The sheer ruthlessness and ferocity of Islamic-style warfare was underscored by the decimation of ISIS’ main rival by persons unknown. “Nearly fifty senior commanders of a major coalition of Islamic ‘moderates’ opposed to ISIS in Syria have been killed by an explosion at their secret command bunker as they met to discuss strategy against the the Islamic State,” writes Breitbart.
The group, the Ahrar al-Sham, was also opposed to the Assad regime as the New York Times reminds us. “An explosion tore through a secret meeting of one of Syria’s strongest and most enduring rebel groups on Tuesday, killing a dozen of its top leaders, including its head, and striking another blow against the forces seeking to topple President Bashar al-Assad.”
The blast hit a basement where the leaders of the group, Ahrar al-Sham, had collected to plot strategy, according to antigovernment activists. It remained unclear who had carried out the attack, which reportedly killed dozens of people and occurred in Idlib Province in Syria’s north.
The explosion added to the troubles facing Syria’s rebels, who have lost ground in the country’s civil war in recent months to Mr. Assad’s military while also being overshadowed by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the jihadist group that has seized territory on both sides of the Iraq-Syria border.
Ahrar al-Sham were the in-betweeners, close enough to al-Qaeda to give Westerners pause when supporting them, but with substantial links to the “moderate rebels” as well. The Carnegie Foundation has a long description of the group’s history.
Ahrar al-Sham was one of the first armed movements to emerge in Syria, and it has long appeared to be one of the best organized. Its foundations were laid in Idlib and Hama in May-June 2011 by former Islamist political prisoners and Iraq war veterans held in the Sednaya Prison north of Damascus, after their release from jail in early 2011. These men espoused a stark Salafi ideology calling for a Sunni theocracy in Syria. Funding was quickly secured from foreign sympathizers such as Hajjaj al-Ajami and other Gulf clerics, many of whom were linked to the Salafi Umma Party in Kuwait.
Ahrar al-Sham never made any pretense of belonging to the so-called Free Syrian Army (FSA), an umbrella term for rebels backed by some Western and Gulf countries. But while it was in some ways close to the al-Qaeda movement, and some leaders had worked with Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, Ahrar al-Sham was not quite a transnational jihadi group either. For one thing, it consistently stated that its battle was limited to Syria and avoided the aggressive minority-baiting common among the more radical jihadis. Ahrar al-Sham also sought to ally pragmatically with all groups fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government—certainly including al-Qaeda’s Nusra Front, but also Western-backed FSA factions. Emerging as a central pillar within the wider Syrian Islamist landscape, Ahrar al-Sham helped engineer a large rebel coalition called the Syrian Islamic Front (SIF) in December 2012 and then grew by absorbing most of its smaller member groups. A year later, the enlarged Ahrar al-Sham movement co-created a successor to the SIF, the still-existing Islamic Front.
It was, in short, the missing link between radical Salafi-jihadism and the type of mainstream and Syrian nationalism-infused Islamists that Western and Gulf state powers preferred to work with—a powerful “swing voter” in the struggle over the ideological direction of Syria’s insurgency.
Now that its entire leadership has been blown to glory, Bill Roggio at Long War Journal says that Ahrar al-Sham’s new boss previously led a Free Syrian Army unit, emphasizing the revolving-door nature of the factions. The attack on Ahrar al-Sham provides a glimpse into the world of sub-national warfare. It’s a world where, as Bill Roggio notes, “even US-vetted Syrian rebel groups such as Harakat Hazm fight alongside the Al Nusrah Front.”