Ahrar al-Sham in the Western press

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Free Syrian Army soldiers gather outside a house destroyed in fighting against President Assad's forces in Sarmin, north of Syria, Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2012.
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Free Syrian Army soldiers gather outside a house destroyed in fighting against President Assad's forces in Sarmin, north of Syria, Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2012.

“It's clear that Ahrar al-Sham have recruited the PR agency we've dreamed of for so long, ever since the beginning of the uprising.” This is what a Syrian activist wrote on his Facebook page right after Labib al-Nahhas, foreign affairs director at Ahrar al-Sham, published an article inThe Telegraph on 21 July. The article followed another by Nahhas in the Washington Post on 10 July. Although these two articles were vague in terms of the group’s political agenda and the future of their relation with radical groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra, many people thought that reaching out to the US and the UK were bold moves, but the implications are not yet clear.

Sharia politics                                                                                                         

Nahhas’s articles sent the same messages: Ahrar al-Sham believes in a national unification project, not to be bound to a single ideology or group; they want a political system that respects the majority, but which protects minorities and enables them to play a genuine role in Syria’s future; they believe in a moderate future for Syria that preserves the state and its institutions; and they are committed to dialogue, making tough decisions, and discussing how to end Bashar al-Assad’s reign and how to defeat ISIS.

It doesn’t come as a surprise that people had mixed reactions to these articles — some said the group were liars and some said the group deserves a chance. The more radical people, especially those affiliated with Jabhat al-Nusra, expressed a strong feeling of betrayal, which resulted in a great deal of tension between the two groups that could be plainly seen on social media. This pushed Ahrar al-Sham leaders and the Sharia office to back Labib’s statements, saying that his “presenting the Syrian case in international newspapers, with a language that is familiar to those who are being addressed, in order to mobilize support for the Syrian revolution is a justified action and it's part of Sharia politics.” Neither that explanation nor the initiatives aimed at mitigating the tension between the groups was successful, and it seems that the agreement they were pushing for resulted in the opening of another front in Al-Ghab plain fight in Hama Province.

Becoming a target

The two articles not only resulted in a loss of popularity among radicals, they also increased the number of assassination attempts against them. On 14 July Ahrar al-Sham members were targeted in a double suicide attack while they were meeting in Salqin, Idlib. A number of them were either killed or injured and one of the group’s leaders, Abu Abdulrahman Salqin, was confirmed dead. On 28 July a car bomb targeted one of their bases near Azaz, Aleppo Province, though no one was killed. Again on 30 July, a car bomb attack struck in Saraqeb, Idlib Province, also with no casualties. Ahrar al-Sham ascribed responsibility for all of these attacks to ISIS, and publically launched raids to capture ISIS sleeper cells.

It’s worth mentioning here that Jabhat al-Nusra has also been targeted three times since the first article was published. The first attack took place on 14 July as two people tried to plant an explosive device meant to assassinate one of the group’s leaders in Kafranbel, Idlib, though they were killed in the attempt. On 20 July, five members were killed in an explosion near Jisr al-Shughour, although the group claimed it was the result of a manufacturing mishap with the explosives they were transporting. A leader was also killed in a suicide attack in Harem, Idlib, on 1 August.

It was also announced that ISIS sleeper cells were behind these incidents, and while it could be a coincidence that both groups were targeted by the same number of assassination attempts, there may be something more significant to be read into them. Forever blaming the seemingly obvious enemy is certainly convenient, but whether there’s truth in such claims is far from evident.

Leading force

Many people looking for an explanation for Ahrar al-Sham’s reaching out to the Western public referred to Turkish influence, especially in light of the recent agreement between Turkey and the US in the fight against ISIS. What may have led them to this conclusion are speculations over the military agreement, Turkey’s upper hand in choosing the groups to run the so-called safe zone in Syria, the good relation Turkey has with Ahrar al-Sham, and purported efforts across the region to portray the group as a moderate one, not to mention the timing of the articles.

This explanation could be correct, but it may also be true that there is an internal struggle between moderates and hardliners within the group itself. This argument runs as follows: the current leader of Ahrar al-Sham was the head of a group called Mus'ab bin Umair, one of the first groups to fight ISIS, in December 2013; Ahrar al-Sham changed its slogan from “Nation Project” to “People’s Revolution” on 22 March; the moderate statement of current Ahrar al-Sham leader Hashim al-Sheikh in an interview on Al-Jazeera in April; and the dismissal of the leader of the central military force, one of the founders of the group and a hardliner, as well as the restructuring of this force.  

It’s not possible just now to know if Ahrar al-Sham was being genuine in its recent statements or whether it was just a pragmatic move—we will have to see what the group does next. But a good indicator of its true intentions might well be found in the details of its political project in Syria and how it plan to achieve it.