Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and the Sochi balancing act

With only few time left before the deadline of 15 October which marks the establishment of a demilitarized zone around Idlib’s frontlines, Hayat Tahrir al Sham (HTS) issued an official statement on the matter. Those expecting to find clear answers within it, will search in vain. More than expressing an opinion and addressing its message to Turkey and Russia, the statement has become a balancing act meant to appease its own support base.

Above all, the two-page statement titled ‘The revolution of al-Sham will not die’ excels in pragmatism, showing a faction (or its leadership) that is not willing to take a clear stance, or to be more exact; that is leaving the door open for both acceptance and refusal.

Despite reaffirming its commitment to jihad and expressing resistance against Russian involvement, a lot of effort has been put as well in referring to the Syrian armed conflict as a revolution. Something which is not evident, looking to the group’s history of forcibly disbanding other rebel factions and taking down revolutionary flags. Nevertheless the group has allowed free passage of Turkish troops through Bab al-Hawa border crossing to establish observation points in area, which has been proven to be one of the key elements leading up to the Sochi agreement between Turkey and Russia.

Consequentially, the statement is, as pro-government supporters read it, an outward rejection of the deal. They emphasize the group’s unwillingness to withdraw troops from the frontlines. On the other side of the spectrum revolution supporters underline the fact HTS has shown, though in covered terms, it is not planning to disrupt the deal and is offering respect for other factions that fully abide to it.

Above all the ambiguity of the statement is an expression mirroring the internal strain the group is witnessing. Despite publically presenting itself as a strong and unified faction, internal rifts are plaguing HTS for quite some time already. The several transformations HTS underwent, mainly to widen support and become more legitimate, resulted in a faction increasingly suffering from an internal polarization among its members. Differences are growing between jihadist hardliners who prioritize jihad above the local situation and a more locally embedded pragmatic revolutionary wing.

Decision power lies with HTS leader Abu Mohammed al-Jolani, after consultation of senior members, emirs and religious figures.

The latest transformation into Hayat Tahrir al Sham, and the cutting of formal ties with al Qaida caused a breakaway of several senior members and religious figures. Moreover, the arrest of several foreign members raised the question whether HTS is silently organizing a crackdown on more radical elements within its organization, or is just aiming to safeguard its self-preservation.

As a result, several new small jihadist groups were founded, of which the Al Qaida-loyal Huras al Din is the most known, ultimately gravitating into one common operation room (“Intice the Believers”). The operation room could further attract dissatisfied hardliners within HTS who are fed up with the ambiguous stance and are wary of cooperation with Turkey. In a worst case scenario a military offensive by “Intice the Believers” could jeopardize the agreement, and draw Idlib back into a spiral of violence, with all humanitarian consequences.

So far it seems Russia has kept a more flexible approach on the agreement, not caring too much about deadlines and terms. However Moscow is still demanding progress by Turkey. From a practically viewpoint Sochi rather has a quasi-hierarchical implementation with Russia being the demanding party and Turkey the contractor, despite the former also having obligations. Large responsibility still is resting on Turkey’s shoulders.

Even in an ideal scenario, when all terms of the Sochi agreement would be fulfilled, it still is obvious that current status quo cannot last forever. Russia stressed on several occasions the demilitarized zone being a temporary measure, claiming to be only one step towards finding a political solution. Although Turkey agreed to terms, there is a great chance a political solution will never materialize, since waters between the two seem too deep.

With approving Turkish involvement, HTS willingly let in a Trojan horse in its territory. Although cooperation with Ankara so far has gone relatively smoothly, guarantees will never be given, on the contrary. Hence any further Turkish pressure or action on HTS, directly or indirectly could widen internal differences. Ultimately, the group’s own obsession to maximize influence and its urge of self-preservation could deliver the final blow to the group and shatter it into pieces.