Syria: Tahrir al-Sham’s pragmatic approach may prompt some hardliners to defect to al-Qaeda-linked group, but will not weaken coalition
The jihadist-led Tahrir al-Sham (TaS) alliance declared a ceasefire with all rebel groups in the North-East on 2 December. It also said that it would establish a committee with Islamist groups Ahrar al-Sham (AaS) and Nour al-Din al-Zenki Movement in order to resolve outstanding issues, such as prisoner exchanges. TaS’s statement comes after week-long clashes between its fighters and those of Nour al-Din al-Zenki in Aleppo Province last month.
TaS is dominated by Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS), a jihadist group with ties to al-Qaeda and which is led by Abu Muhammad al-Jolani. He has taken an increasingly pragmatic approach to protecting TaS’s position in the North-West in recent months. For instance, in October TaS agreed with Ankara to allow Turkish-backed rebels to take control of areas bordering Kurdish-held Afrin district, which reduced the threat of Turkish military action against TaS in its Idlib stronghold (see our 11 October Report). TaS’s recent ceasefire shows this pragmatic approach is continuing. It also shows that al-Jolani wants to avoid increased intra-rebel fighting as this could undermine TaS’s ability to counter pro-government forces, which are seeking to capture areas held by the alliance in Hama and Aleppo provinces.
That said, TaS will also want to strengthen its military position given that it fears that Russia and the US-led coalition will shift focus to countering jihadists in the North-West as the anti-Islamic State campaign winds down (see our last Report). Despite the ceasefire, the alliance will therefore opportunistically seek to make additional territorial gains at the expense of other rival rebel groups, which will lead to further sporadic clashes. However, al-Jolani’s pragmatic approach and efforts to engage other groups mean such fighting is likely to be localised and occur only periodically, and is consequently unlikely to escalate significantly.
Meanwhile, pro-al-Qaeda hardliners in JFS oppose this pragmatic approach, which has led to growing tensions between al-Jolani and al-Qaeda’s leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. Our 1 December Black Banners Monthly noted that al-Jolani has sought to suppress dissent, arresting two al-Qaeda loyalists on 27 November – which was condemned by al-Zawahiri the next day. However, al-Jolani will not be willing to change his pragmatic approach to appease hardliners, and will continue to crack down on those who oppose his strategy. This may prompt some jihadists to defect to Ansar al-Furqan, a group formed in October by pro-al-Qaeda hardliners. However, al-Jolani’s approach has wide backing within TaS and such defections will therefore be limited. Growing tensions with hardliners more strongly aligned with al-Qaeda will therefore not threaten TaS’s position over the next six months.