al-Qahtani’s communication with foreign actors is not beyond belief, his arrest and the attempts to curtail his influence within the group are likely the result of internal infighting and political liquidations among these currents. Whether his killing was orchestrated or facilitated by his adversaries within HTS is difficult to confirm, but the fact that his enemies were in control of the security sector in Idlib raises questions about whether they were potentially involved or at least turned a blind eye to a security breach that took place.

Looking ahead

Only time will tell the true identity of al-Qahtani’s killer. His killing, however, may lead to significant internal turmoil within HTS. Should HTS fail to convincingly dissociate itself from the assassination, there is a possibility that al-Qahtani’s followers, especially those from the eastern region, might defect. This could undermine the group’s internal cohesion and threaten its unity. Nevertheless, the HTS leadership has established strong relationships with local tribal figures, including members of its Shura Council, like Dr. Mazhar Luise from the eastern region, which may mitigate the impact of al-Qahtani’s death. Al-Qahtani’s absence could also have operational repercussions as well. Without him, HTS might struggle to counter threats effectively, potentially leading to an increase in activities by rival groups in the region, particularly IS. The assassination has also been perceived differently by those within the group, with some believing it was a clear message from the HTS leadership to those who challenge its authority, leading to a sense of insecurity within the group’s inner circle.

Zakour’s return, on the other hand, seems highly unlikely, compelling HTS to reconsider its strategy toward the SNA. His tribal connections with SNA factions were crucial in HTS’s unopposed military expansion into Olive Branch areas in October 2022. His flight to Azaz, in the Euphrates Shield area, to avoid HTS capture, highlights his ties with the SNA, an HTS rival. Without Zakour, HTS will likely face challenges in maintaining its dual strategy of cooptation and coercion with the SNA, which may result in an escalation in violence.

Recent events present a challenging test for HTS, revealing its internal discord and lack of institutional depth, and exposing its vulnerabilities. Stabilizing the situation will require the leadership to take strategic measures to recalibrate the power dynamics among its competing factions and to address local community demands. While HTS’s handling of the protests has so far been relatively restrained, with no fatalities reported, the escalating dissatisfaction in Idlib demands substantive actions from the leadership that go beyond mere superficial adjustments. Fulfilling some community demands would be a feasible option, while other potential steps, such as al-Jolani stepping down, remain highly unlikely. The future of the group, and the region, hinges on HTS’s management of internal conflicts and its responsiveness to the needs of the local population.

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