A mysterious explosion decapitated the Syrian rebel group Ahrar a-Sham on September 9. This could have major implications for the rebellion as a whole.
Ahrar is the largest Syrian rebel group and has always rejected the Free Syrian Army (FSA) label. Ahrar is a leading part of the Islamic Front (I.F.), an attempted merger that has now broken down and is, like the FSA, a brand rather than a command structure. In terms of ideology, Ahrar is a category unto itself. I have many times said that it is wrong to consider al-Qaeda (Jabhat an-Nusra) or the Islamic State (I.S.) “rebels,” not least because the former are foreign-led and the latter are majority-foreign, at least at their core. More important, both Nusra and the I.S. are transnational in outlook and their agenda is only incidentally to do with Syria: they will start with the Caliphate in Syria, but the Syrian State is to be erased and subsumed under a global Caliphate. It is no contradiction to Nusra and the I.S. not being rebels to note that as a purely military matter, the insurgency can be conceptualised as a spectrum ranging from nationalists to Islamist-nationalists to Salafi-nationalists to Salafists to Salafi-jihadists to takfiris. Ahrar’s uniqueness is that it occupies the gap between the nationalist and transnationalists; it is at the point that Syrian Salafism crosses into Qaeda-style globalist Salafi-jihadism, and within its leadership—within its leader—it contained these two elements.
On both the questions of foreign fighters and transnationalism, Ahrar is slightly ambiguous. Ahrar does have foreign fighters—a Saudi named Abu Rabab al-Kinani was killed fighting for Ahrar in July—but their numbers are small, and while Ahrar presents its aims as limited to within Syria’s borders (drawing attacks from the pro-I.S. crowd), Ahrar also plays for the audience that yearns for the Caliphate. Ahrar’s leader, Hassan Abboud, who was among those killed yesterday, once put it this way: he wanted an Islamic State in Syria, but with god’s help, and in the fullness of time, the other Muslim States would see sense, and, like the European Union, they would join together and dismantle the borders in the region. “No one should be surprised at our aspirations,” nor indeed alarmed, said Abboud, “when they are the same as the E.U.” Credit where it is due: not many Islamists can walk the line between nationalism and the Caliphate with such panache.
The presence of Muhammad al-Bahaya (Abu Khalid as-Suri) among Ahrar’s leaders deeply complicates the view of Ahrar as a solely Syrian actor, not just because of what he represents but because of what he did. Bahaya’s presence made clear that Ahrar’s leadership—and to some degree its fighting brigades—were and are penetrated with people who are at least sympathetic to al-Qaeda, and Bahaya ensured that Ahrar remained joined at the hip with al-Qaeda’s formal branch in Syria. Bahaya himself, while not formally an al-Qaeda member, is a veteran of Taliban Afghanistan, was close to Usama bin Ladin, operated within al-Qaeda’s network for many years, and had had been appointed Ayman az-Zawahiri’s personal mediator between Nusra and then-ISIS—a role he was serving in when ISIS struck him down in February.
Still, in the last few months there have been increasing signs of moderation from Ahrar a-Sham. The apparent chastening of the Qatari and Turkish sources of funding for extremists, and the Saudis taking the lead in directing the rebellion, have likely contributed to this. Ahrar signed the May 17 “Revolutionary Covenant” (see below), a document that “might as well be issued by a secular group,” as Hassan Hassan noted at the time. In late 2013, many groups had tried to blunt the advances of then-ISIS by trying to outdo them in Islamic rhetoric, which joined Ahrar and Nusra even more closely. As the immediate danger from the I.S. retreated after the Jan. 3 revolt against I.S., the Ahrar-Nusra alliance showed signs of weakening, and Ahrar signing this statement opened that gap a little further. On July 23, the Ahrar-run Political Office of the I.F. released a statement, which “warns” against any group considering itself the ruler of Syria and announcing a “Caliphate or Emirate,” a pointed reference to the leak on July 11 of Nusra’s plan to set-up an Emirate in Syria.
Then came the formation of the Revolutionary Command Council on August 3. How far it actually goes in unifying the rebellion is anybody’s guess (not far would be mine) but the eighteen rebel units who signed-up included all of the most important nationalist groups (e.g. Harakat Hazm and the Syrian Revolutionaries’ Front), Islamist-nationalist groups (e.g. Jaysh al-Mujahideen, Faylaq a-Sham, Ittihad al-Islami li-Ajnad a-Sham) and Salafi-nationalists (e.g. Jaysh al-Islam, Suqour a-Sham, and Kataib Nooradeen az-Zengi). The groups notable by their absence were Ahrar a-Sham, Liwa at-Tawhid (Islamist-nationalist), Jabhat al-Asala wal-Tanmiya (Authenticity and Development Front, a quietest Salafi-nationalist group), and Liwa al-Yarmouk or the “Southern Front” (nationalist). Asala soon signed-up and Ahrar did on August 21. However little difference this alliance makes on the ground, it is a classic, FSA-style unification initiative, which has always been shunned by both Nusra and I.S. Ahrar’s signing was an indication that it was trending toward the mainstream of the rebellion and away from the Salafi-jihadists who are trying to infiltrate and co-opt it.
Hassan Abboud rejected the Islamic State’s Caliphate as a “dictatorship” that was imposing “their mistaken understanding of Islam on people by force.” Given Abboud’s anti-democratic statements this was suggestive. And just a week ago, Ahrar’s top shari’i and a member of the I.F.’s Shura Council, Abu Yazan al-Shami, who was also killed yesterday afternoon, wrote in rejection of Salafi-jihadism and in favour of “our country“. More frivolously, Abboud, who spoke English, demonstrated a sense of humour—paraphrasing Mrs. Thatcher, for example—that is not usually associated with the zealots like those of the Islamic State.
This in mind, it was easy to assent to the case made in January by Michael Doran, William McCants, and Clint Watts against designating Ahrar a Foreign Terrorist Organisation, while having extreme wariness over the group’s intentions and a desire that if the West ever got around to arming the Syrian rebellion, it not give arms directly to Ahrar (though holding off on the FTO designation also allowed some wiggle-room if weapons got to Ahrar, as they likely would have, and will). The West’s long-term interest was in pulling Ahrar apart, separating the localist militias, who are under its banner for reasons of resources and can be drawn into the mainstream, from its ideological adherents, especially its leadership, who should be isolated and neutralised.
The killing of Ahrar’s leadership might yet bring this outcome about, shattering Ahrar into its ideological components, which are then absorbed by the Islamic State, Jabhat an-Nusra, and various Islamist/Salafi-nationalist groups. The advantage in such circumstances would be to the moderates: Ahrar’s rank-and-file would provide many more moderate recruits than the extremists can gain from what’s left of Ahrar’s leadership and ideological members. The removal of Ahrar from the landscape would also break down the bridge between the Syrian Salafis and the globalist Salafi-jihadists, opening up a space that perhaps other groups would vie to fill, but which could also go unfilled, isolating al-Qaeda even further from the rebellion.
But there are some short-term worries if Ahrar does collapse, namely that it has been feared ever since the regime and the I.S. began closing in on the rebel-held areas of Aleppo City at the beginning of July that Ahrar’s fighters in Aleppo would defect to I.S. rather than fight against it, for both ideological and practical reasons. If it is confirmed that the regime, and not I.S., killed Ahrar’s leaders, the chances of an Ahrar mass-defection to I.S. in Aleppo go up. Aleppo’s fall would be the end of the rebellion, and the completion of the regime’s strategy to destroy all possible Western partners in the insurgency and present itself as the lesser-evil. Only slightly less problematic is the fact that if Ahrar does hold together, indications are that the extremists will take the lead.
The near-instant reconstitution of Ahrar’s leadership structure—something it is hard to imagine any other group doing if its leadership was so completely destroyed—speaks to Ahrar’s superior organisation. The likelihood is that Ahrar’s structure means that something maintaining the name Ahrar a-Sham will stick around for a long time, though perhaps there will be some short-term defections. This will likely be determined by both the perceived strength of Ahrar and its ideological direction. If Ahrar begins to fragment, the process will likely feed on itself, and if Ahrar abandons the balance Abboud maintained between the various currents and adopts a more coherent extreme or more coherent moderate position, there will likely be defections from the losing group within Ahrar.
More broadly, any vestiges of real command-and-control the Islamic Front had are finished. Ahrar provided many of the senior positions in the I.F., including running its propaganda office—that’s why its output looked so much more sternly Salafist than was really the case for most of the groups, which were softer Islamists—but many of those people have now been killed. Holding on to the I.F.-branded battalions without the personnel who kept many of these local groups loyal is now going to be next to impossible. And the I.F.-branded groups are themselves breaking down and restructuring. Apart from Ahrar, the largest I.F. components were Liwa at-Tawhid, which has now broken in two, and Jaysh al-Islam (JaI), which has announced a merger with another, smaller, I.F. faction, Suqour a-Sham. It is difficult to see what practical effect the JaI-Suqour merger has. JaI is powerful east of Damascus but has almost no presence in the north where Suqour is based, and if the merger meant anything it would be Suqour, battered by defections to, and a mauling from, the Islamic State, attaching itself to a powerful group that might give it some protection. However this shakes out, a cohesive Islamic Front is not going to be the result.
 It is possible to see in retrospect that these two points—Ahrar as the largest and/or most important rebel group and it bouncing back from the decapitation strike because of its superior organization—were threads in a rather successful disinformation operation. Ahrar was not as large as it appeared: it was a small, tight-knit core that could hire battalions for specific battles because of the near-unlimited resources pumped into it by Turkey and Qatar. And it was this external support that was most critical in riding out the loss of its leadership.
Post has been updated