First Published: 2013-02-13

 

Another Afghanistan in making: Ahrar al-Sham jihadists emerge from shadows in Syria

 

Victories of Ahrar al-Sham jihadists, trumpeted on Internet, have been accomplished thanks to financial backing from Gulf Arab countries.

 

Middle East Online

By Herve Bar - ATME (Syria)

Most of Ahrar al-Sham's fighters are Syrian nationals

Jihadist group Ahrar al-Sham is emerging from the shadows of the larger rebel outfit Al-Nusra Front as key player in northern Syria, playing up its nationalist roots and more moderate form of Islam.

Fighters from the group, whose name means in Arabic the "Free Men of Syria", are mainly to be found on the battlefields in the northern provinces of Idlib, Aleppo and central Hama alongside some 30 other jihadist organisations.

For a long time it was eclipsed by the hardline Al-Nusra Front which has claimed responsibility for the majority of deadly suicide bombings in Syria's nearly two-year conflict and is blacklisted by Washington as a terror outfit.

But in recent months Ahrar al-Sham has begun unleashing its fighters across the battlefronts, especially in Idlib where they played a leading role in advances around the city of Jisr al-Shughur, a reporter said.

Its fighters are also on the frontlines of the battles around the city of Idlib and further south in Maarat al-Numan.

Their victories have been trumpeted on the Internet and, rebel sources say, have been accomplished thanks to financial backing from Gulf Arab countries.

At the end of December, Ahrar al-Sham announced the creation of an Islamic front grouping a dozen of other organisations including Ansar al-Sham, Liwa al-Haq and Jamaat al-Taliaa.

On January 31 several other groups announced on a statement posted on the Internet that they had joined forces with Ahrar al-Sham to form a broader coalition dubbed "Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya" (The Islamic Movement of Ahrar al-Sham).

Although some Arab jihadists fight amongst their ranks, most of Ahrar al-Sham's fighters are Syrian nationals while the group's founders, according to a source close to it, were former political prisoners released in an amnesty.

"The founders of the movement are all former political prisoners who were detained in the infamous Sednaya prison near Damascus," the source said.

"For years they lived and suffered together in jail (but) were set free as part of an amnesty ordered by the regime in May 2011."

The group appears to be well-structured although the names of their commanders are not in the public domain. However, a fighter known as Abu Anas is the leader for battlegrounds in northern Syria.

One of Ahrar al-Sham's strengths is that it has deep roots in northern rebel-held territory, where unlike the shadowy Al-Nusra Front, its men enjoy grassroots support because some are from the villages and cities of the region.

The group's approach to Islam is less rigid that the position of Al-Nusra Front -- which Washington says has links to Al-Qaeda in Iraq -- with group leaders insisting they oppose "fanaticism."

Ahrar al-Sham supports the creation of an Islamic state in Syria but one that is based on sharia, Islamic law that would guarantee the rights of minorities including Christians.

"Their rhetoric is loaded with Islamic references but... deep down their goal is to restore the sovereignty of the Syrian people and do away with dictatorship," said Jean-Pierre Filiu, an expert on jihadist movements.

On the ground Ahrar al-Sham fight sometimes alongside the mainstream rebel Free Syrian Army and Al-Nusra, joining in attacks on regime military targets -- but apparently refrain from taking part in suicide bombings.

Like other jihadists their fighters wear black turbans and their beards long, and fly a white flag with an eagle soaring over the name of the group on their checkpoints.

 

Kerry in Qatar for talks on Iran nuclear deal

‘Intense awareness of interests’ but no ‘perfect agreement between Egypt and US

Saudi king cuts short French Riviera holiday

Egypt leader amends electoral law

Iraq TV comedian combats jihadists with laughs

UAE prosecutor refers 41 people to trial on terrorism charges

Kerry to Middle East allies: Iran deal will make region safer

Egypt court again postpones verdict in retrial of Jazeera reporters

Al-Nusra Front releases video to show ‘capture’ of US-trained rebels

Israel faces mounting pressure after baby killing in arson attack

'PKK suicide attack' kills two soldiers in eastern Turkey

Egypt court postpones verdict on brother of Ayman al-Zawahiri

Immigration surpasses economy as major concern in Europe

Plane crash kills family members of Bin Laden

Iraq protesters vent anger over poor services

ISIS flexes muscles in eastern Libya

Syria army pushes back rebels near Latakia province

Arbil urges PKK to move out of Iraq Kurdistan

Yemen government returns to Aden with eyes set on Sanaa

Erdogan calls for early elections if no coalition

Palestinian baby killed in arson attack by Jewish settlers

Kurds in Diyarbakir fear return to war

State of emergency in Tunisia extended

Jerusalem Gay Pride attack suspect lashes out in court

'Kurdish Obama' faces his biggest test

Yemen blockade 'killing' as many civilians as war

EU urges Israel to show 'zero tolerance for settler violence'

Cash-strapped Tunisia's Syphax airline grounds flights

Pentagon denies US-trained rebels captured in Syria

Morocco king calls for development of remote regions

Host of US celebrities endorses Iran nuclear deal

PKK braces for fight with Turkey in Iraq mountain bastions

Kurdish party chief dismisses Turkey anti-IS raids

Thomas Cook warns Tunisia attacks affect annual results

Three Al-Jazeera journalists await Egypt retrial verdict

Kuwait uncovers new IS cell

One Turkish police killed in attack blamed on PKK

Israel approves law allowing force feeding of prisoners

New sexist gaffe of Turkish deputy PM: 'As a woman, be quiet!

UN envoy invites Syrians to ‘thematic’ talks

Egypt's gift to the world: Suez Canal Axis

Pentagon to worried lawmakers: We will remain vigilant on Iran

Hamas calls for revolt against Palestinian Authority

ISIS claims deadly car bomb in Yemen capital

Allies tolerate Turkey's double game to boost IS fight