28 August 2015

Why Won’t the U.S. Work With the Most Powerful Rebel Group in Syria, Ahrar al-Sham

Ben Hubbard
August 25, 2015

Ahrar al-Sham, Rebel Force in Syria’s ‘Gray Zone,’ Poses Challenge to U.S.

ANTAKYA, Turkey — A powerful rebel group with thousands of fighters, political clout and close ties to key regional powers has emerged as the most powerful opposition force in Syria in recent months. It has vowed to fight the Islamic State and called for engagement with the West.

But despite a long struggle by the United States to find a viable opposition in Syria to counter President Bashar al-Assad and fight the Islamic State, the Obama administration has shown no interest in working with the group, Ahrar al-Sham, or the Free Men of Syria.

The problem for the United States is Ahrar al-Sham’s grounding in militant Islam — a concern that has also dogged previous efforts to find partners in Syria.

Confronted yet again with the reality in Syria — where the government, the Islamic State and an array of insurgents are fighting a complex civil war — some analysts and former United States officials say it is increasingly clear that to effectively challenge the Islamic State and influence the future of the country will require at least cautiously engaging with groups like Ahrar al-Sham.

“They are in a gray zone, but in a civil war if you are not willing to talk to factions in the gray zone, you’ll have precious few people to talk to,” said Robert S. Ford, a former United States ambassador to Syria now at the Middle East Institute.

“I do not advocate giving any material support to Ahrar, much less lethal material assistance, but given their prominence in the northern and central fronts, they will have a big role in any peace talks, so we should find a channel to begin talking to them,” he said.

Ahrar al-Sham cooperates with the Syrian affiliate of Al Qaeda and has welcomed former associates of Osama bin Laden. While its leaders say they seek to create a representative government, they avoid the word “democracy” and say Islam must guide any eventual state.

Similar questions about how much to engage with Islamist forces on issues of mutual interest have consumed American policy makers since the Arab Spring, and in the nuclear talks with Iran. Clear in the minds of American leaders is the history of those mujahedeen supported by the United States in Afghanistan in the 1980s who later formed Al Qaeda.

In Syria, the United States’ focus so far on working with groups it deems “moderate” has produced few strong allies. The opposition’s leadership in exile is largely irrelevant, Western-backed insurgent groups have collapsed, and a program to train and equip “moderate” rebels has faced significant setbacks.

While some European diplomats meet with Ahrar al-Sham’s political officers, the United States has remained aloof.

“They’re on a charm offensive,” a senior Obama administration official, who has been briefed on Syria policy, said of the group.

The official cited statements by the group, in which it says it is focused only on Syria and supports the rule of law. The group has also said that the rise of the Islamic State, also known as ISIL and ISIS, has made the United States more “pragmatic” about its regional allies.

But a range of American officials said they considered the group extremist and that its cooperation with the Nusra Front, the Syrian affiliate of Al Qaeda, remained a major hurdle.

“As long as they remain close to Nusra, I can’t see us working with them,” the administration official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss confidential assessments.

Ahrar al-Sham was formed through a merger of Sunni Islamist factions in northwestern Syria early in the uprising against Mr. Assad that started in 2011.

Its membership drew on Syrians who gave up on the protest movement, as well as Islamists released from prison as part of what many saw as Mr. Assad’s strategy to undermine secular activists. Some members had fought in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The group established its bona fides as an anti-Assad military force, but it has remained grounded in militant Sunni Islam. A recent promotional video quotes Abdullah Azzam, Bin Laden’s mentor in Afghanistan. And Hassan Aboud, the group’s first leader, has called for the establishment of an Islamic government in Syria.

“Democracy is people ruling each other based on their own judgments,” Mr. Aboud said in an interview with Al Jazeera in 2013. “We have a godly system made by God for his creation and his worshipers, and God charged us to construct it on Earth and to raise the word of God.”

“As Muslims, this is our right,” he added.

Last year, a mysterious blast targeted a meeting of Ahrar al-Sham’s leaders, killing Mr. Aboud and dozens of others and leading many to expect that the group would fade away. But its remaining members reorganized, giving it an institutional strength lacking in other groups, said Ahmed Qara Ali, the group’s spokesman.

It has since grown into Syria’s largest rebel group, with fighters across the country, offices for aid and political affairs and control of a border crossing with Turkey. It is a key member of the Army of Conquest, a powerful rebel alliance fighting the government in the northwest. This month, it represented the opposition in direct negotiations with Iran over the fate of three besieged communities.

Analysts and the group’s members say it differs substantially from the Nusra Front.

It is led by Syrians, has few foreign fighters and opposes the breakup of the country. It has not launched campaigns to impose strict religious mores and maintains good relations with other rebels. Its leaders have vowed to protect minorities, although some still call them derogatory names.

They have also pledged to fight the Islamic State, calling the self-declared caliphate a perversion of their religion.

“The Ahrar al-Sham movement is totally independent,” Mr. Qara Ali said. “It is a Syrian movement and it has no links, organizationally or ideologically, with any international organizations.”

The Syrian government considers the group, like all the rebels, terrorists bent on destroying the country. And many secular, antigovernment activists who have come to respect its organization worry about its long-term ambitions.

“We used to look for the best possible brigade, but now we have Islamist extremists and Ahrar, so we choose Ahrar,” said an activist from Idlib Province, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution.

Looking at the table in front of him, he said, “This glass is dirty, but the next glass is dirtier, so I’ll choose the first one.”

Syrian Islamists with ties to the group say its wartime evolution has left its members with a range of views that often clash.

Its leaders acknowledge close battlefield coordination with the Nusra Front, but its leader, Hashim al-Shaikh, has called Nusra’s affiliation with Al Qaeda bad for the uprising.

An early member was Abu Khalid al-Suri, a veteran jihadist close to Ayman al-Zawahri, the Al Qaeda leader. Mr. Suri was killed in a car bombing carried out by the Islamic State last year.

A more recent casualty was an Egyptian cleric who appeared in a video, released after his death, boasting that he had spent 17 years with Al Qaeda before a “vision” led him to join Ahrar al-Sham.

Other members have reached out to the West in a shift many see as driven by Turkey and Qatar, which have given the group political and financial support, according to American officials and regional diplomats.

Last month, Labib Al Nahhas, the group’s head of foreign and political relations, published op-eds in The Washington Post and The Daily Telegraph arguing that the group was part of Syria’s “mainstream opposition” and that the Islamic State could only be defeated by “a homegrown Sunni alternative.”

Calling American policy in Syria “an abject failure,” Mr. Nahhas wrote that the group was committed to dialogue and sought a representative government that would protect minorities while reflecting Syria’s Sunni majority.

“There needs to be a major role for religion and local custom in any political arrangement that emerges out of the debris of conflict, and it should be one that corresponds with the prevailing beliefs of the majority of Syrians,” he wrote.

The group’s critics suspected that was an indirect way of advancing Sunni Muslim dominance, while some of the group’s conservative members responded that the call was not clear enough.

Abu Mohammed al-Sadiq, a top cleric, wrote in an online response that any solution in Syria had to be determined by “our religion and our creed.” He said “jihad” would continue against Shiites and other Muslim minorities.

And this month, the group released a statement praising Mullah Muhammad Omar, the former leader of the Taliban, for “fighting the armies of invasion,” combining military force with politics and “harmonizing” with the ambitions of the Afghan people.

Sheikh Hassan Dgheim, a cleric from northern Syria close to the movement’s leaders, said in an interview that the group contained only an extremist minority.

The struggle between the group’s moderates and extremists is likely to be decided by how the conflict in Syria progresses and by how successfully the pragmatists can win external support for their cause.

“Violence elevates the military side,” Sheikh Dgheim said. “But a political solution would raise the politicians.”

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