Political Calculations and Institutional Inertia: Examining Hayat Tahrir al-Sham’s demands in light of the Foreign Terrorist Organisations (FTO) list

An odd precedent was established last year following demands made to the United States by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) to delist the group as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO). The group remains eccentric in the eyes of many, predominantly due to the preservation of radical/extremist views, notwithstanding the group abandoning its affiliation to transnational jihadi networks, in particular, al-Qaeda (HTS parent organisation), and global jihad wholly. Correspondingly, Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani (HTS leader) vociferously labelled the group’s enlistment as “an unfair categorization […] carrying no truth or credibility” in an interview with PBS’s Frontline. He added:

While there is some truth to the justification provided by Jawlani, such that the organization has witnessed a significant revolution, chiefly vis-à-vis disavowing the Islamic State (April 2013) and al-Qaeda (July 2016), any attempt at wholly delisting the group remains unlikely, for notable reasons beyond HTS’s control. Although the group still satisfies the required legal threshold, albeit to a lesser extent than it used to a decade ago, any change in the status quo could considerably affect US policy proposals, principally vis-à-vis the adversarial entities operating in the Syrian arena. Whilst providing a clarification of the legal criteria involved in enlisting a group as an FTO, an analysis shall be conducted of the possible caveats with respect to the strategic priorities of the US, corresponding political calculations, and institutional inertia, considerably dictating any attempt at delisting the group.

Having learnt the lessons of the failures of jihad in the levant a decade ago following its birth as the al-Nusra front, HTS sought to establish legitimacy in their operations by focusing on a more local setting in North-western Syria. In accordance with the shifting dynamics within the Syrian arena, as the civil war evolved, this ‘local’ shift established itself progressively, notably after ideological disagreements with the Islamic State and subsequently, al-Qaeda, all former HTS allies. Despite the operational relaxation and disavowing global jihad, the retention of radical/extremist expression coupled up with the authoritarian manner of control over its territory is what obscures any US policy perspective towards the group. The last decade has witnessed a shift in this perspective towards terrorism, with the bandwidth in relation competition from Russia and China having broadened, and the global war on terror narrowed. Accordingly, any attempt at delisting or even reconsidering the status of HTS as a foreign terrorist organisation cannot be understood as a priority for Washington. Additionally, even within the Counter-terrorism spectrum, HTS does not find itself at the top of the agenda, especially as Islamic State offshoots and subsequent developing extremist groups within Africa and South-East Asia begin to take shape (including the concerns of Afghanistan evolving into another breeding ground for terrorists), taking precedence over HTS. Any previous threat/risk posed by the operations of HTS has considerably decreased, principally due to the sole focus of the group being directed towards the Assad regime and its allies, subsequently decreasing the groups relevance in light of US policy. 

Delisting the group could conceivably produce a plethora of political risks. In the event of the Assad regime deciding to take back HTS territory, consequently leaving the group landless, their ability to legitimise their operations through “state-building” would be substantially damaged. Accordingly, this transformation of dynamics within the Syrian arena could create an endless spiral of insurgency and consequently, terrorism, as spotlighted during the early days of the revolution. While any such possibilities shall be extrapolated and based on hypotheticals, it is irrefutable that corresponding policy formation and planning shall account for all ‘worst-case’ political scenarios and risks/backlash. One of the consequences following from relevant political considerations, as stressed by Aron Y. Zelin of the Washington Institute, relates to institutional/organisational inertia. Previous attempts at delisting organisations came about, principally due to US interests in the operating region, as illustrated by the FARC removal (following a peace deal with the Colombian government), or organisations being rendered obsolete/non-operational. In the absence of such motives, individuals/groups could be surrounded in limbo. An instance of this was the designation of Nelson Mandela until 2008, almost two decades after he denounced terrorism. Out of the five jihadi groups delisted since 9/11, all were non-operational at the time of removal. Further, even after ceasing to operate, institutional inertia coupled up with political calculations substantially dictated any attempt at removal. 

Much of this ‘limbo’ manifested is fundamentally due to the hazy criteria or standards present with respect to the US government revisiting the status of groups/individuals and their designation. Numerous jihadi groups, despite being non-operational for all purposes, having either being merged into other transnational groups or simply ceasing to exist, still remain on the list. The continued presence of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan within the list, having not claimed an attack in 13 years, is an appropriate demonstration of the low prioritisation in light of list re-evaluation. Correspondingly, while the legal criteria establishes a five-year review window per designation, the operation of institutional inertia consequently limits any prioritisation of such a review, underscoring the inconsistencies within the standards. Notwithstanding possible caveats, HTS and its key leaders remain listed by the United Nations within their terrorism list (which the US are bound by) and have been placed under sanctions. Any attempt at changing this status quo seems improbable, principally due to the Russian veto power against any removal decision in support of the Assad regime.

An amalgamation of the reasons provided substantially quell Jawlani’s aspirations, rendering the status quo acceptable. It is worth noting that the issue in question is moot, predominantly due to reasons out of HTS’s control. While delisting is looking improbable, this unprecedented request by Jawlani raises severe queries in light of the need for clearer standards and policy processes involved in delisting terrorist organisations.

Karla’s back with a bang.