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Truce Tests Relations Between Islamist Giants

The U.S.-Russian brokered truce remains deeply controversial among rebels. Hardline jihadis have condemned the peace process, while more pragmatic Islamists have endorsed it. Now, a jihadi crackdown on demonstrators in rebel-held Idlib is testing the alliance between two of the insurgency’s most powerful factions.

Written byAron Lund Published on Mar. 9, 2016 Read time Approx. 8 minutes
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For Syria’s rebel movement, relations between its two most powerful Islamist factions is a life or death issue. Two large salafist factions, the Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham, dominate the insurgency in the Idlib region, and they play a key part in the Hama and Aleppo governorates as well. While these groups are close allies on the battlefield and have often worked hand in hand politically, there are important distinctions between them. The terrorist-listed Nusra Front is outspokenly salafi-jihadi, many of its leaders are foreigners, and the group has pledged allegiance to the international al-Qaida movement. While equally committed to establishing Syria as a Sunni theocracy, Ahrar al-Sham is an indigenously Syrian group, renounces foreign attacks, and courts international support. It is particularly close to Turkey and Qatar.

The Russian-American agreement brokered on February 22, which led to a partial cessation of hostilities in Syria that began on February 27, has tested their alliance and brought previously latent conflicts of interest to the fore. The Nusra Front is explicitly opposed to the deal, indeed to the political process as a whole, describing it as a ”crusader” scheme to extinguish the Syrian uprising. The group has called for continued attacks on the government of President Bashar al-Assad, although it has in practice exercised restraint since February 27, probably for fear of alienating Syrian civilians or drawing the ire of local allies such as Ahrar al-Sham. Nusra fighters describe this as a waiting game, telling a Reuters correspondent that they are ”convinced that it will not work and it is only a matter of time before it officially ends.” Recently, some reports point to increased Nusra activity south of Aleppo, but it is difficult to know what side actually initiates fighting – the Assad government and its Russian allies have not fully ceased their skirmishing with the rebels either.

Ahrar al-Sham has taken the opposite view, quietly supporting the cessation of hostilities even as many of its commanders voice their misgivings about it. The group has now started to issue daily reports alleging violations of the truce by the Assad government, thereby asserting its own commitment to it. This decision to play by the rules is a reaffirmation of ties to the mainstream rebel movement grouped under the Free Syrian Army banner and a way of appeasing its foreign sponsors. It is also a step away from the politics of the Nusra Front, one that has been met with considerable criticism on the salafi-jihadi fringes of the uprising.

A Crackdown in Idlib

On Monday afternoon, these tensions briefly seemed to emerge into the open when armed men, allegedly loyal to the Nusra Front, attacked a demonstration in Idlib City. Ever since it was wrested from the government of President Bashar al-Assad in spring 2015, Idlib has been a stronghold of both the Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham, which together form the core of the city’s ruling Jaish al-Fath alliance. Activists in Idlib, like elsewhere, have sought to exploit the lull in fighting to organize peaceful demonstrations modeled on those in 2011. These demonstrations typically fly the Syrian independence flag, which is favored by the mainstream opposition and the Free Syrian Army but shunned by puritan jihadis, who view it as a symbol of infidel nationalism. (Ahrar al-Sham has historically not flown the independence flag, but seems increasingly at ease with it and does not object to its use by others.)

“We invited people to come protest in the city at 3:00 pm, thinking we could resume the popular protest movement inside the city,” activist Ibrahim al-Idlibi told the AFP news agency. As they marched toward a central square, Idlibi claims that Nusra fighters blocked the way ”and began to fight the protesters, to threaten them with their guns saying, ‘If you don’t leave the streets, we’ll start to fire.’” In Idlibi’s telling, the clash ended with ten protesters detained by the jihadi group, which proceeded to tear down the independence flag and wave its own black banner instead.

Local activist groups quickly fired off statements calling on Jaish al-Fath and its member factions to hold the guilty parties to account. The Nusra Front, in turn, issued a half-hearted denial of responsibility, stating that Jaish al-Fath as a whole was responsible for maintaining order rather than any single faction. Undaunted, local opposition activists took to the streets in a pointed show of defiance, again waving the independence flag. These gatherings reportedly included several Ahrar al-Sham members. By evening on Monday, Ahrar al-Sham’s central leadership finally issued a formal condemnation, saying it deplored the suppression of the protest and called on all factions involved to hold the perpetrators to account. The group did not, however, specify who the guilty party was.

Such passive-aggressive rhetoric has characterized Ahrar al-Sham ever since its differences with the Nusra Front began to crystallize over the issue of whether or not to participate in the Geneva III peace process (Nusra is decidedly against, Ahrar is internally divided). In the past week, many of Ahrar al-Sham’s senior leaders, members and media activists have used social media to take pot shots at ”extremists” who, they allege, are disconnected from popular sentiment. After the Idlib crackdown on Monday, Khaled Abu Anas, an influential founding member of Ahrar al-Sham who hails from Saraqeb in the Idleb Governorate, fired off a carefully worded subtweet:

The mistakes of individuals do not encumber groups, except when the latter justify them, refuse to recognize them, blame others for them, fail to apologize for them, and cover up the errant one instead of holding him to account.

Other senior Ahrar al-Sham leaders chimed in, also on social media. Abu Azzam al-Ansari, a member of the group’s Shoura Council from Homs, wrote on Twitter on Monday evening:

Our movement has not taken part in the repression of demonstrations and it would never do so, but it has fallen short in contributing to their protection and in preventing them from being exposed to others, who commit faults of both governance and of behavior.

The problem is not about flags or colors – they’re just a piece of cloth and not a single drop of Muslim blood will be shed for them. The problem is existing practices, which are based on declaring others infidels, declaring them traitors, and making accusations.

Abu Azzam went on, however, to stress how important it was to find a peaceful resolution to these problems, saying that most problems can surely be resolved by way of ”a dialogue that springs from love and good faith,” while hinting at the magnitude of the problem: ”In Syria as well as in the Islamic sphere generally, we must now engage in a dialogue with arguments, logic, and evidence, ensuring that our weapons will remain pointed at the chests of our enemies alone.”

An Emerging Faultline

These events illustrate three important dynamics at play within the Syrian opposition.

First of all, there are indeed some fundamental differences between Ahrar al-Sham and the Nusra Front. Despite their close alliance and their shared roots in the jihadi branch of salafism, Ahrar al-Sham’s leaders have increasingly sought to differentiate themselves from al-Qaida-style militancy. These differences are political, as seen in their conflict over the political process and the cease-fire, and material, as both groups relate differently to Syrian civil society and to international state supporters.

Increasingly, they are also ideological: Ahrar al-Sham seems to be engaged in what the American Syria specialist Sam Heller has termed a ”revisionist jihadi” project. By reaffirming their roots in the post-Muslim Brotherhood jihadi movements of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, Ahrar al-Sham ideologues seek to shed the burdensome legacy of modern day salafi-jihadism, which, since the September 11 attacks of 2001 and the Iraq war of 2003, has been primarily associated with international terrorism and unrestrained sectarian bloodletting. While this process is essentially a retroactive reappropriation of long-since dead ideologues and involves a good deal of cherry-picking among their contradictory statements, it nonetheless seems to represent a genuine doctrinal evolution.

Secondly, the peace process is bringing these differences to the fore. When Ahrar al-Sham decided to participate in a Saudi- and American-sponsored conference with more moderate opposition groups last December, the Nusra Front leader Abu Mohammed al-Golani spoke menacingly of ”treason,” albeit without singling out Ahrar al-Sham. (These comments did not go down well within Ahrar al-Sham, where one senior official retorted that Golani seemed ”mentally unstable.”) When the cessation of hostilities went into effect on February 27, Golani emerged again to castigate those rebel factions who were prepared to respect a deal imposed by the ”crusaders” of Russia and the United States.

The revival of 2011-style demonstrations has heightened these differences, but they have also put some wind back into the sails of Ahrar al-Sham and the moderate factions. The Nusra Front’s own two-faced attitude to the cessation of hostilities makes it seem just as hypocritical as Ahrar al-Sham to some salafi hardliners, and the resumption of demonstrations is perceived by pragmatists and non-jihadis as a popular vote of confidence in their strategy. But this effect could quickly be undone by a return to fighting, especially if perceived to have been provoked by the Assad government or Russia.

Third and last, both factions want to contain these differences, but Ahrar al-Sham is much more anxious to do so than the Nusra Front. The Nusra Front has continuously been on the offensive in ideological terms, never backing down from a challenge (perhaps because it is already cornered). By contrast, Ahrar al-Sham continues to appease the Nusra Front and other radical jihadis, to avoid bringing their differences out into the open. Even when the group does stand up for its views or seeks to protect more moderate allies against jihadi pressure, it keeps hemming and hawing, often going to great lengths to avoid mentioning the Nusra Front by name.

The most obvious reason is that Ahrar al-Sham knows that a rupture in relations between themselves and the jihadi hawks would massively undercut the opposition on the battlefield, and also that the Nusra Front is most likely too ideologically rigid to step back from a challenge involving matters of doctrine. Therefore, they need to do the compromising if any compromising is to be done.

Just as importantly, Ahrar al-Sham probably feels too weak and internally divided to stand up to its jihadi ally. In the event of a major clash, both groups would most likely split: just like Ahrar al-Sham’s military wing contains intransigent salafi-jihadis, the Nusra Front contains locally recruited Syrians and relative pragmatists willing to eschew global terrorism if it aids their cause in Syria. But here’s the nub: such a confrontation would hurt Ahrar al-Sham far worse than the Nusra Front, because while this crucial fault line passes through the edges of the Nusra Front, it runs straight through the heart of Ahrar al-Sham.

With this in mind, the events in Idlib and other opposition-controlled territories bear watching in the weeks ahead. Whatever happens to the peace process and the truce in Syria, this is a moment that could potentially reshape the ties between the Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham – and their internal dynamics, too.

Aron Lund is a nonresident associate of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the editor of Syria in Crisis.

Top image: An image from the Nusra Front Twitter page shows fighters praying after Islamic factions, including the Nusra Front, captured the town of Jisr al-Shughour from Syrian government forces in 2015. (Al-Nusra Front Twitter page via AP)