The Syrian media activist Hadi al-Abdullah interviewed Ahrar al-Sham’s leader, Ali al-Umar (Abu Ammar al-Umar), in a video released on 11 January 2017. The focus was the ongoing negotiations with Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS), al-Qaeda’s rebranded Syrian branch, to create an insurgent merger. The question has caused intense turmoil within Ahrar.
Al-Umar does not express any objection to merging with JFS in principle—to the contrary. And it is not strictly speaking an ideological division with Ahrar either: al-Umar gave a speech last year on Ahrar’s place within the Islamist world, and made it quite clear that Ahrar had not so much broken from jihadi-Salafism as built on it. The dispute with Ahrar is largely a difference of tactics. All sides understand that a formal merger with al-Qaeda will be the death knell for international assistance to the rebellion and will invite some degree of international support for efforts to put down the insurgency.
Al-Umar’s faction of Ahrar, close to its external backers, notably Turkey, and especially the Ahrar political office, think that being cut off from foreign support—military, financial, and political—is suicide. The factions of Ahrar closer to JFS, who brought off a semi-coup recently, forming a subunit, Jaysh al-Ahrar, which is led by former Ahrar emir Hashem al-Shaykh, view the loss of official external support as bearable in exchange for a united insurgent front. (It is likely that considerations about access to al-Qaeda’s significant external funding networks are not wholly absent from the decision-making process). Added to that is the argument that jihadi unity as a physical fact is the most important thing since these foreign powers and their local allies are preparing to betray the jihadists anyway, and this will allow the jihadists to resist.
Al-Umar rejects the blame levelled at Ahrar for the failure of the merger agreement—which was signed and all-but complete at the end of last year. It was not Ahrar who pulled out, says al-Umar: it was other groups who had agreed to such a merger three months ago and then found that too much had changed in the interim and wanted to re-open the discussions. JFS refused to re-open the discussions, so these other groups refused to sign on. (This actually tallies quite closely with pro-JFS rendering of events—the main difference being that JFS wanted Ahrar to side with them and refuse to re-open the terms.)
Al-Umar’s diagnosis of the causes of the disorder in Idlib is also remarkable. Regime schemes are some part of it, says al-Umar, but primarily the chaos is caused by infiltrators from the Islamic State (IS), and these IS cells have been absorbed by JFS when it took in Jund al-Aqsa. Al-Umar adds that there was supposed to be a joint JFS-Ahrar mechanism for overseeing Jund al-Aqsa but JFS has not implemented these terms.
A summary and translation of al-Umar’s statements was published by Al-Maqalaat on 13 January and is reproduced below with minor editions and some interesting sections highlighted in bold.
Ali al-Umar was asked by Hadi al-Abdullah about Ahrar al-Sham’s hesitation to join the process begun in Riyadh that was supposed to lead to a ceasefire in Syria and a peace process. For instance, did Ahrar sign or not? Al-Umar says:
We are not hesitant in our decrees, we study the decrees carefully and we consult the specialists, then we decide on a decree which is in the benefit of the revolution and the people of Syria. If they are beneficial and they do not oppose the shari’a, we are not hesitant. As for the conference in Riyadh or the ceasefire, we have openly declared our position concerning it. We have published a statement that we did not sign the conference in Riyadh because of the mentioned reasons at that time. The ones who want to know our decrees must do so through our official outlets and our official spokesperson—not what the media, who have certain interests like the search for a quick scoop, claim. So the decree must be searched form its original source and these are our official media outlets. And we will not lie against our people.
We are not against a political solution if it achieves the demands of the people and the goals of its revolution and honours the sacrifices we made. But we refused the ceasefire and declared our refusal for several reasons.
The first reason is that the political solution of this ceasefire was unclear, and this ceasefire was under the auspices of Russia, and they are an occupying enemy in Syria who came to support the regime; they have declared this themselves.
Secondly this ceasefire has excluded some factions from the cessation of bombardment that are working with us on the ground and in the liberated territories, and they can be used as an excuse by Russia and the regime and Iran [to bomb us]. For example, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham was used as an excuse in Aleppo, while the reality was that [the pro-Assad coalition] targeted civilians in Aleppo openly and all the opposition soldiers without differentiating between them.
So the exclusion of any faction is not the way for a real ceasefire. Because of these reasons and others we refused this ceasefire and we have openly declared this.
Every ceasefire that does not achieve the demands of the people will not last, and the collapse of this ceasefire is clearly visible in Wadi Barada and the daily bombardments by the regime on the liberated territories; they did not stop until this very moment under the silence of the caretakers and those who oversaw this ceasefire. Every ceasefire that does not guarantee the demands of the Syrian people from its very beginning will not last. We can not enter in such a ceasefire and political solution.”
Next, al-Umar was asked about the Russian support for the Turkish-run Operation EUPHRATES SHIELD, with which there has been increasingly public, close cooperation from Ahrar, and which is currently assaulting the Islamic State-held town of al-Bab. Al-Umar responded:
The reports about Russia cooperating with Turkey in the EUPHRATES SHIELD Operation is still under investigation and research by us, we completely reject the Russian intervention in this operation, and if we have confirmed this we will take the appropriate choice.
Al-Abdullah asks about the protests in demand of insurgent unity, alleged defections from Ahrar, and the blame affixed to Ahrar for sabotaging the merger. Al-Umar responded:
There have not been any defections within Ahrar al-Sham, there were some administrative differences, they were leaked and exaggerated by those who benefit from creating division within Ahrar al-Sham. But the movement is still strong and its institutions are stable without any defects. And these differences are being solved, by the permission of Allah, which will rectify Ahrar al-Sham again. And the accusation that we sabotaged the merger is injustice. The best answer to this is the history of this movement for the past two years. It has merged with several factions before under the Islamic Front and does not stand in the way of any merger which achieves the demands of the arena. More than a year ago the scholarly assembly called the factions to a merger and Ahrar al-Sham was one of the first to answer to this call.
But this initiative stopped all of a sudden as some factions refused to enter because of their own reasons. After that a number of scholars and students wanted the complete authorization to initiate a merger, we gave them this complete authority, but this initiative also stopped because some factions refused without clarifying the reasons. And the scholars are the ones who know who these factions are. After a new attempt to merge was initiated around three months ago and fifteen factions joined it, some fundamental agreements were made, and then this initiative stopped due to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham without clarifying the reasons. After that this latest attempt came.
Ahrar al-Sham wants a merger which achieves the demands of the arena, meaning a military and a political unification, which encompasses the majority of factions on the arena. If not all of them then at least most of them. What happened is that Ahrar al-Sham initiated a coordinated front of a high level in matters of military, political and judiciary orders, and the unification of checkpoints and security. And some factions accepted it.
We informed the factions that we would propose this initiative to all the factions in the arena, including Jabhat Fatah al-Sham. In this period a gathering occurred with Jabhat Fatah al-Sham and the brothers from Harakat Nooradeen al-Zengi, and we discussed some issues which were paused in the merger of three months ago. So it was as if we picked up the merger talks of three months ago and this merger encompasses most of the factions on the arena. When some obstacles were removed, which paused us three months ago, we signed an agreement for this merger which would be presented to all the other factions. Including the factions who agreed on the coordinated front three months ago. So we considered this to be a continuing process which started three months ago. But when we presented this to the factions they felt that they were left out from the agreement so they refused to enter this merger and they requested a gathering to renew the discussions concerning all the matters of the merger. While Harakat Nooradeen al-Zengi was authorized by a number of factions to negotiate the merger on their behalf.
But when the factions were called to join this merger they said that they were left out from the merger talks and that they did not attend the merger agreements. We reminded them that this merger was a follow up on the merger which was paused three months ago, which they themselves attended. But they said that the length of three months between the two merger proposals was too long, so we want to renew the discussions about it. We gathered most of these factions in one meeting and discussed this issue, but Jabhat Fatah al-Sham refused to renew the discussions from the beginning because of certain reasons of their own. So a complete merger was therefore not achieved, the unification of the arena that we want—into one entity, with one military and political order. We then proposed a coordinated front of a high level officials to these faction as the most realistic choice we have right now, which guarantees the unification of the military and political orders and decrees in the coming period, and the end result of this front will be a merger; after a period of time, depending on the circumstances, we hope that this will be in a short period. But we have to solve several concerns, among them the unification of military and political decrees. And the current polarization on the arena has to stop.
Like the polarization of accusations and Islamic verdicts. We were avoiding the polarization that every party would see himself as the truth. The difference of opinion that occurred between the scholars is not more than a difference of opinion. Some viewed the merger [at the end of last year] as the only way to achieved unity and that it was obligatory to join it, and others saw this as merely one of ways to merge and that there are other ways as well. We do not view the verdict which obliged the factions to merge as a verdict of overpowerment (taghalub), but we differ with them about the statement that those who do not join this merger are sinful, because we are convinced that a merger has many formats. The goal of a merger is the unification of decrees in the arena, and this was not achieved in this merger, rather there were two decrees.
What we desired from this merger was not achieved sufficiently. So our proposal was the coordinational front. This front will achieve the goals of the merger through the unification of orders and decrees, military and politically, and its end-result will be a merger. With it we would have removed the polarization and achieved a merger in a certain way. This is being discussed and consulted at the moment. The people without a doubt want a merger which is not spoiled by contradictions, even if they do not state this. So, we are pursuing a merger without contradictions [because they] could be abused by the enemy with incitements and mobilizations. This could be achieved in the near future, and the reality of the arena is that it is walking the path of mergers, because the number of factions today are less than the number of factions a year ago. But again we do not want mergers which carry harms that could be abused by the enemy.
Al-Umar was asked about the complaints of a lack of security in insurgent-held territories, Idlib specifically. Al-Abdullah said that corpses littered the streets every day, civilians and fighters, and many were from Ahrar al-Sham. Why is the security situation so troubled? Al-Umar said:
There are several parties who disrupt the security in the liberated territories, most prominent are cells connected to Da’ash [the Islamic State], which has reorganized itself after it defected to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, whom it joined under the umbrella of Jund al-Aqsa. It has reorganized and started attacking civilians as well as fighters. Jabhat Fatah al-Sham guaranteed that it would oversee them in an agreement between us but its terms were not implied unfortunately. And the brother from Jabhat Fatah al-Sham may answer why the terms were not met. Secondly there are cells connected to the regime. Our security personal have caught several [regime] cells, we have showed some of them and others are still under investigation and we will publish [the results] at the appropriate time. And here we want to call upon the civilians to inform us about anything suspicious they have seen, and we will deal with it correctly with the will of Allah.
Noting the recent increase in U.S. airstrikes against JFS, al-Umar is asked his position on these operations, and replies:
We have showed our position previously. The Coalition ignores the [foreign Shi’a] militias spread all over Syria who target civilians and rape women and violate honour, most prominently Lebanese Hizballah, which is internationally designated as a terrorist organisation, [but also] including Afghan, Iraqi, and Iranian militias. Ignoring all of these [Iranian-run Shi’a jihadist] entities, which spread corruption on the earth, while striking a faction [JFS] which is actively fighting against the regime, and most of their men are from this country, is prejudice in favour of the regime against the revolution. We reject this matter completely and we consider it to be a policy of double standards.
Asked about the reasons for the fall of Aleppo City, al-Umar says:
The regime started its campaign against Aleppo during the second half of 2015 and it used different methods, most important the policy of a scorched earth with the help of the invading Russian air planes and the increase of numbers on the ground which were gathered from outside the borders, most prominent the militias of Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Lebanon. Until the regime reached Nubl and Zahra, after reaching these two cities they began to advance gradually until they besieged the city of Aleppo. In addition to the neutral territories under the control of Da’ash, who guaranteed the regime safe passage to attack [the rebels in Aleppo City] from their side, and Da’ash was also attacking the territories of the mujahideen at the same time with the regime.
The regime besieged Aleppo for over five months. The factions sacrificed in two attempts to break the siege on Aleppo. But the magnitude of the [pro-Assad] campaign was enormous, in addition to the scorched earth tactics used. After the siege, the regime and Russia used the civilians as a pressure card. Tens of thousands of civilians in Aleppo were confronted by the uncontrolled barbaric bombardments. All the hospitals in Aleppo went out of service due to the bombardments, in addition to the lack of humanitarian aid, this was used [against civilians]—and put great pressure on the factions.
All of this led eventually to the negotiations. The fighting spirit was lost and the disputes occurred between the factions during the siege on Aleppo. The absence of leaders in the media to raise their fighting spirit could be one of the reason, but the major reasons was the fierce campaign by Russia and the regime and the militias. These are the real reasons that led to the fall of Aleppo. The military leaders did their best in the campaign, as we have mentioned, targeting many positions of the regime simultaneously to pressure the regime to stop the campaign. Al-Faruq Abu Bakr is one of the leaders of Ahrar al-Sham in Aleppo; he oversaw the negotiations with the leaderships counsel in Aleppo, he achieved an agreement with the regime that would minimize the harms by letting the civilians leave in safety and the fighters with their weapons, by placing Kafraya and al-Fua against Aleppo on the table. We were able to link this in the negotiations agreement.
There is no doubt that the fall of Aleppo is a great loss for the revolution but this does not in any way mean that the revolution has ended. Every revolution passed through stages of victory and it could pass through a stage of decline. The regime after they took Aleppo, and after they depended on the support of Russia, and the policy of a scorched earth, and the Iranian occupation, and the militias that entered from all directions, does not occupy but one fifth of Syria. While the revolution is still standing and carried by the people, the demonstrations we are witnessing today is indicative of the renewal of the revolution.
And we must mention that the revolution started without any elements, they were peaceful in the beginning and when they carried weapons they carry very simple weapons. Today, we possess advanced weaponry to a certain degree and we have thousands of fighters and we control vast amounts of territory. We have many methods we can use to carry on the initiative. No doubt that there are many glad tidings and the most important is the perseverance of the revolution in the hearts of the revolutionaries. These demonstrations we have mentioned indicate that the revolution is still ongoing and young and full of life. And we have many methods like I said we can use at the appropriate time, and there are many military operations which we can start in the coming period, which will reenergize the revolution again.