U.S. struggling over what to do with Syrian rebels once tied to al Qaida

An Ahrar al Sham fighter manned an anti-aircraft gun in a photo taken in August 2012.
An Ahrar al Sham fighter manned an anti-aircraft gun in a photo taken in August 2012. Tribune Content Agency

Last July, an ultraconservative Islamist rebel group made a splash by publicly offering to work with Western powers to resolve the Syrian civil war and build “a moderate future,” a surprising overture from a force that regularly fights alongside al Qaida loyalists.

But the very next month, the same rebel group eulogized Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban chief who sheltered Osama bin Laden before and after the 9/11 attacks, as a steadfast warrior who embodied “the true meanings of jihad and sincerity.”

The mixed messaging from Ahrar al Sham poses a serious dilemma for the Obama administration and its allies as they determine which rebel militias are acceptable partners in a revived diplomatic effort to resolve the Syrian conflict.

Ahrar al Sham is one of Syria’s largest and most effective rebel forces, and its involvement in – or exclusion from – peace negotiations could determine the viability of any settlement hatched from a new series of negotiations in Vienna. The group is too important to exclude from talks on the country’s future, say officials and analysts who monitor the conflict.

But that’s a tough reality for U.S. diplomats, who are keenly aware that many of Ahrar’s members still cling to a hard-line ideology that’s caused Secretary of State John Kerry to liken the group to the Islamic State, al Qaida’s Nusra Front and Hamas – all designated terrorist organizations. A seemingly ascendant reformist faction within the group offers only slight encouragement, they say.

Faysal Itani, a Syria specialist with the Washington-based Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, says Ahrar al Sham itself is riven by debate over what direction to go.

“Some within the party argue that the group would benefit from outreach to the West, just as some in the West argue that engagement with Ahrar al Sham would be wise,” he said. “At the end of the day, however, they are militant Salafis,” a description that places Ahrar at the conservative end of Muslims.

But Itani said that conclusion may not disqualify Ahrar from acceptance at peace talks. “The real question is whether we can live with them in Syria,” he said. “The answer seems to be, ‘Probably, and we don’t seem to have much choice.’ ”

One small sign that the Obama administration is coming around to that idea is that the group is among opposition blocs scheduled to meet with Michael Ratney, the U.S. special envoy for Syria, in Turkey on Saturday. State Department officials wouldn’t discuss the meeting beyond confirming that Ratney is expected to meet “a broad range” of opposition representatives in Istanbul.

It was unclear whether Ahrar delegates had accepted the invitation, even though reformists within the group have courted conversations with U.S. officials.

Those favoring including Ahrar in peace talks pitch the group as a more tolerant, locally focused force than al Qaida’s Nusra Front, also known as Jabhat al Nusra. They point to Ahrar’s role in negotiating two local cease-fires with Iranian-backed forces in Syria as evidence of a pragmatic streak, though the deals were complicated and had mixed results.

Some within the party argue that the group would benefit from outreach to the West, just as some in the West argue that engagement with Ahrar al Sham would be wise.

Faysal Itani, of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East

Ahrar’s militiamen – estimates of its strength range from 7,000 to the 27,000 the group itself claims – are considered skilled, disciplined and well equipped. In several strategic locations, they are the force preventing a rout of the U.S.-backed rebels by Nusra Front or the Islamic State. They also have boosters in U.S.-friendly Qatar and Turkey, a NATO ally.

That gives them leverage that their leaders are beginning to use.

“They’ve begun to understand their centrality to the opposition cause,” said a Turkey-based analyst who studies Ahrar al Sham for a Western nonprofit and who spoke only on the condition of anonymity for security reasons. “They’ve begun to realize that, ‘Actually, without us, the revolutionary cause is lost. We’re the only reason a group like Nusra Front hasn’t taken over all of Aleppo and Idlib.’ They’re holding the line from that end of the spectrum.”

A State Department official, speaking only anonymously as per diplomatic protocol, said there’s been no change in the U.S. stance toward Ahrar and wouldn’t discuss any of the group’s recent overtures. He stressed that the United States has neither worked with nor provided assistance to Ahrar and that even though the group is not a U.S.-designated terrorist organization, “we continue to have concerns with regard to the group’s relations with extremist organizations.”

Ahrar al Sham’s Labib Nahhas objected to that sort of formulation in an opinion column published in The Washington Post in which he proclaimed Ahrar to be in the mainstream of the rebel movement and said the group had been falsely accused of having links to al Qaida. He said the United States was using the “moderate” label in “such a narrow and arbitrary fashion that it excludes the bulk of the mainstream opposition.”

But Ahrar al Sham’s links to al Qaida are not fantasy. One of its top leaders, the late Abu Khaled al Suri, acknowledged his link to al Qaida in an Internet posting in 2014, and many analysts considered him al Qaida chief Ayman al Zawahiri’s representative in Syria before his murder in February 2014. Itani, of the Atlantic Council, said the exact nature of the group’s relationship with al Qaida is unclear but it’s “enough to cause the State Department concern.”

While Ahrar al Sham isn’t seeking to set up an Islamic state across national borders or declaring its rivals infidels worthy of death, “It is still, however, a militant Islamist group,” Itani said. “It is most certainly not ‘moderate’ in the sense that we understand it,” even though “it’s different from al Qaida.”

They’ve begun to realize that, ‘Actually, without us, the revolutionary cause is lost. We’re the only reason a group like Nusra Front hasn’t taken over all of Aleppo and Idlib.’

An analyst based in Turkey

Ahrar al Sham commanders don’t deny that, like several other rebel groups, it coordinates with al Qaida’s Nusra Front on joint operations on the battlefield. But they’ve also clashed with their Islamist brethren.

Robert Ford, the former U.S. ambassador to Syria, and his Middle East Institute colleague Ali El Yassir co-wrote an essay in July encouraging U.S. dialogue with Ahrar, arguing that it’s time for the Obama administration to give up the hope for “an opposition white knight to appear” and that U.S. influence is weakened by the refusal to talk to Ahrar.

In the piece, Ford and El Yassir noted instances of discord between Ahrar and Nusra, chiefly over the role of gunmen in governing captured territories, the killings of Syrian minority civilians and Nusra’s affiliation with al Qaida.

But Ahrar also has been guilty of transgressions, they noted, such as the killing in 2013 of civilians from President Bashar Assad’s Alawite religious sect and the desecration of Christian sites in 2014.

This year, Ford and El Yassir wrote, Ahrar “issued a video showing its fighters visiting priests in April 2015 to reassure Christians of their safety,” but the checkered record leaves U.S.-backed rebels wary, though they’ll work with Ahrar at times in the absence of a better alternative.

“They think Ahrar al Sham plays a lot of politics and is too close to Jabhat al Nusra for their own taste,” said Sinan Hatahet, Syria researcher for the Istanbul-based think tank Omran for Strategic Studies. “At the same time, they understand that if Ahrar al Sham falls, if it’s classified as a terrorist group or anything else bad happens to it, Jabhat al Nusra will benefit. So what they’re doing is trying to help the moderates within Ahrar al Sham take over.”

Analysts agree that one catalyst for the push by more moderate forces to reform Ahrar was a mysterious explosion in September 2014 that wiped out Ahrar’s senior leadership as they gathered for a high-level meeting. The reform-minded members of Ahrar’s political bureau, dismissed by one analyst as a weak “front office” before the blast, seized the chance to assert themselves and steer the group in a new direction.

In the past year, the group has made changes to its image and leadership and, in one of the new authorities’ boldest moves, dismissed on Nov. 17 the group’s in-house religious adviser, who had to sign off on all statements and had accumulated enormous power. He was replaced by a religious guidance committee in a move analysts said was designed to prevent future embarrassments such as the condolence note to the Taliban.

Analysts of the group emphasize, however, that it’s too early to tell if such gestures indicate a real transformation of Ahrar or whether the struggle might end up fracturing the group along ideological lines – a development that would bring its own set of dangers.

“For an Islamist in Syria, if you’re not going to join Nusra Front or Daesh, you’re going to join Ahrar al Sham,” said the Turkey-based Ahrar researcher for a Western organization, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State. “It’s considered the most homegrown option, the safer option, and also the option that has some chance to survive. There might be a future for this group.”

Hannah Allam: 202-383-6186, @HannahAllam