By Ali Lair ’23; Image by CSIS
It is a common theme that jihadi groups struggle and often fail to accomplish their political goals. Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham’s (HTS) rise to power in Syria’s Idlib governorate and the subsequent formation of a local government their echoes the takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban. A paper I wrote about HTS left me wondering if this kind of takeover could occur in.
Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham is a salafi-jihadi Syrian terrorist organization that aims to overthrow the Assad regime, and is currently one of the country’s most powerful opposition groups. It was formed in 2017 when several other jihadi factions merged with Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS, formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra). Since then, it has grown in power and even established the Syrian Salvation Government in Idlib. This government provides resources like water and electricity as well as legal and religious services. The Taliban, also a jihadi organization, controlled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001 and has re-taken control of the country in 2021. Important aspects of their return to power were the establishment of governmental structures and the provision of services in the areas they conquered, which resembles HTS’s use of the Syrian Salvation Government in Idlib. The service the Taliban provided were valuable to rural areas who had been neglected by the Afghan government. These efforts, in turn, boosted the Taliban’s legitimacy. Similar to HTS, the Taliban also sought to consolidate power by getting multiple groups to cooperate under the Taliban’s authority, a strategy Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham follows as well. The Taliban’s local focus also resembles HTS. Both groups focus on establishing Islamic states in their own countries, and are not seeking to fight the United States. For the Taliban, the United States was a central target only while it had a military presence in Afghanistan. Following the American withdrawal, the Taliban ceased looking for American targets. In the case of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, in comparison, it led to both HTS and the U.S. avoiding conflict.
Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham’s circumstances are a little bit different from that of the Taliban’s in the sense that the Taliban rejects international support while Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham accepts it. While Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham is trying to become more independent of foreign support, they are still receiving aid from Turkey. This suggests that without the additional help, the group’s hold on the Idlib region could falter. On the other hand, the Taliban exercised a much more isolationist strategy, receiving less foreign support. This shows the inherent strength of the organization on its own.
Additionally, the Taliban knows what it is like to gain control of a country for a few years and then lose it. The lessons they learned from that time have helped them in conquering Afghanistan again in 2021. Afghanistan is also the birthplace of jihadi terrorist organizations, and as a result, has a long history of jihadi fighters and culture being present; indeed, the Taliban has been around since 1994. Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham does not have the same history or level of experience as the Taliban. As a result, they are much more likely to make mistakes and succumb to naivety.
It would be interesting to observe the future evolution of the Syrian civil war, specifically whether Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham can expand beyond Idlib, and ultimately control the whole country. If they ever manage to, it would certainly ring the international alarm bell loud and clear to western countries. While the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan was horrifying, it was the only instance of jihadis having the ability to conquer a country. If Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham follows in its footsteps, it shows the international community that jihadi groups are not just pseudo-rebel-anarchists, but people who can actually organize and cooperate enough to become seriously powerful.