Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham (Arabic: هيئة تحرير الشام, transliteration: Hayʼat Taḥrīr al-Shām, "Organization for the Liberation of the Levant" or "Levant Liberation Committee"), commonly referred to as Tahrir al-Sham, is an active Salafist jihadist militant group involved in the Syrian Civil War. The group was formed on 28 January 2017 as a merger between Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly al-Nusra Front), the Ansar al-Din Front, Jaysh al-Sunna, Liwa al-Haqq, and the Nour al-Din al-Zenki Movement. After the announcement, additional groups and individuals joined. The merged group is currently led by Jabhat Fatah al-Sham and former Ahrar al-Sham leaders, although the High Command consists of leaders from other groups. Many groups and individuals defected from Ahrar al-Sham, representing their more conservative and Salafist elements. Currently, a number of analysts and media outlets still continue to refer to this group by its previous names, al-Nusra Front, or Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. The Ansar al-Din Front and Nour al-Din al-Zenki Movement have since split off from Tahrir al-Sham. It had an estimated 20,000 members in 2019.
Despite the merger, Tahrir al-Sham has been accused of working as al-Qaeda's Syrian branch on a covert level and is considered one of its branches, and that many of the group's senior figures, particularly Abu Jaber, held similarly extreme views. However, Tahrir al-Sham has officially denied being part of al-Qaeda and said in a statement that the group is "an independent entity and not an extension of previous organizations or factions". Additionally, some factions such as Nour al-Din al-Zenki, which was part of the merger, were once supported by the US. Russia claims that Tahrir al-Sham shares al-Nusra Front's goal of turning Syria into an Islamic emirate run by al-Qaeda.
al-Nusra front was created by al-Qaeda in 2012. In summer 2016, it severed its links with al-Qaeda and rebranded as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (The Front for the Liberation of Syria, or JFS).
al-Nusra/JFS co-operated with Ahrar al-Sham for much of 2015–16. Leading Ahrar al-Sham cleric Abu Jaber had long criticized al-Nusra's affiliation to al-Qaeda as setting back the cause of the rebels, and had also been the focus of attempts to unify Islamist rebel elements. He led a more Islamist and less nationalist faction within Ahrar al-Sham, Jaysh al-Ahrar, which supported merger of Ahrar al-Sham with JFS. There were merger talks in late 2016, but these broke down. In early 2017 it clashed with rival Islamist groups in Idlib, in particular Ahrar al-Sham, but Jaish al-Ahrar detached itself from Ahrar al-Sham to merge with JFS in a new body.
According to Syria analyst Charles Lister, Ahrar al-Sham lost some 800-1,000 defectors to HTS, but gained at least 6,000-8,000 more from the merger into its ranks of Suqor al-Sham, Jaish al-Mujahideen, Fastaqim Union and the western Aleppo units of the Levant Front, and the Idlib-based units of Jaysh al-Islam. JFS meanwhile lost several hundred fighters to Ahrar al-Sham, but gained 3,000-5,000 fighters from its merger with Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zinki, Liwa al-Haq, Jaish al-Sunna, and Jabhat Ansar al-Din into HTS.
On 28 January 2017, the day that Tahrir al-Sham was formed, the group announced the formation of its elite units, the "Inghimasi", some of whom were deployed in Idlib city, according to pro-government media.[better source needed]
On 30 January, there were reports of mobilizations by Tahrir al-Sham and Ahrar al-Sham at the Bab al-Hawa Border Crossing and other nearby areas, and that the two groups were preparing for another round of clashes. On 30 January, it was reported[by whom?] that there were around 31,000 fighters in Tahrir al-Sham, while in March analyst Charles Lister described is as "likely commanding 12,000 to 14,000 fighters".
Soon after the group's formation, many local Syrians began referring to the group as Hetesh, which was an Arabic acronym meant as a pejorative, similar the "Daesh" label applied to ISIL by much of the Arab World. This labeling indicated that many Syrians saw Tahrir al-Sham as no different than ISIL, especially given the similarities between Tahrir al-Sham's recent attacks and ISIL's massive offensive on rebel forces in 2014.
HTS suffered losses from air attacks by Coalition forces. On 1 February 2017, pro-government media reported that the US had conducted an airstrike on Carlton Hotel, in the city of Idlib, which was used by Tahrir al-Sham's former al-Nusra component for troop housing, and hosting meetings of prominent commanders,[better source needed] although opposition sources said the hotel was used by the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, and US involvement has not been confirmed. On the same day, the Elite Division of the FSA was attacked by Tahrir al-Sham.[better source needed] On 3 February, a US airstrike struck a Tahrir al-Sham headquarters in Sarmin, killing 12 members of HTS and Jund al-Aqsa. 10 of the killed militants were HTS members. The airstrike also killed militant commander Ibrahim al-Rihaal Abu Bakr.
On 4 February 2017, a US airstrike killed al-Qaeda commander Abu Hani al-Masri, who was a part of Ahrar al-Sham at the time of his death. It was reported that he was about to defect to Tahrir al-Sham before his death. On the same day, Tahrir al-Sham official Muslah al-Alyani criticized other groups for not joining Tahrir al-Sham, arguing that any group that "fought for Islam" would be bombed, regardless of terrorist designations. In his statement, he indicated that one of the reasons why most Ahrar al-Sham fighters refused to join Tahrir al-Sham was because the latter group contained terrorist-designated individuals.
Around 8 February, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi confirmed that 2 senior Jabhat Fateh al-Sham leaders loyal to al-Qaeda, including former al-Nusra deputy leader Sami al-Oraydi, left Tahrir al-Sham after its formation.
A speech was released by Abu Jaber on 9 February. He emphasized his group being an "independent entity" and praised his "brothers" in the "Syrian Jihad". The statement included derogatory rhetoric on Shia Muslims, saying the Shiites (“rejectionists”) will “enslave the region" if the rebels lose the war.
On 22 February, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova stated that Russia feared that Tahrir al-Sham would declare a new Islamic Emirate in northwestern Syria within a month, patterned after ISIL's self-styled "Caliphate" in Ar-Raqqah. On the same day, the Combating Terrorism Center reported that Jabhat Fateh al-Sham had formed the Tahrir al-Sham group due to its fear of being isolated, and to counter Ahrar al-Sham's recent expansion during the clashes in the Idlib Province.
On 22 February, the last of Liwa al-Asqa's 2,100 militants left their final positions in Khan Shaykhun, with unconfirmed reports in pro-government media that they were to join ISIL in the Ar-Raqqah Province after a negotiated withdrawal deal with Tahrir al-Sham and the Turkistan Islamic Party. Afterward, Tahrir al-Sham declared terminating Liwa al-Aqsa, and promised to watch for any remaining cells.
On 26 February, a US airstrike in Al-Mastoumeh, Idlib Province, killed Abu Khayr al-Masri, who was the deputy leader of al-Qaeda. The airstrike also killed another Tahrir al-Sham militant. Abu Khayr's death left HTS freer to move away from al-Qaeda's control.
In early March 2017, local residents in the Idlib Province who supported FSA factions accused Tahrir al-Sham of doing more harm than good, saying that all they've done is "kidnap people, set up checkpoints, and terrorize residents."
On 16 March, a US airstrike struck an al-Qaeda meeting in the village of al-Jinah, just southwest of Atarib, killing at least 29 and possibly over 50 civilians; the US claimed the people targeted in the strike were "al-Qaeda militants" but the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), local residents and local officials have said that the building struck was a mosque filled with worshipers.
On the morning of 21 March (local time), according to local activists, a US drone strike in Darkoush, Idlib Province, killed Abu Islam al-Masri, a high-ranking HTS commander. HTS commander Abu al-'Abbas al-Darir was also killed in the drone strike. On the same day, Tahrir al-Sham launched the 2017 Hama offensive against Syrian Government forces.
On 24 March, two flatbed trucks carrying flour and belonging to an IHH-affiliated Turkish relief organization were stopped at a HTS checkpoint at the entrance to Sarmada. HTS then seized the trucks and the flour, which was intended for a bakery in Saraqib. The seizure caused 2,000 families in the area to be cut off from a free supply of bread.
In April 2017, Jaysh al-Islam attacked the HTS and expelled it from the territories under its control in Eastern Ghouta.
On 20 May, the main faction of the Abu Amara Battalions joined Tahrir al-Sham, which "now boasts a fighting force of some 50,000 militants" according to one pro-government media source. However, the covert operations unit of the Abu Amara Battalions based in Aleppo remained independent.
On 2 June 2017, defectors from the Northern Brigade's Commandos of Islam Brigade reportedly joined Tahrir al-Sham, although Captain Kuja, leader of the unit, stated that he is still part of the Northern Brigade.
During 18–23 July, HTS launched a series of attacks on Ahrar al-Sham positions, which were quickly abandoned. On 20 July 2017, the Nour al-Din al-Zenki Movement led by Sheikh Tawfiq Shahabuddin announced its withdrawal from Tahrir al-Sham amid widespread conflict between HTS and Ahrar al-Sham, and became an independent Islamist group. On 23 July 2017, Tahrir al-Sham expelled the remnants of Ahrar al-Sham from Idlib, capturing the entire city as well as 60% of the Idlib Governorate. HTS was now the dominant armed group in opposition-held NW Syria.
On 18 August 2017, Tahrir al-Sham captured 8 rebel fighters from the town of Madaya after it accused them of wanting to return to Madaya during a ceasefire agreement.
Terrorist attacks (early 2017)
On 25 February 2017, 5 Tahrir al-Sham suicide bombers attacked the headquarters of the Syrian military intelligence in Homs, killing dozens of security forces, including the head of the military security in Homs. Pictures of the attackers were released on Twitter. One of the attackers was a Khan Shaykhun native called Abu Hurayra (Safi Qatini), according to social media sources. The State Security branch chief and Military security branch chief died in the attack, according to social media sources. Hassan Daaboul was among the 40 assassinated by Hayyat Tahrir al-Sham. The explosion killed Ibrahim Darwish, a Brigadier General and the state security branch's chief. Syrian reporter Moussa al-Omar posted pictures of officers and soldiers who were killed. The War Center Media gave a figure of six suicide attackers and a death toll of thirty. The death toll was given at twenty by Moussa when he posted it a breaking. The death toll was given at thirty five on 24 February according to Moussa. The injured numbered fifty four and the dead numbered forty seven on 25 February according to Moussa. Abu Yusuf al-Muhajir, a Tahrir al-Sham military spokesman was interviewed by Human Voice on the bombings. Twenty-six names were released. Sheikh Samir bin Ali Ka'aka Abu Abdurrahman from Eastern Ghouta suggested that the attack was carried out by Iranians in a dispute between Russians and Iranians. Geneva-based opposition Syrians claimed that the Homs strike was carried out by the government. The attack took place the same time as the beginning of the Geneva Four talks. The attack was praised by Liwa Omar al-Farouq Brigade leader in Ahrar Al-Sham, Abu Abdul Malik (Mahmoud Nemah). The attack was mentioned in an article in the publication Al-Masra by Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. HTS leader Abu Mohammed al-Julani mentioned the Homs attack, stating that it was a message for the "defeatist politicians" to "step aside." It has been disputed that the raid did resulted in the death of Ibrahim Darwish.Tariq Abdelhaleem posted a tweet on the Homs attack by Tahrir al-Sham.
On 11 March 2017, Tahrir al-Sham carried out a twin bombing attack in the Bab al-Saghir area of Damascus's Old City, killing 76 and wounding 120. The death toll included 43 Iraqi pilgrims. The attacks were at a shrine frequented by Shi'ite pilgrims and militiamen. They were described in a statement attributed to Tahrir al-Sham as targeting Iran-backed militias and pro-Assad fighters.
Beginning of decline, leadership passes from Abu Jaber (late 2017)
From September to November 2017, there were a series of assassinations of HTS leaders, in particular foreign clerics associated with the most hardline elements, such as Abu Talha al-Ordini, Abu Abdulrahman al-Mohajer, Abu Sulaiman al-Maghribi, Abu Yahya al-Tunisi, Suraqa al-Maki and Abu Mohammad al-Sharii, as well as some local military leaders, including Abu Elias al-Baniasi, Mustafa al-Zahri, Saied Nasrallah and Hassan Bakour. There was speculation that the assassinations were carried out either by pro-Turkish perpetrators, given the hostility between Turkey and HTS in Idlib, or by supporters of Johani's attempt to turn the organization away from hardline Salafi-jihadi positions. There were also high-profile defections from HTS in the same period, including Abdullah al-Muhaysini and Muslah al-Alyani. In December, HTS arrested several prominent jihadi activists, former members of al-Nusra who remained loyal to al-Qaeda and rejected HTS's turn away from Salafi-jihadist positions. The move was interpreted as an attempt to re-establish as a more pragmatic, pan-Sunni group, with a more civilian structure. Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri denounced this turn.
HTS announced Abu Jaber's resignation as the group's leader on 1 October 2017. He was succeeded by Nusra Front founder Abu-Muhammad al-Julani, who had already been the de facto military commander.
In early 2018, there were reports that HTS had been significantly weakened, and now had "a small presence in Eastern Ghouta and declining influence in Idlib, northern Hama, and western Aleppo provinces", with just 250 men in Eastern Ghouta and a total of 12,000 fighters.
In February 2018, Tahrir al-Sham was accused of killing Fayez al-Madani, an opposition delegate tasked with negotiations with the government over electricity delivery in the northern Homs Governorate, in the city of al-Rastan. Hundreds of people, including fighters of the Men of God Brigade, part of the Free Syrian Army's National Liberation Movement group, proceeded to demonstrate against HTS in the city on 13 February. In response, HTS withdrew from Rastan and handed over its headquarters in the city to the Men of God Brigade. A breakaway faction of former HTS members was formed in February 2018, called the Guardians of Religion Organization.[better source needed]
HTS was left excluded of the 24 February ceasefire agreement on Eastern Ghouta. In late February, a group of armed factions, including Failaq al-Rahman and Jaysh al-Islam, wrote to the UN declaring they were ready to "evacuate" remaining HTS fighters from Eastern Ghouta within 15 days. At the same time in Idlib Governorate, Ahrar al-Sham, Nour al-Din al-Zinki and Soqour al-Sham entered into conflict with HTS, taking significant territory.
During late 2017 and early 2018, it co-operated with Turkey in Idlib, leading to deepening tensions between the more pragmatic leadership and more hardline (especially foreign fighters) elements hostile to working with Turkey. Some of the latter split in February 2018 to form Huras al-Din. The HTS leadership also cracked down on remaining ISIS splinter cells active in Idlib. By August, when HTS entered into (unsuccessful) negotiations with Russia and Turkey, HTS was estimated to have around 3,000–4,000 foreign fighters, including non-Syrian Arabs, out of a total of 16,000 HTS fighters. On 31 August, Turkey declared HTS a terrorist organization.
In January 2019, HTS was able to seize dozens of villages from rivals, and afterwards, a deal was reached in which the civil administration was to be led by HTS in the whole rebel-held Idlib Governorate.
In the wake of the 5th Idlib inter-rebel conflict, HTS gained control of nearly the entire Idlib pocket, after defeating the Turkish-backed National Front for Liberation. Following their victory, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham would immediately violate the ceasefire treaty brokered by Turkey and Russia by placing combat units in the demilitarized zone along the Idlib-Syrian Government border, and attack SAA encampments near the area. In response to these attacks, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad increased the number of troops garrisoned near Idlib, which some have argued is an impending renewed offensive in the region, following the Northwestern Syria Campaign, where pro-government forces retook the formerly rebel-controlled Abu al-Duhur Military Airbase that was captured by the FSA and Army of Conquest in 2015. In 2019, the U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary Defense Michael Mulroy stated that “Idlib is essentially the largest collection of al Qaeda affiliates in the world.” 
In July 10-11 57 pro-government fighters were killed when Tahrir al-Sham militants attacked Syrian positions near the fortified village of Hamamiyat. 44 militants were also killed.
Ideology and governance
Abu Jaber, one of Tahrir al-Sham's leaders, has Salafist jihadist beliefs. This has resulted in him being arrested several times by the Syrian government. He was imprisoned at the Sednaya Prison in 2005 and released among several jihadist prisoners in 2011 who would form several Salafist rebel groups during the Syrian Civil War. Abu Jaber has also professed a belief in "Popular Jihad", a bottom-to-top approach in which jihadists would win the hearts and minds of the people, before setting out to establish jihadi governance, after receiving enough popular support, which is notably the opposite of ISIL's "elite Jihad" top-to-bottom approach.
Analysts have also argued that the group continues to maintain many of al-Nusra Front's al-Qaeda ideologies. Syrian reporter Abdullah Suleiman Ali also said that many of the former Jabhat Fateh al-Sham fighters still answered to al-Qaeda, and held an increasing amount of sway over the new group, despite its public rebranding. Tahrir al-Sham continues to harbor the former al-Nusra Front's goal of turning Syria into an Islamic Emirate, if such a governing entity were declared, it would be similar to ISIL's declaration of a Caliphate, according to Kremlin diplomats. The Combating Terrorism Center also reported that despite public statements by some of Tahrir al-Sham's top figures, the group was still largely the same al-Qaeda-aligned group it was, back when it was known as al-Nusra. Lebanese researcher Muhammad Alloush said that the goal of forming Tahrir al-Sham was to unite all groups with al-Qaeda's extreme ideology under one banner, and to obtain as many weapons as possible.
On 18 June 2019, HTS released a statement offering condolences to Egypt's former President Muhammad Morsi upon his death.
Students of the Free Aleppo University in al-Dana protest against the closure of several faculties by the Syrian Salvation Government which is affiliated with Tahrir al-Sham.
The ECHO Research Centre at Laurentian University conducted an opinion poll on 4,858 residents in several areas of Syria between 10 July 2017 and 28 July 2017. According to the poll's results, 77% of those surveyed disagreed with the Salafist ideology Tahrir al-Sham and other Salafist groups promote in Idlib, 73% rejected HTS-affiliated local councils in Idlib, 66% agreed that HTS is part of al-Qaeda in Syria, and 63% claimed that the dominance of HTS in Idlib will lead to a "second Tora Bora". Of those who participated in the poll, nearly all of them (close to 100%) considered HTS to be contrary to the goals of the Syrian opposition, although they were split in its extent. 51% of them considered HTS to be contrary to the opposition since its inception, 42% considered HTS to be previously consistent with the opposition, but is no longer so, and 7% considered HTS to be a counter-revolutionary organization.
This list is based on official announcements by Tahrir al-Sham[better source needed] and may not necessarily express the full extent of allegiances to the group. These groups may or may not become independent in the future; however, effort will be made to accordingly add or remove groups, based on the status given to them by the commanding office of Tahrir al-Sham. This list may not be a full comprehensive list of member groups.
Previously, the general commander of Tahrir al-Sham was Hashim al-Shaykh, also known as Abu Jaber, who was the leader of Ahrar al-Sham between September 2014 and September 2015. On 1 October 2017, Abu Jaber resigned from his position as the general leader of Tahrir al-Sham and was replaced by Abu Mohammad al-Julan. Abu Jaber took another position as the head of HTS's Shura council.
Individuals in italic are defectors from Ahrar al-Sham, which either left to join Jabhat Fateh al-Sham in the last few days of its existence, or directly joined Tahrir al-Sham.
Ayman al-Zawahiri has opposed the split of HTS from Al Qaeda, stating that it was done without his consent. Several Al-Qaeda circles and supporters have also condemned Joulani and compared him to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi because of the group's conflicts with other rebel groups, and have described him as an 'opportunist' as well as making claims that he is an agent of foreign powers.
According to Abdul Razzaq al-Mahdi, who was a leading scholar in Tahrir al-Sham, the groups do not particularly hate one another in the political or social battlefield. Certain members, however, do believe that a war between the two would be possible, since Ahrar al-Sham's attendance at the Astana talks labels it as a "moderate" faction, often seen as blasphemy within groups such as Tahrir al-Sham.
Most of the international community considers Tahrir al-Sham to be a terrorist organization. The US embassy in Syria confirmed in May 2017 that HTS had been designated a terrorist organization in March 2017. The United States Ambassador to Syria stated that "HTS is a merger and any group that merges into it becomes part of al-Qaeda's Syrian network." and "the core of HTS is Nusra, a designated terrorist organization. This designation applies regardless of what name it uses or what groups merge into it."
Canada designated Tahrir al-Sham as a terrorist organization on 23 May 2018.
In August 2018, Turkey designated Tahrir al-Sham as a terrorist organization.
^Syria’s civil war has been raging for 7 years. What’s behind it?, NBC, 22 February 2018 "According to a recent report by U.N. experts, Syria's powerful Nusra Front is one of the "strongest and largest al-Qaeda affiliates" in the world and is a dominant force in Syria's Hay'at Tahrir al Sham coalition. The group, known as HTS, boasts between 7,000 and 11,000 fighters."
^"Tahrir al-Sham: Al-Qaeda's latest incarnation in Syria". BBC. 28 February 2017. Retrieved 10 April 2018. It appeared to be an attempt to further distance the group from al-Qaeda. But it is not clear how effective that will be, as the last name change failed to convince the international community and the US kept the group on its list of foreign terrorist organisations.