Is Syria’s Jabhat Fateh al-Sham al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria?

Jabhat Fateh al-Sham fighters
Jabhat Fateh al-Sham fighters before an offensive to break the siege of Aleppo in 2016. Image: Felix Legrand/NOIRA

Much of Syria’s Idlib province is controlled by an alliance of jihadist groups called Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. The group is led by Jabhat Fateh al-Sham which was previously known as Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria. Nusra was founded by Abu Muhammad al-Julani, who is currently also leader of HTS.

Turkish military forces recently moved into Idlib province, part of a deal agreed in Astana in September. The troops were escorted in by HTS militants. Charles Lister wrote that, according to opposition and jihadist sources, the “Turkish move into Idlib was the result of an intensive negotiation process between HTS and Turkey.”

When Nusra changed its name to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, Julani did not say that the organisation was splitting or breaking from al-Qaeda, only that the “new organization has no affiliation to any external entity,” but many news outlets refer to JFS as a former affiliate.

This begs the question: Did JFS “break ties” with al-Qaeda? Is it a “former affiliate” or a “former branch”? Is it “linked” or “formerly linked”? What’s the best way to characterise the relationship between JFS and al-Qaeda, and how does this extend to HTS?

Fergus Kelly took a long look at the history of the Syrian jihadi groups on our sister site, The Defense Post, asking noted experts Hassan Hassan, Ahmet Yayla, Aron Lund, Aaron Stein and Joshua Landis as well as governments in the U.S.-led Coalition for their views on the connections between the groups.

Read the full story: Al-Qaeda in Idlib? Examining bonds between Syria’s largest jihadi groups

Al-Qaeda in Idlib? Examining bonds between Syria’s largest jihadi groups