On March 22, 2015, two of Syria’s most prominent Islamist rebel groups announced that they merged their forces in a statement read on video by the Ahrar al-Sham leader, Hashem al-Sheikh:
We bring the good tidings to our people in our beloved al-Sham that two of the revolution’s factions have united: the Ahrar al-Sham Islamic Movement and the Suqour al-Sham Brigades. It is a complete merger under the name of the Ahrar al-Sham Islamic Movement, while the central force of the new formation will be named the Suqour al-Sham Battalions. We take this occasion to reaffirm our commitment to the path of our revolution, to reaffirm that we are working to overthrow the criminal regime and all of its symbols and pillars, and to reaffirm that we refuse any bartering with the blood of our righteous martyrs. We call on all factions in al-Sham to cling together and unify in order to end our people’s suffering and to build a Syria of justice and of good deeds.
(Al-Sham is an Arabic term that can mean the Levant, Damascus, or Syria.)
Ahrar al-Sham and Suqour al-Sham are among the oldest and best-established armed groups in the Syrian conflict. Both of them are firmly on the Islamist side of the insurgency, albeit distinct from the al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front and openly hostile to its even more extreme splinter faction, the self-proclaimed Islamic State.
Suqour al-Sham is based in the Jabal al-Zawiya region of Idlib, where it was created by Ahmed Issa al-Sheikh, better known as Abu Issa. While the group has always been Islamist, its ideological orientation has seemingly hardened during the course of the uprising.
One of the most powerful Islamist factions in the first two years of the uprising, Suqour al-Sham began to decline in late 2013 and early 2014, when some of its most powerful leaders, former members, and local allies defected to the Islamic State and others were killed in the ensuing infighting.
The larger and more hard-line faction Ahrar al-Sham also seemed to be on the verge of disaster when on September 9, 2014, dozens of its leaders were wiped out in a mysterious explosion. The dead included Ahrar al-Sham’s founder and emir, Hassan Abboud, as well as several of the group’s top religious officials, military commanders, and founding leaders.
However, half a year later, it turns out that Ahrar al-Sham has coped remarkably well. This would seem to demonstrate a fairly impressive level of internal discipline and institutionalization, but there has also been talk of additional donations of funds and arms from backers in Turkey and Qatar, intended to help the group manage its losses and retain the allegiance of its myriad subfactions. (And perhaps the support was to shore up Ahrar al-Sham as a counterbalance against the increasingly aggressive Nusra Front.)
The March 22 statement presents the unification as creating a “new formation,” but it isn’t difficult to see that this really represents Ahrar al-Sham swallowing up its smaller cousin. Not only is the disparity in size considerable. The “new” group will also retain Ahrar al-Sham’s name and be led by Hashem al-Sheikh, while Abu Issa (now referred to as “the former Suqour al-Sham leader”) is reduced to a deputy position responsible for political affairs.
After four years of frustrating divisions in Syrian rebel ranks, many opposition members have applauded Abu Issa’s move as a personal sacrifice for the greater good. “Despite their size and strength, Suqour are giving up their name for the sake of the revolution and for unification,” wrote Ahmad Abazed, a prolific commentator on Syrian Islamist politics who was clearly pleased with the news. He continued: “This is a lesson for smaller factions and for everyone else.”
Ahrar al-Sham’s Expansion Strategy
Indeed, it is. More specifically, the lesson is that while mergers between equally matched groups tend to fail because one powerful leader rarely wants to submit to another, they can work beautifully when small factions melt into bigger ones—adding to the strength of the core group without disrupting its overall structure or abruptly changing its politics.
Ahrar al-Sham has proven more successful than any other faction at this game, taking a slow-and-steady approach to unity that tends to begin by forming looser collaborative arrangements. One leading member of Ahrar al-Sham, Abu Mustafa, has even drawn comparisons to the European Union: “What did Europe do after the destruction of Germany in order to return her as part of the European fabric: first fragmentation, then dialogue, then neighborliness, then coexistence, then coordination, then unification.”
The first example came in late 2012, when the Ahrar al-Sham Battalions formed the Syrian Islamic Front (SIF) together with ten much smaller groups. After a period of internal harmonization, the smaller member factions began to merge with each other and later with Ahrar al-Sham, which then restyled itself the Ahrar al-Sham Islamic Movement—the name it still uses.
All in all, the SIF experiment led to seven new factions joining the Ahrar al-Sham structure: the Islamic Vanguard Group (from Idlib); the Islamic Dawn Movement (from Aleppo); the Fighting Faith Battalions, the Suqour al-Islam Battalions, the Special Assignments Companies, Hamza bin Abdul-Muttalab Battalions (all from the wider Damascus-Ghouta-Qalamoun region); and the Moussaab bin Omeir Battalion (Hashem al-Sheikh’s old group, which had been active in his hometown of Maskana, east of Aleppo, before it was taken over by the Islamic State).
Ahrar al-Sham and the Islamic Front
A year later, Ahrar al-Sham co-created a new alliance simply called the Islamic Front with five other factions: Suqour al-Sham, the Tawhid Brigade of Aleppo, the Islam Army of Damascus, the Haq Brigade of Homs, and a small ethnic faction called the Kurdish Islamic Front (KIF).
For a while, this was Syria’s single-largest rebel body, but it never managed to unify its ranks. Many of the problems seemed to stem from the conflicting ambitions of the two biggest factions, Ahrar al-Sham and the Army of Islam. After these internal problems were aggravated by international disputes and the infighting with the so-called Islamic State that began in early 2014, the Islamic Front drifted apart. Today it seems virtually defunct, although Ahrar al-Sham, especially, continues to operate under the Islamic Front name.
The “big three” of the Islamic Front member groups—that is, Ahrar al-Sham, the Tawhid Brigade, and the Army of Islam—have all remained separate entities. The Tawhid Brigade seems to have stayed close to Ahrar al-Sham, with both of them having gone through a complicated series of crisscrossing mergers in the Aleppo region (which remains a world apart in rebel politics). The Army of Islam, by contrast, has played its own game and even clashed on occasion with Ahrar al-Sham. At one point in July 2014, the Army of Islam even announced that it had absorbed Suqour al-Sham, although this was quickly forgotten.
Two of the the remaining Islamic Front factions were mopped up by Ahrar al-Sham. The KIF was tiny and may have been in thrall to Ahrar al-Sham from the beginning. The Haq Brigade was always smaller than the rest of the Islamic Front members and had worked with Ahrar al-Sham ever since the SIF days in 2012–2013. It lost all independent relevance in spring 2014 when the Syrian government seized its home areas in Homs. Consequently, both of these groups merged into the Ahrar al-Sham framework in December 2014.
Now Suqour al-Sham seems set to follow in their footsteps, with Abu Issa having gracefully accepted his demotion to deputy leader and writing that this does not entitle him to any praise or thanks, since “I am years late in fulfilling a duty and I ask God for forgiveness.”
Of course, only time will tell whether this attitude will last or whether Ahrar al-Sham and Suqour al-Sham will split again. Certainly, most Syrian rebel unity projects tend to fail—but as Syria analyst Sam Heller quipped last year, “the most successful, lasting approach to rebel unification so far has basically been ‘Ahrar al-Sham absorbs you.’” And that’s exactly what seems to have happened now.
UPDATE, MARCH 25: A reader alerted me to the fact that I had accidentally omitted the Ansar al-Sham Battalions, an Islamist militant group operating mainly in the northern regions of Latakia and western Idlib, from the list of founding members of the now-disintegrating Islamic Front. Ansar al-Sham remains an independent organization and although it maintains close ties to Ahrar al-Sham and other rebel groups, it has not been absorbed by any larger faction at the time of writing. For more on Ansar al-Sham, read this excellent introduction by Tam Hussein, who traveled with the group and wrote about his experiences for Syria in Crisis. — Aron Lund