Al-Qa’ida will likely leverage Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) to rebrand itself as a moderate alternative to ISIS and reassert its influence in Syria, as HTS continues to garner support among rebel factions, consolidate power in Idlib, and control resources in the region. In March, the US Embassy in Syria described HTS—a Salafi-jihadist militant group active in Syria, composed al-Qa’ida’s former affiliate, the Nusrah Front, and other regional militia factions—as a consolidation of opposition forces and “any group that merges into it becomes part of al-Qa’ida’s Syrian network.”
- Since January, HTS has enveloped approximately 30 rebel groups, bringing its estimated membership to 31,000—including the 18,000 members of the Nusrah Front—according to press reporting. The factions have established agreements to develop a joint Islamic council and governing body, focused on developing laws, maintaining strong governance, and decreasing infighting.
- HTS has consolidated control of Idlib province, including along the Syrian-Turkish border, which serves as an entry point for humanitarian aid in northern Syria. In July, clashes between HTS and Ahrar al-Sham—once considered one of the strongest Salafist organizations in the region—pushed Ahrar al-Sham from strategic locations in Idlib province.
- In May, HTS took control over the region’s hawala network—an informal banking system based on trust and the use of family and regional connections—allowing the organization to influence local and international charities assisting refugee populations. This may also provide HTS with future opportunities to engage with and receive recognition from the larger international community.