Defeat Jihadists in Syria by Being a Better Ally to the Opposition

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on March 25, 2015

A still  from the video announcing the Ahrar a-Sham-Suqour a-Sham merger

A still from the video announcing the Ahrar a-Sham-Suqour a-Sham merger

Ahrar a-Sham “merged with“—in reality annexed—Suqour a-Sham on March 22. Ahrar’s leader, Hashem al-Sheikh (a.k.a. Abu Jabbar), is the leader of the Ahrar-Suqour formation, and Suqour’s leader, Ahmed Issa al-Sheikh (a.k.a. Abu Issa) is his deputy. Ahrar is the largest and most hardline Syrian insurgent group in Syria, and Suqour has a fairly stern Salafi-nationalist ideology—at least at its leadership level—and was once the largest rebel group in Idlib Province.

The first thing this brought to mind was Sam Heller’s witticism late last year: “the most successful, lasting approach to rebel unification so far has basically been ‘Ahrar al-Sham absorbs you’.”

On Dec. 21, 2012, Ahrar formed the Syrian Islamic Front (SIF). After some internal restructuring, SIF became Harakat Ahrar a-Sham al-Islamiya (HASI) in late January 2013, and within a week had done that rarest of things in the Syrian rebellion: added a formation (Liwa al-Iman). HASI would continue expanding its geographic reach and annexing new battalions until the formation of the Islamic Front (I.F.) in November 2013

I.F. was supposed to be a full merger between Ahrar, Suqour, the mid-size Latakia-based Ansar a-Sham, Jabhat al-Akrad al-Islamiya (the Kurdish Islamic Front, KIF), and the largest Islamist groups in Aleppo (Liwa at-Tawhid), Damascus (Jaysh al-Islam), and Homs (Liwa al-Haq). But even by early 2014 it was clear that I.F. was breaking down into its constituent parts, and was little more than a brand, like the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

KIF might always have been an Ahrar front, and Liwa al-Haq always worked closely with Ahrar; on Dec. 8 both groups were absorbed by Ahrar. Ansar a-Sham remains independent but has been close to Ahrar since the days of SIF.

Last summer, after Tawhid had reportedly split into two, Ahrar and Tawhid abandoned their individual insignia and opted for the I.F. logo—one case where Ahrar was actually the weaker party to a merger. In December, that Aleppo I.F. formation became part of al-Jabhat al-Shamiya (the Levant Front), a merger of the Syrian Islamists in Aleppo.

After the rebellion’s offensive against the Islamic State (ISIS) began in January 2014, Suqour was nearly destroyed by defections to, and a direct mauling by, ISIS. A “full merger” was announced between Suqour and Jaysh al-Islam (JAI) last July 31, but nothing seems to have come of it as Sunday’s merger with Ahrar shows. JAI is largely confined geographically to eastern Damascus, though it has some presence in Qalamoun. Best guess says Suqour’s remnants have chosen direct security from Ahrar over JAI’s money.


A Reuters report following the Ahrar-Suqour merger said it was designed to oppose al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch, Jabhat an-Nusra. “This will present a stronger competitor for Nusra in Idlib,” Abu Malek a-Shami, a local commander from Jaysh al-Mujahireen wa-Ansar told Reuters. My initial thought was that this could be true, but it is just as likely is that Ahrar is drawing the rebel units into al-Qaeda’s orbit.

One of Ahrar’s founders in May 2011 was Abu Khalid as-Suri, Ayman az-Zawahiri’s personal representative in Syria. Abu Khalid, born Muhammad al-Bahaya in Aleppo in 1963, is wanted for involvement in two terrorist attacks in Madrid: a 1985 restaurant bombing and al-Qaeda’s 2004 bombings of the commuter trains. Abu Khalid was rounded up in Pakistan in 2005 and handed over to the CIA; he was thereafter rendered to Bashar al-Assad. That Abu Khalid was able to form Ahrar a-Sham in May/June 2011 speaks to the Assad regime’s strategy of releasing violent Salafists to try to switch the narrative of the protests from reform to sectarianism, and then sell the regime as the bulwark against terrorism to draw in international support to put down the insurgency.

Abu Khalid was a very close friend of Mustafa Setmariam Nasar, better-known as Abu Musab as-Suri, probably al-Qaeda’s most sagacious strategist, whose advice Nusra now implement. Abu Musab was particularly influenced by the meltdown in Algeria, where the turn to takfirism—and the machinations of the security services—destroyed the jihad and the cause of Islamism more broadly. Abu Khalid was a part of al-Qaeda’s bureaucracy in Syria, led by the Old Guard “Khorasan Group,” which aims to keep Nusra from adopting a localist Islamist focus, and to spread—by infiltration, financial co-optation, the proliferation of front-groups, and other means—al-Qaeda’s influence in the Levant.

After Abu Khalid was struck down by ISIS in February 2014, and Ahrar’s leadership was destroyed on Sept. 9, it is not clear how much influence al-Qaeda’s bureaucracy exerts over Ahrar. In the lead-up to the disaster that befell Ahrar last September, there had been a top-down process to at least present moderation—and there is reason to believe it went beyond optics—apparently influenced by Qatari and Turkish funders being displaced as the Saudis took the lead in the Syrian insurgency. But Ahrar was always the step between Syrian Salafism and globalist Salafi-jihadism, and while in the last six months Ahrar has not moved to decisively take one side or other, there were some discouraging signs suggesting a harder-line drift.


A powerful counterargument to the view that this merger helps al-Qaeda was offered by Charles Lister. Lister has spent the last ten months meeting with the leaderships of Syria’s most important rebel groups, and found that there is a crucial distinction between “public hyperbole and private attitudes.” While many of Syria’s rebel groups now feel obliged to make some form of Islamist incantation in public—and some of them even mean some of it in private—the rebel groups, which is to say not Nusra or ISIS or the independent gangs of foreign Salafi-jihadists who have intruded into Syria’s torment, are willing to resolve differences “through dialogue,” Lister writes.

Lister notes:

Despite inaccurate reports that the latest merger … represented a hardening of [Ahrar’s] ideological stance, the unity initiative has instead been described to this author by several Syrian Islamist officials as a conscious attempt to balance Jabhat al-Nusra’s growing power, particularly in … Idlib. … Thus far, concerns regarding Nusra—and they are entirely genuine—have been revealed only in private discussions. Why? A simple explanation can be provided in two parts. Firstly, Jabhat al-Nusra remains an acutely powerful force on the ground in Syria and one that the remainder of the opposition is reliant upon to maintain an effective front against regime and pro-regime forces. Secondly, the only reason this reliance on a now largely untrusted organization continues is for the lack of any better alternative, namely an expressly Syrian insurgent opposition more conclusively backed by the West. … [T]he insurgent opposition inside Syria lacks the necessary strength and sustainable sources of lethal and non-lethal support … to more unambiguously assert itself and its values on the ground. [Emphasis added.]

In short, Lister argues that Ahrar is taking its distance from al-Qaeda and more Western help to the moderate opposition would draw away those who joined the extremist groups to gain access to the resources to protect themselves—which in the Syrian context means deposing the Assad tyranny.

This should not be misconstrued: to “balance” Nusra does not mean immediate cessation of tactical co-operation, nor does it mean fighting against Nusra, but it does mean that an attempt is being made to ensure that Nusra is not the only power-wielder, specifically in Idlib.


Concurrent with these developments with Ahrar, Nusra has set about forcibly imposing itself in Idlib, alienating many former allies.

The West’s refusal to intervene decisively in Syria allowed Salafist donors and Islamist governments like Turkey and Qatar to take the lead in arming and financing the Syrian opposition. Among other things, it led to Salafist symbolism becoming dominant, if only as a “marketing strategy“. Had the West offered an alternative, the contest might well have been for who could sound the most secular, but instead the spread of this symbolism and rhetoric allowed the dissemination of the idea that Nusra was too interwoven with the insurgency for the West to help.

Evidence of this view seemed to surface when the U.S. designated Nusra as a terrorist group in December 2012 and to an extent after the American airstrikes against Nusra in September 2014, when we witnessed the “rally ’round the jihadist” phenomenon. Nusra’s efforts to garner some popular support by effective fighting and provision of social services have worked reasonably well, but the reaction was mostly due to the West leaving the Syrians alone to face not only Assad, but Iran and Russia too, and then arrogating to itself the right to tell Syrians they were to reject the assistance of the only people who did come to help them, while not offering to replace the support lost by such a rejection.

Last July I prematurely wrote that open warfare had come between the rebellion and al-Qaeda in Syria. By November this diagnosis was true of the Idlib branch of Nusra, which was at war with the rebellion. Nusra’s Idlibi branch has only alienated Syrians even further since then: attacking more rebel groups and imposing a heavy-handed shari’a, which has involved public executions of adulterers and forced conversions of several hundred Druze in Jibal al-Summaq.

Nusra’s complex Qalamoun wing aside, Nusra’s southern wing is also alienating Syrians. In early January, Nusra blew up the mausoleum of Imam Nawawi in Nawa, Deraa. This kind of vandalism is now indelibly associated with ISIS, and rejected by armed groups and civilians alike. Recent episodes like the violent suppression of anti-Nusra protests in the Damascus suburbs of Babila, Bait Sahem, and Yalda—areas are under regime terror-siege—have likewise increased the sense that Nusra is ISIS-lite, at best.

The Salafi-jihadists, especially the martyrdom-hungry foreigners, initially provided a net positive to the rebellion. Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan note in their recent book on ISIS that the rebels struck “tactical deals” where suicide bombers were provided to the rebellion to break hard targets and the loot was then shared with the Salafi-jihadists who kept their fighters largely away from the frontlines, dispensing social services and dawa (missionary work). But the foreign Sunni jihadists have been an overwhelming net negative for the rebellion: they complicated efforts to get Western support and then a massive second revolt, and the opening of a second front, was needed against ISIS. (Contrast that with foreign Shi’ite jihadists, by the way, whose importation into Syria saved the regime.) As Nusra cracks down now, the Syrians are looking for a reliable partner to stop the repeat of a movie they’ve seen before.


Shifting the balance of power within the insurgency from Jabhat an-Nusra and Ahrar a-Sham to the mainstream rebels is best approached indirectly in my judgment:

[I]t would be foolish at this point to encourage the more nationalist rebels to go to war with the Salafi militants—the only winner would be Iran—but the people who are with Nusra and Ahrar for resource reasons can be pulled away if moderate groups are seen as powerful enough to fight the Assad regime, and at a later date, when only the small core of ideologues remain, Nusra and Ahrar could be directly targeted.

The leaderships of Nusra and Ahrar are different.

Nusra’s leaders are foreign, al-Qaeda loyalists—even if Abu Muhammad al-Golani is a Syrian. With the Khorasannites in Syria, Nusra’s leaders will remain globally-focussed Salafi-jihadists. But it is doubtful that every member of Nusra’s rank-and-file is an al-Qaeda loyalist; their overwhelming goal is to defeat the regime, the resources for which Nusra seemed to offer. A majority of them support some kind of representative system after Assad, and most have no aspirations beyond Syria’s borders. These fighters could be pulled into the mainstream, leaving Nusra’s core to be forcibly neutralised once it is down to the irreconcilables.

The chances of Ahrar’s senior leaders moderating seem low, but Ahrar’s leaders are Syrians—and have been attacked by Nusra and ISIS for their commitment to “Sykes-Picot” (i.e. nationalism)—which means it is possible to see them joining the mainstream rebellion in a way Nusra’s leaders never will. If a rebel formation more in tune with the population’s values and the power to fight the regime is erected, Ahrar would be pulled in that direction. The path set by ISIS, which Nusra’s leaders are increasingly following, is discredited, and if there were an alternative, Ahrar’s leadership would have to choose between actually moderating and aligning itself with the Syrian population, or losing the bulk of its fighters who only joined Ahrar in the first place for reasons of resources. In either case, the harsh Salafism that Ahrar’s leaders espouse would be marginalised.

The argument that the danger of weapons getting into the hands of extremists should prevent meaningful Western weapons supplies to the Syrian rebellion is in tatters. Millions of dollars’ worth of American weaponry was confiscated from the Iraqi security forces (ISF) by ISIS after the conquest of Mosul, and some of the more recent supplies of American weapons to the ISF have “already ended up … in the hands of Islamic State“. Add to that that all American weapons supplied to Iraq go through Baghdad, which is under the functional control of Iran, and one comes to realise that the only people at this point in the Fertile Crescent without significant stocks of American weapons are the non-terrorists.

It is also worth noting that the idea weapons sent into Syria are destined to go astray is not borne out by the evidence:

Of the total 274 times [American-supplied] weapons have been seen in the possession of armed opposition groups, they have only been observed six times in the use of an organization unlikely to be a direct recipient. All six of these instances were … in the possession of Harakat Ahrar al-Sham.

Directly giving weapons to Ahrar, at least in its present incarnation, is unwise, but there is a very good argument that Ahrar should not be designated a terrorist group to avoid legal complications should weapons end up in Ahrar’s hands and over the supply of humanitarian aid in Ahrar-controlled zones.

The FSA-branded rebels were physically degraded “by the combined onslaughts of well-financed jihadist groups and an Assad regime reinvigorated by the lack of Western intervention and staunch support from Russia and Iran,” and discredited by their need to loot to gain supplies because the moderates—the silent majority in Syria—were the only faction that did not receive proper outside support. But it did not have to come to this. The ideas of the FSA-type groups remain dominant in Syria, and those groups could have remained dominant on the battlefield, as they were until early 2013, if the secular military defectors and other moderate elements were supplied with the needful resources. It is not too late. If the moderates can weaponise their support, and the war can get to a point where the argument, “but the Americans won’t like that,” is taken as a veto—where American support is more substantial than tactical cooperation with Nusra—then the balance of power within the insurgency can shifted back in favour of the moderates who began this uprising.

Iran and Assad will work to frustrate such an effort. Though the regime presents itself as a sworn foe of Islamic militants, it has done everything it can to ensure their dominance within the insurgency. It is very telling that even as the Iranian-led offensive against ISIS in Tikrit stalls, Tehran has diverted resources to attacking the very impressive moderate enclave in southern Syria—where the rebels have even worked on issues of civil-military relations—and pushing toward the Israeli border. The U.S.-led Coalition’s airstrikes against ISIS have allowed the Iran/Assad regime to perform an “economy of force,” concentrating their firepower on the moderates to will into existence the binary choice Iran and Assad said the world faced all along: the dictator or the terrorists.

There is no reason for the West to continue playing to Tehran’s script. The solution is what it always was, and what America’s policy on paper already is: for the West to finally supply Syria’s moderate majority with an alternative to the Salafists in bringing down the regime. The assistance America has heretofore given to the Syrian opposition is “far too limited,” and while the Syrians desperately want the West to help them, if the dynamic continues where America is aligning with Assad and his Iranian masters, the rebels will look to anyone who can protect them from falling under Iran’s vicious sectarian rule.

4 thoughts on “Defeat Jihadists in Syria by Being a Better Ally to the Opposition

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