By Aron Lund, editor of Syria in Crisis*
Subhi al-Refai is a leader of the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC), a coalition of Syrian revolutionary factions formed in December 2014. He has been kind enough to provide me with the following statement, presenting his personal analysis of a question that is on the mind of many in both Syria and the United States at this moment.
Former U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford recently penned a piece for the Middle East Institute, a Washington-based think tank, together with the Beirut-based Middle East analyst Ali El Yassir. In the text, they argued that the U.S. needs to overcome its resistance to working with Ahrar al-Sham, one of Syria’s largest Sunni rebel factions.
The first foundations of Ahrar al-Sham, whose full name is now “the Ahrar al-Sham Islamic Movement,” were laid in 2011, after the start of the Syrian uprising. Most of its founders and leaders were former political prisoners who had been jailed for advocating Islamist causes or for involvement with the Sunni insurgency in Iraq. Having formed networks and built trust among each other in the Seidnaia prison north of Damascus, where Islamist prisoners were assembled in a special section, they were released on presidential amnesty in the early months of the uprising and promptly went underground to create militant cells. The groups they formed to fight President Assad’s regime were gradually expanded and connected to each other, first in the Idleb-Hama region, which remains the group’s main stronghold. Ahrar al-Sham then grew through clever alliance-building among the Syrian rebels until it reached its present size and shape. (As a legacy of the latest of those coalitions, Ahrar al-Sham also operates under the “Islamic Front” brand, which refers to a now essentially defunct coalition in which Ahrar al-Sham gradually absorbed most of the minor members.)
Often characterized as a salafi group, it is an ideologically committed Islamist organization that seeks a Sunni religious state in Syria. It has proven itself militarily strong and hardy and has survived years of fighting, and—no less impressive—has held together through the merciless backbiting and internal rivalries of Syrian rebel politics. In September 2014, most of Ahrar al-Sham’s leadership was wiped out in a mysterious explosion, but the group defied expectations and managed to survive this setback, electing new leaders and carrying on the struggle. Most powerful in northern Syria, it has established what appears to be a strong working relationship with the Turkish AKP government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and recently endorsed the Turkish-American bid for a ”safe zone” in northern Syria.
The question of whether or not the U.S. should work with Ahrar al-Sham in its bid to put pessure on Bashar al-Assad’s government is controversial, not least because some members of the group have been connected to global anti-American jihadi factions including al-Qaeda. Ahrar al-Sham itself claims to be a fully independent group and it does not engage in armed action outside Syria. It has at times been critical of al-Qaeda and its Syrian affiliate, the Nusra Front, but—like many other rebel factions, particularly the Islamist groups—it works closely with the Nusra Front on the battlefield.
Recently, the Ahrar al-Sham leadership has been on a charm offensive, pushing back against Western views of it as a dangerous jihadi faction. Its foreign relations official Labib al-Nahhas, alias Abu Ezzeddin al-Souri (who I interviewed here, before his group merged into Ahrar al-Sham), recently penned editorials in The Washington Post and The Daily Telegraph arguing that his group should be considered a moderate and centrist faction in the uprising and is deserving of international support and acceptance.
But the group still remains committed to its ideology and the idea of a Sunni theocracy in Syria, and it continues to play to Islamist opinion in ways that are clearly at odds with U.S. strategy (whether one agrees with that strategy or not). For example, Ahrar al-Sham recently released a public euology of Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar that included praise for the Taliban movement’s fourteen-year long war against the U.S. army in Afghanistan, as well as Ahrar al-Sham’s best wishes for his successor, described as “the Mujahed Brother Mullah Akhtar Mansour.” I’m sure that played well within the group and among its Islamist allies in Syria and abroad, but I can’t imagine it will do much to improve Ahrar al-Sham’s image in Washington.
That Robert Ford, as a former ambassador and policymaker on Syria, has taken such a strong position in favor of working with Ahrar al-Sham has of course drawn attention both in the U.S. and among Syrian rebels. Now, the RCC leader Subhi al-Refai—who is not a member of Ahrar al-Sham, although the group is involved with the RCC—joins this debate with his own analysis of the chances of a collaborative relationship between the American government and Ahrar al-Sham.
What follows is the statement provided to me by Subhi al-Refai, in my own translation from the original Arabic.
–Aron Lund, editor of Syria in Crisis
Analysis of Mr. Robert Ford’s comments about the Ahrar al-Sham Islamic Movement
An initial analysis of Mr Robert Ford’s positive view of the Ahrar al-Sham faction, and of the necessity of opening relations with it, points to the existence of a significant school of thought inside the White House that pushes for working with the movement.
However, I believe that this is an attempt to widen the gulf between the two differing schools of thought that exists within Ahrar al-Sham, in order to destroy it from within.
The first of these schools is striving to be more open towards the West and to restore the Umma Project to the National Project, as expressed by the late Abu Yazen.
The second school of thought remains committed to the Umma Project, which transcends Syria’s borders, and it views the Free Syrian Army as a Western project that they must refrain from trusting or working with.
Of course, it is possible that I am wrong in my analysis! But what could it be that has encouraged the American government to move towards working with a faction that is so forcefully supported by parties whose goals completely contradict its own? In particular, we must consider that taking this route would complicate relations with these other parties even more than today. In addition, the chances for success of this new relationship are very slim, for two reasons.
The first reason is that Ahrar al-Sham is incapable of taking a decision to open up new relations that could harm the interests of a fundamental ally of the movement.
The second reason is the strength and control that the school of thought opposed to relations with the USA exercises within the movement. In addition, a not-insignificant proportion of the movement’s components lean towards the ideology of Jabhat al-Nusra, a fact that stands between the leadership of the movement and this (adventurous) step in the direction of the Americans.
Therefore, we find that, for the most part, Ahrar al-Sham’s foreign policy takes the path of hidden relations, in so far as these relations concern the West generally or the United States in particular.
Perhaps some serious thinking on how to change the politico-military map of northern Syria has finally begun!
President of the Executive Office
Revolutionary Command Council
Notes by Aron Lund:
The Umma Project, Mashrou’ al-Umma, is a slogan that has been used by Ahrar al-Sham to describe its ideological and political foundations. The word Umma can be translated as ”nation,” but in this context it specifically refers to the Islamic nation, i.e. the global community of Muslims inside and outside Syria. In contrast to Umma, the term Watan— which can be translated as ”nation,” ”homeland,” or ”country”—signifies a more narrow focus on Syria and Syrian interests.
Abu Yazen al-Shami was an influential leader and religious ideologue within Ahrar al-Sham, who was killed alongside most of the rest of the group’s historical leadership on September 9, 2014. He has posthumously been identified as a leading light among the ”reformers” in Ahrar al-Sham, who were shocked into a reappraisal of politico-religious principles by the rise of the Islamic State. Before his death, he had begun to argue against hardline jihadi purism in favor of a more pragmatic albeit still unambiguously Islamist stance.
For an interview with Mohammed Talal Bazerbashi, alias Abu Abderrahman al-Souri, a leading member and co-founder of Ahrar al-Sham, click here.
For a previous interview of mine with the RCC’s Subhi al-Refai, click here.