x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 13 December 2017

Why Ahrar Al Sham will soon rip itself into pieces

Ahrar Al Sham's current policy of having one foot with the mainstream opposition and another with Al Qaeda is no longer tenable, writes Hassan Hassan

Rebel fighters from Ahrar Al Sham in Jabal al-Zawiya in the southern countryside of Idlib. Khalil Ashawi / Reuters
Rebel fighters from Ahrar Al Sham in Jabal al-Zawiya in the southern countryside of Idlib. Khalil Ashawi / Reuters

Peace talks between representatives of the Syrian regime and the rebels are scheduled to take place today in Astana, the Kazakh capital. These Russian-sponsored talks were made possible by the expulsion of the rebels from eastern Aleppo on December 23.

When the rebels were driven out of Aleppo, it was a turning point in the Syrian conflict. The next move for the regime, many suspected, would be to turn to the rebels’ major stronghold in northwestern Syria, namely Idlib. But on the day the regime celebrates its political momentum in Astana one-month after its momentous military victory in Aleppo, factions in Idlib may be presenting it with another significant win without it having to fire a bullet there.

Last Thursday, Al Qaeda’s Jabhat Fateh Al Sham (JFS) stormed the headquarters of Ahrar Al Sham in Idlib’s western countryside. The event came a day after the latter issued a statement rejecting participation in the Astana talks.

One of the reasons cited for its decision was to avoid the isolation of Al Qaeda, which was naturally not invited to participate. Al Qaeda’s aggression deepened existing tensions between two groups whose close alliance helped expel the regime from Idlib in 2015.

The clashes also came two weeks after Ahrar Al Sham’s leader, Ali Al Omar, accused his close ally of incorporating an ISIL front into his own organisation. He was referring to Jund Al Aqsa, on which Ahrar Al Sham waged a brief campaign in Hama to “dismantle” it, before the former pledged allegiance to JFS. After the clashes last Thursday, several groups formed a coalition with Ahrar Al Sham in Idlib to fight back against JFS, echoing the same language of elimination. Unless the opposition’s foreign backers use the opportunity to support an all-out war against JFS, the impromptu coalition will likely be defeated or contained.

The episode is significant for two reasons. The first one is JFS’s strategy of fragmenting rebel forces that pose a potential threat to its supremacy on the ground, especially if attempts to co-opt such groups fail.

In this sense, JFS’s plan to attack Ahrar Al Sham was not ad hoc; its strategy, similar to its predecessor in Iraq, ISIL, is to break rival groups that resist subordination.

This plan was highlighted in October by Fadhel Al Sheikh, who usually broadcasts reliable leaks about jihadists in Syria. He spoke of a JFS plan to induce large-scale defections inside groups such as Ahrar Al Sham that oppose the merger with it. Even though JFS publicly and privately sought to form a coalition with like-minded groups, in reality co-optation of a weakened group under its terms is eventually the preferred outcome.

Disintegration of viable rivals is a familiar pattern for Al Qaeda, and it is a mistake to think recent hostilities are simply a series of miscalculations. After the failure of the merger that JFS sought with like-minded groups, Abu Mariyyah Al Qahtani, a member of JFS’s Shura Council, also warned of factions similar to the Islamic Army in Iraq during the anti-American insurgency. He refers to the regionally-backed Islamist faction that resisted Al Qaeda in Iraq’s dominance and later cooperated with the government, with parallels to Islamist allies in the Syrian case.

The second reason why the development in Idlib is important is because it signals the near death of Ahrar Al Sham. The group’s strength was long inflated by observers, with little attention given to the large amount of financial, logistical and political support it received from Turkey and Qatar. Its inability to organise properly were on display several times over the past two years, especially after the Russian air campaign in northern Syria in 2015.

Its exaggerated strength and organisational capacity became even clearer after the clashes with Jund Al Aqsa in Hama in October, then in Aleppo last month. Despite the rage of its top leadership, commanders and the rank and file, the group could not get JFS to reverse its decision to absorb a group widely suspected to be a front for ISIL.

Also, aside from widely distributed media statements, the group has had negligible effect on the ground since August, when it helped break the siege around Aleppo for a brief period. The group also fractured after 16 local factions formed a separate organisation last month.

As Ahrar Al Sham shows weakness, its stance towards JFS has also led to a growing popular perception that the group has been part of the problem.

The fact that its refusal to join other groups to participate in the Astana talks came a day after JFS “returned the favour” and stormed its headquarters in Idlib was embarrassing and disappointing to its supporters.

Ahrar Al Sham as a major organisation is on the ropes. Its brand can still be salvaged if Turkey manages to utilise it in a different way than it did the conflict.

Its current policy of having one foot within the mainstream opposition and another in Al Qaeda is no longer tenable. As JFS and mainstream rebels drift further apart, Ahrar Al Sham’s attempt to keep a foot in each camp will further rip it apart.

Hassan Hassan is a senior fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy and co-author of ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror

On Twitter: @hxhassan