The Ahrar al-Sham Islamic Movement has long been one of the most important rebel factions in Syria. A Sunni Islamist group, it began to take shape in the Hama and Idlib Provinces in 2011. It advocated a strongly Islamist line, seeking religious rule in Syria, but was open to collaboration with rebels on all sides of the political spectrum.
In November 2013, Ahrar al-Sham co-created the Islamic Front. Here, too, Ahrar al-Sham has played a leading role. However, by 2014, the group seemed to face financial and other difficulties. In late 2013 and early 2014, the rise of the extremist jihadi faction known as the Islamic State led to severe internecine warfare among the guerrilla groups in northern Syria. After some initial hesitation, Ahrar al-Sham assumed a leading role in the anti-Islamic State coalition of rebels, but suffered some defections and severe casualties at the hands of the extremists. Abu Khalid al-Suri, a prominent leader of Ahrar al-Sham known for his controversial ties to the al-Qaeda leadership, was killed in this period.
On September 9, 2014, a mysterious explosion at a top-level Ahrar al-Sham meeting near Ram Hamdan killed most of the group’s leadership. Among the dead was the group’s founder and emir Hassan Abboud, better known as Abu Abdullah al-Hamawi. He has since been succeeded by Hashem al-Sheikh, alias Abu Jaber al-Maskani, but despite a seemingly smooth succession, it remains to be seen how well the group can cope with the loss of so many founding members and leaders.
Now, a confused situation reigns in Ahrar al-Sham’s core areas of Idlib and Hama, where the Nusra Front—an al-Qaeda-aligned faction—has fought and decimated the Syria Revolutionaries’ Front, or SRF, which is supported by Saudi Arabia and the United States. The Nusra Front leader, Abu Mohammad al-Golani, claims that certain Ahrar al-Sham subfactions have aided his troops against the SRF.
In the middle of this crisis, on September 22, U.S. airstrikes hit several Nusra Front camps in the Idlib region. Seemingly as a part of these attacks, an Ahrar al-Sham headquarters near the Bab al-Hawa border crossing—a key logistics hub for the rebels—was struck with missiles and razed to the ground. Confusion reigns as to the source and cause of this attack because the United States claims to have targeted only anti-Western al-Qaeda-aligned targets.
Ahrar al-Sham has long been seen as one of the “swing voters” of the Syrian insurgency, and it may turn out to be pivotal in the current struggle for northwestern Syria. To seek some clarity on these matters, Syria in Crisis has interviewed Mohammed Talal Bazerbashi, also known as Abu Abderrahman al-Souri. A founder of Ahrar al-Sham in 2011, he remains a high-ranking member of its leadership today and he has kindly agreed to answer some questions on Ahrar al-Sham and its views on recent events.
How would you define Ahrar al-Sham as a group?
We are an independent Islamic popular revolutionary movement that reflects the aspirations of the Syrian people seeking to gain freedom and dignity.
What happened to your headquarters in Bab al-Hawa? Were there any losses? In your view, why did they bomb the headquarters?
What happened was that one of Ahrar al-Sham’s headquarters was bombed. There were human as well as material losses, and the headquarters was destroyed in a way that no other headquarters had been destroyed before it. As you know, two people were martyred. We consider this an unjustifiable and inexplicably hostile act, and we see it as an attempt to abort the revolution of our steadfast people while ignoring the true criminal, which is the Assad regime.
The United States says that it only attacked what it refers to as the Khorasan Group, which is connected to al-Qaeda and the Nusra Front. What’s your response to that?
The U.S. assertions are unclear. There are signs that the coalition is the party we should point the finger to. Consider the way the bombing took place, the complete destruction of the headquarters, and the way the rockets struck one after the other. These are all signs that point to the possibility of this being the coalition’s work.
What is your view of the international intervention in Syria?
The international intervention in Syria is a transgression against the will of the people and an attempt to impose an American vision on the Syrian people. Particularly when we consider that the Bashar al-Assad regime has been committing the worst of crimes for four years, yet the world did not lift a finger to stop it.
When they did decide to intervene, Assad was spared. Under the pretext of hitting the Islamic State, popular revolutionary factions that represent the pulse of the Syrian street were hit—factions that the Syrians consider to be a force defending them against the crimes of both Assad and the Islamic State....
Do you consider the United States an enemy of yours?
Our enemy is Bashar al-Assad and his criminal regime. And anyone who supports this regime or who struggles to preserve its heavy burden upon the Syrians, instead of standing with them as they to seek liberate themselves from oppression and dictatorship, he is the enemy of our people.
What is Ahrar al-Sham’s position on the infighting between the Nusra Front and the Syria Revolutionaries’ Front in Idlib? You have presented a reconciliation plan, yet some member factions of yours have participated in the fighting against the Syria Revolutionaries’ Front. Isn’t this a contradiction?
We have always considered those revolutionary factions that defend our suffering people to be partners on the path toward our goal, which is to overthrow Assad’s regime and to realize the Syrians’ dream of gaining their freedom and dignity....
As for whether there is a contradiction due to the fact that some of our members took part in the fighting—no, we do not see this as a contradiction. It was a case of individual acts due to the rashness of some of the sons of Ahrar al-Sham. Those who participated without the knowledge of the leadership will be held accountable. Their participation does not necessarily represent the position of the leadership. We have now addressed the confusion and clarified the general view to those who intervened in this affair. Our decision is to remain neutral and seek a settlement.
What is the material, moral, political, and military situation like for Ahrar al-Sham now, after the September incident that killed most of your leaders? Can Ahrar al-Sham remain a strong and cohesive movement after such a disaster?
No doubt, this was a momentous event. Losing most of the leadership was a cruel blow to the sons of Ahrar al-Sham. However, the movement has a structure and it is not based on individuals, but rather on a shared inclination and a common purpose; and it is a popular revolutionary movement. These things have ensured cohesion and enabled the movement to carry on despite this violent shock.
What was the cause of this incident? Have your investigations reached a result?
The investigation is still ongoing. We will not announce the results yet, since we want to preserve the proceedings and secrecy of the investigation.