To answer my headline simply: no, Ahrar a-Sham’s leadership is not what anybody in the West means by “moderate” Syrian rebels that could be supported.
The question is provoked by an op-ed in The Washington Post last night signed by Labib al-Nahhas, Ahrar’s foreign political relations officer, the culmination of a public-relations campaign by Ahrar to rebrand itself as the mainstream alternative to the Islamic State (ISIS) and the Assad tyranny we’ve all been waiting for.
Nahhas makes all the noises about protecting the minorities, preserving the Syrian State institutions, allowing “representative government,” and being committed to “dialogue” that align him with the Obama administration. Quite a lot of what Nahhas says is also perfectly true.
Ahrar’s recovery from the near-eradication of its leadership in a mysterious explosion in September last year does demonstrate a “high level of institutionalism and professionalism …, as well as the deep support [Ahrar] enjoy[s] within the local population.” (Ahrar has always recruited lots of civilians to administer governance.) Nahhas’ writes that the “moral case against Assad should have been enough to discount him as an option,” that the regime is itself a central spur to radicalism, and now the regime is failing militarily, experiencing serious shortages of manpower. This is undeniable. Nahhas presents the Assad regime as nearer its end than it really is but his central point stands: “the Islamic State’s extremist ideology can be defeated only through a homegrown Sunni alternative,” and “the United States has defined the term ‘moderate’ in such a narrow and arbitrary fashion that it excludes the bulk of the mainstream opposition.”
Ahrar’s campaign to be that alternative, despite being the most powerful Syrian rebel group, has some problems. First, Ahrar occupies the ideological space between Syrian Islamism and globalist Salafi-jihadism. The vision of Ahrar’s leaders is a blend of theocracy and democracy inside Syria, with god’s law sacrosanct but the people able to choose those implementing it. For this, the Salafi-jihadists condemn Ahrar for “nationalism” and a heretical belief in democracy. Second, Ahrar has always refused the Free Syrian Army (FSA) branding. Third and most importantly, Ahrar’s leadership appears to have connections to al-Qaeda and Ahrar fights in close military alliance with Jabhat an-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch.
In the lead-up to the formal break between al-Qaeda and ISIS, al-Qaeda’s leader Ayman az-Zawahiri appointed a mediator, Abu Khalid as-Suri (real name: Muhammad al-Bahaya), a then-current commander of Ahrar. Abu Khalid traced a well-worn road of Syrian Islamism: fleeing Syria for Afghanistan after the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood (SMB) revolt was crushed at Hama, developing connections with the SMB cells in Europe who had switched their allegiance to al-Qaeda, fleeing Afghanistan after 2001, and then coming full circle by joining the fight against the Assad regime again after 2011. (Abu Khalid was “rendered” to Syria after 2005 and was one of the violent Salafists that Assad released as he cracked down on the peaceful, secular protesters.)
Abu Khalid’s history with al-Qaeda is slightly complicated: during a period of tension between Osama bin Laden and the Taliban in 1999, when bin Laden was considering a move to Saddam’s Iraq, Abu Khalid explicitly said he wasn’t an al-Qaeda member, and indeed Abu Khalid was purportedly chosen by Zawahiri because he was independent of both Nusra and ISIS. Still, the common understanding was that Abu Khalid was al-Qaeda’s man. [Update] Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan write in their excellent book on ISIS that Abu Khalid was “a veteran al-Qaeda agent,” who “helped found” Ahrar (something Ahrar denies), and the “linchpin of the long-standing operational alliance” between Nusra and Ahrar. ISIS certainly saw Abu Khalid as aligned with al-Qaeda when they struck him down in February 2014.
Abu Hafs al-Masri, an “Egyptian Afghan,” who at least was an al-Qaeda member, was killed fighting for Ahrar during the fall of Idlib. Abu al-Hassan, a Jisr a-Shughur native and veteran of the Afghan jihad, whose brother Abu Yasr was killed in Chechnya, is a powerful commander within Ahrar. Other Ahrar members with a history of Islamic militancy include Abul-Abbas al-Shami (Mohamed Ayman Aboul-Tout), who was part of the “Fighting Vanguard,” and Abu Hamza al-Jughl (Baha Mustafa al-Jughl), who was arrested for terrorism in Pakistan in the early 2000s*.
Nahhas writes: “we have been falsely accused of having organizational links to al-Qaeda and of espousing al-Qaeda’s ideology.” As the above demonstrates, Ahrar’s connections to al-Qaeda are there, and it is a good guess that what is visible is but tip of the iceberg with the two secretive organizations.
The key debate among Syria analysts is whether Ahrar a-Sham will act as a Taliban-style incubator of al-Qaeda, or whether the very Syrian nature of Ahrar will act as a bulwark against globalist Salafi-jihadism.
For the record, the Islamic Front, an Islamist alliance formed in November 2013 in which Ahrar played a key role, has tested this proposition once, and the argument that I.F. would be a door-opener for the extremists was exactly wrong—I.F. led the anti-ISIS revolt shortly thereafter.
It should be noted that Ahrar has been publicly moderating. Ahrar was involved in the anti-ISIS rebel offensive in January 2014 and in the summer of 2014 Ahrar warned al-Qaeda against any effort to set up an “Emirate“. On May 17, 2014, Ahrar signed the “Revolutionary Covenant,” a document that “might as well be issued by a secular group“. Ahrar’s former leader, Hassan Abboud, was a personal example of the struggle between the “pure” Salafis and the nationalist-Salafis within Ahrar. It is a rare Salafist who can dodge the question of the Caliphate by saying his intention is an Islamic government in Syria, but that over time he hopes Muslims will see sense and move towards unity—like the European Union! Rare, too, that Salafis quote Mrs. Thatcher:
After Ahrar’s leadership was killed there was much RUMINT that the new leadership, Hashem al-Sheikh (Abu Jabbar) and his deputy and military chief Abu Saleh Tahan, was more hardline, but that has not been the pattern. To the contrary, there are signs of increased alienation between Ahrar’s and Nusra’s leaderships.
It will be noted that I said in opening that Ahrar’s leadership was certainly not moderate or supportable: Ahrar’s organizational prowess and military success (helped by Turkey) and deep pockets (thanks to Qatar) have drawn in many who simply want to be done with the regime; Ahrar had guns, blankets, and food. Ahrar is making considerable efforts to convert those who joined it for practical reasons, but the rank-and-file still largely support representative government. There is good reason to believe that if the West provides the Syrian rebels with a viable alternative, fighters who joined ideological groups like Nusra and Ahrar for resource reasons can be brought back into the mainstream, leaving the ideological core to be neutralized once the greater threat of Iran’s proxy regime has been defeated.
Ultimately, however, the key phrase in Nahhas’ op-ed might be his writing of the “disappointing lack of genuine engagement from the international community”. Very few people have spent more face-time with Syrian rebels across the spectrum than Charles Lister, who recently noted that the growing private doubts Ahrar and others were having about Nusra had provided the West a “potentially invaluable opening for engagement with a broader swath of Syria’s armed opposition, to include Islamists. Engagement does not have to be a prerequisite for the provision of support, but is merely of value in and of itself.” In short, Nahhas’ op-ed is a further demonstration that even the most hardline Syrian insurgent unit still wants a relationship with the West—something regarded as blasphemous by al-Qaeda and ISIS.
The failed rebel training program that is only focussed on ISIS and the U.S. airstrikes against Ahrar do not give hope that the U.S. will reciprocate because these are parts of a broader U.S. strategy of détente with Iran that cedes Syria as an Iranian sphere of influence. But there is still time to change course in Syria and support forces that can lessen the humanitarian calamity and advance mutual Western and Syrian interests by degrading the symbiotic power of the Islamic State and the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Engaging Ahrar is not without problems: early in the war Ahrar did use suicide bombers, though against military targets; Ahrar has been accused of vandalizing Christian property in Kessab; and Ahrar was involved in the terrible sectarian killings against the Alawis in northern Latakia in August 2013. War crimes charges certainly should be on the table, but a terrorist designation should not be; it would be factually and politically mistaken. As Michael Doran, William McCants, and Clint Watts have argued, a terrorist designation against Ahrar would greatly complicate the distribution of humanitarian aid, legally and practically. Moreover, making Ahrar a “direct enemy” might push Ahrar “completely into al-Qaeda’s camp” and open another front against a powerful force fighting our worst enemies—ISIS and Iran.
Engagement with Ahrar would provide advantages in intelligence terms and it would give the U.S. a head-start in any government that follows Assad, which Ahrar will now surely play a part in. Leveraging Ahrar’s desire for engagement would also allow the U.S. to stress decent treatment of non-combatants.
A practical example of the benefit of being able to pressure Ahrar on compliance with international humanitarian law was given last month when Nusra attacked Druze populations in the village of Qalb Lozeh in the Idlib Province and murdered about twenty people. What is notable is that while Ahrar’s representatives either deny that anti-civilian massacres took place in Latakia or blame it on local commanders, this time around Ahrar intervened to put a stop to Nusra’s criminality. With Ahrar reaching out to the West, it understands the political price of being seen as even complicit in, let alone actually participating in, war crimes. This passive pressure for Ahrar to comply with the laws of war can be made more explicit if their ability to engage with the West is made conditional on such compliance.
Directly arming Ahrar would be an error since the long-term goal should be to weaken it, but if the U.S. is able to stomach providing airstrikes for Iran in Iraq against ISIS—despite the atrocities Iran’s militias commit after they have been given this help and the fact that Iran just this past Friday held its annual festival of anti-American hatred (al-Quds Day)—some kind of modus vivendi with Ahrar to defeat Assad/Iran and ISIS in Syria should be thinkable since, unlike Iran and ISIS, Ahrar has no imperial designs on neighbouring States and has no Western blood on its hands.
Update: Speaking to Hassan Hassan about Ahrar a-Sham after this post was published, he strongly disputed the claim that institutional prowess saved Ahrar last September, saying: “The only reason Ahrar survived is because of Turkish logistical support and Qatari money.”
Update 2: Ahrar a-Sham issued a statement of “deep condolences” on the death of Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar, saying that he had led the way in “jihad and devotion,” teaching “how to build the (Islamic) Emirate in the hearts of the people before it becomes a reality on the ground”. This was rather a rupture in the picture presented in the WaPo op-ed—which was followed by a similar piece in The Telegraph—portraying moderation and outreach to the West.
[*] Update 3: On 5 January 2016: Ahrar’s chief in Homs, Mohammed Hussein al-Sayyed (Abu Rateb al-Homsi), was assassinated. Al-Sayyed, a well-known Salafist preacher—known as al-shaykh al-mujahid (the jihadist shaykh)—and a prominent symbol of the revolution in Homs, had been the leader of Liwa al-Haq until it merged into Ahrar in December 2014, at which point he took a seat on Ahrar’s Shura Council. Notably, Jabhat al-Nusra eulogized al-Sayyed, and claimed he had done jihad in Afghanistan.
Post has been updated