Ahrarul-Sham between competing currents
Ibrahim Moiz, rights reserved
7 December 2020
Ahrarul-Sham’s awkward balance between the competing agendas of its external backer Turkey and its controversial local competitor-cum-collaborator Tahrirul-Sham has long threatened the group’s cohesion. A mutiny seeking to win over Tahrirul-Sham at Turkey’s expense has sputtered against a mixture of Tahrirul-Sham’s increasingly controversial governance and Turkey’s enhanced military-diplomatic prowess.
News from the Syrian insurgency has long since faded from the headlines, but tensions between and within the various groups in the north persist even as Turkey attempts to whip into shape a unified army. This autumn’s unsuccessful “coup” within what was once the largest insurgent faction, Ahrarul-Sham, only further underscored this friction. The group’s longstanding emir, Jabir Basha, survived a coup attempt by his military commander Inad Darwaish in apparent cahoots with Basha’s predecessor Hasan Soufan, which aimed at bringing back defectors who had long since broken with Ahrarul-Sham. As of now, Basha appears to have outmaneouvred the mutiny, the latest twist in a series of tensions within an insurgent group still uncertain of its bearing in the contest between the Turkish-backed camp and its rival in Idlib’s dominant Tahrirul-Sham. This article will trace this history and examine the implications for the insurgent scene in northern Syria.
In their heyday during the mid-2010s, such constant tensions would have seemed unthinkable in Ahrarul-Sham. It emerged nearly without a ripple as Syria’s biggest and easily most disciplined insurgent group by summer 2013, a phenomenon that stemmed from its leadership’s ability to quietly bind together different Islamist fronts under a common agenda. Ahrarul-Sham’s founding emir, Hamawi schoolteacher Hassan Abboud (Abu Abdullah), was a first-among-equals in a collegial core of commanders mainly drawn from a similar social background in the northern countryside at Aleppo, Hama, and Idlib provinces. As such, Ahrarul-Sham was able to draw several important fronts under its wing, a process that continued as late as 2017. This contrasted with the approach of Nusra Front, the forerunner to Tahrirul-Sham. Though they shared similar social roots and often collaborated, Nusra’s leadership adopted a far more centralist approach around its shadowy founder Ahmad Sharaa (Abu Muhammad), who dispatched aides to set up different fronts across Syria, as opposed to the more “federalist” organization of Ahrarul-Sham who drew preexistent fronts under their banner.
Ahrarul-Sham’s collegial leadership initially served it well; while Abboud and most of the early command were killed in a meeting during 2014, the group rebounded quickly. Remarkably it continued its policy of alternating emirs on a yearly basis, underlining the discipline within the leadership. But it was also able to rebound partly through collaboration with Nusra. The Nusra-Ahrar collaboration proved among the war’s most successful partnerships: in 2013 they had already captured Raqqah city, and six months after Abboud’s death they captured Idlib city. But Nusra’s designation as the Syrian front for the Qaida network was a liability at a point when the Syrian insurgency was fast losing sympathy as international attention focused instead on Daaish, whose local sympathizers also began to attack the rebels. This coupled with Sharaa’s reluctance to deal with the only remaining state invested in the insurgency, Turkey, left Ahrarul-Sham at a crossroads over which the group began to split.
In 2015-16, as Russia entered the war and rebel advances began to brake, Ahrarul-Sham started to fragment at the leadership level. The two breakaway groups were led by veterans who had managed the group’s transition after Abboud’s death: the first by Ayman Abul-Tout, favoured cooperation with Turkey; and the second by Abboud’s successor Hashim Shaikh (Abu Jabir) and his military commander Muhammad Tahhan (Abu Saleh), who favoured continued cooperation with Nusra. These tensions intensified during the climax of the battle for Aleppo city, where Farouq Ayyub (Abu-Bakr) – a member of the pro-Turkish camp who wanted to cut the rebels’ losses – negotiated the withdrawal into Idlib. Farouq’s second-in-command in the battle, a former Ahrarul-Sham commander called Abdul-Muin Ashidda (Abul-Abed), bitterly criticized Turkey for not stopping the Russian campaign. Ashidda’s remarks foreshadowed and were exploited by Sharaa, who the very next month set up a new group called Tahrirul-Sham that disavowed the Turkish link. In this group, Nusra was joined by embittered former Ahrarul-Sham commanders such as Shaikh, Tahhan, and Ashidda as well as by the Zanki emir Taufiq Shihabuddin. Here Ahrarul-Sham’s “federal” structure proved a weakness, as many units broke away. Meanwhile, Ahrarul-Sham negotiated the release from regime captivity of Hasan Soufan (Abul-Baraa), a widely respected preacher who was quickly promoted within the movement. In summer 2017, when Tahrirul-Sham suddenly attacked and captured most of Idlib, it was Soufan who negotiated Ahrarul-Sham’s withdrawal and soon became Ahrarul-Sham emir.
Sharaa’s aggression in Idlib alienated Shihabuddin and Tahhan, who broke away to reduce the group largely to its Nusra core; though this core remained, the centralist policy of Sharaa was as unable as Ahrarul-Sham federalism to prevent fragmentation. Shihabuddin’s Zanki group formed a cooperation pact with Soufan the following spring, by which point Sharaa was already facing a mutiny by Qaida loyalists embittered at his break with the parent organization; however, Tahhan’s group remained separate. Soufan, who was replaced as Ahrarul-Sham emir by Jabir Basha in 2018, continued trying to reconcile Tahhan as well as potential defectors from Tahrirul-Sham. It was apparently to support such a move that Ahrarul-Sham military commander Darwaish (Abul-Mundhir) mounted his attempted coup this past month, whereby he and Soufan captured the Ahrarul-Sham base in Salqin.
Darwaish occupies an interesting role in this tale. A professional soldier, he not only became Ahrarul-Sham military commander in 2018 but served on the general command of the Syrian National Army, a putative attempt to form a unified army that has been strongly backed by Turkey. Thus it would be expected that he would be part of the pro-Turkish camp within Ahrarul-Sham, and so it was startling when he did quite the opposite in attempting a coup against Basha. He was quickly outmaneouvred by Basha; most of the relevant Ahrarul-Sham officers backed their current emir, and Basha quickly reorganized the Ahrarul-Sham structure and replaced Darwaish with a loyalist, Abu Faisal Ansari.
There is good reason to expect that Basha’s camp will prevail. Since 2016, Ahrarul-Sham has been buffeted between the competing currents of Turkey, with its aim to promote a rebel army that can gain international support, and Nusra/Tahrirul-Sham, who promised power on the ground in Idlib. In the past couple of years Tahrirul-Sham has been weakened considerably, not only by Qaida loyalists who opposed Sharaa’s split but by such defectors as Ashidda who attacked Sharaa’s unaccountable regime in Idlib. Tahrirul-Sham’s governance in Idlib has fallen well short of early expectations; battlefield prowess does not equate administrative capability. Meanwhile Turkey has proven its worth not only politically but from a military viewpoint – not only did Turkish firepower repel a major regime attack in spring 2020, but Ankara’s innovative military tactics have played a decisive role in Libya and the South Caucasus. The current trend of fragmentation in Tahrirul-Sham and assertiveness by Turkey seems to suggest that Ahrarul-Sham will ultimately opt for the latter.