One of Al Qaeda’s most important allies in Syria has taken significant steps to distance itself from the terror group over the past month.
The schism, which could have far-reaching effects, was deepened by a mistaken beheading.
As recently as early November, there was little daylight to be seen between rebel group Ahrar Al Sham—one of the largest and most powerful in Syria—and the two main Al Qaeda affiliates in Syria: Jabhat Al Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or “ISIS.”
Ahrar Al Sham literally means “free men of Syria” or “liberals of Syria,” but the group’s members are actually ultra-conservative Salafis. As such, they share Al Qaeda’s desire for the restoration of an Islamic state and the rule of the shari’a—or their preferred version of it, at least—in Syria.
In other words, until quite recently the three rebel groups were almost indistinguishable. They routinely conducted joint operations and issued joint statements.
Then in mid-November, following a battle for control of a regime base in Aleppo, three ISIS fighters came upon an Ahrar Al Sham commander named Mohammed Fares—a.k.a. Abu Harroun—in a hospital, recuperating from wounds he suffered in the battle. According to several accounts, the ISIS fighters heard the still-anesthetized Fares calling on revered Shi’a religious figures Ali and Hussein.
On the basis of these incoherent cries, the ISIS fighters took Fares to be a foreign Shi’a militiaman who had been wounded fighting for the Syrian regime. Naturally, they then promptly beheaded him and displayed his head to a large crowd in Aleppo.
Members of Ahrar Al Sham almost immediately recognized the severed head of their missing commander in the viral video.
According to Yusuf Al Khatib, an Ahrar Al Sham officer in Idlib province, Ahrar’s overall commander Abu Abdullah Hamawi was incensed and sent an angry message to ISIS. “He threatened Abubakr Al Baghdadi [ISIS’ emir] to shift our focus from the regime to ISIS and to destroy them if they did not hand over the ones responsible for the murder of our brother Mohammed Fares,” Khatib told War is Boring.
“ISIS complied with our demands and delivered the criminals to us,” Al Khatib continued. When asked what would be done with the ISIS fighters who had beheaded Fares, Khatib smirked. “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” he said. His clear implication was that the perpetrators themselves had been beheaded.
Al Khatib went on to clarify that, for now, the handing over of those responsible for Fares’s beheading had ameliorated official tensions between ISIS and Ahrar Al Sham. Still, he did not hesitate to voice his own unvarnished opinion of ISIS. “They are agents of the [Bashar Al] Assad regime,” he said, echoing a commonly held view among secular Syrian rebels.
“Why do you think they wear masks and accomplish the goals of the regime by spreading infighting among the revolutionaries,” he asked rhetorically.
Al Khatib’s views were seconded by 23-year-old Ahrar Al Sham fighter “Abu Ibrahim” from Aleppo, who declined to give his real name because he was not authorized to speak to journalists about such a sensitive matter. “ISIS spends all their time fighting with the mujahideen and committing crimes against the ordinary people. By God, they are not from us, they are from the regime,” he said.
Abu Ibrahim, who was in Turkey recovering from a bullet through the arm, went on to predict open warfare between ISIS and other rebel groups if and when the Syrian regime falls.
Perhaps partly as a result of the growing animosity toward ISIS within Ahrar’s ranks, the organization was a surprise signatory to the recent Saudi-backed effort to unify the non-Al Qaeda Islamist rebels under one chain of command.
The Islamic Front, as it’s called, is the latest of a series of moves by Saudi Arabia to unite Syria’s biggest non-Al Qaeda Islamist brigades both to fight the regime more effectively and to marginalize and perhaps eventually to fight Al Qaeda. The move combines seven of the biggest Islamist brigades in Syria and probably comprises over half of all Syrian rebels. Their success in convincing Ahrar Al Sham to join the new unified command was a major coup for Saudi policy in Syria and significantly bolstered the new front’s numbers and power.
The official line from all parties however, is that the Islamic Front exists only to fight Assad, has nothing to do with attempts to marginalize Al Qaeda and isn’t supported by the Sauds or any other outside actors—ridiculous assertions all around.
Likewise, the official position from Ahrar Al-Sham remains, as ever with rebel groups, that no conflicts exist between it and ISIS or any other rebel group.
For example, Ahrar Al Sham battalion commander Reyad Al Mosa from southern Idlib province claimed that the decision to join the Islamic Front had nothing to do with ISIS and repeatedly referred to ISIS as “our brothers” in a relatively brief conversation on the subject. “The Islamic Front was formed to allow us, God willing, to achieve victory more effectively against the Assad regime and the Iranian dogs supporting them,” he said.
Rebel groups propagate this line to avoid escalating tensions with other rebels at a time when they’re being hammered by the Syrian regime and can scarcely afford to open another front. They also take this line with the media to placate public opinion in Syria, which is overwhelmingly opposed to any infighting between rebel groups for any reason whatsoever and instead wants rebel groups to focus on fighting the regime.
The killing of Fares, a well-known and popular commander, coupled with ISIS’s general habit of provocations and fighting with other rebel groups, seems to have driven Ahrar into the arms of the Islamic Front and out of the Al Qaeda orbit.
Given Ahrar Al Sham’s size and its status as one of the most powerful and widely respected rebel groups in Syria, its tilt away from Al Qaeda is hugely significant. Likewise, the virulently anti-ISIS opinions of many of its fighters may well presage open fighting between the groups in the future.