BEIRUT—Popular rebel groups like Ahrar al-Sham and the al-Qaida affiliated al-Nusra Front have, for years, been steadily gaining ground and influence within Syria’s opposition.
But as the international community remains hyper-focused on the fate of Bashar al-Assad and the destruction of Islamic State (ISIS), the steadily growing radical Islamist tint rising through the ranks of the Syrian opposition may present an unforeseen complication when it comes to political transition.
Although relatively restrained when compared to ISIS in its enforcement of Sharia, al-Nusra has been called “a wolf in sheep’s clothing” by analysts – one that is progressively gaining sway among Syria’s opposition groups because of its commitment to fighting Assad, while it quietly entrenches itself and its Qaida-ist ideology throughout much of the rebel-held north.
Ahrar al-Sham, a group formed by former Islamist prisoners and Iraqi war veterans, was one of the first armed movements to arise in Syria. With an extremely efficient structure and fully backed by Turkey and clerics and countries in the Gulf, it’s Salafist ideology and nationalist goals has rendered it a powerful “swing voter” in the battle over the ideological direction of Syria’s opposition.
“I’m convinced that these groups are here to stay. Whether it’s the Islamic State or al-Nusra, they’re not going anywhere,” Syria analyst Hassan Hassan told Syria Deeply in an interview.
At the same time, the conflict’s “intractable” nature, he said, gives extremist groups more time to entrench themselves locally. “The longer this goes on, the more these ideologies will become acceptable.”
Syria Deeply spoke with Hassan about the dangers of an increasingly entrenched jihadist presence in Syria and its consequences for political transition in the future.
Syria Deeply: How prevalent are jihadist groups in Syria? How naturalized are they becoming within their respective areas of control, and how are they changing the nature of the opposition?
Hassan: Well it’s worrying and I’m convinced that these groups are here to stay. Whether it’s the Islamic State or al-Nusra, they’re not going anywhere. But at the same time, the conflict isn’t going away either. It’s intractable, and I don’t see a resolution to it any time soon. But the longer these groups stick around, the more acceptable their ideologies become.
Unless we can begin to establish some sort of calm in Syria, nobody is going to turn against al-Nusra and think of them as a ‘terrorist’ group. Al-Nusra is fighting the Assad government, and it has been quietly establishing control of both Idlib and Aleppo, especially since the Russian intervention. They’ve made a lot of progress since March of this year in quietly taking over Idlib, establishing the group as a “kingmaker.” After the Russian intervention, it’s been clear that they’re trying to replicate the Idlib scenario in Aleppo. Slowly, al-Nusra is establishing itself as the dominant force in the area. That’s coming a long way considering local nationalist rebels had always dominated Aleppo. Some of them might have been Islamists, but they were still committed to Syria. Now, you have al-Nusra slowly benefiting from the deepening crisis, especially after the Russian intervention, and it’s beginning to achieve some of its goals. This is a consequence of the global failure to end this crisis. We’ve allowed groups to entrench themselves throughout Syria, whether it’s ISIS in southeastern Syria and elsewhere, or al-Nusra in northern Syria and elsewhere. It’s a direct result of the lack of vision and the disproportionate focus on what is and will happen in Damascus.
But give these ideas time and they will entrench themselves. That’s the simple formula. This is exactly what al-Qaida is trying to do. They always talk about themselves as a trigger for ordinary people to take up arms and to consider jihad as a way of life and the way to free the Muslim world, to put it back on the map. That’s their vision and that’s what they’re trying to do. Winning hearts and minds to convince people that they’re freedom fighters, not terrorists. They’re gaining traction in Syria, but they’re not yet mainstream.
Syria Deeply: Some commentators have said al-Nusra poses a greater challenge than ISIS when it comes to transition exactly because of how engrained it has become. What’s your take on that?
Hassan: That’s obvious. Al-Nusra is part of the anti-Assad forces and has been working with them for a long time now. Most of the gains the opposition has made against the Assad government have been made alongside al-Nusra. It should not be surprising. Now the difficulty, on a practical level, is when we begin speaking about establishing a ceasefire and so on. Who will deliver? The Vienna talks spoke of the Assad government and the opposition agreeing on a ceasefire with the aid of the international community. Now, let’s say the Free Syrian Army (FSA) is willing to say, “Okay – we can do that,” but they do not exclusively control any area. Al-Nusra is operating in almost all FSA areas. The Assad government cannot ignore al-Nusra, and the Vienna talks clearly said the potential ceasefire would not involve al-Nusra or ISIS. The plan established in Vienna does not carry any weight on the ground and is contradictory. If the ceasefire does not include al-Nusra, but al-Nusra controls or operates in most of the areas in which they want to establish a ceasefire then … it’s a Catch-22. That’s why I’m saying the Vienna talks are anti-talks. They’re not going to lead anywhere. What you need to do is to deal with the different realities and particularities on the ground. It’s not a one size fits all approach. The Vienna talks are completely detached from the realities on the ground.
Syria Deeply: How does Ahrar al-Sham fit into the picture? How does its ideology differ, if at all, from that of al-Nusra or ISIS?
Hassan: That’s another situation that’s been oversimplified. Because it is supported by foreign countries – namely Turkey and Qatar – Ahrar al-Sham is more prone to accepting a compromise at some point. First, this kind of agreement could deprive Ahrar al-Sham of support in some circles, which has the potential to significantly diminish the organization. Second – Ahrar al-Sham might be agreeing to these things on paper, but it doesn’t reflect its conduct on the ground. And third – it would create divisions between it and other groups. It’s not likely that Ahrar al-Sham would accept a solution unless it deals directly with the removal of Bashar al-Assad and his government.
Ahrar al-Sham is one of the groups that have agreed to the principles put forward by the international community, but I’m less than optimistic about the deal working out on the ground. Ahrar al-Sham says it supports a political solution in Syria and is committed to Syria and its minorities, but they put that on paper to appease and reassure the international community and their backers. It’s different from when they ask them to agree on a formula that leaves the Assad government in power and they become part of a government in Damascus, or if they’re asked to agree on a ceasefire without any tangible consequences for Assad. That might force Ahrar al-Sham to push back against its backers. We have to keep that in mind. You can get them to agree on principles, but can you get them to agree on a reality later on? That’s why foreign funding is always fluid – you can always be abandoned as a foreign donor.
Syria Deeply: People say that Ahrar al-Sham is one of the strongest rebel groups on the ground right now. Is there any truth to this? In addition, what are the consequences of the growing ideological divide within the group between reformists and pro-Nusra extremists?
Hassan: There is a lot of disinformation when it comes to Ahrar al-Sham. Ahrar al-Sham is not the strongest group in Syria. Yes, it receives massive funding from Qatar and Turkey, but organizationally it is small. When its leadership was destroyed last year, they bounced back very quickly. Why? It’s because of the group’s massive funding, or its territorial and strategic depth. Ahrar al-Sham is the strongest operator in northern Syria because of Turkey’s commitment to the group – they receive intelligence, instructions, communications and large amounts of money. But if it’s so strong, why then does it not have a powerful presence anywhere else in Syria except for the north? Where is Ahrar al-Sham in Daraa or Damascus or Qalamoun? As a dominant group, it’s relatively limited to Idlib and the borders with Turkey, and that’s specifically because of Turkey’s commitments to it.
Now there is another dynamic that helps Ahrar al-Sham, which goes back to the first point I made about the peculiarities of northern Syria. Like other areas in the country, northern Syria has a very particular set of problems. There are so many young people who’ve been militarized – on both the government’s side and the opposition’s side. The north – Idlib, Aleppo and northern Latakia – provides the largest number of troops for both the opposition and the government. They are being mobilized on both sides. It will be the most difficult area in the entire country.
If Ahrar al-Sham wants to launch an attack in Idlib against the Assad government, they hire contractors – they’ll hire 1,000 or 2,000 fighters and pay them to fight in a specific battle for a month, let’s say. If someone dies, they take care of their family, and so on. They have the ability to mobilize a great deal of forces anywhere they choose.
But in terms of size, they have a tight, small and disciplined structure. Money, logistics, territorial depth, information and intelligence – it’s all provided by Turkey and Qatar. That’s why Ahrar al-Sham appears so strong to people outside of Syria. We’ve heard Turkish and Qatari diplomats in private meetings always proposing it as a strong and viable force. But it’s misleading.
Context is king. We need to understand why Ahrar al-Sham appears stronger. If its ideology was popular or the group was popular, it would be popular elsewhere in Syria – not just in that particular region close to the Turkish border.
Top image: A Syrian boy shouts slogans against the government in front of a flag of the armed Islamic opposition group al-Nusra during a demonstration in the Bustan al-Qasr neighborhood of Aleppo, Syria. (Associated Press)