Jerome Drevon, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies; and Patrick Haenni, European University Institute
The regional and international environments have transformed conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa. The reluctance of Western countries – especially the United States as examined by Buduszynski in Libya – to maintain a heavy footprint on the ground has facilitated the reassertion of regional states like Russia and Turkey. Abboud contends that one of the notable features of the management of armed conflicts by regional states is their acknowledgement that violence does not have to be eliminated but managed, as illustrated by the Astana process in Syria. Locally, these transformations have empowered a range of non-state actors that compete with governments and are sometimes involved in local governance and security, as shown by Ahram. Some of them have even established state-lets trying to sustain themselves in this new environment. The state-lets create new forms of statehoods, which creates “citizenship constellations” that inform individual adaptation to these changes as well as potential long-term risks according to Sosnowski. Important questions on the viability of the state-lets and their own choices in changing domestic and international environments nonetheless remain.
Rebel governance by non-state armed groups is at the forefront of recent research in civil war studies. This paradigm is defined as the “organization of civilians within rebel held territory for a public purpose [including the] encouragement of civilian participation, provision of civilian administration, or organization of civilians for significant material gain”. Islamic State group (IS thereafter) is the most obvious case since this group explicitly defines itself as a state. But other examples exist. A prominent case is the Syrian armed group Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS thereafter), the former Jabhat al-Nusra (JaN). The group was created by IS commanders who split from the organisation in 2013 by pledging allegiance to AQ before asserting their independence from the latter as well three years later. The group has effectively dominated and managed the northwest Syrian province of Idlib since 2019. In contrast with most salafi jihadi groups that directly rule the population, however, HTS has promoted a civilian technocratic administration to manage the province known as the Syrian Salvation Government (SSG thereafter). This choice is strikingly different from other well-known cases of direct jihadi governance characterised by high ideological commitments and harsh governance.
In northwest Syria, HTS considers the consolidation of a technocratic government that preserves internal stability while fostering tacit Turkish and Western acceptance as key to its survival. Non-ideological governance is paradoxically the most appropriate choice for a group that stems from jihadi Salafism to emphasise its singularity, especially vis-à-vis AQ and IS. The trajectory of HTS seems to demonstrate that the insurgent-held province will not be a radical emirate or a safe haven that could serve as a launch pad for foreign attacks. The HTS-supported SSG has accordingly implemented an array of religious and security policies to maintain internal order and substantiate the group’s commitments internationally. While the longevity of the group and its supported government is contingent on regional developments, as recognised by HTS leader Abu Muhammad al-Jolani himself, such a trajectory could encourage other jihadi insurgents to make similar choices. This research is based on multiple research trips undertaken in Idlib in 2019-2020. We have interviewed the political, religious, and military leaders of HTS, other groups, and an array of ministers that have served in successive iterations of the SSG.
The Consolidation of a Civilian Administration over Idlib: A Paradoxical Hegemon
The establishment of a single administrative body to rule the insurgent-held province of Idlib after 2017 was not simply the political project of HTS or its predecessor JaN’s political project. This goal was largely embraced by most insurgents, regardless of their divergences on its practicality. The unification of governance was a response to the evolution of the Syrian conflict by 2016. The main turning point was the Russian intervention followed by the seizure of Aleppo by the regime and its international allies in 2016 and the loss of remaining insurgent strongholds in the suburbs of Damascus, Homs, and the South. The north-western province of Idlib was administered by contending authorities before 2017. Local governance consisted of a combination of local councils, independent organisations, and armed groups’ infrastructures (including courts and prison facilities). Multiple authority exacerbated internal fragmentation and prevented the imposition of common regulations and rules throughout the province. It also heightened internal tensions as local councils received diverging sources of foreign support. The province had become a patchwork of mini-kingdoms ruled by local groups and factions, while unity was increasingly necessary to ensure its military defence and political representation.
Civil society was at the forefront of promoting unified governance but factional competition was a major impediment prior to 2017. Several initiatives were presented by local activists and entrepreneurs alike, according to numerous interviews with them. The most important initiative was promoted by scholars who organised a general conference to establish a local administration in 2017. However, most of these initiatives failed. Divergences of views between the factions, lack of trust, and their inability to reach a consensus prevented the consolidation of a unified civilian administration throughout the province. Instead, factions shared power based on the changing balance of military power between them and on their own preferences. Factionalism had long impeded the unification of governance despite the support of some factions for the establishment of a unified civilian authority. The establishment of a single civilian administration only became possible when one group, HTS, imposed itself militarily over other factions.
HTS used the imposition of a technocratic government to institutionalise the revolution. The main objectives of the group were to withdraw governance functions from the factions and produce political representation. The first dimension of institutionalisation entailed the centralisation of several core features of governance. The SSG imposed itself throughout the province by demanding the submission of all the groups and local organisations. Then, it centralised the local councils and unified the courts of justice and prison facilities previously managed by the factions according to the SSG minister of social affairs Moyaed al-Hassan. The process was arduous since many localities refused to abide to the new administrative order. A few local councils vied to remain independent and opposed SSG taxes, although they gradually had to submit to the SSG. This process of centralisation paradoxically gave some degree of autonomy to the SSG from HTS, which did not seek to micromanage or control all of the administration.
But important features of governance were delegated to non-group members inside the SSG and to organisational structures unaffiliated to the SSG as well. HTS realised that it could rely on external groups for its governance project. Non-HTS constituencies, especially among the urban middle class, economic entrepreneurs, independent Islamists, and tribal entities, sought to benefit from the unification of local governance. Civilian positions inside the government have been manned by the educated urban elite trying to reassert itself after the end of factionalism, which divided them and impeded their independent consolidation. Most of them were conservative individuals previously engaged in revolutionary activism without clear factional belonging. Similarly, businessmen invested in institution building within the SSG to establish a framework to organise their work. Some of these groups were co-opted by HTS while others seized their space independently. They joined the SSG out of ideological affinity or simply to pursue their own interests, including corporatist and tribal. In addition, the SSG accepted that some of the administration is performed by external structures. For instance, the health sector has been mostly supervised by international NGOs while education is organised by independent religious institutes and foreign-supported organisations. The SSG had to renounce some of its prerogatives to maintain foreign support.
The group’s hegemony is therefore paradoxical since the hegemonic player is ready to delegate. The SSG is the sole active government in the province of Idlib. HTS explicitly forbids the creation of alternative structures of governments, including courts of justice, not under the official jurisdiction of the SSG. Yet, the SSG does include non-HTS constituencies and acquiesce that some of its prerogatives are performed outside the government. As long as the SSG remains officially in charge of the province and is able to maintain its position as the sole administrative hegemon, it accepts not dictating every facets of governance. On the other hand, HTS keeps a tighter control of security and large segments of the local economy, which it considers strategic priorities.
Religious Policies: Constraining religious radicalism without ideological revisions
The establishment of a technocratic – and therefore non-ideological – government does not exclude the implementation of specific religious policies. Political dissidence in a religious garb has been a real threat to HTS and its supported government, which could erode their local legitimacies and organisational cohesion. Controlling religious discourse without necessarily trying to implement strict religious regulations was therefore taken seriously by HTS to eliminate political opponents. The group leadership also wanted to create distance from the other state-lets previously formed by jihadi groups characterised by their harsh implementation of Islamic Law.
These issues quickly appeared when HTS engaged in a tacit rapprochement with foreign countries, especially Turkey. The group’s acquiescence to a growing Turkish role antagonised many individuals and factions that considered it Islamically unlawful. These actors include many HTS commanders who left the group to create an AQ-aligned alternative, Hurras al-Din (the Guardians of Religion), as well as prominent commanders and religious scholars who initially remained in HTS. HTS was concerned about the political arguments made by its opponents, as they were grounded in religion, thus potentially threatening HTS’s legitimacy and internal cohesion.
The group’s first response to the threat from hard-line commanders was to institutionalise internally. Despite the failure to unite all of the factions, HTS sought to institutionalise internal authority, including religious authority, since its creation. The group initially gathered most previously independent religious preachers in a common structure to unite – and ultimately control – their voice. It gradually imposed administrative regulations in the next few months. They limited the application of many religious concepts associated with jihadi Salafism, including excommunication. According to the head of HTS’s religious council Abu Abdullah al-Shami and HTS consultative council member Mathhar al-Weis, the group punished – through detention and expulsion – dissident voices for breaking administrative rules and expressing contradictory positions publicly. Institutionalisation also entailed the re-assertion of the role of the traditional Islamic schools of jurisprudence – the maddhab – to impose internal control, acknowledge local norms, and sever the influence of foreign jihadi intellectuals. HTS never renounced its Salafi religious creed and beliefs, but effectively restricted their implementation by drawing on other concepts in Sharia Politics to justify its new political leanings.
The SSG has not tried to impose its religious vision or Islamise the population. In absence of an emirate, the SSG relaxed its religious regulations and focused on political dissidence. The initial imposition of the SSG accompanied some restrictive measures in the religious field. Several religious preachers were removed and some institutions were pressured by the new government. But the SSG and HTS ultimately refrained from imposing narrow religious views in reaction to popular pressure and HTS’s own limited manpower. HTS simply did not have enough resources, including religious preachers, to fill in existing needs according to Ibrahim Shaho, the SSG minister of religious affairs. More religious diversity was therefore gradually allowed, in contrast with JaN’s previous practices. For instance, traditionalist religious institutes managed to dispense their courses and organise Islamic circles, despite the traditional Salafi opposition to their religious creed.
The imposition of a technocratic government alleviated pressure on the immediate implementation of all facets of Islamic law. There were some limited early attempts to impose stricter religious regulations, including the necessity for women to be accompanied by a male relative. Yet, the combination of public pressure and a restrictive regional environment reinforced the group and its supported government’s willingness to compromise. The institutionalisation of governance marginalised previously independent judges and religious scholars, which prevented excessive implementations of contested Islamic rulings. Without reforming its core doctrinal principles, HTS and the SSG have effectively suspended the implementation of a clear ideological project. They have not implemented the Islamic corporal punishments and generally aligned with local norms including in the religious domain.
The third major feature of HTS and the SSG’s policies is security. After demonstrating that HTS would not implement an IS or AQ-like emirate, the group also had to send signals that insurgent-held Idlib would not pose an international security threat. It was therefore important for HTS to demonstrate that it could subjugate AQ figures as well as radical foreign fighters. The imposition of a unified system of governance generally sought to stabilise domestic order, preserve the territorial gains of the opposition, and build international credibility. After the loss of Aleppo and other insurgent strongholds between 2016 and 2018, the objective was to improve military coordination and prevent spoilers to align military campaigns with the achievement of clearer political objectives.
HTS’s policies on radical groups varied. The imposition of HTS’s military pre-eminence in Idlib initially sought to prevent the consolidation of more moderate alternatives by Ahrar al-Sham and its local allies. But HTS’s military hegemony also helped it to dismantle more radical alternatives. HTS has directly managed the security threat posed by IS cells. HTS’s security services have dismantled their early networks, detained their members, and executed some of them. HTS’s policy on non-IS radical groups was more subtle. The AQ-split Hurras al-Din, for instance, was not directly dismantled. Some of their leaders were occasionally arrested and pressured, which initially raised internal complaints inside HTS itself. HTS then tried to control them from 2018 to 2020 with economic and military pressure. It also sought to isolate them from their local allies by inciting smaller radical factions to distance themselves. Ultimately, Abu Muhammad al-Jolani insisted that, despite some tensions, HTS managed to force them to agree not to use Syria as a launchpad for foreign attacks, abstain from kidnappings, and dismantle their courts and check points.
Addressing the threat posed by radical groups was also important for HTS’s own internal cohesion. The gradual elimination of more radical factions like the AQ-aligned HaD helped to dissuade HTS’s own commanders and sub-groups from looking for alternatives. HTS commanders and sub-groups that opposed their leadership’s pragmatism would accordingly have to weigh the prospects of losing access to critical resources had they decided to join a more alluring – but resource poor – alternative organisational umbrella to fight according to individuals close to HaD.
Aside from the radical groups, HTS had to recognise the necessity to collaborate with more mainstream factions. The imposition of the SSG was initially facilitated by HTS’s military subjugation of these groups, especially Ahrar al-Sham. HTS seized their heavy weaponry, imposed the dismantlement of their administrative infrastructures into the SSG, and expelled some of their commanders. But HTS ultimately realised that it could not defend the province alone. The localism of the conflict became a real impediment to the defence of the regions where other factions previously dominated, especially in the South of the province. HTS’s current military commander, Abul-Hassan 600, recognised that the group could not mobilise locals to defend these areas if it expelled local factions. Locals would not join HTS after being militarily subjugated. HTS therefore had to collaborate with these groups to coordinate the military defence of the province. Most of the factions joined a shared military operation room, which is planned to be transformed into a military council consisting in a troika formed in collaboration with Ahrar al-Sham and Faylaq al-Sham.
The institutionalisation of military work through the formation of a shared military operation room was, more recently, used to further constrain radical factions. The stabilisation of HTS’s relations with mainstream armed groups consolidated the shared military operation room. Next, HTS explicitly forbade any military actions orchestrated outside of this framework. The institutionalisation of the insurgency transformed the shared operation room into the only acceptable coordination mechanism. Competing military rooms, including the military room lead by AQ supporters were banned to prevent them from spoiling the military work that HTS and other factions coordinate with their Turkish partner. This step was necessary to impose military order and prevent dissidence, which would have weakened the defence of the province. According to Abu-Hassan 600, the head of HTS’s military wing, former HaD soldiers will not be integrated into HTS. Their mobilisation could pose an internal threat to the unification of the military forces since they are not ideologically aligned with the new strategy of the insurgency thus weakening HTS’s internal cohesion.
These security and military policies have an important international dimension. The survival of insurgent-held northwest Syria has become primarily contingent on regional developments, as recognised by HTS leader Abu Muhammad al-Jolani. Local groups cannot defend the province without external support, especially from Turkey. This configuration has created a relationship of dependency on Turkey, and on the international environment. That is particularly the case since Turkey sent more than 10,000 soldiers to the province for the past year. Despite initial tensions, HTS expresses the desire to create strategic ties with Turkey. However, the group’s continued international terrorist listing remains an impediment to further international engagement.
So-called jihadi governance is too often understood through its violent features only. Northwest Syria is therefore particularly intriguing since it suggests that jihadi groups can also accommodate their regional and international environments and make substantial concessions on their ideological projects. Armed groups like HTS, like Ahrar al-Sham in the past, have been responsive to changing environmental conditions by recognising the necessity to forge ties with foreign countries and be accommodating with the population. Beyond existing debates on moderation and ideological change, this case suggests that jihadi groups can transform when external actors are willing to offer a way out of AQ and IS.
Against the backdrop of current debates on great power politics and foreign intervention, northwest Syria illustrates some of the shortcomings of the counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency strategies that have been pursued for the past two decades. These two approaches have too often been conflated, but also reduced to mere “elimination” of security threats. The depoliticisation of counter-insurgency has hindered a real debate on engagement with local jihadi groups. Freezing conflicts, Western retreat from the region and Turkish interference therefore offers a real opportunity to reflect on how regional and Western states can shape the conditions in which jihadi groups can transform, including through dialogue.
 This article is based on a longer article entitled “Global Jihad No More: AQ’s Former Syrian Franchise Switch to Politics” to be published by the Syria Initiative of the European University Institute of Florence. We would like to thank Elizabeth Tsurkov, Dareen Khalifa, and Regine Schwab a for comments and suggestions.
 e.g. Arjona, Ana, Nelson Kasfir, and Zachariah Mampilly, eds. Rebel governance in civil war. Cambridge University Press, 2015.
 Kasfir, Nelson. Rebel governance–constructing a field of inquiry: definitions, scope, patterns, order, causes. Vol. 2. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015: 24. Additional dimensions of rebel institutional arrangements and ideal types are provided in Mampilly, Zachariah, and Megan A. Stewart. “A Typology of Rebel Political Institutional Arrangements.” Journal of Conflict Resolution (2020).
 See studies of IS’s administrative documents, policies, governing structures, and ideological specificities. See: Al-Tamimi, Aymenn. “The evolution in Islamic State administration: The documentary evidence.” Perspectives on Terrorism 9.4 (2015): 117-129; Zelin, Aaron Y. “The Islamic State’s territorial methodology.” The Washington Institute for Near East Policy 29 (2016): 1-23; Revkin, Mara Redlich. “Competitive Governance and Displacement Decisions Under Rebel Rule: Evidence from the Islamic State in Iraq.” Journal of Conflict Resolution (2020).
 Lia, Brynjar. “Understanding jihadi proto-states.” Perspectives on Terrorism 9, no. 4 (2015): 31-41.
 Schwab, Regine. “Insurgent courts in civil wars: the three pathways of (trans) formation in today’s Syria (2012–2017).” Small Wars & Insurgencies 29.4 (2018): 801-826; Berti, Benedetta. “From Cooperation to Competition: Localization, Militarization and Rebel Co-Governance Arrangements in Syria.” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism (2020): 1-19.