The jihadi coalition says twin blasts that killed more than 70 mostly Shia pilgrims in Damascus were a way to hit Assad and his Iranian-backed supporters. But whatever the reason, the result is an increasingly sectarian conflict.
Over the weekend, double bomb attacks hit Shia Muslim sites of worship in Damascus' Old City. With more than 70 killed and at least 100 wounded, this was the bloodiest attack to hit Damascus since 2011. Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a coalition of Syrian jihadi groups that includes a former al-Qaeda affiliate, claimed responsibility.
In a statement, HTS presented the attacks as a response to "Iranian-backed Shia militias" fighting Sunnis in Iraq and Syria. Despite the fact that the blasts killed mostly Iraqi Shia pilgrims, HTS claimed that one of the suicide blasts targeted "Iranian militias" while the second was aimed at Assad regime forces.
It is as if HTS was trying to portray its targeting of Shia non-Syrian pilgrims as equivalent to targeting the non-Syrian Shia military forces on the ground supporting Assad. This was likely an attempt by HTS to draw a line between locals and supposedly legitimate military targets. It would also point to a broader strategy of HTS taking the fight to Assad-controlled areas to show Assad's supporters that he is unable to bring security to his territories. The result, either way, is an increasingly sectarian conflict.
HTS consists of former al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS) and four other jihadi groups. For the last four years, al-Qaeda's Syria branch has been trying to show that it comprises nationalist fighters in the mainstream rebellion. It moved from being Jabhat al-Nusra to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham when it officially cut ties with al-Qaeda last year. Now it has joined HTS, once again rebranding itself.
But unlike al-Qaeda, HTS seems to be closer to ISIS' ideology and tactics, attacking "apostates" and the "near enemy," based on a sectarian approach. In his first speech, HTS leader Hashem al-Sheikh stated that "apostates [a reference to the Shia] are enslaving the Sunnis because they are controlling Damascus."
Over the weekend, however, HTS responded to a statement by Michael Ratney, the US special envoy for Syria, in which he undermined the alliance's efforts to present itself as an official body representing Syrians. HTS hit back by criticising the US' attitude to the "Syrian revolution," and trying to use US policy on Syria - or lack of it - as a unifying message. HTS accused Washington of letting Syrians down, allowing Assad to use chemical weapons, allowing Iran-backed militias to commit crimes in the country, turning a blind eye to Russian atrocities, and supporting PKK fighters against Arab citizens in regime-held territories.
In the response to Washington, HTS emphasised national goals and doubled down on the idea that it represents Syrians. There was no mention of establishing an Islamic state or the need to impose Sharia law. Rather, the alliance presented the latest attacks as part and parcel of defending "all" Syrians against Assad's atrocities.
"Apostates [a reference to the Shia] are enslaving the Sunnis because they are controlling Damascus."
Hashem al-Sheikh, HTS leader
The Syrian opposition has made it clear that Shia militias backing Assad are turning the conflict into a sectarian one. The presence of groups like Hizbullah is provocative not only for Sunni armed rebels, but also for Sunni Syrians in cities held by Assad, like Damascus and Aleppo. With the increased Shia presence, Iran seeks to bolster support for Tehran in the region. This has had implications for the dynamics of the conflict, with sectarianism increasing. Many analysts argue that Iran's support for Assad, and the presence of Hizbullah and other Shia militias, has changed the nature of the rebellion and the strategic calculations of its most powerful groups.
HTS will be able to generate local sympathy from the anti-Assad Sunni majority so long as the West continues to focus on fighting ISIS in Syria, without addressing the root causes of the Syrian crisis. This leaves space for other extremist religious groups, like HTS, to pitch themselves as the only guardians of Syrians against the Shia militias protecting the regime.
So long as the West is reluctant to provide a political solution to Syria's conflict, HTS will likely find local support. The danger is that, if Assad remains in power backed by Tehran and Shia groups, extremist groups like HTS will have a role, increasing the radicalisation in the rebellion. As well as targeting terrorist groups such as ISIS and al-Qaeda, Syria needs a political settlement that reduces sectarians tension among non-state actors in the region.