Introduction

Context Before the Earthquake

HTS’s Response to the Earthquake

Possible Political Repercussions of the Earthquake

Appendices

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Introduction

The earthquake that struck large regions in southern Turkey and northwestern Syria on February 6, 2023, caused a serious humanitarian catastrophe in areas under the control of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham. This has ignited questions regarding the de facto authority of Al-Julani’s organization and the possibility of providing relief aid in that area. There is also the problem of international coordination with HTS that aims to contribute to the efforts being made in sheltering people and reconstructing destroyed and damaged housing.

The region is densely populated, especially after it became a gathering point for the displaced from areas that the Syrian regime successively regained control over, such as the governorates of Damascus countryside, Homs, and Daraa. This area is run by HTS, which the U.S. State Department has classified as a terrorist group since May 31, 2018. Other governments and international organizations have done the same. This imposes additional complications on the mechanism of delivering aid and coordinating with local authorities. Like the rest of Syria, the areas controlled by HTS have been suffering from an economic crisis, which necessitates the delivery of UN humanitarian aid. However, the Security Council’s permission to deliver UN aid to these areas through crossings with Turkey remains threatened by the Russian veto.

The humanitarian catastrophe caused by the February 6 earthquake [1] has reintroduced the problems associated with northwestern Syria and the handling of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham. This paper reviews HTS’s response to the catastrophic consequences of the earthquake. It also attempts to map the coming period, especially from the perspective of the possible political repercussions of the current crisis there.

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Context Before the Earthquake

Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham was established in January 2017 following a period of military and factional conflict. It is a merger of several armed Islamist factions, the most important of which are Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (heir to Jabhat al-Nusra), Jabhat Ansar al-Din, Jaish al-Sunna, Liwa al-Haq, the Nour al-Din al-Zenki Movement. Despite this, Al-Julani, a former al-Nusra commander, remained in command. This is one of the reasons why HTS, like its predecessor, Al-Nusra, was classified as a terrorist organization that sponsors and supports terrorist activities and has links to transnational terrorist organizations.

In July 2017, HTS took control of the city of Idlib after expelling its former ally and partner in Jaish al-Fatah: Ahrar al-Sham. It gradually managed to extend its control over most of the province, which is home to about 3.5 million people, in addition to some areas of rural Aleppo. In November 2017, it announced the establishment of the “Salvation Government” to be its political and administrative arm. The newly established government took over the management of service institutions in the areas controlled by HTS.

The policies pursued by HTS over the past five years, from fighting the remnants of the Islamic State group and restricting al-Qaeda’s affiliates, to forming a civilian government, to adopting the revolution’s terms and indulging in its symbols and slogans, appear to reflect its desire to gain regional and international acceptance of its role as a local entity and one of the emanations of the revolution against the regime.

To gain recognition, HTS leader Abu Muhammad Al-Julani has recently boosted his visibility in public and the media. He has criticized the designation of HTS as a terrorist organization and has invited international organizations to come to Idlib to coordinate directly with the authorities there in delivering humanitarian aid to millions of people.[2] Within that context, the current humanitarian catastrophe places HTS before a major challenge, which includes dealing locally with the consequences of the earthquake and proving its eligibility for governance, and externally proving the sincerity of its intentions and the claims of its leaders, and denying the character of extremism and terrorism.

Crisis of the Crossings and Aid Delivery Following the Earthquake  

The delay in the arrival of international aid to the affected areas in northern Syria has increased the scale of the humanitarian catastrophe. Several sources have confirmed that no international aid crossed into northern Syria until the fourth day of the earthquake. Moreover, the first convoys passing through Bab al-Hawa crossing were sent before the earthquake and were part of the regular assistance provided by the International Organization for Migration, i.e., were not part of the special rescue efforts.[3]

Undoubtedly, political considerations played a key role in the delay of aid and the arrival of search and rescue teams. This proves that the humanitarian and the political overlap in conflict zones, despite the insistence of international laws and political statements of the contrary. In the case of northwestern Syria, the two main political factors to consider are: firstly, that the affected areas fall outside the authority of an UN-recognized body, i.e., the Assad regime; secondly, that most of these areas are controlled by a group designated by countries such as the United States and Turkey as a terrorist organization.

As to Russia, its usual position is to prioritize state sovereignty over intervention for humanitarian purposes,[4] and the United Nations seems to have acquiesced to this. Accordingly, the United Nations committed to withhold aid to the region until it obtains the approval of Russia and the Syrian regime. Similar to the Russian position, the Syrian regime demanded that the international community entrust it with the task of receiving aid and delivering it to areas outside its control through the internal crossings.[5] This, however, risks placing the fate of millions of Syrians at the mercy of a regime that has besieged them and bombed their areas mercilessly.

The land border between Turkey and Syria is linked by more than 10 crossings, most of which were closed during the armed conflict that took place in the north of Syria and areas bordering Turkey.[6] The function of these crossings was limited to the entry of commercial goods and humanitarian aid until 2020, when Russia and China vetoed the crossings. This prevented them from staying open for the delivery of humanitarian aid, with the exception of Bab al-Hawa crossing north of the city of Idlib, which is under the control of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham.[7] Ensuing recent international efforts — pressures, promises and communications —  several reports have talked about the possibility of opening other crossings. Later, on February 13, the United Nations announced that Damascus has approved the opening of Bab al-Salama and al-Rai crossings to bring humanitarian aid into northern Syria.[8]

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HTS’s Response to the Earthquake

In the morning of the earthquake that hit large areas under its control, several statements were issued by the leaders of HTS. Its centralized decision-making process helped accelerate exceptional emergency measures. The rapid response included photos, speeches and statements[9] most notably the press conference held that morning by Ali Keda, Prime Minister of the Salvation Government. There he announced the formation of an “Emergency Response Committee.”[10]

HTS saw the first four days of the earthquake as an opportunity to assert its own legitimacy. It tried to present an effective governance model that is more transparent and organized than the models found in the areas of the regime and the factions of the “National Army.”

During the first four days of the disaster, ministers of the Salvation Government stepped up their media appearances in earthquake-affected areas and shelter camps. This began with a conference of ministers that was held on February 6, the day of the earthquake. It was followed by seven ministerial visits to the affected areas and shelters from the 6th to the 9th. Some tours were preceded by press conferences on the 8th and 9th, which introduced the response of the Salvation Government and statistics about the earthquake including the number of victims and the scale of destruction. This was an attempt to add credibility and transparency to the performance of HTS’s governmental bodies.  

However, the media presence was not limited to the ministers. Al-Julani and his cohort went on tours as well. According to HTS sources, Al-Julani made five separate daytime and night tours between February 7 and 10 visiting Harem, Salqin, Basina, Atmeh camp and shelters in the western countryside of Idlib as well as hospitals in Idlib. The sources said that Al-Julani visited severely damaged Jindires, which was outside the control of HTS until it was agreed at the end of last year that it would monitor and manage the security situation in the area.[11] Al-Julani also appeared on February 10 in short video clips where he met with the Salvation Government. These were followed by a press conference announcing the start of the second round of the response.

“Leader Abu Mohammad Al-Julani and an official from Atmeh Region touring the shelters set up for the earthquake-affected civilians, Atmeh Region” Source: Telegram.

The frequency of Al-Julani’s media appearances declined after the fifth day. However, the quality of these appearances changed as he started to talk to foreign audiences. He went from making frequent appearances through HTS correspondents to making statements for the Guardian reporters. These appeared in an article on February 13 with the headline “Syrian rebel leader pleads for outside help a week on from earthquakes.”[12] The Guardian interview came after Sky News had aired a video that was published on February 11[13] showing Al-Julani at night alongside White Helmets teams that were rescuing people trapped under the rubble. In this report, Al-Julani is identified as a rebel leader in Idlib who went from fighting to responding to disaster. The short report said that Al-Julani previously belonged to the Al-Qaeda terrorist organization before forming his own Islamist faction that focused on fighting ISIS and the Assad regime. Al-Julani stated in the report that “the people who died in the earthquake are not terrorists! They are innocent civilians, women and children,” alluding to the classification of terrorism and to the reluctance of the United Nations and international entities to send aid to areas controlled by his ‘terrorist’ organization.

After February 11, the efforts of HTS’s leaders and their media sources focused on demonstrating the transparency of the Salvation Government and its bodies in dealing with relief missions. This was accompanied by a significant decline in the media visibility of HTS’s officials and of Al-Julani himself. On February 15, they reviewed the entities that provided support, the volume of support provided, and the mechanism for distributing it to those “by mentioning the numbers distributed and their beneficiaries, depending on the region and the shelter.”

The disaster was an opportunity for the actual leaders of HTS to surface. These included Mazhar Al-Wais, Maysara al-Jubouri (Abu Maria al-Qahtani), and Abd al-Rahim Attoun (Abu Abdullah al-Shami). On 8 February, Abu Maria al-Qahtani accompanied Al-Julani on his visit to the Atmeh shelter and Jindires. On February 11, Abd al-Rahim Attoun and Mazhar Al-Wais appeared together at a dialogue meeting of the Supreme Council of Ifta to discuss the situation in the north.

The most recent of these appearances was on February 15 when Al-Wais and al-Qahtani appeared in a Zoom Meeting entitled “Meeting of the liberated north with a number of scholars and intellectuals from the Islamic world on the earthquake disaster” in which they talked about “the unity of the Syrian people” and the interaction of the institutions of the HTS with the disaster. They also talked about how these institutions are “for the revolution as a whole”.

Al-Julani’s men expressed their keenness to renounce fragmentation and talked about the necessity of uniting the whole of north Syria. HTS’s official, Abdul Rahim Attoun, referred to the group’s adoption of a national discourse saying: “We are not thinking about Idlib. We are really thinking about Syria as a whole. This building that we are building in Idlib is only a part of it. We will bring about all the means necessary for the continuation of the revolution, which is called the Syrian revolution; we do not differentiate between east or west, north or south.”[14] However, the ambiguous character of HTS — simultaneously a national and a jihadist movement— is ever-present. The jihadist vocabulary was evident in Al-Wais’s statement when he said: “Here are people who want to live a decent life, and here the steadfast mujahideen are continuing on the path of jihad.”[15]

The messages of “renunciation of fragmentation” and the desire of HTS to unify the north, pronounced by Al-Wais and Attoun immediately after earthquake, were repeated by Al-Julani and Al-Qahtani during their field tours. These coincided with the sending of aid from the Salvation Government to the areas under the control of the factions of the National Army, areas that HTS had attacked militarily three months ago[16] and that had resulted in the killing of dozens. HTS had withdrawn from this conflict only after receiving threats from Ankara.[17]

Two observations can be made regarding HTS’s response to the earthquake including speed of work, organization and disseminating propaganda. The first is the advantages gained from centralization in times of disasters and emergencies. HTS was able through centralized decision-making to form new committees and teams, such as the Emergency Response Committee. They were also able to count the damage, organize shelter operations and assist in search and rescue efforts. The second is the disadvantages brought about by the dictatorial character of its leadership. The propaganda machine of HTS marketed Abu Muhammad Al-Julani as sole leader, increased his prestige and reinforced the idea that he personally supervised the emergency response operations.

The humanitarian crisis presented an opportunity for Al-Julani and his cohort to re-disseminate HTS’s propaganda and the claim that it fights division and prioritizes the unity of the revolutionary ranks. This is contradictory. HTS had worked hard in the few months before the earthquake to attract and coordinate with specific factions of the National Army to attack the northern areas in the vicinity of Afrin.

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Possible Political Repercussions of the Earthquake

Al-Julani’s statement to the Guardian that “the history of this region after the earthquake will not be the same as before”[18] is close to the truth. The consequences of the earthquake are not limited to the humanitarian catastrophe that ensued. It is an opportunity to raise questions and revisit issues, including the sanctions imposed on the Syrian regime, how to deal with the de facto authority imposed by HTS and the status of the crossings with Turkey as well as the internal crossings between conflict lines. Considering the current reality created by the earthquake, a number of scenarios and hypotheses can be identified with regard to HTS and its areas of control:

Military confrontation can be ruled out, i.e, the regime and its allies will not attempt anytime soon to regain military control over Idlib and its surroundings. This is because such an endeavor would entail a very high human cost. Moreover, after a period of relative calm on most fronts HTS is militarily stronger right now. It has had the chance to maintain its power and focus on qualifying its personnel. In addition, there is a lack of urgency on the part of the regime and its allies to activate static frontlines. In fact, the regime has more urgent problems to deal with, such as the deteriorating economic situation and the shortage of energy in its areas of control. It is unlikely that new military conflicts will arise considering the current humanitarian crisis that has encompassed large areas of Syria as well as the generalized economic crisis. In general, the Syrian issue has become less important. New priorities have emerged for regional and international actors following a series of momentous global events, such as the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the economic consequences of the Corona virus pandemic. It is in the interest of all to restrain their local proxies from military adventures with uncertain results.

Ruling out a military scenario does not mean that the situation will remain as it was before the February 6 earthquake; the humanitarian catastrophe is too serious to be ignored and too great to be dealt with promptly and easily. The need for relief and urgent foreign assistance in the affected areas is heightened by the already deteriorating economic situation. This will impose political and economic changes and adjustments to mechanisms of delivery and distribution of aid. But things still can go in several directions.

There are indications that HTS wants to open its areas to international organizations. This will increase international and regional presence in its areas. The current circumstances make it plausible that “many will view HTS as less of an issue than previously though”, as put by Aaron Zelin, fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.[19] The seriousness of HTS’s repeated claims of its willingness to cooperate with international organizations and entities needs to be tested. If its statements were sincere, several implications would be involved. On the one hand, direct cooperation and coordination with HTS would mean an implicit recognition of its authority. On the other hand, this would link HTS with foreign entities and increase its dependence on foreign aid, relief supplies, and reconstruction efforts. The economic dependency created by this would put pressure on its leadership to make serious adjustments, adopt a less extreme discourse, and implement a more participatory, representative, and transparent governance model. However, the main obstacle to creating this economic dependency is the issue of HTS’s classification as a terrorist group. This could lead to another scenario: removing HTS from this list.

Can the circumstances created by this humanitarian catastrophe cause the removal of HTS from the terrorist lists? In response to this question, Hassan Abu Haniyeh, a researcher specializing in jihadist movements, said that “the United States has no reason to remove HTS from its terrorist lists. HTS has tried for years, with all means possible to send messages of reassurance to the West.”[20] Abu Haniyeh added that HTS has also expressed this practically “by not carrying out foreign operations, but it did not succeed.” Indeed, HTS does not seem interested in launching foreign operations. However, the terrorist classification involves other outstanding issues making it unlikely that there will be a major change in the way international entities deal with HTS. Guarantees are needed, such as taking practical steps to exclude extremist elements from their ranks and expel organizations known for their extremism and foreign links from the areas under their control.

Apart from HTS, there are other jihadist groups active in the Idlib region, most notably the al-Qaeda-affiliated Hurras al-Din, the Turkistan Islamic Party, Ansar al-Islam, Ansar al-Tawhid and Jabhat Ansar al-Din. Their activities are mostly limited to organizing da’wah, jurisprudential and educational programs and they do not play a direct role in administering public affairs.[21] However, when HTS turns a blind eye to the presence of organizations known for their extremism it could be understood as a lack of seriousness on its part in handling the fight against terrorism and extremism. HTS is satisfied with using this as a pressure card and wants to appear as the lesser evil. In addition, the areas under the control of HTS and the factions associated with it have been a haven for ISIS leaders.[22] This is at best an indication of poor management and at worst evidence of the complicity of its leaders and their willingness to harbor internationally wanted terrorists.

The removal by the US State Department of HTS’s name from the terrorist lists, for example, would be a scot-free reward that would strengthen the grip of Al-Julani and his cohort on the reins of decision-making. It would also impair the civilian work emerging in northwestern Syria. This makes the most practical option for the United States, Turkey and the countries concerned is to remove HTS from the list of terrorist organization and place sanctions on its officials and senior military commanders instead.[23] This may allow for the flow of more humanitarian aid to those living in areas under the control of HTS and alleviate the deteriorating humanitarian situation. However, the success of this depends on two factors: the extent to which Turkey is willing to use its military weight and political influence in the north to redistribute power and foster development projects. Another factor is the ability of the civilian wing of represented mainly by the Salvation Government to differentiate itself from the military wing, which is heir to Jabhat al-Nusra and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. It also depends on the civilian arm’s ability to act independent of Al-Julani. To implement development plans would require the Salvation Government to go beyond its current role — a façade and a propaganda platform for the organization.

There is legal and political precedent for declassifying entities. For example, in 2021, the Biden administration removed the Houthi group in Yemen from the lists of terrorist organizations. This was done to allow the flow of humanitarian and international aid to Yemen and to facilitate diplomatic coordination with various entities to reach a political solution.[24] However, as mentioned above, the removal is a double-edged sword as it may help legitimize HTS. If Al-Julani continues to hold all the strings, he might use this step to escalate military operations in the northern areas, which are under the control of the National Army factions, or to embolden his proxies there.

Yet, HTS’s classification, despite its importance, is not the most critical issue facing Syrians today. The local population’s main concern is governance. There is no doubt that Al-Julani is a dictator who has surrounded himself with a circle of close associates[25] headed by Abu Maria al-Qahtani, Mazhar Al-Wais, and Abd al-Rahim Attoun. HTS’s discourse, the one meant for domestic consumption, is rigid and exclusionary. At the same time, there is a powerful propaganda media machine that seeks to market its activities. It is trying to show that there is division of labor and distribution of power between its civilian and military arms. It is also trying to suggest to the outside world that it is leading a state project. This is evident from the extensive media coverage and propaganda messages that were broadcasted by its channels and network of correspondents following the earthquake. In practice, however, its judiciary-military wing led by Al-Julani and his cohort has complete control over all aspects of life and is not limited to forming strategies. There is an absence of real transparency and accountability mechanisms that could evaluate the performance of HTS and its auxiliary institutions.

The aim of the Syrian uprising was not to replace a seemingly secular dictator with an Islamist one. The problem was and is authoritarianism. The country has been suffering from lack of transparency, representation, accountability mechanisms, and rotation of power. However, the hierarchical structure of HTS and its centralized decision-making process may have some advantages. This is especially true in disasters when rapid response is needed. Nevertheless, in Syria the problem of authoritarianism remains a chronic cause of instability and depletion of resources.

The Syrian issue should not be reduced to its humanitarian problem, nor should the objectives be limited to immobilizing fronts,[26] containing social tensions and providing a minimum level of relief services. If there is no transition towards a representative participatory governance model, the region will remain extremely unstable and with the rising of new variables vulnerable to exploding again. These could include splits within HTS, a change in the priorities of its current leaders or their management style, and the emergence of local protest movements against the deterioration of living conditions.

Despite the messages of reassurance that HTS has been sending to foreign entities, it has shown its willingness to infiltrate locally and to expand militarily beyond the areas under its control. This happened late last year when it advanced north towards Afrin against factions of the National Army.[27] HTS’s claims are not serious. This is especially true if we consider how it formed, with some devoted factions, a group it called the “Shahba Collective”[28] to be its arm in the areas of influence of the National Army just, only four days before the earthquake.

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Appendices

Appendix 1: A Sample Showing How the Salvation Government Presents Earthquake Statistics

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Appendix 2: Security Council Resolution Designating Abu Muhammad as a Terrorist

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Annex 3: Security Council Resolution Designating Abu Maria al-Qahtani as a Terrorist

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[1]According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights Network’s report of February 15, 6319 Syrians died in the earthquake. They were distributed as follows: 3,841 Syrian residents in southern Turkey; 321 deaths in areas of the regime; and 2,157 in areas outside the control of the Syrian regime. Of the latter 1,283 deaths were in rural Idlib and 874 deaths in rural Aleppo. For more information: Syrian Human Rights Network’s report on the Syria-Turkey earthquakehttps://snhr.org/arabic/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/2023/02/R230206A-2.pdf

[2] Aldoughli, Rahaf & Azzam Al Kassir. “Empower Syrians Not Warlords: Against the re-branding of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.” Atlantic Council. July 15, 2021. https://bit.ly/3Efce1C

[3]Adnan Ahmed. “UN Inaction. Blatant Failure to Help Northern Syria.” The New Arab, February 11, 2023. https://bit.ly/3xEhKqM

[4]Kahn, Clea & Andrew Cunningham. “Introduction to the Issue of State Sovereignty and Humanitarian Action.” Disasters, 37, 139-150, 2013.

[5]“Damascus Requires Half of the Affected Areas’ Assistance.” The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. 12 February 2023. https://bit.ly/3SdIkk9

[6]For more: Armenak Tokmajyan, Kheder Khaddour. “Border Nation: The Reshaping of the Syrian-Turkish Borderlands.” Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center. March 30, 2022. https://bit.ly/3Z2a9OI

[7]Syria: Russian Veto Will Close Last Relief Artery.” Human Rights Watch. June 10, 2021. https://bit.ly/3Ie2J3R

[8]“Secretary-General welcomes Syria’s decision to open Bab al-Salam and al-Ra’i crossings for humanitarian aid.” UN News. February 13, 2023.  https://bit.ly/41gIfAz

[9]See Appendix 1

[10]Syrian Salvation Government. Prime Minister Eng. Ali Keda holds a press conference to talk about the reality of the liberated areas after the earthquake. YouTube. February 6, 2023. Accessed on February 7, 2023. https://bit.ly/3KeZyM8  

[11]From a field correspondent. Commander “Abu Muhammad Al-Julani” visits the earthquake-injured in Jindires, Aleppo countryside, and tours the affected areas. Video. Telegram application. February 9, 2023. Watched on February 9, 2023. https://t.me/Reporter_Shamna/495

[12]Michaelson, Ruth & Lorenzo Tondo. “Syrian rebel leader pleads for outside help a week on from earthquakes.” The Guardian. February 13, 2023.  https://bit.ly/3IsUjHj

[13]Crawford, Alex. “Turkey-Syria earthquake: Rebel leader in Idlib calls for urgent international help as families devastated by quake.” Sky News. February 11, 2023. https://bit.ly/3YZp504

[14]Creative Syrians. “Meeting of the liberated north with a number of scholars and intellectuals from the Islamic world on the earthquake disaster.” YouTube, February 15, 2023. Accessed on February 15, 2023. https://bit.ly/3YIFDcI

[15]Ibid.

[16]Al Kassir, Azzam. “HTS in Afrin: Threats and prospects for civil society.” The New Arab. November 11, 2022. https://bit.ly/3YPlL7A

[17]“Turkey steps in to expel HTS militia from northwest Syria’s Afrin.” The New Arab. October 22, 2022. https://bit.ly/3EhOJ89

[18]Michaelson, Ruth & Lorenzo Tondo. “Syrian rebel leader pleads for outside help.” Ibid.

[19]Conversation conducted by the author with Aaron Zelin, the Richard Borow fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy in the USA, via Twitter. February 16, 2023.

[20]Conversation conducted by the author with an expert on Jihadi movements, Hasan Abu Haniyeh, resident of Jordan via Messenger. February 16, 2023.

[21]Jawad Al-Tamimi, Aymenn. “Idlib and Its Environs: Narrowing Prospects for a Rebel Holdout.” The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Feb 5, 2020. https://bit.ly/3XFVJCy

[22] Abu Baker al-Baghdadi Leader of ISIS was assassinated near Harem in the northern countryside of Idlib on 27/10/2019. His successor Abu Ibrahim Al-Hashemi Quraishi Leader of ISIS was assassinated near Atmeh in February 2022. assassinated. Maher al-Aqqal ISIS’s Wali of al-Sham was assassinated near Jindires in summer of 2022.

[23] See Appendices 2 and 3.

[24]“US to revoke terror designation for Yemen’s Houthi rebels.” France 24. February 12,  2021. https://bit.ly/3k1EcY2

[25]Ajjoub, Orwa. “HTS is not al-Qaeda, but it is still an authoritarian regime to be reckoned with.” Middle East Institute. June 24, 2021. https://bit.ly/3YFHq2r

[26] Lister, Charles. “Freeze and build: a strategic approach to Syria’s policy.” Middle East Institute, March 2022.

[27] Al Kassir, Azzam. “HTS in Afrin: Threats and prospects for civil society.”

[28] “’Al-Shahba Collective’… A formation devoted to ‘Tahrir al-Sham’ claiming the mantle of ‘patriotic’.” Enab Baladi. February 3, 2023. https://bit.ly/3XF0fRO