Ahrar Al Sham and the myths that surround it

Hassan Hassan looks at the formation of another new entity in the Syrian conflict

Ahrar Al Sham fighters take positions in Jabal Al Arbaeen, which overlooks the northern town of Ariha, one of the last government strongholds in the Idlib province. Khalil Ashawi / Reuters
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The rebel group Ahrar Al Sham in Syria is facing its biggest crisis since most of its leadership was wiped out in September 2014. On Saturday, 16 of its local factions announced the formation of a new entity led by Hashim Al Sheikh, its former chief.

Ahrar Al Sham might contain the dissent, but the splinter is a chance to highlight two recurrent myths about the extremist group.

The first myth is directly related to the cause of the splinter. Much of the analysis about Ahrar Al Sham has focused on explaining the group’s postures through a supposed internal struggle between a moderate and an extremist current. Such explanations often cite the fact that the group evolved from an organisation with links to Al Qaeda into one advocating a collective Islamic project and finally to one committed to the national goals of the Syrian revolution.

Ahrar Al Sham’s incoherence should instead be examined through a more subtle dynamic, namely differences over the group’s direction between many of its members and those aligned with what its regional backers perceive as in their interest. For example, the moderate-extremist narrative does not hold when members who otherwise disagree ideologically stand together against decisions largely shaped by members close to regional backers.

Claims to the contrary cite the discrepancy between statements emanating from the political office and others from field commanders. But that misunderstands the function of the political office. In a talk in May, Ali Al Omar, the deputy leader of Ahrar Al Sham, who became its leader last month, explained the group’s justification for political engagement. He said participation in talks, conferences or pacts was designed as a form of “takhtheel” (disorientation or neutralisation of opponents).

Even Jabhat Fateh Al Sham, Al Qaeda’s rebranded franchise previously known as Jabhat Al Nusra, accepted “in principle” the formation of a political office during its stalled negotiations with Ahrar Al Sham for a merger. Political engagement should neither be understood as a departure from Salafi-jihadism or a vindication of the supposed moderate current.

The split on Saturday had little to do with ideological differences. The catalyst was principally a sentiment widely felt over the past few weeks: disillusionment with the Turkish role in northern Syria. Ankara is widely blamed for the weakening of the rebels in the north, after its intervention to fight against ISIL and the Kurds, combined with the apparent reduction in commitment to the rebels’ cause in Aleppo as a result.

Many suspected that Turkey had agreed with Russia to give up Aleppo in exchange for a free hand in the eastern countryside, a belief fuelled by the regime’s breakthrough in the city two weeks ago. Since Turkey has previously opposed a merger between Ahrar Al Sham and JFS, members advocating such a merger have been critical of those who opposed it as beholden to their sponsors.

The second myth is related to the true strength of Ahrar Al Sham. Despite the massive financial foreign support, the group failed to dominate anywhere in Syria except in the areas near the Turkish border, mainly in rural Aleppo and in Idlib. The group incessantly tried to build presence in southern and eastern Syria, with limited success.

Qatar and Turkey invested heavily in the group, and the unwavering support helped it bounce back after the decapitation of its leadership in 2014. Its resurgence after that had little to do with its national appeal or intrinsic abilities, otherwise this appeal would have helped it to build influence elsewhere in Syria. Financial support meant that the group could recruit an unlimited number of independent fighters when it launched attacks against the regime.

The two countries also helped the group conduct a public-relations campaign to portray itself as the rebels’ most powerful group. Such perceptions would make it seem indispensable for any negotiation in Syria. The depiction of the group’s incoherent messaging as an internal struggle should also be seen through this effort. It did not change the narrative that the group’s leader praised the Taliban twice – once under a supposedly moderating leadership and once under a hardline one.

Today, the group’s true strength is even more obvious. In August, Ahrar Al Sham appeared as a powerful group leading a major push to break the siege around Aleppo. It was easy to argue that the rebels relied heavily on Ahrar Al Sham. But in recent weeks, Ahrar Al Sham has mattered less. If the group was so powerful, where was it in and around Aleppo when the regime swept through some of the city? Ahrar Al Sham is now crammed in Idlib and rural Hama, which it shares with dozens of other groups.

Recent developments in the north demonstrate clearly that Ahrar Al Sham’s strength was inflated. It was wrongly portrayed as a large organisation with internal struggles with which the international community should contend with. Supporters of the opposition might think such a portrayal was harmless since it was one of many groups fighting the regime. But they are mistaken.

The misrepresentation of Ahrar Al Sham – as the main opposition force, which is undergoing an internal change towards moderation – created a fiction for the international community, an option that did not appeal to countries that reject such groups. It also misrepresented the nature of the support given to the group, as one justified commitment to the opposition’s indispensable defender, rather than as commitment to an extremist faction that serves as a bridge between Al Qaeda and the mainstream rebels.

Hassan Hassan is a resident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy and co-author of ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror

On Twitter: @hxhassan