Ahrar al-Sham’s apocalyptic vision for Syria and beyond

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Despite claims that Syrian rebel group Ahrar al-Sham is taking a ‘moderate’ turn, its leaders still pursue a sectarian vision for the region

Apparently, Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya (the Islamic Movement of the Free Men of Syria), one of the largest rebel groups in Syria, is going through a moderate ideological transformation.

At least that’s what one would think from the recent spate of PR, suggesting Washington should ally with the group.

Ahrar plays a lead role alongside al-Qaeda’s Syrian arm, Jabhut al-Nusra, in the wider rebel coalition, Jaish al Fatah (the Army of Conquest).

The Army of Conquest, which includes “moderate” rebels, receives weapons, funding and logistical support from US-led coalition allies, especially Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey.

In April, US commanders at the operations room in southern Turkey green-lighted coordination between Islamist factions and “moderate” vetted rebel groups. Then in July, the US agreed to Turkish demands to create a de facto “safe zone” in northwest Syria along the border, supported by US air cover – a move that if implemented would empower Ahrar and al-Nusra.

Around the same time, former US Ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, urged the Obama administration to open talks with Ahrar al-Sham, or face being “left behind” from the race to “influence” the “fate of Syria”.

Similarly, last month Syria analyst Sam Heller pointed to interviews where Ahrar representatives disavowed past connections to “Salafi-jihadism,” raising the prospect of a more moderate “revisionist school” of jihadism.

Ahrar’s professed rejection of “Salafi-jihadism,” argued Heller, manifests in fundamental disagreements with Islamic State (IS) and al-Nusra on popular inclusion, Sharia (Islamic law) and political strategy.

“It is a sort of Salafist reformation within jihadism itself, casting off some of the accumulated mythology of Salafi-jihadism,” wrote Heller. “In that sense, some have compared it to the big-tent, pre-Salafi-jihadist militancy of Abdullah Azzam – albeit filtered through the region’s newly charged sectarianism – a comparison with which interviewees agreed.”

But Abdullah Azzam, Osama bin Laden’s mentor and founder of the pan-Islamist jihad against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, was not “pre-Salafi”.

Salafism, a movement within Sunni Islam, advocates returning to “authentic” Islam as encapsulated by the first three generations of Muslims after Prophet Muhammad. What Heller and others fail to grasp – and what the ideologues of Ahrar are obscuring – is that “Salafism” itself is a broad tent.

Salafis are simply those who, in demanding strict emulation of the Prophet, reject a role for human reason and experience in understanding Islam.

The focus on banishing deviant traditions by adhering strictly to its own purportedly literalist readings of Islamic texts, distinguishes Salafism from majority Sunni and Shia sects.

But like those schools, Salafis still differ as to what such alleged literalism means, and is therefore a diverse tradition that has undergone profound changes, with numerous regional variations. While many Salafists reject political participation as a form of shirk (polytheism), others embrace party political engagement to defend society from secularism, while increasingly, Western Salafists see democracy as legitimate if it permits Muslims to practice freely – and a minority,  of course, embrace military jihadism.

As noted by Shane Drennan of the University of St Andrew’s Centre for the Study of Terrorism & Political Violence, Abdullah Azzam was the first theorist of “Salafi jihadist ideology” calling for “unification of the ummah [global Muslim community] through defensive jihad”.

His and bin Laden’s Maktab al-Khidmat (Services Bureau) “created the organisational archetype for the current manifestation of the global Salafi-jihad and al-Qaeda specifically”.

Azzam’s approach to Salafi-jihadism was about defending and uniting the Muslim ummah “from invasion by kuffar (infidels or nonbelievers),” rather than engaging in takfir (excommunication of other Muslims as apostates).

By reverting back to Azzam’s Salafi-jihadism, Ahrar al-Sham is not moving away from Salafism, but merely watering down its takfiri policies to strengthen the pan-Islamist Sunni jihad, while temporarily restraining its draconian political programme to engender popular support.

Instead of apostatising non-Salafi Sunni Muslims, like IS does, Ahrar prefers to only apostatise Muslim “heretics” like Shias and Alawites.

Ahrar’s rhetorical shift is not driven by theological and scriptural revisionism, but is a tactical turn to achieve the group’s long-term vision.

Much has been made of Ahrar al-Sham leader Hashem al-Sheikh’s Al-Jazeera interview in April, confirming that a post-Assad Syria would consist of a government chosen by the people based on a Sharia-based constitution; that minorities would be protected; and that Ahrar disagreed with al-Nusra on “politics” and “its connection with al-Qaeda”.

But there is nothing new here. In an earlier 2014 interview with Al-Jazeera, Ahrar’s former leader, the late Hassan Aboud, acknowledged his group’s collaboration across the spectrum of rebel forces to enfranchise the Syrian people.

When asked about Ahrar al-Sham’s relationship with al-Qaeda in Syria, Aboud made clear that their disagreement was not fundamental: “They, like other Islamic groups, my brother, we meet with them in points and disagree on other points and militarily meet in matters of tactics and disagree with them on other tactics… We may agree with them that Islam is the adjudicator of our work and we may disagree on some points.”

When asked how the post-Assad regime would be selected, Aboud endorsed anything other than democracy: “The method of selecting a ruler varies in the Islamic state. There are those like today’s monarchies, for example, where the king appoints his successor, and also there are those where leaders are selected by senior nobles and wise men, and there are those consulted by citizens. All these methods are legitimate and nothing is wrong with them.”

But he described “democracy” as a “sword hanging on everyone that Western powers want… Democracy is to control people via people according to what they think of rules. We say that we have a Divine system prescribed for his Caliph and slaves… It is the system where the rule is for the pure Islamic law. Allah’s law is complete, and you need only consider the texts and derive rules.”

Ahrar’s rejection of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s declaration of the “Islamic State” – and curtailing of al-Nusra’s fledgling Sharia courts – is not theological, but strategic: “The most important duty now is to punish the unjust aggressor enemy of our nation and our people. Now is not the time for enforcement of the projects of each group, if they exist… There is no doubt that many in this country want to be governed by the laws of Allah and for the state’s constitution to be the Quran, but what nature, shape and timing? This is where we disagree and agree with many of the elements.”

And despite the sweet-talk about minorities, Aboud made clear that Ahrar al-Sham’s vision was fundamentally sectarian. Referring to a “Shiite sickle” encircling “our Muslim East,” he lambasted Russian and Iranian designs, pinpointing the Shia threat, which he described as “a sickle stabbed into the side of this ummah, the Persian Safavi populist sickle – its purpose is to be an obstacle to the advancement and restoration of the glory of the Muslim nation.”

Aboud also threw light on Ahrar al-Sham’s regional and global ambitions to destroy national borders through a new Islamic super-state: “We look forward to the day that we destroy with our hands Sykes-Picot’s walls which were imposed on us… We look forward and hope to see this [global Muslim] ummah as one entity again.”

Ironically, the escalation of Russian and Iranian involvement in Syria fans the flames of this apocalyptic vision. By intervening directly in the Syrian quagmire, they will not end the conflict, but stoke the fires of a regional sectarian war to dominate the Middle East.

- Nafeez Ahmed PhD is an investigative journalist, international security scholar and bestselling author who tracks what he calls the 'crisis of civilization.' He is a winner of the Project Censored Award for Outstanding Investigative Journalism for his Guardian reporting on the intersection of global ecological, energy and economic crises with regional geopolitics and conflicts. He has also written for The Independent, Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, The Scotsman, Foreign Policy, The Atlantic, Quartz, Prospect, New Statesman, Le Monde diplomatique, New Internationalist. His work on the root causes and covert operations linked to international terrorism officially contributed to the 9/11 Commission and the 7/7 Coroner’s Inquest.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: An image grab from a propaganda video on 9 September 2013 of the Islamic Front showing the new leader of Ahrar al-Sham Hashem al-Sheikh. (AFP)