war on the rocks

How Ahrar al-Sham Has Come to Define the Kaleidoscope of the Syrian Civil War

June 6, 2016

It is surely a sign of the bizarre circumstance in which we find ourselves today that “What exactly is Ahrar al-Sham?” has become a question of international political importance.

As the United States, Russia, and other members of the International Syrian Support Group make a new push to resolve Syria’s civil war, the debate over which armed opposition groups are outside the bounds of any settlement has proven controversial and divisive.

Much of this debate has centered on opposition faction and Islamist movement Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyyah (the Islamic Movement of the Freemen of al-Sham, shortened as Ahrar al-Sham) – whether Ahrar are “jihadists,” or how they might be linked with al-Qaeda. Just last month, the United States helped block a Russian effort in the U.N. Security Council to designate Ahrar al-Sham a terrorist organization.

Now, Ahrar al-Sham has itself weighed in with an hour-long, videotaped lecture by its deputy leader, Ali al-Omar (Abu Ammar), titled “The Ahrar al-Sham Islamic Movement’s Position Among the Islamist Trends.” Over the course of the lecture, al-Omar explains how Ahrar understands itself. He repeatedly delineates the distinctions between Ahrar and the Salafi-jihadist doctrine of al-Qaeda and the self-proclaimed Islamic State, even as he makes clear that Ahrar maintains a fundamentally militant and religious outlook.

In the May 29 video, al-Omar addresses Ahrar’s assembled commanders with a lecture he says is meant to put forward the movement’s positive vision, which he declares has become a model for others. Yet, he also makes clear he is equipping Ahrar’s members to defend the movement against its critics. He states:

Every member of this movement needs to know the movement’s story, the reasons why it was founded, and the foundation on which it was built, so he can be an impregnable barrier, able to defend this blessed movement against the attacks of those who toss around dubious claims.

But while al-Omar makes a reference to Ahrar al-Sham’s “secularist” critics late in the video, he is more focused on another set of critics: jihadists. Nearly the entire lecture, in fact, is meant to defend Ahrar’s membership against Salafi-jihadist critiques of Ahrar’s departures from militant orthodoxy, including its international diplomatic outreach to regional states and the West.

First, however, a note on nomenclature: I tend to define “Salafi-jihadism” and “jihadism” as Islamists and jihadists themselves do: a specific, exclusivist subset of Sunni Islamist militancy that includes al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, and some smaller factions. The movement’s intellectual basis is centered on a few key thinkers, including Jordanian-Palestinian theorists Abu Qatadah al-Filistini and Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, and is defined in terms of a single “manhaj”: a programmatic blueprint for applying religious doctrine. Salafi-jihadist groups are committed to unlimited global war on Crusader powers and the nations of disbelief, and they take a more expansive approach to declaring fellow Muslims as outside the faith and sanctioning their blood.

Somewhat confusingly, there is a broader “jihadist movement” beyond this Salafi-jihadist subculture. This movement includes Salafi-jihadists, but also encompasses Islamist groups that are committed to armed action but do not subscribe to Salafi-jihadism’s specific orthodoxy – such as Hamas and, as I argued last year, Ahrar al-Sham.

Al-Omar uses most of his lecture to resist the purism and elitism of Salafi-jihadism. For example, it is no coincidence that he stresses that Ahrar seeks advice from a broad set of Islamic scholars around the world, not from just a few theorists – that is, the narrow circle of thinkers to whom Salafi-jihadists defer.

Al-Omar actually argues that Ahrar is an entirely new school of Islamism, distinct not only from jihadism but also from other Islamist trends. Islamism, as he describes it, is comprised of four schools that emerged from the collapse of the Ottoman Caliphate: purely political Islamism, such as the Muslim Brotherhood; two variations on individual-level evangelism; and jihadism, which is committed to change through force of arms.

Ahrar al-Sham, he says, is a synthesis of the other four trends. Whereas the other schools each draw on one aspect of the Prophet Muhammad’s example, he says, Ahrar’s approach is holistic. What that means in practice is that Ahrar can engage in politics just as easily as it can wage war, depending on the circumstance. This is why he argues that Ahrar al-Sham’s members are “mujahideen” (holy warriors), not “jihadiyeen” (jihadists), because Ahrar refuses to be defined solely by military struggle. The movement, its members are keen to emphasize, covers an assortment of branch political offices, relief organizations, and service bodies.

Of course, the Ahrar leadership al-Omar is addressing already understands war. As a result, he spends more time defending Ahrar’s political engagement, which jihadists have sharply criticized and by which some of Ahrar’s rank and file may be unconvinced. He cites two instances from the Prophet Muhammad’s life, and from the Battle of the Trench specifically. When Muhammad was surrounded and outnumbered, he cut a deal with one enemy camp to neutralize them; in a second instance, he deployed a member of an enemy tribe who had secretly converted to Islam to sow dissension in enemy ranks. Al-Omar asks, “Is this not politics?”

Muhammad instructed his secret agent, “Khadhal ‘anna ma istata’t,” which roughly equates to, “Do what you can to divide or neutralize our enemies and their pressure on us.” Hassan Hassan has argued that the use of “khadhal” here means Ahrar’s “political engagement and flexibility are a ploy.”

Yet al-Omar – who, again, is addressing a conservative, maybe skeptical Ahrar base – seems not to be arguing that Ahrar is duping its political interlocutors, but rather that it is doing what it can to manage a disadvantageous political process:

We don’t think that most of the issues currently being floated politically can be implemented – they’re unrealistic, distant from the requirements of the Muslims who rose up in Syria and whose blood was shed, and distant from our own requirements and our ceiling. But we’re engaging in politics in terms of, ‘Khadhal ‘anna ma istata’t.”

… Ahrar al-Sham thinks all the means that God on High sanctioned for the defense of Muslims and securing their rights ought to be employed, but according to priorities, and the nature of the conflict and the battle. As I said before, I can’t say, “Come on, let’s remove [Syrian President] Bashar al-Assad politically.” It can’t be done. So that’s why what’s come to the fore now is the sound of the bullet – jihad on the path of God.

Al-Omar’s argument is framed in terms of Prophetic example and jihad, but most of his reservations about negotiations with the Syrian regime are shared across the Syrian opposition (and are arguably correct). What he is advocating here sounds a lot like normal politics and diplomacy.

He goes on to draw more key distinctions between Ahrar al-Sham and Salafi-jihadism, including Ahrar’s emphasis on populism and its big-tent pragmatism. He stresses that Ahrar has worked to cultivate al-hadinah al-sha’biyyah (“the popular incubator,” roughly equivalent to “hearts and minds”), in contrast to jihadists’ more narrow vanguardism. He points specifically to the initial failure of the Iraqi insurgency and its 2007 collapse as an example of how not to engage with your popular base.

Al-Omar also says that Ahrar al-Sham has focused on holistic aims rather than narrow particulars, or small differences in Islamic praxis that might otherwise divide Syria’s Islamists. Here he cites favorably the example of the Afghan Taliban, which, he says, has succeeded by including the full spectrum of Afghanistan’s Sunnis in its ranks and leadership, from Sufis to Salafists. Al-Omar says:

The Taliban movement was able to put forward a model and to establish a Muslim state – true, it didn’t last long, but it did establish it. The Taliban movement deserves contemplation and study, really.

Ahrar al-Sham is collectively Salafist, but, like al-Omar’s take on the Taliban, it includes members who belong to a range of Sunni Islamic trends. Here he is resisting Salafi-jihadism’s narrow conception of acceptable Islamic practice and its somewhat quixotic attempt to impose the details of its program on Syria’s people – dress codes, for example. Al-Omar says:

If you get to these holistic goals, then these little partial ones will be accomplished. So imagine that we focused on toppling the regime and establishing a Muslim state in its place, one ruled by Islamic shari’ah. All these details will follow.

Ahrar al-Sham’s approach, al-Omar says, is one of gradualism and realism. He says Ahrar will not attempt to monopolize politics or try to unilaterally control a diverse Syria, and he says that Ahrar is operating according to “fiqh al-waqi’” and “fiqh al-istid’af” – reasoning based on the reality around them and on their position of relative weakness. Ahrar’s strength, he argues, is that Ahrar has “lameset al-waqi’” – that it has lived and understood the reality in Syria. Ahrar is calibrated specifically for Syria and the Syrian war.

Of course, that Ahrar al-Sham is clearly distinct from the Salafi-jihadism of al-Qaeda does not mean that Ahrar does not espouse a uniquely hardline, militant outlook. Whether Ahrar is a new, fifth school of Islamist thought or, as I argued last year, a revisionist counterpoint to Salafi-jihadism from within the jihadist movement, Ahrar is clearly still rooted in Islamist militancy.

Here and elsewhere, Ahrar has made clear that it attempts to draw on the legacy of not just figures like Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna, but also Abdullah Azzam, founder of modern transnational jihadism, and the symbols of the Chechen jihad against Russia. In his lecture, al-Omar says jihad will continue to the Day of Reckoning, even if it might take different forms beyond military action – political or evangelical struggle, for example. And in his defense of Ahrar’s political engagement, al-Omar references Ahrar’s “ceiling” – the limits of its ability to compromise. It seems safe to say that Ahrar’s ceiling is lower than others’; Ahrar has historically refused to compromise its “thawabit” (fixed principles) in the service of expediency.

In many ways, Ahrar al-Sham has fused a specifically Syrian revolutionary character with a Sunni-sectarian pan-Islamism. In much of northern Syria, it is Ahrar that defends journalists, activists, and civil society against predatory jihadists, and over the past several years Ahrar has made serious efforts to integrate itself with the revolutionary political mainstream.

Yet while Ahrar al-Sham’s ambitions are Syrian, al-Omar makes clear that Ahrar also views itself as the greater Sunni nation’s bulwark against a Shi’ite onslaught. Ahrar al-Sham has framed the Syrian war and the broader regional context as a sectarian cataclysm, in which Ahrar fights on behalf of Sunni Muslims everywhere against the “Nuseiriyyah” (derog., Alawites), “Rafidhah” (derog., Shi’ites) and Russian “atheists.”

Of course, it should be clear to anyone who has followed the Middle East’s deteriorating sectarian discourse since 2011 that Ahrar is no longer a real outlier in this respect. Now even mainstream voices slip into vitriolic sectarian rhetoric, and all sides understand that a war defined largely in sectarian terms is now a regional reality.

Ahrar was at the forefront of this newly charged, militant sectarianism – its founder, Hassan Abboud, made these same arguments in his first interview in 2013. But after five years of grinding war in Syria and poisonous, region-wide sectarian polarization, the Middle East has caught up with him.

 

Sam Heller is a Beirut-based freelance writer and analyst focused on Syria. Follow Sam on Twitter: @AbuJamajem.

Image: Ahrar al-Sham