Meet Syria's Fake Moderates
In the midst of debate over how (or whether) to counter Iranian influence in the Middle East, a Salafi-jihadist group in northern Syria has presented a means to do just this. In a set of op-eds in the Washington Post and the Telegraph, the Ahrar al-Sham movement has made an appeal to Western governments: Recognize us as being part of the moderate rebel forces and support our fight against Bashar al-Assad, the Iranian-backed forces in Syria, and ISIS.
This may be a tempting option, particularly to those who criticize how few rebels Washington currently supports and lament the weakness of the forces it does support. Ahrar al-Sham claims to be a moderate movement that represents the Syrian majority—a natural force that is palatable to both Syrians and the West. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey would welcome the move from Washington as it would assure them that despite engagement with Iran, the United States remains solidly committed to countering its influence in the Middle East. The United States has already indicated it will help Turkey establish a safe zone—a move that will indirectly support Ahrar al-Sham and others.
Extending further support would be a grave mistake, however. Not only could it mean providing U.S. aid, training, and money for a jihadist group with unpredictable shifting alliances and membership, it would also further exacerbate the already heightened sectarian tensions in Syria—despite the group’s claims to the contrary.
In March 2015, Ahrar al-Sham joined with the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front along with a handful of other militias in the “Army of Conquest” alliance. Though Ahrar al-Sham had previously received most of its support from Qatar and Kuwait, under the new umbrella group, it received a great deal more support, principally from Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
This was prompted by an important, yet somewhat overlooked, shift in Saudi policy. As the United States and the rest of the P5+1 were making progress in negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program, the Saudi government doubled down on countering Iran’s regional influence. Not only did it begin its air campaign against the Iranian-allied Houthi rebels in Yemen, it also abandoned its anti-Islamist policy of only supporting anti-al-Qaeda fighters in Syria. In May, after Saudi Arabia came together with its former rivals Qatar and Turkey, the three provided direct logistical and material support to the Army of Conquest, leading to important victories against the Assad regime in northern Syria.
To reinforce the recent victories and protect the Army of Conquest and other militias, Turkey and Saudi Arabia called for the United States to establish a no-fly zone and a safe zone protecting northeastern Syria from ISIS and the Assad regime. The United States has long been reluctant, but last week, after Turkey agreed to let U.S. fighters conduct bombing runs on ISIS from its Incirlik airbase—part of its new, more aggressive anti-ISIS stance following the Suruç bombing this month—Washington agreed to closer cooperation with Turkey in forming a de-facto safe zone. The move will inevitably benefit Ahrar al-Sham, Nusra, and others giving them a secure space to resupply and stage operations.
To further assuage the United States, it would certainly be convenient for these groups to portray themselves as moderates—especially as Washington and Turkey may soon be contemplating the composition of Syrian forces that will protect the safe zone. Qatar tried and failed to encourage Nusra to sever ties with al-Qaeda. Subsequent reports of Nusra fighters in the Army of Conquest killing Druze villagers certainly didn’t help support the notion that the group was becoming moderate.