The Islamic State (IS) has lost almost all the territory in its possession in Syria. There is a perception growing among the people that these are the end days of IS and the United States and its allies’ war on terror is coming to conclusion in Syria. But still, in one corner of Syria, Jihadis enjoy a safe haven and are even expanding it. Hayat Tahrir Al Sham (HTS) an Al Qaida offshoot in Syria, formerly known as Jabhat Al Nusra is expanding its territory rapidly in Idlib province by overrunning 75 percent of the area held by the armed Syrian opposition. In a dramatic takeover in the last couple of months, HTS swept through towns and villages in Idlib province taking full control of the province from Syrian opposition forces. HTS didn’t stop here, they also entered the adjoining areas of Aleppo province. They recently entered new areas like Sahl Al Ghab, a fertile valley and Shahshabo Mountain in the western countryside of Aleppo. Moreover, HTS also occupied the town of Daret Izza, located 30 km north-west of Aleppo. So definitely, in northwest Syria Jihadi forces are on the rise even as IS has lost the war in eastern Syria. Policy makers in the west remain solely focused on defeating IS but unfortunately ignored Al-Qaeda.Amid the confusion of Syria’s kaleidoscopic and multi-sided conflict, one thing remains certain, the Hayat Tahriral-Sham must be isolated, marginalised if a stable peace is to emerge in SyriaHTS subscribes to the Salafist school of thought, same as that of Al-Qaeda. The group imposed strict Islamic rule in the areas it controls and civilians in these areas say the groups practices are similar to those of IS. HTS hosts significant numbers of foreign fighters including Arabs, Turks, Chechens, Uzbeks, and Muslims from China’s Xinjiang province. The group’s attitude toward heterodox minorities like the Druze and Alawites never changed. There is, for example, a small community of Druze in northern Idlib whose inhabitants were forced to convert to Islam by HTS predecessor Jabhat al-Nusra in 2015. Even now, complaints of discriminatory treatment of minorities in areas controlled by HTS are widely reported. Among the top HTS leaders, there are many very senior al-Qaeda cadres who are committed to the Al-Qaeda ideology of global jihad, including its chief Abu Muhammad al-Golani. Even HTS predecessor Jabat al Nusra harboured al-Qaeda’s external operations arm, known as the Khorasan Group which was planning attacks against West. It should be noted that Hayat Tahrir Al Sham is no different to Al-Qaeda, it’s just old wine in a new bottle. HTS tried to showcase through various mergers with other groups that it has ended its affiliation with Al-Qaeda but definitely this merger exercise did not indicate an ideological split with Al-Qaeda but that was only part of a strategy to increase the group’s appeal within Syria. The emergence of HTS as the most dominant group in northwest Syria yields a number of advantages for Al-Qaeda. As of now Al-Qaeda has a broader coalition, with tens of thousands of fighters who are being exposed to its ideology and outlook. HTS flourished and consolidated its hold over the territories as the focus of the US-led coalition and the Syrian and Russian governments is focused elsewhere in the country. The group is not easy to deal as in HTS ranks majority of fighters are local Syrians. Hence the groups fighters know the terrain inside out and are deeply embedded in the areas that they overran. In addition to this, the West’s own ability to tackle and contain Jihadist elements in northwest Syria is rather limited. This is because the West is excluded from the de-escalation framework in the region agreed on between Turkey and Russia and is thus barred, among others, from using the airspace to launch precision strikes against the group. It seems like while the black flag of IS is being lowered, another may soon take its place.It’s a fact that HTS remains a ticking time bomb that arguably poses a greater long-term threat to the region and Syria’s stability. Now after one phase of war is coming to an end, another phase could start with a sole focus to finish off HTS. HTS and its jihadi extremist network still poses one of the greatest long-term challenges for the US and other Western countries which are trying eradicate extremists from Syria. Amid the confusion of Syria’s kaleidoscopic and multi-sided conflict, one thing remains certain, the HTS must be isolated, marginalised if a stable peace is to emerge in Syria. Author is a columnist for Middle-East and Af-Pak region and Editor of geo-political news agency ViewsAroundPublished in Daily Times, March 15th 2019.