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.
Ahrar al-Sham’s leadership however, has been far more successful than its Nusra counterparts in presenting a friendly face to the West. Earlier this month, in his Washington Post and Telegraph op-eds, the movement’s head of political relations Labib al-Nahhas asked Washington and the West to “open [their] eyes” to Ahrar al-Sham as an option. He presented a polished image of the organization: They believe in countering ISIS with a “homegrown Sunni alternative” and bringing an end to the Assad regime that is responsible for Syria’s sectarianism. They believe in a “national unifying project” for the country—not only representing the majority Sunni population but also protecting minority groups and their aspirations.
This all sounds well and good, and the pieces were well crafted for a Western audience, but this rhetoric doesn’t match with the actions of group it purports to represent.
Since its founding in 2011, Ahrar al-Sham has been a group with many faces. The organization has continually denied its connections to al-Qaeda, and yet many of its senior leaders have had links to it—including one who was simultaneously serving in Ahrar al-Sham and as al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri’s representative in the Levant.
The group proclaims to be a domestic Syrian force that has not invited foreign influence as the Assad regime has, and yet it operates predominantly on Gulf money and has allied itself with organizations such as Nusra, ISIS, and others that rely heavily on foreign fighters. At times Ahrar al-Sham has presented itself as merely a conservative Islamist movement, not an extremist one, calling for a Syria that while based on Islamic principles is built on unity and protection of its minorities. At other times its leadership has used divisive rhetoric , particularly targeting Shiites. Human Rights Watch, moreover, has documented Ahrar al-Sham, alongside other Salafi groups, engaging in mass killings of Alawite villagers in the Latakia countryside. Ahrar al-Sham says it will stand against and fight ISIS, and yet just last week Arabic media reported that dozens of its members fought alongside ISIS in the Yarmouk refugee camp. The group is the embodiment of double-speak.
Make no mistake; al-Nahhas is correct on one account. For Syria to ever see some kind of stability—something that seems quite distant—and to meaningfully counter ISIS, Syria’s Sunni majority needs to have a voice in Damascus. It was indeed the exclusion of this community by Assad in Syria (and Iraqi Sunnis by Nouri al-Maliki) that stoked the sectarianism that facilitated ISIS’s rise in the first place. Even so, supporting Ahrar al-Sham or similar groups is not the answer. Such action would intensify, not alleviate, the sectarian tensions in the country.
Competing Iranian and Gulf influences are deeply embedded in Syria, and unfortunately neither will be uprooted any time soon. Washington should not engage in a way that swings the pendulum from one foreign actor to the other. If the United States does in fact facilitate a de-facto safe zone with Turkey, it will already be swinging the pendulum toward the Gulf end and the decidedly non-moderate groups it supports.
Relenting further by recognizing Ahrar al-Sham as an acceptable partner and arming and training its fighters would be nothing less than short-sighted and reckless. The United States should instead pursue ways to encourage cooperation rather than competition between Iran and the Gulf. Iran-backed forces in Syria will have to be incentivized or pressured to be inclusive of the Sunni community they have neglected and ostracized. The Gulf in turn would have to be incentivized or pressured to stop supporting forces that will never negotiate with the regime, and limit its support of groups that it has far less control over than Iran does of its allies in Syria. This would be a tremendous feat, and whether it can be accomplished at all is a separate discussion. In the meantime, the United States should not pour gasoline on the fire.