TSG IntelBrief: The Shifting Face of Ahrar al-Sham
September 16, 2015
Bottom Line Up Front:
• Following a meeting of its Shura Council, Syrian rebel group Ahrar al-Sham appointed a new leader—its third in its history, and second within a year
• The leadership change raises questions about the future direction of Ahrar al-Sham, and its attempts to present itself as the ‘moderate’ Islamist opposition while still maintaining coherence within the group
• Ahrar al-Sham, like many Syrian rebel groups, largely relies on the support of regional powers, and this leadership shift may be a way for the group to reinvigorate its powerful allies
• The election of a new leader also demonstrates the group’s level of organization, which likely helped the group survive even after its central leadership was assassinated in September 2014.
To many observers, Ahrar al-Sham represents one of the most effective rebel forces currently operating in Syria. The group is the largest member of the Islamic Front, arguably the most powerful rebel coalition in the country. It has been involved in the majority of major rebel victories against the regime, and it boasts an arsenal that includes tanks, heavy artillery, and guided anti-tank munitions. The group’s media wing has produced dozens of high-quality videos of its training and assaults, and even a highly produced documentary—with English subtitles—on the group’s relief activities within Aleppo. The Islamist group’s head of foreign political relations even published an op-ed in the Washington Post in July, arguing for more American support for ‘moderate’ rebel groups, including Ahrar al-Sham.
Despite its successes, the group has faced its share of difficulties as well. On September 9th of last year, much of Ahrar al-Sham’s top leadership—including its leader Hassane Abboud—were killed in a bombing in Idlib. The group’s Shura Council quickly elected Sheikh Hashim al-Sheikh—known as Abu Jaber—as its new leader. Under al-Sheikh’s leadership, Ahrar al-Sham continued to achieve military successes. However, the group was also suffering from an internal identity crisis. Ahrar al-Sham is an Islamist group, founded by Abu Khalid al-Suri, a close associate of al-Qaeda’s leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and his personal representative to Syria; the group’s stated mission is to establish an Islamic state under Shari’a law. The rise of the Islamic State, however, which now stands as a rival to Ahrar al-Sham, has pushed the group to clarify the nature of its Islamism.
This ideological crisis has had external consequences as well. Turkey in particular has reportedly supported the group as representing the face of the moderate opposition. However, Western unease over extremist Islamist influence within Syrian rebel groups has affected the ability of Ahrar al-Sham to secure international support. The Washington Post op-ed was part of a concerted effort by Ahrar al-Sham to allay those concerns.
Within this context, Ahrar al-Sham’s Shura Council recently elected a new leader: Muhannad al-Masri, also known as Abu Yahya al-Hamwi. According to the group itself—which is notoriously secretive—this was a unanimous, planned passing of the reins, as Abu Jaber’s term was meant to last one year. There is some credence to this claim, as Abu Jaber himself announced the changeover via his personal Twitter account. Regardless of the unanimity of the decision, there is no doubt of its strategic implications. The election of al-Masri—an original member of Ahrar al-Sham, from the group’s heartland of Hama, Syria—represents a return to the core of the group. By electing a loyal figure from the same region as many of Ahrar al-Sham’s senior leadership, the Shura Council’s decision may be an attempt to alleviate internal divisions.
The leadership change may also be an attempt to solidify more international support for the group, especially from Turkey. Al-Masri reportedly has close ties to Ankara, which provides Turkey with more reassurance that Ahrar al-Sham will fully support the implementation of a Turkish buffer zone—a plan that Abu Jaber had reportedly remained hesitant about. It is likely that al-Masri will also continue the general movement away from collaboration with Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, which has been a key source of concern among Western governments. The divide appears to be widening. However, the deterioration of the relationship between the two groups is putting significant pressure on extremist wings within Ahrar al-Sham which are sympathetic to al-Qaeda.
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