Ahrar al-Sham

FormedDecember 2011
DisbandedGroup is active.
First AttackNovember 1, 2012: Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat Al-Nusra attacked the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas, killing several Syrian army soldiers and seizing weapons and vehicles (unknown casualties). [1] 
Last AttackApril 28, 2016: Ahrar al-Sham and other militants attacked members of the U.S. -backed Syrian Democratic Forces, an umbrella organization of Kurdish and Arab fighters. Ahrar al-Sham and its allies lost 53 fighters, which represents the largest opposition death toll from clashes with Kurdish forces during the Syrian War (64 killed, unknown wounded). [2] [3]
UpdatedAugust 5, 2016

Narrative Summary

Ahrar al-Sham, also known as Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya, or the Islamic Movement of the Free Men of the Levant, is a Sunni Salafist militant group operating in Syria that aims to replace the Assad Regime with an Islamic government. [4] Hassan Abboud and other former prisoners of the Assad Regime founded Ahrar al-Sham in late 2011 after Assad freed them in an effort to placate religious protestors during the Arab Spring. [5] [6] [7] The group was initially based in the Idlib governorate but quickly expanded throughout Syria. [8] Although it conducts operations across the nation, Ahrar al-Sham remains most active in North and West Syria. [9]

Since 2012, Ahrar al-Sham has primarily coordinated attacks against the Syrian army and other militants sympathetic to the Assad Regime with Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (Fatah al-Sham), formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra. The groups became prominent by pioneering the use of IEDs in Syria as well as the practice of targeting military bases in order to capture weapons. The U.S. Director of National Intelligence considers Ahrar al-Sham and Fatah al-Sham among the most effective Syrian opposition groups. [10] Ahrar al-Sham is also known for uniting Islamist opposition forces under larger umbrella organizations. It led the formation of the Syrian Islamic Front (SIF) in 2012 and co-created The Islamic Front in 2013, which had 40,000-70,000 fighters and was Syria’s largest umbrella group. [11] [12] When these groups drifted apart, Ahrar al-Sham absorbed many of the fighters from smaller factions within the umbrella organizations.

Ahrar al-Sham worked with the Islamic State (IS) until January 2014, when IS killed an Ahrar al-Sham fighter after the group’s leader Hassan Abboud criticized IS commander Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi for rejecting reconciliation efforts between Syrian Sunni militant groups and classifying other jihadists as infidels. [13] [14] After a series of small skirmishes, Ahrar al-Sham and its allies, including Jabhat al-Nusra, began to target IS and drove it out of the Syrian city of Raqqa on January 6, 2014. [15] IS allegedly retaliated in February and September of 2014 with attacks that killed almost all of Ahrar al-Sham’s leaders, including co-founders Abu Khalid al-Suri and Hassan Abboud. [16] [17] [18] Ahrar al-Sham recovered in 2015 and has regularly clashed with IS in northern Syria. [19] It also expanded its operations against the Assad Regime in 2015 by co-creating the Jaysh al-Fatah (Army of Conquest) umbrella organization, which pushed the Syrian army out of the Idlib governorate in June 2015. [20] As a result of Jaysh al-Fatah’s victory, Turkey and Saudi Arabia began funding Ahrar al-Sham in order to bolster Syrian opposition forces. [21]

In addition to its combat operations, Ahrar al-Sham played a crucial role in negotiating ceasefires with the Assad Regime in 2015 despite its original resistance to peace talks. Ahrar al-Sham initially opposed negotiations with the Assad Regime because as a member of the Islamic Coalition, it wanted the opposition’s political activities to be run only by groups fighting inside Syria. [22] [23] However, Ahrar al-Sham eventually agreed to its first ceasefire with the Syrian Army and Hezbollah on August 12, 2015, and suspended hostilities for 48 hours in Zabadani, Al-Foua, and Kefraya. [24] This ceasefire was brokered by Turkey, who represented Ahrar al-Sham, and Iran, who was acting on behalf of the Assad Regime. In contrast to the August negotiations, Ahrar al-Sham directly represented Idlib’s Sunni militant groups in ceasefire talks with Iran in September 2015. During these talks, Ahrar al-Sham negotiated a six-month ceasefire between the Syrian Army and Hezbollah and opposition forces in Zabadani, Al-Foua, and Kefraya. It also agreed to a population exchange that expelled Shiites from Idlib and allowed Sunni militants to return to the province. [25] [26]  

In December 2015, Ahrar al-Sham withdrew from peace talks that were hosted by its ally, Saudi Arabia, after citing concerns that the parties were too sympathetic to the Assad Regime. Shortly thereafter, Ahrar al-Sham signed a statement with its allies that declared their intent to negotiate peace terms with Assad in 2016, but stated they would not allow him to remain in power for a transitional period after the war. [27] Ahrar al-Sham was also not party to the February 2016 national ceasefire, and supported the umbrella group Jaysh al-Fatah’s May offensive in Aleppo. [28] [29]

Leadership

  1. Abu Khalid al-Suri (Unknown to February 23, 2014): Suri, also known as Abu Omeir al-Shami, was one of Ahrar al-Sham’s co-founders. He also acted as Al Qaeda’s (AQ) representative in Syria and was charged with facilitating reconciliation among regional Islamist militants. Suri was killed in an alleged IS suicide bombing against Ahrar al-Sham’s headquarters in February 2014. Following his death, AQ published a eulogy for the fallen Ahrar al-Sham leader. It also posted a video documenting his participation in Al Farouq training camp in Afghanistan, including photos of him with Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri.[30]
  2. Hassan Abboud (2012 to September 9, 2014): Abboud, also known as Abu al-Hassan or Abu Abdullah al-Hamawi, co-founded and subsequently commanded Ahrar al-Sham. He also led the Islamic Front’s political office. Abboud made no public appearances during Ahrar al-Sham’s rise but established a consistent media presence after emerging in mid-2013 with an interview on Al Jazeera. He was killed in an alleged IS car bombing in Idlib that also killed other senior leaders in the Islamic Front. [31]
  3. Labib al-Nahhas (September 2014 to Present): Nahhas, also known as Abu Ezzeddine, is Ahrar al-Sham’s Foreign Affairs Director. Nahhas lived in western countries for 15 years before returning to Syria in 2010. In 2014, Nahhas joined Liwa al-Haq, a faction that merged with Ahrar al-Sham in late 2014. He became Ahrar al-Sham’s Foreign Affairs Director shortly after an attack killed most of the group’s leaders in September 2014. In addition to visiting with western diplomats, Nahhas has published opinion pieces in The Washington Post and The Telegraph that call on the West to engage with Ahrar al-Sham.[32]
  4. Sheikh Hashim al-Sheikh (September 11, 2014 to September 2015): Sheikh, also known as Abu Jaber, became Ahrar al-Sham’s interim leader after Hassan Abboud’s death. Prior to the Syrian civil war, Sheikh was imprisoned by the Assad Regime in 2005 for transferring foreign fighters to Islamic insurgents in Iraq but was released in September 2011. Before he joined Ahrar al-Sham’s Shura Council, Sheikh commanded units in the Free Syrian Army and then Ahrar al-Sham battalions in Aleppo. Under his leadership, Ahrar al-Sham launched a successful military campaign in Idlib and moderated its rhetoric in an attempt to appeal to the West. In September 2015, Sheikh stepped down as commander and left the group in order to found Jaysh Halab, an umbrella organization of Aleppo-based militant groups that includes Ahrar al-Sham. [33]
  5. Abu Yahya al-Hamawi (September 2015 to Present): In September 2015, Hamawi, also known as Muhannad al-Masri, succeeded Sheikh Hashim al-Sheikh as Ahrar al-Sham’s commander. Hamawi is from Qalaat al-Madiq, a populous Sunni Arab community in northwestern Syria, and is trained as a civil engineer. He was imprisoned several times by the Assad Regime until his final release in March 2011. After his release, Hamawi commanded many opposition units, including a brigade within the Syrian Mujahedeen, until he became Ahrar al-Sham’s head of operations in rural Hama in January 2014. In September 2014, Hamawi became Sheikh Hashim al-Sheikh’s deputy commander, a position he held until he replaced Sheikh as Ahrar al-Sham’s commander in September 2015. [34]

Ideology & Goals

Ahrar al-Sham seeks to establish a Sunni Islamic state in Syria. Unlike the Islamic State (IS) and Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, Ahrar al-Sham emphasizes that its campaign is limited to Syria and that it is not pursuing global Jihad. [35] To combat the impression of extremism, Ahrar al-Sham began rebranding itself as a moderate group in 2015. With Turkey’s help, Ahrar al-Sham is attempting to convince the United States that it is a better option for post-war Syria than IS or the Assad Regime. [36] [37]

Name Changes


Size Estimates

Designated/Listed

Ahrar al-Sham is not designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department, the United Nations, or the European Union.

Since December 2015, the UN Security Council has been trying to assemble a list of terrorist groups in Syria. Russia, Lebanon, Iraq, Egypt, and the UAE support classifying Ahrar al-Sham as a terrorist group, but they have not been able to achieve a unanimous consensus. [43] [44]

Resources

Ahrar al-Sham makes most of its money by charging trucks a toll to cross the Bab al-Hawa boarder with Turkey, but it also receives funding from sources outside of Syria. [45] Ahrar al-Sham first received foreign funding from Islamist networks in the Persian Gulf that were reportedly linked to the Qatari government. [46] Through these networks, Salafi fundraiser Sheikh Hajjaj al-Ajami became one of the group’s key donors in 2012. [47] In 2014, Qatar began funding Ahrar al-Sham. In response to Qatar funding Ahrar al-Sham and other groups in Syria, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates withdrew their ambassadors from Qatar. [48] However, Saudi Arabia and Turkey began funding Ahrar al-Sham in 2015 in a joint effort to promote the Jaysh al-Fatah umbrella group and bolster Syrian opposition forces. [49] 

Prior to 2013, Ahrar al-Sham accepted foreign fighters in order to supplement its forces. Since then, reports on Ahrar al-Sham’s stance regarding foreign fighters have varied. [50] [51] [52] Ahrar al-Sham’s military effectiveness has allowed the group to recruit a high number of local Syrian fighters. [53]

External Influences

Qatar began providing Ahrar al-Sham with weapons and money in early 2014. [54] Similarly, Saudi Arabia and Turkey began sending Ahrar al-Sham weapons and money in 2015 in a joint effort to promote the Jaysh al-Fatah umbrella group and bolster Syrian opposition forces. [55] Turkey has also pressured Ahrar al-Sham to distance itself from Jabhat Fatah al-Sham. [56]

Geographical Locations

At its inception in 2012, Ahrar al-Sham operated primarily in Idlib. [57] [58] In 2013, Ahrar al-Sham expanded its operations to Aleppo, Hama, Raqqa, Al-Hasakah, Deir al-Zour, Daraa, and Latakia. [59] [60] [61] [62] Ahrar al-Sham began operations in Quneitra in 2014, and expanded to Homs in 2015. [63] [64]

Targets & Tactics

Ahrar al-Sham was one of the first groups in Syria to use IEDs and to target military bases in order to capture weapons. [65] From 2012 to 2014, its primary targets were the Syrian army, militants who supported the Assad Regime, such as Hezbollah, and select Kurdish brigades. In 2014, Ahrar al-Sham began targeting the Islamic State. 

Ahrar al-Sham’s weapons arsenal includes tanks, mobile artillery, anti-tank missiles, and rocket and grenade launchers. As its weapons arsenal has expanded, Ahrar al-Sham has begun conducting more large-scale assaults. Also, the group allegedly has a Technical Division devoted to cyber attacks. [66] There are no reports of Ahrar al-Sham using suicide attacks despite its close ties with Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, who regularly uses suicide attacks. [67]

Political Activities

Though Ahrar al-Sham initially opposed Syrian ceasefires, it played a crucial role in ceasefire negotiations with the Assad Regime in 2015. In September 2013, Ahrar al-Sham joined the Islamic Coalition, a political group that called for opposition to the Assad Regime to be run only by groups fighting inside Syria and opposed the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces. [68] [69] Additionally, Ahrar al-Sham’s leader Hassan Abboud stated in December 2013 that the group would not abide by the results of the Geneva II peace conference, a UN-sponsored conference that included the Assad Regime and the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces. [70] [71] 

Despite its original hostility to negotiations, Ahrar al-Sham eventually agreed to its first ceasefire with the Syrian Army and Hezbollah on August 12, 2015, and suspended hostilities for 48 hours in Zabadani, Al-Foua, and Kefraya. [72] This ceasefire was brokered by Turkey, who represented Ahrar al-Sham, and Iran, who was acting on behalf of the Assad Regime. In contrast to the August negotiations, Ahrar al-Sham directly represented Idlib’s Sunni militant groups in ceasefire talks with Iran in September 2015. During these talks, Ahrar al-Sham negotiated a six-month ceasefire between the Syrian army and Hezbollah and opposition forces in Zabadani, Al-Foua, and Kefraya. It also agreed to a population exchange that expelled Shiites from Idlib and allowed Sunni militants to return to the province. [73] [74]  

In December 2015, Ahrar al-Sham withdrew from peace talks that were hosted by its ally, Saudi Arabia, after citing concerns that the parties were too sympathetic to the Assad Regime. Shortly thereafter, Ahrar al-Sham signed a statement with its allies that declared their intent to negotiate peace terms with Assad in 2016, but stated they would not allow him to remain in power for a transitional period after the war. [75] Ahrar al-Sham was also not party to the February 2016 national ceasefire. [76] 

Major Attacks

  1. November 1, 2012: Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra (Al-Nusra) attacked the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas, killing several Syrian army soldiers and seizing weapons and vehicles (unknown casualties).[77]
  2. December 2012: Ahrar al-Sham rescued NBC correspondent Richard Engel from the North Idlib Falcons Brigade, a Sunni militant group associated with the Free Syrian Army that had taken Engel as a hostage (unknown casualties).[78]
  3. March 8, 2013: Ahrar al-Sham and Al-Nusra seized Raqqa from government forces, making it the first provincial capital to come completely under the control of opposition forces (unknown casualties).[79]
  4. August 4, 2013: Ahrar al-Sham, the Islamic State (IS), Al-Nusra, Jaysh Muhajireen wal-Ansar, and Suqquor al-Izz attacked Alawite villages as part of a Latakia offensive. They killed 190 civilians, while Ahrar al-Sham only lost 3 fighters. IS and Jaysh Muhajireen wal-Ansar took 200 hostages (193+ killed, unknown wounded).[80]
  5. January 6, 2014: Ahrar al-Sham coordinated with Al-Nusra, Islamic Front units, and battalions from the Supreme Military Council to drive IS out of Raqqa. IS retook Raqqa in July 2014 (100 killed, unknown wounded).[81]
  6. June 9, 2015: Ahrar al-Sham coordinated with the Jaysh al-Fatah umbrella organization to drive the Syrian army out of Idlib province (45 killed, unknown wounded).[82]
  7. August 7, 2015: Ahrar al-Sham and Al-Nusra clashed with Assad Regime forces in al-Qarqor near Idlib province. The militants killed Ali Kan’an, a prominent Syrian army field commander (1+ killed, unknown wounded).[83]
  8. April 28, 2016: Ahrar al-Sham and other militants attacked members of the U.S. -backed Syrian Democratic Forces, an umbrella organization of Kurdish and Arab fighters. Ahrar al-Sham and its allies lost 53 fighters, which represents the largest opposition death toll from clashes with Kurdish forces during the Syrian War (64 killed, unknown wounded).[84]

Relationships with Other Groups

Many Ahrar al-Sham members are sympathetic to Al Qaeda (AQ), but there is not a formal alliance between the two groups. [85]  In 2014, AQ posted a video and photos documenting Ahrar al-Sham leader Abu Khalid al-Suri participating in the Al Farouq training camp in Afghanistan, including photos of him with Osama bin Laden and current AQ leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. [86] AQ also claimed that Hassan Abboud had been in contact with Zawahiri, and that it sent experienced fighters to assist Ahrar al-Sham in Syria. [87] Despite its early leaders’ ties to AQ, Ahrar al-Sham does not emphasize its relationship with AQ. However, it works closely with former AQ affiliate Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra. [88]  

Ahrar al-Sham opposes the Islamic State (IS). Though the groups initially cooperated with each other, IS killed a member of Ahrar al-Sham in January 2014 after Ahrar al-Sham’s leader Hassan Abboud criticized IS commander Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi for rejecting reconciliation efforts between Syrian Sunni militant groups and classifying other jihadists as infidels. [89]  [90] After a series of small skirmishes, Ahrar al-Sham and its allies, including Jabhat al-Nusra, began to target IS and drove it out of the Syrian city of Raqqa. [91] IS allegedly retaliated in February and September of 2014 with attacks that killed almost all of Ahrar al-Sham’s leaders, including co-founders Abu Khalid al-Suri and Hassan Abboud. [92] [93] [94] Since these assaults, Ahrar al-Sham has regularly clashed with IS in northern Syria. [95]

Ahrar al-Sham has been coordinating operations with its closest ally, former Al Qaeda (AQ) affiliate Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra (Al-Nusra), since late 2012, and both groups are part of the Jaysh al-Fatah umbrella organization. [96] [97] [98] [99] [100] However, tensions arose between the two groups in January 2016 when Ahrar al-Sham rejected a merger with Al-Nusra, claiming that Al-Nusra's AQ ties and pursuit of global jihad were counterproductive to the Syrian revolution. Days after the merger failed, a fight broke out between the two groups in Idlib province. Several insurgents on both sides were killed before other militant groups brokered a ceasefire. [101]  

Ahrar al-Sham is an active leader in Syrian Islamist umbrella organizations. It has formed three prominent umbrella organizations—the Syrian Islamic Front (SIF), the Islamic Front, and Jaysh al-Fatah—and often absorbs smaller groups when these organizations drift apart. Ahrar al-Sham formed its first umbrella organization, the SIF, in December 2012 in order to unite Syrian Islamic opposition forces and pursue a Syrian government that implements Shariah law. [102] While the SIF refused to come under the command of the Free Syrian Army’s (FSA) Supreme Military Council (SMC), it regularly coordinated military maneuvers with SMC affiliated brigades. [103] In January 2013, three smaller SIF members (Harakat al-Fajr al-Islamiya, Jamaat al-Taliaa al-Islamiya, and Kataeb al-Iman al-Muqatila) merged into Ahrar al-Sham, making it the SIF’s largest member. [104] 

In December 2013, Ahrar al-Sham dissolved the SIF and worked with six other militant groups (Suquor al-Sham, the Tawhid Brigade of Aleppo, Jaysh al-Islam, the Haq Brigade of Homs, the Kurdish Islamic Front (KIF), and Ansar al-Sham) to co-create the Islamic Front, the largest alliance of Syrian opposition forces that has existed in the Syrian Civil War. The Islamic Front sought to replace the Assad Regime with an Islamic government and had 40,000-70,000 fighters at its peak. [105] [106] Ahrar al-Sham led the Islamic Front’s Shariah and Political Offices, and remained one of the organization’s most influential members until the Islamic Front drifted apart in mid-2014 due to disagreements between Ahrar al-Sham and Jaysh al-Islam. [107] [108] After the Islamic Front collapsed, Ahrar al-Sham absorbed the Haq Brigade of Homs and the KIF, a brigade it allegedly helped to create in order to dismiss the impression that the Islamic Front’s conflict with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) was ethnically motivated. [109]  

In spring 2015, Ahrar al-Sham absorbed the sizeable Suqour al-Sham faction and co-created the umbrella group Jaysh al-Fatah (Army of Conquest) with Jabhat al-Nusra and other smaller brigades (Ferliq al-Sham, Ajnad al-Sham, Jaysh al-Sunnah, al-Haq Brigade, and Jund al-Aqsa). [110] [111] Since it claimed control of Idlib province in June 2015, Jaysh al-Fatah has remained a prominent umbrella organization by expanding its operations to other regions in Syria, such as Aleppo. [112] [113] [114] In addition to Jaysh al-Fatah, Ahrar al-Sham is part of Jaysh Halab, an umbrella organization that was created by former Ahrar al-Sham leader Sheikh Hashim al-Sheikh in February 2016. The group includes five FSA factions (the 101st Division, the 16th Division, the First Regiment, the Mountain Falcons Brigade and the Sultan Murad Division) and the Nur al-Din al-Zanki Islamist movement, but excludes Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra. It is unclear if Jaysh Halab has conducted any attacks. [115] On June 23, 2016, Ahrar al-Sham absorbed Jaysh al-Sham. [116]

Community Relationships

Like many opposition groups in Syria, Ahrar al-Sham has been active in providing public services to the communities under its control. [117] It maintains a relief office that engages in humanitarian missions and provides the population with food and fuel. The organization also operates water pumping stations, dams, and a road and bridge repair team. [118] [119] 

In June 2015, Ahrar al-Sham intervened to end a Jabhat al-Nusra massacre that killed 20 Druze villagers in Idlib. [120] In July 2015, Ahrar al-Sham announced in a Washington Post opinion piece that it would protect Syria’s minority communities. [121] [122]


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