Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham’s Projection of Legitimacy through Identity Documents

About the author(s):

William Grant-Brook is an early career researcher and program officer interested in conflict, state structure and armed groups. He has worked for several years in research and peacebuilding including for the conflict prevention NGO International Crisis Group and consultancy Prospect Peace. He holds an MSc in Middle East Politics (SOAS, Distinction) and is working on the development of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham.

As insurgencies and armed groups develop during civil wars, they often take on functions vacated by central governments. Over the course of more than a decade of civil war, power in Syria has fragmented. Various statelets claim control of their respective areas, attempting to administer and rule them and claiming the responsibilities of being a government. 

Part of these governance efforts includes providing legal identity documents that mark the various stages of human life; from birth certificates through to registering deaths, proof of marriages to ID cards. In many contexts around the world, the entity which provides civilians with this sort of documentation is usually, though not always, self-evident – the state. However, in Syria’s power struggle this is anything but clear, and the very right to provide such credentials is itself highly contested.  

One of the main beneficiaries of the fragmentation of state power in Syria has been Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). Beginning life in Syria’s civil war as Jabhat al-Nusra, a transnational jihadist group affiliated to Al-Qaeda, the group developed into one of many opposition units in a broad movement against President Bashar al-Assad, and then into its current form; a locally rooted actor and de facto state power in north west Syria.

Throughout its existence, HTS has consolidated control in Idlib governorate, built links with local communities and taken on functions usually reserved for a state. Part of this has involved the issuance and control of civil documentation for people living in areas under its purview. These documents include birth certificates, marriage contracts, and more. 

States are legally obliged to ensure civilians’ right to recognition as a person under the law. By assuming this obligation through distributing such key documents, HTS are attempting to position themselves as the state power in their corner of Syria.

This is important in a practical sense. Through the Syrian Salvation Government (SSG), the body that acts as the governance-wing of HTS, births, deaths and life-cycle events are registered. People are given legal identities and styled as citizens of the area under the control of the group. The SSG as a political body attempts to legitimise HTS’ armed control of Idlib’s population; the function of supplying civil documentation adds not only to the group’s practical power but also to the overall aura of who is in charge. 

Through a series of operations against, and alliances with, both more hardline and more moderate oppositions groups, HTS has consolidated its military and political control of north west Syria. In combination with this demonstration of force, HTS has used and controlled legal identity to show it has legitimacy as the administrative power in the region. As the group feels more secure in its kinetic footing, it has moved to control these aspects of life further. In a demonstration of the group’s apparent durability, registration for SSG-issued ID cards began in September 2022. 

HTS projecting legitimacy

Civil documentation also has wider implications for how HTS presents itself to the population and the outside world. HTS projects legitimacy through the use of identity documents. By providing them, as well as establishing government bodies to administer such functions, HTS has claimed to be more than simply an armed group within a territory. Through the establishment and use of the SSG and civil documentation, the concept of legal identity has been utilised in an effort to present a sense of permanence. Controlling and issuing legal identity documentation is a powerful way for HTS to highlight it exercises state-like power, at least in Idlib. As with most governments across the world, HTS is trying to show that the hand of the state is present from birth, through life, and ultimately at death.

This matters for the everyday experiences of communities living under HTS’ rule. Idlib’s pre-war population of around 1.5 million has more than doubled due to the arrival of people displaced from other parts of the country. These displaced communities often have their own legal vulnerabilities that complicate matters, with many having lost their original forms of identification when fleeing violence. 

One issue is that the civil documents of Syrians displaced to north west Syria that were issued by other entities is rarely recognised by HTS. Consequently, HTS is now mandating Syrians within Idlib acquire HTS-issued ID cards. Practically, this move will only add to the multiple forms of identification Syrians are encumbered with.

Residents chafe at the fact competing authorities in Syria refuse to recognise documents issued by each other. But here lies another point around legitimacy; by not accepting documentation by other governance structures, HTS – as well as those it competes with – is attempting to demonstrate that it alone is the legitimate authority within a given territory. While this is an added complication on civilian lives, actors such as HTS believe (probably rightly) that recognising and accepting legal identity documents produced by other entities, including the Syrian state, could undermine its own claims to authority. 

The major transformation in HTS’ existence arguably came from this desire to be seen as the sole legitimate sovereign in the area it controls. In 2016, what was then Jabhat al-Nusra split with Al-Qaeda to become Fateh al-Sham (HTS came into being the following year amid further consolidation by the group). Various dynamics drove the decision but a key one was the desire to localise and endear itself to Syrians by focussing on them rather than global jihad as Al-Qaeda does. HTS’ current legal identity efforts are the natural progression of such moves. No longer does it present itself as a transnational, jihadist group; instead the picture proffered to the world and Syrians is of a very localised, rooted entity; a “home-grown” state in north west Syria. It is therefore logical that this state provides civil documentation to the people located in this area as the only power with the right to do so.   

Legitimacy limited

However, the concept of legal identity also shows the limits of these attempts to gain legitimacy. If what is considered a legitimate state power is in part decided by the view of other countries and governments, then the story is not positive for HTS in this regard. Documents issued by the group are not widely recognised internationally as legal or acceptable, calling into question how far the state-building project can develop sans a dramatic change globally. For example, HTS-issued papers have been rejected as original Syrian legal documents for asylum applications. 

For those born in HTS territory, there are also risks of statelessness due to the perceived illegality of the documents. Although the group may be attempting to undertake the legal identity responsibilities of a state, its control of these actions is by no means uncontested or solely within its own purview. 

HTS is aware of the challenges it faces in this regard. In announcing the recent ID cards, the SSG’s Interior Minister Mohamed Abdelrahman specifically noted that they were “designed according to international specifications and standards”; an attempt to show the ID was just like the thousands of other pieces of documentation issued by governments across the world. Such decisions follow others by the SSG including criminalising forged documents, a step that could be seen as an endeavour to demonstrate responsibility in these matters.

Armed actors and legal identity documentation

HTS are not the first and will not be the last armed group to use legal identity to garner legitimacy and prove themselves as the state power. Other cases have also occurred in Syria over the last decade of the civil war – for example, the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria issues civil documentation that is rarely recognised elsewhere in the country or internationally –  let alone across an array of other global contexts.

Such dynamics of civil documentation raise questions around our understandings of armed actors. Considering the array of authorities claiming oversight of legal identity and performing the state-like function of distributing civil documentation, perhaps the stark divide between what is considered to be a state or non-state underplays the situation’s complexity. This is especially true in Syria where state power and control is so contested. Painting armed groups who provide governance, control territory (and in a very real sense act as a state power) as simply non-state and therefore illegal and illegitimate potentially colours perceptions of them with an unrealistic tinge of impermanence.

There are also consequences in respect to the very real and grounded experiences of documentation, for example the difficulties in having HTS-produced documents accepted, both elsewhere in Syria and abroad. To this end, a UN commission on children’s rights in Syria in 2020 recommended that documentation provided by armed groups should be considered as valid proof for obtaining official civil documentation, and that possession of such documentation should not impact children.

HTS’ use and control of legal identity is not complete, imperfect or unchallenged. But it is instructive to highlight the ways in which armed groups can and do use civil documentation to garner legitimacy and project state power. While examining ways to enrich our understandings of such complex, contested contexts, we should also remember the very real impacts these documents and practices have on citizens’ lives. This should be considered when devising policies to deal with the burden of legally documenting births, deaths, and everything in between.

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