Summary

Ahrar Al-Sham is considered among the Salafi jihadist movements that have reaped benefits from the political and social developments in Syria. The Ahrar’s activities were quickly transformed from individuals embracing the principles of Salafi jihadism to one of the most influential military players in the Syrian war, mainly in northern Syria. Since its emergence, the movement has profited from its secret and public alliances with Salafi Jihadist factions, on top of them were Jaysh Al-Islam, Daesh, and Nusra that is now the biggest rival of the movement, as both parties are engaged in a war which threatens the presence of Ahrar Al-Sham in Idlib and rural Aleppo.

The Sednaya prison, which Assad regime has used as a tool to educate jihadists, can be considered as the most significant epicenter that formed a perfect atmosphere for the birth of Salafi Jihadist groups in Syria.  They were deliberately released following an amnesty by the Assad regime in the summer of 2011 in order to Islamize the civil Syrian revolution against its oppressive dictatorial rule. The founders of Ahrar Al-Sham were the first to be released from that prison. Then, they would benefit from the easy flow of arms and funds to recruit people who had been exhausted by the barbarity and oppression of the Assad regime.

Afterward, Ahrar Al-Sham worked on forming alliances with other groups to stand in the face of the FSA, occupying a major role in defeating it. Then, it began propagating its Islamic discourse and imposing it on the populations living in its controlled territory. On the contrary, the relationship between Ahrar and other Islamist factions were tense and were characterized by a public enmity. Its relationship with the Nusra could be viewed as a good example of a conflictual relationship. In the beginning, the relationship was based on the principle of competition as the Nusra sought to gain control over the sources of oils and fortunes, precisely in Deir Ezzor, where a battle took place between the two brothers (Nusra and Ahrar). After Daesh gained control over Deir Ezzor, the relationship between Ahrar and Nusra was sometimes like a cold war, and sometimes an intense war. Despite this, there were a series of deals and alliances between both, whose biggest results were the capturing of Idlib from the Assad regime and the forming of the ‘Jaysh Al-Fateh’ (The Army of Conquest). Concerning the form of the relationship between Daesh and Nusra, despite Ahrar insisted on being neutral, mainly during the infighting between the organization and Nusra, Ahrar were still having a series of deals with the organization. The deal in which Ahrar allowed Daesh convoys to pass through its checkpoints to move to Al-Bab is the best example of the collaboration and cooperation between them that partook in the capturing of rural Aleppo by the organization.

All of that was taking place under the principle of ‘brotherhood’. Since the emergence of Ahrar Al-Sham, there have been questions focused on its stance on Al-Qaeda ideology. The questions were being asked by the Syrians rebelling against the Assad regime and those who had concerns over changing the regime dictatorship with a religious dictatorship. The determination of the first Ahrar leaders to criticize the ideology of the movement and its relationship with the Al-Qaeda, could have been the cause of their assassination, the assassination which has remained mysterious until now. The rise of a new generation of Ahrar leaders has made the scene clear that Al-Qaeda ideology has been the main source of the Ahrar. The confusing identity of Ahrar and its concealing of its relationship with Al-Qaeda might have been done on purpose to recruit more people and enjoy popular support from those who saw the movement as an alternative and savor from the oppression of the Assad regime, whose forces attacked the revolting areas with all kinds of destructive weapons.

The loss of the identity of Ahrar has been its main weakness, in addition to the defection from its ranks which were on a large scale. Nusra exploited the latter by receiving Ahrar defectors who were searching for a religious affiliation that suit their ambitions.  Another factor that is included in the weaknesses of Ahrar was overlooking the military aspect in their activities and rather focusing on the administrative and civil levels as a part of their goals to control the fortunes of the war and investment of the administration. The collapse of Ahrar was made clear after they quickly retreated from their positions in Idlib countryside after Nusra swept across those areas, despite the locals were against it.

The upcoming days might prove if Ahrar would realize what has befallen on it, or its name would be buried in the mists of time to remain only as a margin of the war, the war which most Syrian are hoping it would end one day, no matter how long it would be.