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A Strong Ahrar al-Sham Is A Strong Nusra Front
By Maxwell Martin
Members of Ahrar al-Sham and the Nusra Front at a public reconciliation meeting affirming their allegiance
Following the merger of two of Syria’s most prominent Islamist insurgent groups (Suqur al-Sham into Ahrar al-Sham), some commentators concluded that they were moving to counterbalance the Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s official Syrian affiliate. But are Syrian Islamists interested in countering the al-Qaeda affiliate or will they enable it by bringing its behavior more in line with Syrian revolutionary values?
Ahrar al-Sham and the Nusra Front on a collision course?
After Ahrar al-Sham, a highly influential salafi armed group in Syria, absorbed allied Islamist faction Suqur al-Sham last month, a number of observers noted that the move appeared designed to “counter” the growing power of the Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s official Syrian affiliate. “Are Syrian Islamists moving to counterbalance al-Qaeda?” asked Charles Lister in a recent column for the Brookings Institution. Answering this question in the affirmative, Lister added that Islamist groups actually share some fundamental objectives with the United States and its allies, among them, “to combat extremism and re-assert Syrian values of equality across ethnicity and sect.” Suleiman al-Khalidi, writing for Reuters, noted that the merger between Ahrar al-Sham and Suqur al-Sham “counters al-Qaeda’s clout,” later describing Ahrar al-Sham as a “rival” to Nusra.
Why would Ahrar al-Sham be moving now to counter Nusra, one of its closest allies in the fight against the Assad regime in Syria? Ahrar al-Sham, the argument goes, has grown uncomfortable with Nusra’s increasingly assertive behavior, particularly in the north where the group has, since July 2014, attacked and destroyed several more moderate Western-backed groups, withdrawn from joint governance schemes with other rebels, and established an exclusivist jihadi-only court system that rules according to a constrictive interpretation of Islamic law that is out of sync with local sensibilities. Ahrar al-Sham and its Islamist allies, being both more representative of the local population and more moderate, therefore have an interest in checking Nusra and preventing it from turning into a copy of the Islamic State.
Some readers of those arguments may have found it curious, then, that only two days after the Ahrar al-Sham merger purportedly aimed at countering Nusra, both groups teamed up to achieve the most important rebel victory in more than two years: the takeover of Idlib city from the regime, only the second provincial capital to fall completely into rebel hands. The victory was a boon to both groups, extending their influence and territorial control while boosting rebel morale after a series of setbacks. For Nusra, the victory was especially important: it had gained an important foothold in the largest rebel-held city in Syria not controlled by the Islamic State and in so doing had demonstrated its anti-regime credentials in spectacular fashion. The victory brought it and al-Qaeda one step closer to reclaiming the mantle of global salafi-jihadism after having lost much ground to the Islamic State between summer 2013 and fall 2014. And it would have not been possible without Ahrar al-Sham.
What are we to make of this? Can we reasonably describe Ahrar al-Sham as “countering” the Nusra Front when both groups have and continue to feed off each other’s successes?
A different kind of countering
The answer to this question requires us to more carefully specify what we mean when we say that Ahrar al-Sham is moving to “counter” Nusra or that it will act as a “counterweight” or “counterbalance.” Specifically, we can think about two important ways in which Ahrar could counter Nusra. First, Ahrar could act as a strategic counterweight by working to alienate the latter from the broader insurgency. We can call this “strategic balancing.” This type of countering would entail, at a minimum, cutting ties with the Nusra Front and abstaining from any action that helps it expand its territorial reach and garner popular support. At a maximum, it would include actively degrading the Nusra Front militarily. This is what would be required of a group committed “to combat extremism and re-assert Syrian values of equality across ethnicity and sect.”
However, Ahrar al-Sham could also act in a much more limited capacity and provide a check on certain Nusra behaviors, particularly on the local level and in terms of the group’s treatment of civilians. We can call this “local balancing.” In local balancing, Ahrar al-Sham would seek to bring Nusra’s behavior back in line with Syrian sensibilities and within the bounds of revolutionary acceptability. In this case, Ahrar al-Sham could counter Nusra’s increasingly assertive, extremist and unilateral approach to ruling rebel-held territories. But Ahrar al-Sham in this case would not be preventing the Nusra Front from extending its presence and influence into new territories, participating cooperatively in governance, maintaining bases and training camps, and carrying out da’wa—religious outreach and indoctrination—activities with local populations. In other words, Ahrar could counter some Nusra behaviors with which it does not agree, particularly in governance, but not the group itself.
More convergence than divergence
So what is the state of the Ahrar al-Sham-Nusra Front relationship—strategic balancing or local balancing? The evidence indicates that it is the latter, not the former, meaning Ahrar al-Sham’s behaviors are not likely to help root out al-Qaeda in any meaningful sense from the insurgency or to prevent Nusra from continuing to expand its influence in Syria. What it is likely to do is to keep Nusra’s most regressive tendencies in check (possibly helping it generate more popular support and legitimacy than it has already garnered).
The main source of friction of late between the two groups indicates Ahrar al-Sham will tend toward local balancing. Much of Ahrar al-Sham’s apprehensions are a result of Nusra’s behavior in the north and its approach to governance, represented in Dar al-Qada, its jihadi-only court network that is strong in much of Idlib and parts of Latakia and Aleppo provinces. Since it was established in July 2014, Dar al-Qada—which is in most cases directly subordinate to the Nusra Front with allied (and even more extreme) jihadi factions such as Jund al-Aqsa participating—has aggressively instituted a range of extreme legal and social codes that other groups, including Ahrar al-Sham, have been loath to implement. The list of reported abuses that Dar al-Qada, Nusra, and its allies have committed is lengthy and includes whipping a man in July 2014 for cursing religion, publicly shooting two women in a single week for prostitution, stoning a man and woman for adultery, forcing Druze communities in Idlib to convert to Islam, raiding an opposition radio station and women’s center in Kafranbel, and beating several women and activists in addition to lesser forms of extremism such as forcing cafes with billiards, computer games, and foosball to close.
On the ground, Ahrar al-Sham contingents have been opposed to these practices and have worked to prevent them from spreading. The Islamic Commission, an Ahrar al-Sham-backed governance body that includes a network of courts, does not implement such regressive regulations. Its courts mostly implement the Unified Arab Code, a written interpretation of Islamic law that more extremist factions reject. Ahrar al-Sham-backed courts have ignored some of the harsher regulations such as stoning and hand amputation. Although the code does stipulate such punishments, Ahrar al-Sham’s position seems to be that the conditions for implementing such a strict legal code have not been met, not that the group is opposed to them in principle. Nonetheless, these differences have a real impact on how both groups treat civilians, and locals in Idlib who can compare between the Islamic Commission’s courts and Dar al-Qada have noticed the difference.
However, Ahrar al-Sham’s posture toward a newly assertive Nusra should also not be interpreted as an entirely new development. The two groups have publicly traded barbs over a variety of issues for years and the growing alarm that Ahrar al-Sham’s old leadership felt toward Nusra’s brand of globally focused salafi-jihadism is well known. In all cases, both groups chose to continue to work closely together on the battlefield, quickly resolving disputes, and affirming their intention to remain close allies in their efforts to defeat the regime and build an Islamic state.
Ahrar al-Sham and Nusra’s refusal let their differences come between them speaks to the bonds that continue to tie both together. Both current and past members of Ahrar al-Sham’s leadership have been tied up in al-Qaeda-linked and international salafi-jihadi circles for years and it is likely that Ahrar al-Sham provided financial support to Nusra when the latter was left crippled after the announcement of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant in May 2013. Like Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham envisions an un-democratic and hardline Islamic state and both groups have cast the conflict in highly sectarian terms. Finally, military cooperation between both groups has been essential for their success.
These links and the amicability and swiftness with which both groups have gone about resolving their disputes does not paint a picture of an Ahrar al-Sham that will act as a strategic counterweight to the Nusra Front. Nor does it seem to portray a group willing to realign from Nusra, as some have claimed, especially when taking Ahrar al-Sham’s larger size into account. Instead, what emerges is a more nationally focused but still ideologically rigid group seeking to correct what they consider to be the self-destructive tendencies of a close sibling, possibly holding out hopes that Nusra will be convinced to jettison some of its global jihadist baggage. Regardless of whether or not such hopes are realistic, they mean that Ahrar al-Sham is not opposed to Nusra’s prominent role within the Syrian insurgency or its desire to shape the future of governance in Syria, both during and after the conflict.
In this sense, an Ahrar al-Sham that seeks to keep Nusra within certain bounds through local balancing is actually enabling the al-Qaeda group, ensuring that its ideological commitments do not put it outside the bounds of popular and revolutionary legitimacy.
Ahrar al-Sham is, however, only one side of the equation. Nusra’s intent is also important to understand the extent to which Ahrar al-Sham is countering anything at all. Again, evidence suggests that on a broader strategic level, Nusra remains more nimble than its fast-forward approach to jihadi governance in the north might suggest. Al-Jolani’s pledge that the group did not seek to monopolize power in Idlib city—delivered just a few days after the expulsion of the regime, Nusra’s participation in a joint security body for the city, and its agreement to form a joint judicial and administrative structures with Ahrar al-Sham and other rebels—seem to indicate that Nusra is willing to work within any constraints that “local balancing” would place on it. For al-Jolani, the cooperative approach was an easy decision to make: Nusra fighters were a minority in the assault against Idlib city, so any post liberation configuration was bound to require more cooperation.
But Nusra’s multilateral approach in Idlib city should not be interpreted as a concession, as it is consistent with the group’s mostly non-coercive strategy applied throughout the war, still in effect in many areas where the group is present. In fact, Nusra has been most proactive about setting up Dar al-Qada branches where it had already been strong or where it filled a vacuum left by the Western-backed groups it recently destroyed. In areas controlled primarily by allied groups such as Ahrar al-Sham, it has been less inclined to impose its own courts. In other words, the growth of Nusra’s most regressive tendencies is partly a function of its anti-moderate posture, which Ahrar al-Sham declined to do anything to stop and even appeared to encourage at one point. Where Nusra still coexists with allies, it remains keenly aware of the need to adhere to multilateralism—and is willing to publicly defend such an approach—if it intends to maintain its base of popular legitimacy that has, thus far, helped the group weave itself deeply into the fabric of the Syrian insurgency.
It remains true that a strong Ahrar al-Sham means a strong Nusra Front in Syria. The relationship between Ahrar al-Sham and Nusra more closely resembles a “local balancing” configuration, where the former will attempt to steer the latter’s behavior toward less overtly “extremist” outcomes, but refrain from acting as a strategic counterweight to the group. Local balancing aims to maintain the symbiotic relationship that Ahrar al-Sham and Nusra have enjoyed throughout the war, especially on the battlefield. As such, Ahrar al-Sham’s preferred outcome, a Nusra Front that maintains popular and revolutionary legitimacy through multilateralism and moderation in its approach to governance, may actually enable the al-Qaeda franchise to expand its overall influence and popularity within the insurgency. It will also enable the group to maintain its influence over a larger geographic area. Thus, local balancing poses a challenge to Western policymakers because it may ensure that the Nusra Front remains an inextricable part of the “mainstream”—that is, non-Islamic State-affiliated—rebellion, even as it betrays some fundamental differences between the two groups.
Maxwell Martin, an analyst for the Stabilisation Network, a security and CVE consultancy based in London and Washington D.C. He tweets as @wilayatnowhere.