Hassan Hassan writes: Over the past five years in Syria, Ahrar al-Sham has emerged as an important political and religious experiment. As one of the most powerful groups in Syria, Ahrar al-Sham has struggled to reconcile the legacy of many of its founders as jihadi veterans with the need for an acceptable political discourse in the war-ravaged country. As the group engages cautiously in the political process for a transition, it is also important to understand whether it has really broken away from Salafi-jihadism.
The ideology of the group is further muddled by the fact that it works closely with al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, though Ahrar al-Sham participates in political conferences and pacts that appear to deviate from the canons of jihadist organizations. After the death of its top leaders in an explosion that took place during a high-level meeting in September 2014, Ahrar al-Sham has also sought to present itself to the outside world as a moderate group and an indispensable fighting force on the ground.
Countries involved in the conflict in Syria are split about the organization. Some, primarily Russia and Iran, are pushing for its designation as a terrorist organization. Others, such as Qatar and Turkey, tried to present the organization as a moderate group and include it in the international funding scheme for nationalist rebel forces. The latter effort entailed the involvement of sponsors and clerics close to the group to steer it in that direction, combined with a public relations offensive to present the group as such.
But is Ahrar al-Sham merely a conservative Syrian faction immersed in an armed struggle against the regime of Bashar al-Assad? Or is it still a bastion of Salafi-jihadism, the movement to which its top echelon once subscribed? Ali al-Omar, the group’s deputy leader, answered some of these questions during an hour-long talk he gave on Friday, “The Place of Ahrar al-Sham Among Islamist Currents.” [Continue reading…]