In the wake of recent protests challenging his leadership, Abu Mohammad al-Julani (Ahmed al-Shar’a), convened a meeting with “notables and leading figures” from the territories under the control of his organization, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). Joining him were several prominent civil representatives, including the Chairman of the General Shura Council – something akin to a parliament – and the head of the newly established Syrian Salvation Government. The latter acts as HTS’s executive branch, with eleven ministries under its umbrella.

At this meeting, Al-Julani made a speech which essentially reversed the order of protesters’ priorities. Their first demand – to dismiss him personally and hand over leadership to a temporary collective body – went almost completely ignored, as did demands to dissolve the “Public Security Service” (a force known for its harsh tactics) to hold its leaders accountable, to free political prisoners, and to lower taxes, fees, and fines. Instead, al-Julani opted to pontificate about the “renaissance” witnessed in the areas he governs, and stressed the need to listen to “rightful demands” that can be implemented, promising a number of improvements in service quality, and apologizing for the “mistakes” that occurred, suggesting these were a symptom of the construction of any “state”.

What al-Julani failed to mention was the significance of the meeting happening on March 5th, the anniversary of the Russian-Turkish ceasefire. The ceasefire provided him with four years of relative stability, during which he refined his governance model and transformed his group, al-Nusra Front, from a combination of the Islamic State of Iraq (later ISIS) and al-Qaeda into the form it currently takes as Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham.

Key Developments

Since 2020, when HTS and other factions suffered a major defeat, al-Julani has used primarily military means to stabilize his authority. Treating the existing conditions as a foundational asset – or “capital” in his words – he decided to strengthen his authority by building a statelet which at the present time represents the “Sunni entity” (although he has ambitions to expand it, both through hard and soft power, and to gain “profits” including all of Syria and perhaps beyond.)

This “project”, as it became known among HTS leaders, was characterized by the operation of the following features in parallel:

1. Building “institutions”. In Idlib, hardly any time goes by without the launch or enhancement of some administrative body linked either to the Salvation Government, the parallel service organization “Management of the Liberated Areas”, or even organizations that appear independent. It often seems that the actual purpose of these entities takes a backseat to the display of establishing them, publicizing them, and showcasing their staff in uniform. This is particularly evident as al-Julani’s authoritarian grip overtakes these so-called institutions, starting with the government itself. Behind every civil servant in a Western suit and tie stands a commanding figure (amir) whose directives the ministry or department follows to the letter. As a result, the roles of these entities are reduced to mere tools of implementation, serving primarily to promote the “model”. This is aimed both at residents in the neighboring areas governed by the Syrian Interim Government, who complain of factional chaos and inadequate services, and at international observers, who are encouraged to support and endorse these institutions.

2. Expanding security forces. This was spearheaded by a distinguished yet enigmatic individual, Abu Ahmad Hudud (Anas Khattab), who hails from the Damascus countryside and was a former jihadist volunteer in Iraq. Hudud’s rise to prominence and his position as one of al-Julani’s most trusted associates led him to assume leadership of the General Security Apparatus. Remarkably, when al-Julani was compelled to name a deputy following directives from Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of al-Qaeda – to whom al-Julani had pledged his allegiance instead of ISIS – he chose Abu Ahmad, despite the latter’s electoral defeat in the al-Nusra’s Shura Council. Out of a lack of personal ambition, Abu Ahmad remained in this overlooked role, and over time his responsibilities have evolved: where before he oversaw his leader’s personal security and selected his residences, he now leads a division that boasts a vast array of technical staff and equipment. Under his leadership, the apparatus manages several formidable prisons dreaded by residents of areas under HTS control.

3. Enhancing economic control. Second only to security, al-Julani places a high value on money, accumulating wealth on a large scale and distributing it selectively. As a result, a form of kleptocratic governance has taken root in Idlib and surrounding areas. This system involves high-ranking and mid-level leaders (amirs) within HTS owning and secretly managing various enterprises for personal gain or to fund the organization, often collaborating with merchants who are seeking protection from kidnapping and extortion and looking to smooth over their legal dealings. Moreover, HTS has reached into the operations of relief and service organizations in its territory, demanding undeclared shares in exchange for allowing them to continue their work.

4. External relations campaign. Spearheaded by Zaid al-Attar (a pseudonym), a key ally of al-Julani, who transitioned from a media role within al-Nusra Front to leading the “Department of Political Affairs.” This department, viewed by HTS’s leadership as a quasi-foreign ministry, engages with international representatives and facilitates access for foreign journalists and researchers to its areas of influence. In recent times, the department has focused on refuting claims of HTS involvement in “global jihad”, emphasizing instead its identity as a local jihadist or revolutionary group with no intentions of conducting terrorist acts beyond its borders. It positions itself as the foremost authority in opposing ISIS, claiming to have the most expertise in dealing with foreign jihadists in Syria and the greatest capability to detain or manage them. Through this campaign, HTS aims to rebrand and escape being labeled as a terrorist entity, by focusing on actions that might prevent such classification, either by disassociating from or targeting internationally recognized leaders.

5. Islamic outreach initiative. This is led by Ahmed Muwaffaq Zaidan, former head of Al Jazeera’s Pakistan office and a staunch advocate for the “Sunni entity” initiative currently led by HTS. Zaidan is tasked with promoting this project to members of the Islamic movement, inviting them to join online “cultural activities” hosted by educational and civil groups seemingly independent of HTS. This blend of “revolution” and “jihad” has recently emerged as a key element of HTS’s messaging strategy.

6. Community engagement strategy: Since HTS is aware that expanding southwards could jeopardize the ceasefire which safeguards its existence, it sees its opportunity for gains in extending northward, encroaching on areas nominally under the Syrian Interim Government and the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army. This ambition goes beyond capturing more trade routes and generating revenue. HTS aims to solidify control over the Sunni Arab component in Syria and claim the legacy of the revolution, positioning it as an indispensable participant in any discussions about Syria’s future. To this end, HTS has strategically formed covert and overt alliances with nearby factions, even fighting under their banners to widen its territory. The effort to sway and assimilate these groups has been led by two HTS leaders adept in tribal and local dynamics, namely Abu Maria al-Qahtani (the Iraqi Maysar al-Juburi) and Jihad Issa al-Sheikh (Abu Ahmad Zakour).

Reports of HTS’s moral misconduct have triggered widespread condemnation, particularly the revolving door of member arrests and releases: some arrestees are so badly mistreated that they have difficulty walking after their release. These criticisms came not only from their peers within the organization and their civilian communities, but also from several influential figures (sheikhs) who had previously supported or remained neutral towards HTS. The incidents were seen as affronts not only to the victims but to the broader community, which was expected to accept these narratives without concrete evidence or oversight by their representatives. This situation prompted calls for accountability within HTS leadership, questioning its unilateral decision-making and the treatment of detainees within its prisons – concerns that previously only affected a small portion of the population under HTS control.

Critiques of al-Julani’s leadership style were common among several former HTS leaders, who observed his inclination to monopolize significant decisions, his systematic sidelining of the formal Shura Councils, his preference for closed-door meetings and verbal agreements that could easily be reversed, his penchant for public exhibition, and his outright disdain for any real partners.

Concerning human rights abuses perpetrated by the General Security Apparatus, the nature of the abuses varied with the prisoners’ backgrounds. Initially, when HTS used to present itself as a jihadist organization linked to al-Qaeda, its security forces targeted civilian or secular activists and remnants of the Syrian Free Army factions, which HTS had dismantled. These detainees occasionally received media attention due to their involvement in a revolutionary project with advocacy, connections, and legitimacy. However, as HTS shifted focus towards detaining ISIS affiliates, extremists, and controlling the influx of jihadist fighters, the majority of those in its prisons lacked external support. Appeals for their release or safety were confined to their immediate circles and some human rights groups that continued to document abuses, regardless of the detainees’ alleged offenses. Less than a year ago, HTS targeted members of the Islamic Hizb ut-Tahrir (known for its radical ideology but peaceful methods), which has leading to ongoing protests by the detainees’ female relatives and brought the issue of “prisoners of conscience” to the forefront of public discourse.

Conclusion

Al-Julani’s supporters and critics alike scoff at the notion that he would ever step down as the leader of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham or relinquish his self-proclaimed title as the “leader of the liberated areas.” This is not only due to his insatiable thirst for power, but also because relinquishing control could undermine his leadership within the group and compromise his ability to leverage the needs and interests of the millions under his rule as a bargaining chip with the outside world. This could jeopardize not just his future, but also his very life. The US has placed a ten-million-dollar bounty on his head, ready to be implemented the second his threat – “Me or jihadist chaos” – ceases to apply. On the ground, a growing number of people are seeking revenge against him for ideological or civil reasons, particularly if the reports are accurate that the General Security Apparatus has executed up to two thousand detainees in recent years, often through secretive trials and burials.

In a recent meeting held on March 12, with groups HTS media described as “revolutionary forces, civil organizations, and public institutions”, alongside leaders of the Shura Council and government, al-Julani stated that he had done as much as he could to address what he referred to as “legitimate demands”, warning that any actions crossing these “red lines” would be met with severe consequences due to their threat to “our achievements”.

From his perspective, al-Julani has reached the limit of acceptable concessions. The meeting resulted in decisions that would curtail his powers, most notably the creation of a “Supreme Advisory Council” consisting of “individuals with notable expertise and knowledge” to oversee “strategic policies and decisions”, establish a higher supervisory body, and restructure the General Security Apparatus under the Ministry of Interior in the Salvation Government. This restructuring aims to shift operations from secretive to public and to form a “Board of Grievances and Accountability” to address violations. Economically, a decision was made to review current “policies”, fight corruption, and prevent monopolies.

These measures, if actually implemented, would limit the powers of al-Julani and his inner circle. However, they also represent a strategic response to protester demands, leaving the protesters with a tough choice: confront the threats made by the “Committee’s leader”, or watch him navigate a new cycle of manipulating decisions and emptying them of substance – until the next wave of protests emerges.