Leader Abu Muhammad al Jolani has signalled the group is willing to move towards a more political manifesto, but it is far from a monolithic entity and as the regime advances on Idlib it could lose its bargaining power.

The leader of Idlib's most powerful rebel group, Hayat Tahrir al Sham, outlined his vision saying the group is willing to shift its focus towards a more "political manifesto" and suggested that the organisation doesn't "have a predetermined long-term plan".

Abu Muhammad al Jolani’s interview is with the Crisis Group, which is headquartered in Brussels and is an advocacy group with considerable influence in western policy circles. It comes at a critical moment as Russia and Turkey edge closer towards open confrontation and the humanitarian crisis in Idlib deepens.

"He [al Jolani] is sending a message to the US and other countries that he is ready to change HTS towards a more local group and if there will be a safe zone around Idlib, HTS can disappear," said Muhsen Almustafa, a researcher at Omran, an independent think tank based in Istanbul, speaking to TRT World.

Al Jolani, however, will have a tough balancing act and will need to carry HTS with him, which is far from a monolithic organisation. 

One activist on Idlib's frontline, who wishes to remain anonymous, told TRT World: "There is nothing wrong with seeking international legitimacy; however, it shouldn't be at the expense of one's principles."

Those principles will inevitably revolve around the extent that Islam will play a role in local governance and more broadly in any future settlement in Syria.

The danger for al Jolani is whether his rhetoric in English language mediums and Arabic become so disparate that the rank and file become disillusioned.

"I believe that if the interview becomes common knowledge and HTS soldiers find out about it, many will look for different groups to join. Especially that in recent times many new independent formations have been formed as a result of HTS not being able to defend liberated territories," added the activist, referring to Idlib.

Recent territorial losses as a result of an onslaught by the Assad regime backed by Russia in Idlib on one of the last rebel strongholds have left almost a million Syrians displaced and hundreds killed. It has also resulted in the killing of 17 Turkish soldiers at the hands of the Assad regime and its backers.

"Russia can help the Syrian regime crush Idlib, if it so chooses, and if it is willing to absorb the grave cost of victory. If it hopes to spare itself that cost, though, it needs to strike a new agreement to which HTS is a counterparty, even a silent one" said Dareen Khalifa a senior analyst at the Crisis Group, speaking to TRT World.

HTS, which is also based in Idlib, has been designated as a terrorist organisation by the US, Turkey and several other countries because of its former affiliation with Al Qaeda. In 2017, it merged with several other groups giving birth to the current iteration.

The group now eschews much of Al Qaeda's ideology after decoupling from the group in July 2016, and it has sought to portray itself as borne out of resistance to the Assad regime and ridding the country of Iranian and Russian forces.

However according to Khalifa, HTS, if it is to avert further escalation will need to take "clear steps...which, if met, could allow HTS to transition from being dismissed as a designated terrorists" adding that this would include "expelling foreign fighters, preventing transnational jihadist activity in areas it controls, committing to religious and political pluralism, releasing any political prisoners in its custody."

HTS has chosen to take some initial and reorient the group to have a local focus and draw strength by embedding itself in Syrian society through providing services. It has sought to sideline foreign fighters, and it has fought the Daesh presence in Idlib.

"Now that HTS controls everything in Idlib, border crossings, courts, fuel supplies and so on, they believe that they can now speak to the outside world to look for legitimacy. Especially since it is clear to everyone that they are not capable of defending Idlib militarily, I believe they are looking for political alternatives," added an activist in Syria.

A fighter speaking to TRT World from Idlib even suggested the “Taliban model” as a potential route for the legitimisation of HTS on the international scene.

“No one wants to see Russia in Syria or strengthening their position in the Mediterranean,” added the fighter, suggesting that rebel proximity to Latakia which holds the largest electronic eavesdropping post outside of Russia, could prove to be a useful bargaining chip.

The Taliban's persistence in retaining, holding and administering territory while fighting the US and the Kabul-based government for the last 19 years has meant that Washington had to settle for a political solution.

In return, the Taliban, amongst other things, committed that Afghanistan would not become a hub for international terrorist organisation, something that HTS has also been willing to commit to.

However, as HTS increasingly loses territory, its ability to maintain its political pitch as power broker will dwindle.

I put it to another fighter who spoke to TRT World  on condition of anonymity about what would happen if HTS or other groups are not able to halt or reverse the Assad regime's gains, and whether that will be the end of this chapter in the war.

"Guerilla warfare is going to continue," he said. "Look no one wants to live under this regime or Russia. People have lost their loved ones, there is no plan to surrender. The fighters are connected with the local population, and there is great support from them.”

Of course, Idlib isn’t just home to the most hardline fighters. The majority of the population in Idlib chose to move from other parts of Syria under Assad control instead of reconciling with the regime. The Assad regime has also been exceptionally brutal to former rebel areas even arresting or torturing those that remained behind.

With nowhere else to go other than spill over into Turkey, a push by the Assad regime may not leave many refugees, who have already been displaced several times, with any other choice than to fight.

Going forward, a crucial moment of truth that will determine whether the outreach efforts are bearing fruit will be whether HTS agrees to be part of a ceasefire agreement or even if it will be invited to the table at all, which may give the group a degree of international legitimacy.

HTS is unlikely to put down their weapons anytime soon given that previous ceasefire agreements agreed in Astana and Sochi have failed. However, Muhsen Almustafa believes HTS may adopt another regional model as it seeks to transform itself.

“[Over the long term] al Jolani wants something like Hamas or Hezbollah, a military and political structure, that's my view," Almustafa added.

The article has been amended with additional quotes from Dareen Khalifa.

Source: TRT World