Fidaa Itani

Ahrar al-Sham: the end of moderate Salafism in Syria

With the assassination of most of its top leaders, the group is poised to meet a demise similar to the Al-Tawhid Brigades

An image grab taken from a propaganda video uploaded on September 9, 2013 by Syria

On 9 September, an explosion killed the top leadership of rebel Islamist group Ahrar al-Sham amidst the chaos in Syria and the conflicting interests of various factions. This is to say nothing of the Islamic State (ISIS), the primary enemy of the Syrian rebels. Unless an organization claims responsibility for this assassination, accusations will be misleading, especially as everyone stands to gain something by neutralizing Ahrar al-Sham.


The massacre was a mysterious event and speculation is rampant. Most sources spoke of a chemical explosive device that caused many men to choke and burn, trapped in their underground meeting place in an Idlib village, knowing that this region is Ahrar al-Sham’s stronghold and the center of their influence.


Regardless of field details that cannot be corroborated, the massacre practically wiped out all of Ahrar al-Sham’s commanders. The group has been trying to please everyone in the Syrian war. So far this year, it has not fought ISIS, and many of its brigades have remained neutral. Some factions have even accused others either of helping ISIS by facilitating its retreat from various regions, or by protecting foreign fighters in Syria who switched allegiance from ISIS to Jabhat al-Nusra.


From prison to power


Most local fighting forces viewed this ambiguous behavior as typical of Ahrar al-Sham, yet the group is no longer part of the forces seeking to replace the current Syrian state with an Islamic one. Some key leaders of the movement were inmates released from the Saydnaya prison in Many 2011, a few months into the Syrian revolution. Commanders such as founder Hassan Abboud, who has since been killed, and commander Hashem al-Sheikh, were released from prison along with others, such as Nusra Front founder Abu Mohammad al-Golani, Suqour al-Islam Brigades commander Ahmed Abu Issa and, of course, Jaysh al-Islam commander Zahran Alloush.


Ahrar al-Sham became the strongest force in Idlib and deployed in many Syrian regions. Much like other forces, it sought to impose itself as a fait-accompli authority replacing the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and other revolutionary forces. It started levying fees at the Bab al-Hawa border crossing, albeit not on citizens, but rather on goods entering and exiting Syria, and also seized control of public resources.


The group’s importance began to subside with the rise of ISIS in summer 2013, thus shifting from a central force in its own territory to just another of the forces in the Islamic Front. As was the case with the Front, it took a cautious stance regarding the conflict with ISIS, only getting involved following pressure from its Saudi backers.


Conflict but no infiltration


When Abu Khaled al-Souri – whose allegiance was to Osama bin Laden before went to Syria to fight alongside Ahrar al-Sham – was killed, the group had to make a decision about its future line of action and who it was going to side with. Its hesitation, though, mostly due to its growing size, caused it to wither. Then came the death of its leadership in a single assassination.


Abu Khaled’s assassination, which was carried out by forces with ties to ISIS, delivered a decisive message to Ahrar al-Sham: no holding the stick from the middle. In other words, it had to choose between swearing allegiance to ISIS or have its key Qaeda-affiliated commanders killed.


This message alone was seemingly not enough. The role the Islamic Front intended to play after it expelled ISIS from Syria’s north and after “moderate Islamic” and FSA forces started to conglomerate was enough to earmark Ahrar al-Sham for liquidation. Key forces capable of playing multiple roles in Syria are actually primary assassination targets. This was the lesson to be learned from the assassinations of Hajji Mareh and Abdel Kader Saleh, the Al-Tawhid Brigade commander and a former key member of the Islamic Front.


Some are trying to play whatever role in jihadist Islam that they can, and are competing with both ISIS and the Nusra Front while seeking to topple the Syrian regime, please their foreign Saudi backers, and reach some understanding – or at least find common points – with the US policy in Syria. Such figures are primary assassination targets regardless of who is behind their killings, whether the Syrian airstrike that killed Hajji Mareh with assistance from local spies, or ISIS in cooperation with branches from within Ahrar al-Sham itself.


It was Ahrar al-Sham’s behavior, though, that ultimately resulted in its leadership being liquidated. This leadership was actually trying to coexist with a serious internal division between those who feared and opposed any fighting against ISIS and those in favor of fighting both ISIS and the Syrian regime. This divided the group despite its political manifestos and doctrines, which are published on its website and are well-known among the people, and which highlight its moderate political rhetoric and its wish to behave according to the public’s wishes.


From power to the grave


This appointed leadership did not bring about any new changes – it merely confirmed that is was fighting both the Syrian regime and ISIS. And the statement issued by the Syrian National Coalition was actually more strongly-worded than the statement issued by Ahrar al-Sham. With the assassination of its commanders, the fate of Ahrar al-Sham will fare no better than Tawhid Brigade’s following the death of Hajji Mareh.


Indeed, the Brigade had asked some factions to lend it fighters to guard its positions and lost control over the industrial city in Aleppo, not to mention that the Syrian Army would have been able to move easily forward to the Infantry School had it wanted to do so. Still, the Tawhid Brigade, which was once the primary force in Aleppo, is now merely a media name invoked to obtain support here and there and to maintain representatives within the Islamic Front, knowing that the ammunition it once had was entrusted to the warehouses of stronger factions better able to protect themselves and their regions.


Ahrar al-Sham’s situation is not likely to improve in the coming months. It currently possesses enough manpower, financial and military resources to allow it to play a potentially key role. But it will soon deplete these resources and distribute them among the Syria Rebels Front led by Jamal Maarouf and some FSA factions. The Nusra Front and ISIS will also get a key share of Ahrar al-Sham’s inheritance.


Thus another legend in the Syrian conflict will go back from whence it came. Until Ahrar al-Sham meets the same fate as the Tawhid Brigade, it can still be used militarily to confront ISIS. But this done, it will come to an end much as did the Islamic Front. All that remains is for other Islamic factions to meet the same end.


Knowing who is behind the assassination of Ahrar al-Sham’s leadership and who stands to benefit from it is no longer relevant. A new page is about to be turned in the conflict; just as bloody, just as harsh. 

Ahrar al-Sham’s situation is not likely to improve in the coming months. (AFP Photo/HO/Islamic Front)

Knowing who is behind the assassination of Ahrar al-Sham’s leadership and who stands to benefit from it is no longer relevant."