An ideological split, a weak central structure and missed opportunities to cultivate allies all contributed to the group’s stunning defeat.
The swift defeat of Ahrar al-Sham by its one-time ally Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) was shocking to many people – Ahrar was, until that moment, considered one of the strongest Salafist factions in Syria. It had more manpower and, theoretically, more support, locally and regionally, than HTS.
But in an offensive begun on 18 July, HTS was quickly able to force Ahrar out of most of Idlib governorate as well as several other nearby regions. The fighting only lasted for three days after which HTS cemented its gains with a ceasefire deal. Following the agreement, Ahrar’s fighters and heavy equipment were relocated further south in Idlib and in the neighbouring governorate of Hama.
Ideological and strategic struggles within Ahrar damaged its unity and contributed to its significant setback. The group has been going through an existential ideological rivalry between two wings: pragmatists and hardliners. Pragmatic cadres want to turn the movement into a more politically accepted Islamist group by distancing themselves from Salafi-Jihadi puritanism and increasing cooperation with the West and other Syrian rebel factions. In contrast, the hardliner current embraces Salafi-Jihadi puritanism and seeks to merge with other radical groups.
This ideological struggle has shaped Ahrar’s strategies and led to the adoption of a centralist approach to win over both sides. But the group’s attempt to walk this fine line led to polarization and the inability to make strategic decisions. This rift peaked last December when hardliners united to form a new sub-faction called Jaish al-Ahrar, from which many members defected to join the newly formed HTS in January.
The mass defection was perceived as a boost to the pragmatist wing and allowed Ahrar to adopt the Syrian revolutionary flag, which has become a sign of moderation. Ahrar, nonetheless, was still unable to fully forge a clear, unified and strong ideological identity that could successfully rally its members behind it. This became clear during attacks on the group, when the majority of Ahrar’s subgroups only focused on their own survival instead of protecting their fellow members.
A double-edged sword
Ahrar’s size and structure are a double edged sword. On one hand they increase the group’s resources and manpower and allow it to control different strategic locations. But at the same time, they make its structure loose, which increases the power of local leaders at the expense of the central command and turns Ahrar into different local groups coordinating together instead of being one unified body.
The localized nature of the Syrian conflict has significantly shaped the way local communities and factions perceive themselves and their interests, which has limited them largely to their own towns or villages. Ahrar’s inability to create a disciplined central force able to operate and be swiftly deployed across regions has limited the group’s ability to mobilize its forces to counter HTS attacks. According to the Syrian analyst Ahmad Abazeid, Ahrar’s central force only includes around 800 fighters, based at the Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey.
Ahrar also missed the chance to build alliances. Ahrar’s was stripped of reliable partners by its decision to stay on the sidelines when HTS antecedent Jabhat al-Nusra was eliminating the Free Syrian Army groups (FSA), as Nusra gradually picked off these moderates. Then in January, when some groups decided to merge with Ahrar in the face of an assault from Nusra’s next incarnation, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, Ahrar did not use its forces to protect its new members who were under attack. Instead, it waited until a ceasefire was agreed with HTS, newly formed out of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham and other groups.
Moreover, Ahrar attacked the military bases of two groups that joined it – Fastaqim Kama Umirta and Jaish al-Islam, in Baskaba village in Idlib – in order to prevent HTS, which questioned the sincerity of their merger with Ahrar, from capturing the area. These incidents not only made it easier for HTS to capture those areas, but they also sowed distrust of Ahrar in some rebel groups, including factions within Ahrar. Additionally, due to the group’s unwillingness to fight HTS, Ahrar did not try to build alliances with local communities and factions that view HTS as a common enemy.
The decisive battle
In contrast to Ahrar, HTS has long experience in manipulating local communities and factions to focus on their short-term survival, and ignore the consequences. As soon as the fighting started, HTS started brokering local deals with different towns and rebel factions to sideline them and prevent Ahrar from allying with them. These deals included towns and groups that do not have a direct stake in the fight to towns that are traditionally against HTS (like Attarib and Saraqib), which agreed to stay neutral to prevent intercommunity clashes between supporters of either group. HTS was even able to neutralize towns that have traditionally supported Ahrar (such as Binish Taftanaz as well as many subgroups within Ahrar (such as Qatie al-Badia, one of Ahrar’s biggest factions), which either agreed not to fight against HTS in order not to kill other Muslims and get distracted from fighting Assad, or joined HTS for protection. HTS was also able to use these local deals to block Ahrar’s reinforcements by not allowing them to enter these areas.
Additionally, HTS depended on its central force, which belongs to JFS, as well as its alliance with other groups like the Uyghur jihadi group Turkistan Islamic Party, to quickly capture Ahrar’s strategic locations, such as border crossings with Turkey and nearby towns. As a result, only a few Ahrar factions fought back and were able to defeat HTS in their areas, such as Suqur al-Sham faction in Jabal al-Zawyia. The battle ended in a siege of Ahrar’s entrenched leaders at the Bab al-Hawa crossing, who were then forced to negotiate what is essentially a surrender.
Despite Ahrar’s immense setback, the group still has a presence in some areas in Idlib, rural Hama and in the Turkish-led Euphrates Shield-held territories in Jarablus and al-Bab. Furthermore, the group has recently rearranged its top command in an attempt to overcome the ramifications of its defeat. The group’s new leader, Hassan Soufan, a charismatic and respected figure who was recently released in a prisoner swap with the Syrian regime, admitted in his first recorded statement that the group’s defeat was due to internal dysfunctions and weaknesses rather than the strength of its enemy. Recognizing Ahrar’s weaknesses and mistakes is a step in the right direction but only transformative changes will allow the group to stand on its feet again.#
Haid Haid is a Consulting Research Fellow in the Middle East and North Africa programme at Chatham House and Syrian columnist who focuses on security policies, conflict resolution, Kurdish and Islamist movements.