Syrian Islamists reach out to the U.S., but serious issues remain

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

“As has become obvious, the Obama administration’s response to the Syrian crisis is an abject failure.”

This stinging rebuke of White House policy was the first line of an editorial published in The Washington Post on July 10. Extraordinarily, it was penned not by an exasperated Western commentator, but by a leading representative of Syrian Islamist insurgent group Ahrar al-Sham—a group that not too long ago, some U.S. officials were considering designating as a terrorist organization amid allegations of its links to al-Qaida.

The editorial’s author was someone I have come to know very well personally amid Syria’s conflict. Labib al-Nahhas is Ahrar al-Sham’s “head of foreign political relations.” Better known as Abu Ezzeddine, Nahhas is an ordinarily clean-shaven young man from Syria’s central city of Homs. Originally a political official in the Homs-based faction Liwa al-Haq, Nahhas has risen in stature since his group merged with Ahrar al-Sham in December 2014. A fluent English speaker and a seat-holder on the Executive Council of Syria’s Revolutionary Command Council (RCC), his ability to combine an understanding of both Western (he has spent time in both the United States and Europe) and Syrian mindsets has demonstrated a level of political capacity often lacking in Syrian armed revolutionary circles.

One key point made by Nahhas was his strong criticism of “the misguided way that Syrian revolutionaries are labeled as either ‘moderate’ or ‘extremist,’ and his insistence that “the term ‘moderate’ is…[so] narrow and arbitrary…that it excludes the bulk of the mainstream opposition.” In many respects, this is entirely true. After all, the ongoing $500 million U.S. mission to train and equip Syrian rebels that fit existing “moderate” parameters has brought together only 60 candidates so far. As this author wrote two years ago, dividing the Syrian insurgency into “two simple, easy to digest, categories of ‘moderate’ and ‘extremist’” reflects a dangerous simplification and a lack of genuine engaged understanding of “who” and “what” different groups represent.

By way of this criticism, Nahhas attempted to present an alternative picture of his own group:

“Our name means ‘Free Men of Syria.’ We consider ourselves a mainstream Sunni Islamic group that is led by Syrians and fights for Syrians. We are fighting for justice for the Syrian people…We believe that Syria needs a national unifying project that cannot be controlled or delivered by a single party or group and should not be bound to a single ideology. We believe in striking a balance that respects the legitimate aspirations of the majority as well as protects minority communities and enables them to play a real and positive role in Syria’s future. We believe in a moderate future for Syria that preserves the state and institutes reforms that benefit all Syrians.”

Taken in isolation, these words are to be lauded, but for many reading them as coming from Ahrar al-Sham, they are problematic. Compared to many other groups, Ahrar al-Sham is unreservedly conservative in its Islamic outlook and appearance. A number of its most senior leaders have previously been members of or maintained relationships with al-Qaida. Moreover, amid Syria’s conflict, Ahrar al-Sham has been one of the most consistent military allies of al-Qaida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra and has thus played a key role in sustaining and legitimizing al-Qaida’s prominent role within the Syrian insurgency.

Ahrar al-Sham and al-Qaida

For some, Ahrar al-Sham represents an organization sitting at least on al-Qaida’s organizational periphery. To back this up, an often cited example relates to the role of its now deceased former Aleppo leader, Mohammed al-Bahaiah (Abu Khaled al-Suri), who had been intimately close to al-Qaida’s senior leadership in the 1990s and early-2000s, especially as a trusted aide to Syrian military strategist Mustafa Setmariam Nasar (Abu Musab al-Suri). Abu Khaled was even pictured alongside Osama Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahri in al-Qaida’s notorious Farouq training camp in 2000. In May 2013, Abu Khaled was named by al-Qaida as a chosen mediator between the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra.

However, Ahrar al-Sham has consistently denied that Abu Khaled had ever been an official al-Qaida member. And contrary to the popular claim, he also had not been one of Ahrar al-Sham’s founding members, but was in fact still in a Syrian prison when the group was formed. Even after his release, he took a considerable amount of time before choosing his allegiance. “Jabhat al-Nusra tried very hard to recruit him and to give him a prominent position, but he refused,” one leading Ahrar al-Sham figure told me. “He was never Zawahri’s envoy,” another senior Ahrar al-Sham leader insisted, “he was merely asked to be the ‘referee’ between al-Nusra and Da’ish [an Arabic acronym for Islamic State] in the early stages of the conflict, due to his hierarchy and history in Islamic groups.”

This may simply be a matter of semantics, but whatever the truth, Nahhas’ words on al-Qaida were clear:

We have been falsely accused of having organizational links to Al-Qaeda and of espousing Al-Qaeda’s ideology. Nothing could be further from the truth.”

These are bold words from such a senior Ahrar al-Sham official, especially given their appearance so prominently in a U.S. newspaper. Despite this, however, the lack of any reference to Jabhat al-Nusra was starkly clear. In over 12 months of sustained face-to-face engagement with Syria’s armed opposition, this author still finds it nearly impossible to get any group, including those already successfully “vetted” by the United States, to commit to condemning Jabhat al-Nusra in front of others, Syrian or foreign.

So was Nahhas’ omission of Jabhat al-Nusra merely an extension of this broader reality? Thus far, it would seem so. By explicitly singling out al-Qaida, Nahhas was distinguishing its Syrian affiliate, or at least much of the 60 to 70 percent Syrian portion of it, as still being a potential partner in a broader and more medium-term Syrian project.

Through private discussions with a variety of Islamist actors in Syria, a clear belief emerges that remaining in close quarters with Jabhat al-Nusra is the only viable method of controlling the limits of their behavior. This may be enabling the group in the immediate term, they admit, but the consequences of a constrained but viable al-Qaida affiliate still dominated by Syrians is seen as more favorable than making the whole group an enemy. It is easy for those outside Syria to present this as a weak excuse, but when the vast majority of the Syrian opposition think and act in the same way, the dynamics at play ought to at least be acknowledged.

More broadly therefore, Nahhas’ article presented Ahrar al-Sham as “an integral, valued element of the revolutionary landscape” in Syria that has “been unfairly vilified by the Obama administration from Day One.” By and large, this self-presentation is also true, although some of the most secular-nationalist rebel groups still view Ahrar al-Sham’s dominance with a certain level of suspicion. As the leader of one U.S.-backed group reminded me, “I don’t deny that Ahrar has nothing to do with Al-Qaeda, but some of their ideas still need to be reviewed.” Another such “vetted” leader described Nahhas’ article as “an attempt by Ahrar al-Sham to wake up the Americans to Ahrar’s important role in Syria,” but cautioned that the group’s political thinking was too “intellectually close” to the Muslim Brotherhood, which he argued should be constrained.

Perhaps the one opposition movement to have been most critical of the role of conservative Islamism within the opposition has been the Southern Front. Intriguingly therefore, one of its senior representatives told this author that Nahhas’ article should be celebrated:

“Ahrar al-Sham supports a national project for Syria, one that includes everyone and this is a very good development…Ahrar’s readiness to deal with the international community and to speak directly to it in this way is also important—dialogue is the only way forward.”

Syria is still mired in conflict

Ultimately, Syria is still mired by brutal conflict, threatened by the daily indiscriminate bombardment meted out by the Assad regime and intimidated by the continued power of the Islamic State. Amid such conditions, it is far from surprising that the most powerful and durable armed groups have maintained popular credibility. Ahrar al-Sham is one of the best examples of this dynamic. From the meeting rooms of the exiled and Western-backed National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces (ETILAF) and Interim Government political leaderships to the bases of Western-backed rebels, Ahrar al-Sham retains impressive levels of respect and credibility.

Whether we like it or not, that is unlikely to change and it is likely a key reason for Nahhas’ insistence that “the Islamic State’s extremist ideology can be defeated only through a homegrown Sunni alternative—with the term ‘moderate’ defined not by CIA handlers but by Syrians themselves.” After all, it was just this broader multitude that so successfully forced the Islamic State out of the better part of four Syrian provinces in early-2014. Conversely, the U.S. train-and-equip mission has failed to fire a single bullet at the Islamic State, 12 months after being announced. For Syrians living the reality on the ground, this makes a difference.

While clearly being sharply critical of current U.S. policy, Nahhas’ most powerful message was a genuine call for political engagement—“we remain committed to dialogue,” he said. Coming from an armed Islamist group that came close to being designated and whose facilities have been targeted by U.S. aircraft at least once, this call does show an extent of political pragmatism. Ahrar al-Sham has not called for American support one key Ahrar al-Sham decision-maker told me, but instead desires “the chance for a new start, in which we acknowledge the mistakes of the past and make it clear that a political track is possible, but with the right players and the right principles.”

Such engagement in any form does not have to be a prerequisite for the provision of support, but can be merely of value in and of itself. In the case of Ahrar al-Sham specifically, such engagement would not come without its inherent risks, but it may also prove practical in ensuring at the very least that al-Qaida does not come out on top in Syria.

For this reason and others, Ahrar al-Sham’s senior leadership has been managing a gradual process of external political moderation—or some might say maturity—for at least the last 18 months. Led initially by its founding leader Hassan Abboud, this process led perhaps most notably to the publication of a “Revolutionary Covenant” in mid-May 2014, which pointedly failed to call for an Islamic State in Syria and was immediately ridiculed by senior Jabhat al-Nusra officials. One commentator went as far as to claim the covenant “might as well [have] been issued by a secular group.”

This process then continued, leading to Ahrar al-Sham joining of the Wa’tasimo unity initiative and the RCC as well as an intensified engagement in internationally backed Track II political processes. Consequently, recent comparisons made between Ahrar al-Sham and the Taliban reveal only the uninformed nature of those making them. In fact, the group has recently displayed a level of openness to ethnic and sectarian diversity that the Taliban would likely deem abhorrent. Moreover in conversations with this author prior to his death in September 2014, Hassan Abboud frequently renounced the activities and Islamic legitimacy of the Taliban.

As Ahrar al-Sham is arguably the largest Syrian armed group—commanding roughly 15,000 fighters—this moderation has not always translated down through all the organization and its rank and file. This continues to pose the most significant challenge going forward. One Islamist who spent several periods in Syrian prisons described Nahhas’ article as “sophisticated” and “distinctly mature,” but cautioned that “some military leaders are still wary of opening up to the world.” Another Free Syrian Army (FSA) leader agreed and feared such public statements could be used by extremists like Jabhat al-Nusra “to benefit by encouraging divisions with infighting within the mainstream opposition.”

But intriguingly, the leadership-defined moderation has continued apace in 2015 with the group’s most hardline military commanders involved, including several with extensive previous involvement with al-Qaida and international jihad. In a discussion with this author, one such commander made clear his commitment to the outlook presented by Nahhas:

“I totally agree and endorse the ideas he explained. The discourse is something we’ve discussed internally over previous months. It reflects our vision and the way we see ourselves in the conflict and the role we want to play in Syria and how we can help our people. I don’t only agree, I’ve been part of the discourse itself…We’re now a more mature organization than we were in 2011, but our revolutionary spirit is still the same. Ultimately, we still believe Islam represents the best political system…but the future of Syria is something for all Syrians to decide in the future.”

Ahrar al-Sham’s relations with Jabhat al-Nusra: “Actions speak louder than words”

In this sense, Ahrar al-Sham’s continued relations with Jabhat al-Nusra are highly counterproductive in terms of justifying the group’s call for international recognition and dialogue. While several European states have already begun small-level engagements with individual Ahrar al-Sham political officials in Turkey, the current White House looks extremely unlikely to give their own green light.

Here, the old adage that “actions speak louder than words” is particularly apt. Admittedly, the publication of an editorial in a major American newspaper publicly calling for engagement with the United States and rejecting links to al-Qaida is a significant step forward, but the real test—and proof—can only come from inside Syria.

While prominent political and military Ahrar al-Sham leaders have privately expressed concerns regarding Jabhat al-Nusra for roughly nine months, little has changed on the ground. Ahrar al-Sham’s subtle counterbalancing or “local balancing” of Jabhat al-Nusra may also be a reality in parts of Syria. In Idlib, the failure by the broader opposition to introduce effective civil governance amid concerted regime bombardment has opened the road again to more assertive Jabhat al-Nusra behavior, much of which has in fact targeted the Ahrar al-Sham-dominated Shariah Authority. Ultimately however, continued broader cooperation between the two groups will only ensure al-Qaida’s survival and potential prosperity in Syria and only a real change in that dynamic will be sufficient to persuade the Western world of Ahrar al-Sham’s real intentions in Syria.

Unfortunately, the apparent initiation of covert Islamic State suicide bombings in Idlib against both Ahrar al-Sham (July 14, near Salqin) and Jabhat al-Nusra (July 3, near Ariha) will likely provide more reason for unity than division.