- Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham is a union of five Islamist organizations based primarily in the northwestern region of Syria that wants to overthrow Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and replace him with Sharia law.
- The group has fought ISIS and the Syrian government, and has flourished as the focus of the US-led coalition and the Syrian and Russian governments is focused elsewhere in the country.
- There are fears that the group could become the next ISIS, as well as become the only rebel faction against al-Assad’s rule.
With up to 90% of its territory lost, ISIS appears effectively defeated as a conventional foe. But while the black flag of ISIS is being lowered, another may soon take its place – the white flag of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham.
A new report in the Wall Street Journal details HTS’ rise as it consolidates power in northwest Syria. Led by a former Al-Qaeda militant, HTS is mostly based in Syria’s Idlib Governorate and has taken advantage of the US-led coalition’s focus on ISIS in the East, as well as the Syrian government and Russia’s focus on other parts of the country.
HTS came into existence roughly a year ago, when Jabhat Fath al Sham, previously known as the Al Nusrah Front and Al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria until its re-branding in July of 2016, announced a merger with four other islamist groups operating in Syria.
Combined with the other groups, HTS – or the Assembly for Liberation of the Levant – was created.
The reason for its existence, according to its propaganda, is “to unite our banners and to preserve the fruits and the jihad” of the revolution against Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, so that it can “be the seed of unifying the capacities and strength of this revolution.”
The group’s leader, Abu Mohammad al-Julani, has said that he wants his followers to engage in “a war of ideas, a war of minds, a war of wills, a war of perseverance,” according to the Wall Street Journal, and that he will conquer Damascus – Syria’s capital – and implement Sharia law.
Thr group announced in February that it had defeated the remnants of ISIS militants in Idlib, and a month later said that they had taken control of up to 25 villages in Aleppo and Idlib provinces.
It has created a religious police force in its territory, similar to ISIS’ Hisbah. They enforce Sharia law, control services like electricity and water, and collect taxes from citizens.
The group has also been fighting forces from the Syrian government in Homs, Hama, and Aleppo. But while the terror group continues to grow and solidify its control, the Syrian government and US-led coalition have their attention elsewhere.
“The area seems to be out of focus for Western powers,” Hassan Hassan, an analyst with the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, told the Wall Street Journal. “The jihadis are having a honeymoon there.”