Ahrar al-Sham may hold the key to ending Syria war

Friday 26/02/2016
Estimated strength of 20,000 fighters

BEIRUT - A new rebel alliance has emerged in northern Syria to counter a mas­sive scorched earth of­fensive by the Damas­cus regime that threatens to seize control of the beleaguered city of Aleppo, which was once Syria’s largest city and commercial heart, and score a major victory.
There have been countless coalitions among the disparate rebels — more than 1,500 different, ever-shifting groups with com­bined strength of about 150,000 fighters — since the Syrian war be­gan nearly five years ago.
These coalitions usually sprang up out of tactical necessity when Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces had the upper hand, rather than due to a unity of purpose, and most fell apart because of sectarian or ideological differences.
But what makes this new alli­ance, named Jaish Halab (Army of Aleppo), significant is that it is headed by Ahrar al-Sham (Free Men of Syria) — one of the most powerful and disciplined of the Syrian rebel groups — and has drawn in nine other independ­ent Islamist groups and moderate groups linked to the US-backed Free Syrian Army.
The new alliance is commanded by high-profile veteran command­er Hashem al-Sheikh, who led Ah­rar al-Sham in 2014-15.
Ahrar al-Sham emerged from Jabhat al-Nusra, which is al-Qae­da’s Syrian wing, and has been shunned by the United States and others because of its jihadist ori­gins.
Yet Ahrar al-Sham may hold the key to securing a political settle­ment to end the worst and most complex conflict in the Middle East in generations.
The group refused to attend the recent ill-fated Geneva peace talks brokered by the United Na­tions. However, political analysts say that reformists within Ahrar al-Sham, which unlike most jihad­ist groups sees itself primarily as a Syrian nationalist front rather than a transnational jihadist organisa­tion, are gaining the upper hand over more extremist elements.
Hashem al-Sheikh is important because he has long argued that Ahrar al-Sham should break with al-Nusra as its allegiance to al-Qae­da has harmed the Syrian revolu­tion.
Many see Ahrar al-Sham as an Islamist rebel group that could ca­pably participate in a post-Assad transition.
The group was formed in 2011, mainly by Syrian al-Nusra prison­ers freed by the regime soon after the anti-Assad revolution erupt­ed. It has an estimated strength of 20,000 fighters, although the group claims the number is higher.
The original leadership was largely wiped out in a September 9, 2014, bombing of a meeting at the group’s headquarters in Idlib province. Hassan Abboud, then its paramount leader, was killed along with more than 40 others.
It is not clear whether the attack was mounted by a rival group or stemmed from internal divisions over the group’s future but that is when Sheikh took over and, since then, moderates and pragma­tists within the organisation have steered it in a new direction.
Ahrar al-Sham’s current position results from the shifting ideologi­cal mosaic among the multitude of rebel factions in recent months. Some of the larger groups, such as Ahrar al-Sham and Jaysh al-Islam (Army of Islam), have softened their fundamentalist policies amid moves towards political transition in Syria.
This was accelerated by Russia’s armed intervention in September 2015 to aid Assad’s foundering re­gime and the subsequent boost in support by the United States and Saudi Arabia for so-called moder­ate rebel factions that gathered momentum in October.
These days, there is a feeling that if the Americans and their al­lies wish to salvage any hope of gaining the diplomatic initiative to steer Syria’s rebel groups towards a political settlement while bolster­ing the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS), al-Qaeda’s savage ri­val, they must grasp the nettle of dealing with Ahrar al-Sham.
Charles Lister of the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar, who since 2014 has engaged the leaders of more than 100 Syrian rebel groups in face-to-face meetings, said al- Nusra’s leader, a Syrian known as Mohammed al-Jolani, is willing to revoke his allegiance to al-Qaeda’s leader, the veteran Egyptian jihad­ist Anwar al-Zawahiri.
“Ahrar al-Sham is a complicated movement, to say the least,” Lister observed in a recent interview fol­lowing the publication of his book, The Syrian Jihad: Al-Qaeda, the Is­lamic State and the Evolution of an Insurgency in November.
Lister contends that Ahrar al- Sham “has emerged as arguably the most powerful armed opposi­tion group in Syria, both politically and militarily” and acknowledges it “has a tight working relationship with Nusra on the ground.” But it has been displaying a moderate side.
Hashem al-Sheikh has even publicly criticised al-Nusra’s al- Qaeda’s ties.
“Ahrar al-Sham continues to push for Jolani to break his bayat — his allegiance — to al-Qaeda,” Lister observed. “This issue has become the pivotal point of contention within current discussions over the possibility of Nusra merging with a new grand Islamist armed opposi­tion group in northern Syria…
“I heard from very reliable sources that there’s now a 50-50 chance that Jolani may be willing to cease his allegiance to al-Qaeda in order to secure the grand merg­er. I remain sceptical — whether Jolani would do it, and even if so, whether that would practically change anything with regard to his ideology — but the very fact that it’s still up discussion is highly sig­nificant.”
Amid the US-led air campaign against ISIS, the Americans’ pri­mary enemy in Syria, “Ahrar al- Sham and al-Nusra are creeping closer and closer to international respectability. Robert Ford, the last US ambassador to Damascus who has campaigned for more US backing for rebel groups, has urged Washington to “open up channels for dialogue” with Ahrar al-Sham.
In a November 2015, interview by Aron Lund, a Syria specialist at the Carnegie Middle East Centre in Beirut, Lister observed that Ah­rar al-Sham “has benefited from serious and sustained sources of financing and political backing, principally from Turkey and Qa­tar”.
Its “regional supporters are de­termined to make it the main play­er of significance and even Saudi Arabia appears on board with some of this.”