On December 10, a group of influential figures within the Islamist group known as Ahrar al-Sham announced the creation of a new faction within the movement, to be known as Jaish al-Ahrar. The move, which threatens to escalate into a full-scale rift, caps a long internal power struggle between a Turkey-backed faction of relatively pragmatic Ahrar al-Sham members and hardline rivals who seek to take the group into the orbit of international Salafi-jihadism.
A split in Ahrar al-Sham that sheds its jihadi faction has long been understood to be the only realistic way of marginalizing the Al-Qaeda-linked jihadis of Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra), with whom Ahrar al-Sham has a close battlefield alliance. But that’s a risky gamble. A messy split could also weaken the more pragmatic Islamist trends within Syria's insurgency and empower the jihadis, by shredding the only force able to balance Jabhat Fatah al-Sham’s strength in areas such as Idlib.
Indeed, much is at stake and, whether Ahrar al-Sham manages to contain the crisis or not, it could have serious consequences for Syria’s faltering insurgency.
SURVIVAL THROUGH COLLECTIVE LEADERSHIP
Unlike many other Syrian rebel groups, Ahrar al-Sham has always placed great emphasis on maintaining a collective leadership through its Shoura Council and other institutions. It was never commanded by populist firebrands such as the late Zahran Alloush, who headed the Islam Army from 2011 until his death in 2015. Rather, its leaders have tended to be publicity-shy figures whose main job has been to reconcile the various views expressed in the Shoura Council.
This was particularly true after the passing of Ahrar al-Sham’s first leader Hassan Abboud, who was killed alongside most of the founding leadership in a mysterious explosion in September 2014. Losing so many leaders at once should have been a killing blow, but to general surprise Ahrar al-Sham survived. Within hours of his death, Abboud was replaced by Hashem al-Sheikh, who then left after serving out his one-year mandate. Mohannad al-Masri assumed the mantle in 2015 and held office for another year. This November, Masri was in turn replaced by Ali al-Omar, who became the third leader of Ahrar al-Sham in as many years.
Part of the explanation for Ahrar al-Sham’s survival after the September 2014 disaster was an immediate influx of foreign support from Turkey and Qatar, but there were internal reasons as well. As described by the Syrian researcher Ahmed Aba-Zeid, the group reacted to the loss of its founders by reemphasizing collective leadership while also centralizing control over local factions. It was a successful strategy, but it came at the cost of institutionalizing ideological rivalries inside the group, while the top-level leadership would remain weak and transient.
The internal friction that had been apparent even before the death of Abboud grew exponentially in 2014 and 2015, not least because Turkey sought to push the group in a more pragmatic direction. Ahrar al-Sham now seemed to freeze every time the situation called for a clear decision about its political course. Would it stand with its jihadi comrades-in-arms or with the mainstream opposition? For example, despite intense Turkish pressure, the group failed to take a clear position on whether to support a peace process with President Bashar al-Assad’s government in 2015 and 2016.
HARDLINERS VS. PRAGMATISTS
Very roughly speaking, a polarization between two rival camps has emerged inside Ahrar al-Sham, though the group’s internal politics is far more complex than a simple two-way split.
On the one side there is a more hardline, hawkish faction influenced by Salafi-jihadism. Its members oppose what they view as an over-reliance on Turkey and the Western-backed opposition, against which they raise doctrinaire religious arguments as well as political objections of the slippery-slope variety. This faction includes many members who seek a merger between Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat Fatah al-Sham. Among the leading lights of the hardline faction is Ahrar al-Sham’s former leader Hashem al-Sheikh, its military strongman in northern Syria, Abu Saleh Tahhan, and its former religious chief Abu Mohammed al-Sadeq.
On the other side stands a bloc of members who seek close collaboration with Turkey and want to limit friction with the West and its clients in Syria. In ideological terms, its members are associated with the shift away from Salafi-jihadi puritanism toward a more politically pragmatic Islamist militancy. While they laud Jabhat Fatah al-Sham’s role on the battlefield and do not oppose the calls for unity in public, they tend to be uneasy about the political optics of an alliance with a proscribed terrorist group. Some in this group, which is occasionally referred to as the “revolutionary,” or thawri, tendency, will openly fly the tricolor flag favored by the Free Syrian Army. In this bloc, we find figures such as the foreign relations official Labib al-Nahhas, his brother Kinan al-Nahhas, and reportedly also Mohannad al-Masri, who was until recently Ahrar al-Sham’s general commander.
Around the time of the leadership election last November, Tahhan and other hardliners reportedly endorsed Hashem al-Sheikh’s bid for a second term, while more dovish members rallied behind Kinan al-Nahhas. When the hardliners realized that they could not muster enough internal support, they threatened to wreck the group by defecting. To show that they were serious, around a third of the Shoura Council suspended its membership, including Sheikh, Tahhan, and Abu Mohammed al-Sadeq.
This seems to have been what prompted the election of Ali al-Omar, ostensibly as a compromise candidate. Opinions differ over how close he is to the pragmatic camp, with some describing him as having shifted from a more hardline and jihadi-friendly position in the past. But all sources seem to agree that Ali al-Omar enjoys the support of Ankara, and, according to Charles Lister of the Middle East Institute, who spoke to me in an online interview, his appointment has been “perceived as more or less a continuation of the Turkish proxy posture.”
Ali al-Omar’s primary mission is to hold Ahrar al-Sham together. In his December 1 inaugural speech, he made sure to stress the need to unite with other factions, as a sop to the Jabhat Fatah al-Sham-friendly hardliners. But this did not calm tensions. Hashem al-Sheikh is said to have refused to pledge allegiance to the new leader and Abu Mohammed al-Sadeq is accused of having engineered a challenge to the Shoura Council behind the scenes, possibly with encouragement from Jabhat Fatah al-Sham.
“As Aleppo falls and Idlib assumes a status of preeminent importance, what we’re seeing right now is the two key players in that arena—Jabhat Fatah al-Sham and Ahrar al-Sham—positioning themselves in what they perceive as a more sustainable position for survival,” Lister observed. “Ahrar al-Sham’s new leadership favors a position of revolutionary collaboration with the Free Syrian Army, while Hashem al-Sheikh’s minority wing seems more inclined to push for a merger with Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, for the sake of a grand Islamic project.”
THE CREATION OF JAISH AL-AHRAR
On December 10, the outvoted hawks made their move. In the name of several Ahrar al-Sham subfactions, some of which were allegedly already drifting into the arms of Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, they announced the creation of an armed unit called Jaish al-Ahrar. They refused to call this a split or a defection and have insisted that Jaish al-Ahrar will remain part of Ahrar al-Sham, being “an arrow in the movement’s quiver,” as Hashem al-Sheikh put it. In the hardliners’ telling, this was a move for greater unity and a demonstration of their own ability to keep the movement from disintegrating. But to their rivals, the creation of Jaish al-Ahrar was a brazen attempt to overrule a majority vote—even a coup.
Indeed, one is tempted to think of Sheikh’s declaration as the Syrian Islamist version of a pronunciamento, the classical “soft coup” of Latin American politics. This typically involves a group of dissident officers making known their opposition to the government and then waiting for the rest of the military to rally to their side. If they succeed, resistance will soon seem futile and they can seize the reins of government without having had to fire a shot.
In this case, however, Hashem al-Sheikh and his allies are known to be acting from a minority position. Unless the Jaish al-Ahrar dissidents can demonstrate that they are much stronger on the ground than in the Shoura Council, it seems likely that their bid for power will fizzle out and evolve into a mutually damaging stalemate. Such a situation would either have to be resolved through a full split—at which point the Jaish al-Ahrar leaders would decamp to join Jabhat Fatah al-Sham as members, allies, or proxies—or through negotiations, in which they could leverage the threat of defection to secure more influence inside Ahrar al-Sham.
Jabhat Fatah al-Sham may stand to gain from both eventualities. Either Ahrar al-Sham splits to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham’s benefit, reinforcing the jihadis’ position as the single-strongest rebel group in Syria; or their allies among the Ahrar al-Sham hardliners secure better terms within an organization that seemed at risk of slipping under full Turkish control.
However, for the Syrian insurgency as a whole, the declaration of Jaish al-Ahrar is bad news. With Assad’s forces having nearly completed their takeover of eastern Aleppo, and advancing quickly in the East Ghouta near Damascus, this poorly timed round of internal score-settling between Ahrar al-Sham’s competing camps could prove very costly.