When Jihadism Learns to Smile: HTS’ Evolution and its Current Presence in North and Northwestern Syria

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Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) has spent the last year branching out from its Idlib stronghold to plant itself within SNA-held northern Syria. As it expands politically and militarily into northern Syria, HTS – a designated terrorist organization – is pushing its own agenda as an increasingly powerful actor, at times with tacit Turkish approval, at times creating tensions with Turkey.

In this report, RIC examines HTS’ strand of ‘political jihadism’, in the context of the latter’s efforts to show itself as having abandoned its jihadist roots.

HTS is carefully building a façade of respectability, righteousness, and reliability for administering a population and at the same time pushes the narrative of being the last standing exponent of the Syrian Revolution. In the context of a lack of substantial, independent, on-the-ground assessments of the human rights situation, the news coming from Idlib tells of the ongoing construction of an increasingly totalitarian regime. The international community should be wary of considering the extension of HTS into the Turkish-occupied, SNA-controlled territories as a reasonable step to improve the catastrophic human rights situation there.

A slogan from Fared’s group against racism, before HTS crackdown on freedom of expression, April 2012