HTS leader Abu Muhammad al-Julani sits for a February 2021 interview with with FRONTLINE correspondent Martin Smith.
A 23 February report by Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar suggests that the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) extremist group, formerly the Al-Qaeda affiliated Nusra Front, has been attempting with external support to consolidate its power in Syria’s north – with the aim of establishing full economic control over the region and thereby ‘legitimizing’ itself.
According to the report, HTS and its leader Abu Muhammad al-Julani have been taking advantage of the disaster and of Turkiye’s internal preoccupation, in an attempt to fully control the northern border crossings and the region’s economy.
Julani is reportedly intending on taking over the northern town of Azaz and its border crossing – the Bab al-Salama crossing with Turkiye – in order to “include it” with the Bab al-Hawa crossing. HTS has been advancing towards Azaz for some time now, but has mostly been thwarted as a result of clashes with the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA) factions, who control the town.
The SNA is said to be involved in a “lucrative and pervasive” drug trade in the region, which would make areas under their control attractive to HTS.
If HTS can achieve this, it would give the former Al-Qaeda branch full control over the economy of Syria’s northern region, thereby creating a situation on the ground that would “not be easy to nullify.”
As part of these efforts to consolidate power, HTS has been incorporating some of the factions based in northern Aleppo into the organization. It has also been “intensifying” its long-active campaign against foreign fighters and militias. Lately, this campaign has focused on pushing these foreign factions out of Syria and encouraging their relocation to Ukraine.
As part of the plan to “legitimize” HTS, Julani has “formed a group whose mission is to expand the circle of foreign relations, whether with donors, including the United Nations, or on the political and intelligence level with both the United States and Britain.”
Since the earthquake struck, HTS has been blatantly politicizing the disaster by obstructing humanitarian efforts and blaming the government in an attempt to “garner international support.”
Al-Akhbar suggests that HTS is now taking advantage of the disaster’s aftermath to expand its influence in northern Syria, which the report says is being done ‘in accordance with’ US efforts to “escalate pressure on Damascus and Moscow” and “expand Washington’s sphere of influence.”
This new HTS campaign is also being “directly supported by personalities in Qatar,” the report adds.
This was clear from “a seminar organized by Al-Jazeera correspondent, Ahmed Zeidan, which included Al-Julani’s advisor and one of the most prominent architects of his disassociation from Al-Qaeda, Abdul Rahim Attoun, along with a group of clerics in Qatar,” Al-Akhbar went on to say.
In a further attempt at legitimization, Julani has attempted to lead “reconstruction efforts” by establishing direct contact with international donors.
A legitimization of the extremist group is highly beneficial to Washington, given that the continued presence and dominance of an armed group opposed to Damascus in the north will “thwart the Russian efforts for a solution in Syria,” which aims to see the Syrian government regain sovereignty over its territory.