Now You See It

03.01.16 5:01 AM ET

In the Syrian Ceasefire Shell Game, the Good Guys May Be Bad Guys

A close look at Ahrar al-Sham, the so-called moderate Salafist militia, backed by U.S. allies, that’s actually allied with al Qaeda.

At midnight on Feb. 27, after months of negotiations and meetings in Geneva, New York, Moscow, Riyadh, and elsewhere, and after an intense day of Russian airstrikes, a partial ceasefire came into effect in Syria between the regime and the opposition.

The fighting and violence have gone down considerably in the days since, but with a handful of possible violations coming from each side, the ceasefire is on remarkably shaky ground. While many are quick to point out Russian and regime aggression is a threat to the truce (and rightly so), less attention is given to concerns about the opposition.

One rebel group in particular, Ahrar al-Sham, has made the situation extremely complicated and is an enormous threat to the ceasefire’s success. Indeed, Ahrar al-Sham has refused to clarify whether it will respect the truce.

On the one hand, the group has made real efforts to present itself as moderate and distinct from Syria’s al-Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra, which is excluded from the current ceasefire and, as such, is considered a fair target for Russian airstrikes.

On the other hand, Ahrar al-Sham has worked closely with Nusra since the war began and has been in a formal alliance with it since early 2015. Since the ceasefire came into effect, some of Ahrar al-Sham’s leaders have indicated they will continue fighting and stand with Nusra. Unless the Ahrar al-Sham clearly denounces these statements and makes a firm commitment to adhere to the ceasefire, it remains a fair question whether it, too, is a legitimate target.

Ahrar al-Sham may appear to be a group divided—teetering between moderation and extremism, between democracy and Salafism—but this is likely a charade. With such wide gaps between statements emanating from its leadership, the positions they have taken, and the alliances they have made, it is hard to believe that the group can exist simultaneously as one of the most extreme Salafist organizations and also as one of the most liberal champions of pluralism.

To the extent that there are internal disagreements in Ahrar al-Sham, they are not likely rooted in ideology or competing visions for Syria’s future. Instead, they seem to reflect differences over public relations strategies. Those who believe Ahrar al-Sham is truly moderate risk empowering a dangerous group that will be a problem in Syria for years to come.

How did it get here?

Under its original leadership, Ahrar al-Sham was already clearly a radical Salafist militia. Though the group’s founder, Hassan Aboud, refused to pledge allegiance to al-Qaeda and claimed to have ideological disagreements with Nusra, the substantive differences were hard to discern. In an interview with Aljazeera Arabic, Aboud condemned democracy outright and expressed views remarkably similar to Nusra’s about Syria’s future—that the country, minorities and all, should be governed by strict Sharia law.

Despite distancing itself from Nusra rhetorically, Ahrar al-Sham certainly cooperated with and coordinated its operations with the al-Qaeda group. Working together with Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham not only fought the Assad regime but also weakened the Free Syrian Army. To Ahrar al-Sham’s credit, its forte was guerilla-style fighting and it steered away from the Nusra-style suicide bombings, but it committed its own war crimes against Syria’s civilians and minorities to solidify its control.

After a September 2014 explosion killed Hassan Aboud along with many of Ahrar al-Sham’s senior leadership, Hashem al-Sheikh (also known by his nom de guerre, Abu Jaber) took control of the group.

Under his leadership, Ahrar al-Sham seemed to embrace a more moderate approach. Al-Sheikh gave a lengthy interview to Aljazeera Arabic in April 2015 in which he criticized Nusra’s relationship with al-Qaeda and insisted that minorities would be well treated in a post-Assad Syria, albeit under Islamic law. Going further, Ahrar al-Sham’s head of foreign relations, Labib al-Nahhas, wrote op-eds in The Washington Post and the Telegraph calling for a “national unifying project” in Syria that “protects minority communities and enables them to play a real and positive role in Syria’s future.”

Yet al-Nahhas’ pieces came just a month and a half after the group’s spiritual leader, Abu Muhammad al-Sadeq, issued statements decrying the “falseness of democracy” and the West. Ignoring these comments, al-Nahhas lamented that Ahrar al-Sham was falsely accused of having links to al-Qaeda and insisted that his group was a moderate force for good in Syria; Washington simply needed to “open its eyes and see it.”

Off the op-ed pages and on the ground, the reality was entirely different. Over the course of 2015, Ahrar al-Sham’s new, “more moderate” leadership had dramatically expanded its cooperation with Nusra. The two formed the umbrella group Jaish al-Fatah, or the “Army of Conquest.” With support from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey, the Army of Conquest took the cities and countrysides of Idlib and Jisr al-Shughour, carving out a major stronghold for themselves in northwestern Syria.

Ahrar al Sham’s actions contradicted its rhetoric, yet that was no accident. The group played both angles—boasting democratic values and fighting for Salafism—and it benefited from each. Talk of moderation and inclusion made it somewhat more palatable for Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey to support the Ahrar al-Sham and the Army of Conquest militarily (although there was certainly discomfort over Nusra’s connections to al-Qaeda). Meanwhile, enhanced cooperation with Nusra allowed Ahrar al-Sham to make major gains even as it neutralized Nusra as a potential opponent.

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Nusra could hardly afford to squabble with Ahrar al-Sham when the two groups were busy fighting an Assad reinforced by increased involvement from Iran and Russia—especially if reports are true that Nusra depended on Ahrar al-Sham to supply it with weapons.

By the end of 2015, maintaining both moderate and extreme positions and alliances seemed to have stretched Ahrar al-Sham too thin. In September, Hashem al-Sheikh stepped down as emir, making way for Abu Yahia al-Hamawi, who continued to push the notion that Ahrar al-Sham was mainstream and aligned with Western interests. Al-Hamawi reportedly claimed that Nusra had withdrawn from the Army of Conquest—a rumor that would have been convenient for the umbrella group’s foreign backers, but nonetheless proved false.

Al-Hamawi also sent Labib al-Nahhas to participate in the Saudi-led rebel conference in Riyadh in December that produced the High Negotiations Committee (HNC), a group that would represent Syria’s anti-Assad opposition in the January 2016 Geneva talks. The conference deliberately excluded Nusra and the so-called Islamic State, as both are widely considered to be terrorist groups. Ahrar al-Sham’s participation, however, was crucial to the Saudis, as its Army of Conquest alliance had been the most successful force against the Assad regime.

In the whirlwind of the Riyadh conference, Ahrar al-Sham’s cracks became apparent. The group, facing pressure from Nusra, issued a statement announcing it was withdrawing from the talks on Dec. 10. Despite the statement, al-Nahhas signed the conference document, leading to confusion on whether Ahrar al-Sham was a part of the HNC.

Leaders of the group, including the supposedly moderate former emir, Hashem al-Sheikh, tweeted in support of the group’s original hardline decision to withdraw, and in the end, Ahrar al-Sham did not send a representative to the Geneva talks. It remains unclear whether Ahrar al-Sham considers itself a part of the HNC, but, following the pattern of the group’s previous behavior, this vagueness is likely intentional.

Now, after crucial losses in Aleppo, the rebels in the northwest may be experiencing some restructuring. In late February, Ahrar al-Sham entered into a new coalition with a handful of Islamist and FSA militias under the leadership of its former emir, Hashem al-Sheikh. The new umbrella group is called “Jaish al-Halab,” although none of its members seem to be using the name. While it excludes Nusra on paper, the member groups may well continue to work with the al-Qaeda affiliate.

Why then form this confederation? Jaish al-Halab is a means by which Ahrar al-Sham can play both sides of the newly implemented ceasefire. If hostilities resume (beyond the small scale violations seen already), Ahrar al-Sham can of course continue its close cooperation with Nusra as it has for the past year.

But if the ceasefire holds, Ahrar al-Sham can separate from Nusra; go dormant in the fight against the regime; stockpile weapons from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey; and exert significant control in northwest Syria—all legitimized by the international process. It will be positioned to pivot in whatever direction it finds to be more convenient in the moment.

It is impossible to know the true intentions of Ahrar al-Sham’s leadership. Perhaps there are indeed substantive divisions, and the politically minded leaders are sincere but are unable to control the group. More likely, Ahrar al-Sham is hedging its bets. It is keeping a foot in both moderate and radical circles and trying to reap the benefits of both.

If Ahrar al-Sham is serious about its proclaimed moderate values, it should use its weight as a dominant player on the battlefield to secure and ensure a long-term ceasefire. It cannot do this on its own, of course, but it can play an important role in making this a reality.

A truly moderate Ahrar al-Sham will make it clear that it won’t participate in joint operation rooms that include Nusra, and it will engage in negotiations in good faith without preconditions. If for lack of will or for lack of ability it fails to do these things, no one should regard Ahrar al-Sham’s claims as anything but a public relations strategy.