The idea of establishing Ahrrar Al Sham dates back to 2003 following the American invasion of Iraq, especially following the fall of Saddam Husein Regime represented in the fall of Baghdad. That period was marked with the emergence of Jihadist movements and activities. At that time, Syria was a pass and a logistic supporter to the movements of activists, caretaker of the injured, funding and media marketing. These activities were done under full supervision and patronage of the Syrian Regime.
Some Syrians, who were very close to the Al Qaeda and later took part in the initiation of Ahrrar Al Sham, were fully aware of the fact that the ideology and philosophy of Al Qaeda would never serve the Islamic project in Syria. They knew that Al Qaeda would be very harmful and dangerous to the destiny of Islamic project in Syria. This group of Syrians had a different view of other Islamic projects mainly the project of Muslim Brothers. Muslim Brothers proved to a failure and unable to achieve their goals in many Arab Countries. Syrian advocators of the project concluded that those previous projects were unreliable and in vain.
The need for a new Islamic project was locally discussed in Lebanon by such a small group of thinkers. They not more than five persons who met in Lebanon and founded the new movement. They avoided any approach to the ideology of Al Qaeda or Muslim Brothers. Later, the number increased to about 25 persons inside Syria. Idlib Province was the basis and mainly in Benish which constituted a main human resource. Abu Yousef, Abu Jamal Kutob were, among others, the founders of the new project.
The Syrian security circles were fully aware of what was going on. They were closely monitoring the movements of Jihadists coming back from Iraq. Therefore, in 2007, launched a campaign against those Jihadists, and arrested tens of them. Four of the five focal persons, who met in Lebanon, were arrested. Some other members who joined the Ahrrar Al Sham movement later were also arrested.
The notorious Saydnaya Prison was a forum for the advocators of different Islamic Movements. This prison was a suitable place for Islamists to deliver their thoughts to other prisoners. Many prisoners in Saydnaya had the chance to get introduced to Al Qaeda Ideology. Prisoners exchanged ideas with Al Qaeda leaders who coincidently stayed there. Ahrrar Al Sham pioneers were quite certain that Al Qaeda ideology is not applicable and should be avoided. Difference, distinction and sidelining were clearer every other day. The hostility between the two trends developed into a conflict following the Saydnaya turbulence in 2008 when prisoners managed to take the prison over before the Syrian Regime took initiative and killed tens of them.
Declaration of Ahrrar Al Sham Movement
After the start of Syrian Revolution when Syrian started demonstration demanding freedom, democracy and justice for Syrians, Assad Regime released hundreds of Saydnaya prisoners in 2011. All of them had Islamic inclinations.
The release of Islamists who used to fight in Iraq was a turning point in the history of Syrian Revolution. Those former prisoners took up to form Islamic fighting groups as distinct groups different from Free Syrian Army, which was committed to the agenda of Syrian revolution.
Ahrrar Al Sham was declared on 31 January 2013 as result of fusion of Ahrrar Al Sham battalions, Islamic Talia’a, Al Imman Brigades, Al Fajre Brigades, Kurdish Islamic Front and Deier Ezzour Martyrs.
Shaikh Hassan Aboud was chosen as a leader. Soon, the movement got momentum and spread very widely around the country. Its influence was growing. Ahrrar Al Sham benefited from the relations with former prisoners of other Provinces around the country. This influence helped it get funding and get weaponry from different resources.
Ideology and mentality
Ahrrar Al Sham was keen on adapting a new Islamic trend different from those of Al Qaeda and Muslim Brothers. This mentality was the compass to guide the performance of its leaders. This was clearly stated by its leader Hassan Aboud. Al Qaeda and Muslim Brothers were fiercely competing to win the movement on their side. Al Qaeda and Muslim Brother were keen on benefiting from the limitless resources and capabilities of Ahrrar Al Sham especially after the advance they made in the field. Its achievements made it very public.
It is worth mentioning that the time spent in prison changed the mentality of Ahrrar Al Sham leaders and widened the gap between them and Al Qaeda and its hierarchy. However, Ahrrar Al Sham was not very far away from the mentality of Salafi Jihadism although they did not explicitly adopted it. Ahrrar Al Sham was the first fighting group that abandoned the doctrine of Free Syrian Army. Ahrrar Al Sham had negative attitude towards officers who defected from Assad Army. The movement also applauded foreign fighters especially Egyptians. This was an indicator of their relations to Al Nour Party in Egypt. This Egyptian Party is known for its Salafi ideology supported by Saudi Arabia.
When ISIS appeared and got very brutal, leaders of Ahrrar Al Sham were very aware of ISIS dangerous mentality and its effects on the Syrian Revolution. So, leaders of Ahrrar Al Sham started a comprehensive revision of the ideology of their movement. This lead to signing an honor agreement with Free Syrian Army and they became part of the Revolution Leadership Council.
Ahrrar Al Sham and Politics
Politics was not a priority for Ahrrar Al Sham. They rarely thought about it. Politics was not among their concerns. It was an accidental activity. Their primary concern was religion-motivated military movement. It is known that Ahrrar Al Sham did not have a political office. Instead, they worked within the political office of the Islamic Front. They first though of establishing a political office in March 2013. They proposed this idea to one of the specialists, and he did not see any point in this idea and he thought it was not going to be successful. As late as end of 2014, they initiated a political office. This office was represented by Labib Al Nahass and Mujahed Dairanyah, who were much of Muslim Brothers. It became a trend to have a political office for a movement like Ahrrar l Sham, and the task of such office is to market the movement and communicate with the world. Those working in this office used to attend meetings and forums when necessary. There was no criteria for choosing those, who worked in this office. There was not any harmony among those of the political office.
A turning point and beginning of the end
Internal and external dynamics:
The assassination of Ahrrar Al Sham leaders in Ram Hamdan near Idlibwas turning point in the history of the movement. It was a deadly attack that broke the backbone of the movement and its predisposition.
In this attack in Ram Hamdan, many of the advocators of Ahrrar Al Sham were killed. The result was that a new generation came over to the scene and took the lead. Ahrrar Al Sham used to live in a conflict between two trends one that favors Al Qaeda and the other that represents Muslim Brothers. Muslim Brothers managed to penetrate to the top leadership. For example, Abu Talha became the military leader together with Talal Al Ahmad and Khalid Al Yasein. This split in ideology caused many problems for the doctrine of the movement. The structure of the movement itself was affected and internal conflicts were even greater than the external conflicts. Ahrrar Al Sham was divided into two predispositions:
- One trend that is described to be Salafi and Jihadi, which is very similar to Al Qaeda.
- One trend attributed to Muslim Brothers, who play the tricks of politics and is very pragmatic.
The inclination to merger with other groups as well as the random expansion of the movement aiming at increasing the number of members of Ahrrar Al Sham had negative effects on the administrative and financial structure of the movement. The movement did not have a leading cabinet. The number of its members mounted to about 11000 militants before Ram Hamdan attack. Tis big number was a real burden in terms of administration and funding. Some resources affirmed that the movement had to spend about 5 million US $ a month. They used to deliberate this issue as many asked for a cut down of the number to 3000 dedicated members. Leaders were fully aware of the risks of the situation with great number because this meant that the movement had to make concessions to the foreign supporters as local resources were never enough. The suggestion to decrease the number was based on the assumption that the movement should stop merger process and decrease the number so that it could do without external support. Some said that the merger and increase in the number was a recommendation made by supporters to keep the movement subject to external pressure. Leaders of the movement succeeded in stopping random increase and merger policy. This continued until 9 September 2014 when Ram Hamdan assassination attack was launched. Soon merger policy and random increase went on again and the merger with Al Haq Brigade and Sham Falcons, who are much of Muslim Brothers. Three separated wings or offices were formed:
- Political office
- Military office
- Legal office
Following the assassination of the top leaders of the movement, there were attempts to invigorate the movement by increasing the support provided to fill the gap made by the absence of qualified leaders and proficient personnel. Assigning new inexperienced leaders and the random increase of numbers that mounted up to 35000 led to a decline in the loyalty of most members and some of the new leaders. The tendency to favour private interests pushed leaders to nominate weak leaders to maintain the interests of second rank of leaders. Leaders like Abu Abdullah Kurdi and Abu Saleh Tahan were neutralized. There two leaders belong to the former devoted generation.
Nomination of Abu Jaber Al Shaeikh, who is originally not convinced with the ideology of the movement, is considered one of the most tragic stage in the history of the movement. His leadership made a good chance for the second rank leaders to take over. These new leaders used to have problems with the pioneers of the movement who were killed in Ram Hamdan attack. The new leaders became policy and decision makers. Shortly after that, Abu Saleh Tahan and Hashem Al Sheikh defected and joined HTS. Muhammad Al Omar, a Muslim Brother took over.
New weak and novice leaders, who were not in harmony with each other, made the movement unable to survive and get out of the unclear vision. This situation badly reflected on the movement and its military, political and civil performance.
The preparation for and attendance of Astana Conference constituted a very crucial turning point in the relationships between Ahrrar Al Sham and Turkey. The reluctance and no response on the part of the movement made the Turks reconsider their relations with the movement. They concluded that Ahrrar Al Sham was not a reliable partner because of their reluctance and hesitation. Ahrrar Al Sham did not positively respond to the Turkish invitation to Astana, therefore Turkey reconsidered its relation with them. We all remember the Turkish testing balloon that its armed forces might enter Idlib to fight terror ad protect its border territories. Ahrrar Al Sham declared that they would neither help in the war against terror nor fight against the Turkish intervention and project. The loss of Idlib, which is the cradle and fortification for Ahrrar A Sham, represents the end of Ahrrar Al Sham as a military or civil entity on the ground.
When scrutinizing the latest events in Idlib Province between 18 – 21 July 2017 and the quick conquer of Idlib Province by HTS, will clearly notice that Turkey was just watching the preparations of HTS and the collapse of Ahrrar Al Sham. By doing this, Turkey facilitated and speeded up the collapse, an unexpected collapse, which shocked all observers. Turkey seemed to have shot the movement with a mercy bullet to declare the official end of the movement.
It is very useful to say that Ahrrar Al Sam failed in meeting the requirements of its operators and supporters and therefore it was not successful in managing and maintaining its interests.
Options available for individuals and groups of Ahrrar Al Sham:
There will be many options for brigades, battalions and individuals working with Ahrrar Al Sham. These options will be affected by many factors. Ideological perspectives, financial need, security concerns, individual ambitions and private projects will all guide them to one of the following options:
- Selling their arms
- Joining HTS
- Changing into looting gangs
- Joining another r territorial project which has some local interests like Syrian Democratic Forces
- Handover of weaponry to HTS
- Starting a new military endeavor away from the control of HTS
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