On 5 January 2016, Abdallah al-Muhaysini appeared on episode sixty of Sham Weekly, an interview series, to lament the failure of the Syrian insurrectionists to merge with Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS), al-Qaeda’s rebranded presence in Syria. Al-Muhaysini places the blame for the failure to merge squarely on Ahrar al-Sham.
JFS adopted its current name—it was previously known as Jabhat al-Nusra—when it ostensibly split from al-Qaeda in July, and breaking the Qaeda link was a key Ahrar condition for a merger, says al-Muhaysini, and a merger agreement was reached wherein JFS’s leader, Ahmad al-Shara (Abu Muhammad al-Jolani) had agreed to cede the overall leadership role. Then Ahrar backed out.
It is a notable that On The Ground News, an outlet that is inside Syria and whose most prominent face is the American activist, Bilal Abdul Kareem, published an article earlier today repeating almost exactly the same points, adding that the machinations of Turkey and Qatar—which strongly support Ahrar—were behind Ahrar’s refusal to merge with JFS. For good measure, OGN concluded: “Ahrar al-Sham no longer seems to hold much of the love, respect, and most importantly the trust the Syrian people once had for them.”
Both al-Muhaysini and OGN thus give the JFS version of events. Why OGN has done this is a question for another day. Why al-Muhaysini has done this is quite plain. Al-Muhaysini is a Saudi jihadist who migrated to Syria in 2013, and bills himself as independent and an impartial religious cleric, mediating between the factions. In fact, as U.S. Treasury sanctions disclosed in November, al-Muhaysini is a senior official in JFS.
The significance of this is that al-Qaeda is attempting to co-opt the Syrian rebellion, to draw it into a merger in which JFS has a leading role over the actual power-wielding mechanisms, the military portfolio above all, so that al-Qaeda can further its vanguardist agenda, disseminating and normalizing its ideology, and form a durable base that will, inter alia, allow it to launch terrorist attacks, including against the West, with impunity; any response would have to target a large swathe of the Syrian population, rather than being able to focus on al-Qaeda’s command structure. Ahrar al-Sham is an obstacle to this at present, essentially wanting to merge the revolution under its own banner.
Ahrar al-Sham is an extremist group that does not differ that much from JFS ideologically—even the prior distinction on transnationalism is now more murky since JFS has ostensibly quit al-Qaeda. But Ahrar is indigenously Syrian in a way JFS—certainly at is leadership and strategic level—is not. So far this has not provided a bulwark against al-Qaeda; to the contrary, Ahrar has functioned as the “connective tissue” between Syrian Islamism and globalist Jihadi-Salafism, the most important enabler of JFS’s rise in power and the window through which JFS infiltrated the armed opposition. Still, Ahrar is close to Turkey (and Qatar) and this has served to prevent an institutional merger with JFS.
After the debacle in Aleppo, however, where Turkey allowed the pro-Assad coalition to take over the city because of its entente with Russia, and with the U.S.-led Coalition launching airstrikes against JFS while doing nothing to curb regime atrocities or bolster the mainstream opposition, JFS is very much on the front-foot in pressing for “unity” to save the revolutionary cause. Al-Muhaysini’s popularity, such as it is, and his pose as an independent voice, speaking only for the best interests of the insurgency, provide additional pressure on Ahrar to accede to a merger. An ultra-hardline faction of Ahrar clearly desires to combine with JFS and a more “moderate” wing recognizes this as political suicide that will once and for all make the Syrian rebellion anathema to the West.
There are other groups involved in the merger talks with JFS, the now-notorious Harakat Nooradeen al-Zengi salient among them, though al-Zengi is much less divided internally on a merger with JFS: given that it is now clear that al-Zengi as a whole will never again be considered an acceptable interlocuter for the West, its best chance for influence, and even survival, is to join JFS.
A summary of al-Muhaysini’s speech was published today on al-Maqalaat’s Telegram channel and is reproduced below with some editions for transliteration and syntax and some interesting sections highlighted in bold.
First of all the reason for my migration to Syria was because I wanted to unite between the mujahideen. In the first merger talks two years ago, Ahrar al-Sham set the precondition for Jabhat Fatah al-Sham [then known as Jabhat al-Nusra] to break their ties with al-Qaeda and change their name and they promised that the merger will then be a fact. When they finally did, Ahrar al-Sham asked them that the leader should not be from Fatah al-Sham because it is designated as a terrorist organization. So the leader could not be Shaykh Abu Muhammad al-Jolani. Even though this precondition was not set before, it is accepted because it is a realistic condition. Ahrar also requested that all the factions should dissolve in to the merger. And this is what we all want, not only a merger of two or three factions. So, I tried to convince al-Jolani that he should give up the leadership to someone else from another faction, and it does not have to be a leader from Ahrar. But we could not agree over a leader.
In this last attempt, around twenty days ago, when the demonstrations were held and Aleppo fell, territories were lost and besieged, the situation became dire so the least we could show the people is that the leaders united. Because this was the demand of the people. If we say that we fight to defend the weak well, then, they are demanding us to unite. So the leaders gathered, among them the leaders of Ahrar and Fatah al-Sham. I was not present this time. They made the proposition that Abu Ammar [real name: Ali al-Umar], the leader of Ahrar, would be the general leader and al-Jolani the military leader, and Tawfiq [Shahabuddin] the leader of [Harakat Nooradeen] al-Zengi would be the leader of the Shura Council. When this proposition was made al-Jolani accepted and everyone was very happy and enthusiastic and hugged each other. We reached a stage which everyone was longing for, although the merger should not be restricted to Ahrar, Fatah al-Sham, al-Zengi, Jaysh al-Sunna, Liwa al-Haqq, Hizb al-Islami al-Turkistani [The Turkistan Islamic Party] and Ajnad al-Sham. We must open the door for everyone and call upon seven other factions from FSA to also merge.
So the merger was a fact and all parties signed; the merger was complete as Ahrar, Fatah al-Sham, al-Zengi and all others signed. When they signed, they left, and the merger was planned to be announced after a day or two. The news spread among the people and everyone was happy. We were happy to witness this day we longed for so much—the unity of the Muslims. But when Ahrar called upon the remaining factions to join the merger, they said that they wanted to merge with Ahrar beforehand, so they wanted to start new talks and agreements about it. Ahrar said that we were in a very difficult position in Syria now and we cannot turn back to the past and start all over again and talk about what name we should give the new entity and how the Shura Council would look and so on. Turning back was difficult. Add to this that the factions also promised that if Ahrar and Fatah al-Sham would unite then they will join them. Eventually the remaining factions refused to enter in this merger. So we said the brothers who agreed on the merger should unite and the rest will follow, as these groups consisted of a large portion in the arena, more than one third; all the groups from Jaysh al-Fatah, plus additional factions.
But, unfortunately, the merger was delayed, and after that the brothers in Ahrar refused to go ahead with the merger. So the scholars published the verdict that the factions should complete the merger. But the factions did not, so we reached this sad situation, as the merger got delayed. We say it with sorrow: yes the merger failed. Yes, but there is hope as the brothers said that if we were to pick up the merger talks again we will not return to the beginning and we will start from where we left off and signed. Here, I want to call upon Ahrar al-Sham, the blessed factions which sacrificed thousands of martyrs, and sacrificed in service of the Syrian people, and the people of Syria love them. I call upon them to go ahead with the merger and make the hurt Syrian people, who have tasted all kinds of suffering, happy. The rest of the arena will automatically follow with the permission of Allah, like the brothers have agreed upon.
If Idlib is attacked today while we are divided, and I say this so that history records it, we will bite on our fingers because we did not go ahead with the merger, and you will remember what I am saying to you! If Idlib is attacked, may Allah prevent it, or any other territory, and the factions would then say, “Let us merge,” then the merge will not benefit them anymore at that moment. Who will then carry responsibility for the blood that is spilled and the corpses? Who carries responsibility for the destruction of the area? In Aleppo, they merged, but when?! When it was too late! They made Abu al-Abed Ashidaa the general leader, and this virtuous man wrote, “To those outside the besieged city of Aleppo; merge now before you will merge like us when it is of no benefit anymore.” And I repeat this now, merge and rely upon Allah the Almighty. This is the demand of the people today. Ask the people on the street what they are demanding. Ask those who you defend and for whom you fight what they want. People are tired of the numerous checkpoints of all the different factions. People are tired of the different courts by different factions. People are tired of the lack of security. People are tired of the division. We are losing the popular support.
We have lost many youths who left jihad because of the division. Thousands of youths today in Turkey say, “Unite, and we will join”. Not hundreds but thousands. They are asking, “Who should I join?” This is a big responsibility in front of Allah which we have in our hands. This does not even need a verdict by the people of knowledge. The merger does not need a verdict from us. So why did we publish the verdict? It was not because we wanted to support this or that side, it is so that if the merger fails people cannot say, “Where were the scholars?” (Al-Muhaysini bursts into tears as he says:) Oh people of Syria! Oh Allah, did we convey? Oh Allah, let the stones and trees of Syria, its skies, waters, people, and martyrs be witness that we have taken our responsibility and published the verdicts that are obliged upon us.
This is our effort, and I say that it is obligatory for Ahrar al-Sham to go ahead with the merger. And not only them but also the remaining factions like FSA, our brothers and our beloved. We have to go ahead with it, as this proposition that is on the table right now is good and very realistic. It is not the best thing possible but it is close to it and the most realistic.
People cannot say, “Where are the scholars?” We have declared our innocence in front of Allah. If the people ask where are the scholars, we will say we have published this verdict. And the scholars that published it are not from this or that faction, these scholars are known in the area for their knowledge and independence. Shaykh Abdul Razzaq al-Mahdi, Shaykh Abu Harith al-Masri, Shaykh Ibrahim Shashu, Shaykh Annas Arout, Shaykh Abu Husayn, Shaykh Abu Mariyah al-Qahtani [real name: Maysar al-Jiburi], Dr. Mudhar, Shaykh Muslah al-Alyani [sometimes given as Muslih al-Ulyani], Shaykh Abu Muhammad al-Sadeq, Shaykh Abu Fatah al-Farghali, and others which I did not mention, but a total of fourteen major scholars signed this verdict. And said that the merger today is obligatory and refraining from this is a sin.1
May those who are pleased be pleased and those who are angry be angry, the important thing is that Allah the Lord of the Worlds is pleased. History and generations will remember that these fourteen scholars said and gave a verdict over that which Allah gave them responsibility. And a hundred from the students of knowledge have also published the verdict to go ahead with the merger. Allah obliged us to make the truth clear, and we did. Other scholars who have another opinion, we respect them and they are our scholars, they are our beloved, but this what he we have presented to declare our innocence in front of Allah. We hope that Ahrar will consider it and go ahead with the merger with the other factions, and may Allah unite the Muslims in Syria.
 The list demonstrates that while the clerics might not be technically—or publicly—part of any one faction, many are in practice, like al-Muhaysini himself, al-Qaeda’s men. Abdul Razzaq al-Mahdi is a member of Ahrar al-Sham and Abu Harith al-Masri is “independent”; both are clearly pro-al-Qaeda. Maysar al-Jiburi was al-Shara’s deputy until his demotion in 2014. Currently involved in various shady games in northern Syria to covertly spread al-Qaeda’s influence, Maysar has been somewhat brought back into al-Shara’s fold. Abu Muhammad al-Sadeq is the former chief shar’i of Ahrar al-Sham and a known hardliner close to al-Qaeda.