|Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyyah|
|حركة أحرار الشام الإسلامية
Participant in the Syrian Civil War and
the American-led intervention in Syria
Variant of the logo of the Islamic Front used by Ahrar al-Sham
|Headquarters||Babsaqa, Idlib Governorate, Syria|
|Area of operations||Syria|
|Strength||10,000–20,000 (July 2013)
16,000 (December 2016)
18,000–20,000+ (March 2017)
|Part of||Islamic Front (2013–2016)
Syrian Revolutionary Command Council (2014–2015)
Army of Conquest (2015–2017)
Fatah Halab (2015–2017)
Jaysh Halab (until December 2016)
Unified Military Command of Eastern Ghouta (2014–2015)
Ansar al-Sharia (2015–early 2016)
|Originated as||Ahrar al-Sham Battalion|
|Battles and wars||
Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya (Arabic: حركة أحرار الشام الإسلامية, translit. ḥarakat aḥrāru š-šām al-islāmiyah, lit. 'Islamic Movement of the Free Men of the Levant'), commonly referred to as Ahrar al-Sham, is a coalition of multiple Islamist and Salafist units that coalesced into a single brigade and later a division in order to fight against the Syrian Government led by Bashar al-Assad during the Syrian Civil War. Ahrar al-Sham was led by Hassan Aboud until his death in 2014. In July 2013, Ahrar al-Sham had 10,000 to 20,000 fighters, which at the time made it the second single most powerful unit fighting against al-Assad, after the Free Syrian Army. It was the principal organization operating under the umbrella of the Syrian Islamic Front and was a major component of the Islamic Front. With an estimated 20,000 fighters in 2015, Ahrar al-Sham became the largest rebel group in Syria after the Free Syrian Army became less powerful. Ahrar al-Sham and Jaysh al-Islam are the main rebel groups supported by Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
- 1 Ideology
- 2 History
- 3 Military tradition
- 4 Foreign support
- 5 Designation as a terrorist organization and relations with other designated groups
- 6 Notable incidents
- 6.1 December 2012 Ahrar joins the Syrian Islamic Front
- 6.2 November 2013 Ahrar joins the Islamic Front, open war against Isil
- 6.3 September 2014 A bomb kills most of Ahrar's leadership
- 6.4 November 2014 meeting with al-Nusra Front
- 6.5 March 2015 killing of Christians
- 6.6 February 2016 Bombing of Russian base
- 6.7 May 2016 Zara'a killings and kidnappings
- 7 Flags
- 8 Notable groups
- 9 See also
- 10 References
- 11 External links
Ahrar al-Sham has defined itself in this way:
The Islamic Movement of the Free Men of the Levant is an Islamist, reformist, innovative and comprehensive movement. It is integrated with the Islamic Front and is a comprehensive and Islamic military, political and social formation. It aims to completely overthrow the Assad regime in Syria and build an Islamic state whose only sovereign, reference, ruler, direction, and individual, societal and nationwide unifier is Allah Almighty's Sharia (law).
According to the International Crisis Group in 2012, Ahrar al-Sham, along with the al-Nusra Front, has "embraced the language of jihad and called for an Islamic state based on Salafi principles." The group has a Syrian leadership and "emphasizes that its campaign is for Syria, not for a global jihad". However, according to US intelligence officials, a few al-Qaeda members released from prisons by the Syrian government have been able to influence actions of the group, and install operatives within the senior ranks of Ahrar al-Sham. Such ties were not disclosed publicly until January 2014, when a former senior leader of Ahrar al-Sham, the now deceased Abu Khalid al-Suri, acknowledged his long-time membership in al-Qaeda and role as Ayman al-Zawahiri's representative in the Levant.
In its first audio address, Ahrar al-Sham stated its goal was to replace the Assad government with a Sunni Islamic state. It acknowledged the need to take into account the population's current state of mind. It also described the uprising as a jihad against a Safawi plot to spread Shia Islam and establish a Shia state from Iran through Iraq and Syria, extending to Lebanon and Palestine. Ahrar al-Sham has claimed that it only targets government forces and militia and that it has cancelled several operations due to fear of civilian casualties. It provides humanitarian services and relief to local communities, in addition to pamphlets promoting religious commitment in daily life.
Ahrar al-Sham leader Hassan Aboud stated that Ahrar al-Sham worked with the Nusra Front and would have no problems with al-Nusra as long as they continued fighting the regime. Aboud also said Ahrar worked with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in some battles, but that their agenda was disagreeable. He said all parties, whether they were ISIL, al-Nusra, the Islamic Front, or the FSA, shared the same objective of establishing an Islamic state, but they differed as to the "tactics, strategies or methods". Aboud claimed that in Syria "there are no secular groups". Aboud condemned democracy in an interview with Al-Jazeera, saying that "Democracy is people governing people, according to rules they please. We say that we have a divine system whose law is Allah's for his creatures and his slaves who he appointed as viceregents on this Earth."
Mohamed Najeeb Bannan, an Islamic Front Sharia Court judge in Aleppo, stated, "The legal reference is the Islamic Sharia. The cases are different, from robberies to drug use, to moral crimes. It's our duty to look at any crime that comes to us. . . After the regime has fallen, we believe that the Muslim majority in Syria will ask for an Islamic state. Of course, it's very important to point out that some say the Islamic Sharia will cut off people's hands and heads, but it only applies to criminals. And to start off by killing, crucifying etc. That is not correct at all." In response to being asked what the difference between the Islamic Front's and the Islamic State's version of sharia would be, he said "One of their mistakes is before the regime has fallen, and before they've established what in Sharia is called Tamkeen [having a stable state], they started applying Sharia, thinking God gave them permission to control the land and establish a Caliphate. This goes against the beliefs of religious scholars around the world. This is what [IS] did wrong. This is going to cause a lot of trouble. Anyone who opposes [IS] will be considered against Sharia and will be severely punished."
In August 2015, Ahrar al-Sham commander Eyad Shaar said "We are part of Syrian society and the international community. . . We want to be part of the solution."
Ahrar al-Sham's political representative stated in December 2015 that Ahrar al-Sham are "not related with al Qaeda, we only fight with them against Assad and ISIS".
In an Amnesty International report in July 2016, Ahrar al-Sham, along with al-Nusra Front, was described as having "applied a strict interpretation of Shari’a and imposed punishments amounting to torture or other ill-treatment for perceived infractions." A political activist was abducted and detained by Ahrar al-Sham for having not worn a veil and accused of affiliation with the Syrian government. At least three children have been recorded to be abducted by Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham between 2012 and 2015. Lawyers and political activists have faced reprisal attacks by Ahrar al-Sham and other Islamist rebel groups due to their political activities and perceived religious beliefs.
In May 2016, Ahrar al-Sham released an address by then deputy general director Ali al-Omar in which he distinguished Ahrar al-Sham's militancy from the Salafi jihadism of al-Qaeda and ISIL, and defended its political engagement.
Ahrar al-Sham started forming units just after the Egyptian revolution of January 2011, and before the Syrian Revolution started in March 2011. Most of the group's founders were Islamist political prisoners who had been detained for years at the Sednaya prison until they were released as part of an amnesty by the Syrian Government in March–May 2011. At the time of its establishment in December 2011, Ahrar al-Sham consisted of about 25 rebel units spread across Syria. By July 2012, the group's website listed 50 units, and by mid-January 2013, the number had increased to 83 units. Most of these units are headquartered in villages in Idlib Governorate, but many others are located in Hama and Aleppo Governorates. Some Ahrar al-Sham units that have been involved in heavy fighting include the Qawafel al-Shuhada and Ansar al-Haqq Brigades (both in Khan Shaykhun), the al-Tawhid wal-Iman Brigade (Maarat al-Nu'man, Idlib), the Shahba Brigade (Aleppo City), the Hassane bin Thabet Brigade (Darat Izza, Aleppo), and the Salahaddin and Abul-Fida Brigades (both in Hama City).
Members of the group are Sunni Islamists. Ahrar al-Sham cooperates with the Free Syrian Army; however, it does not maintain ties with the Syrian National Council. Although they coordinate with other groups, they maintain their own strict and secretive leadership, receiving the majority of their funding and support from donors in Kuwait.
In March 2015, the Suqour al-Sham Brigade merged with Ahrar al-Sham, but left in September 2016. Later that same month, the Brigade joined the Army of Conquest, a group which has Ahrar al-Sham as a member.
On 10 December 2016, 16 Ahrar al-Sham units under Hashim Sheikh, known by the alias Abu Jaber, formed a quasi-independent group within Ahrar called Jaysh al-Ahrar, or the Free Army, for similar reasons as Ashida'a Mujahideen Brigade leaving 3 months prior.
On 21 January 2017, five factions from Ahrar left to join Al-Nusra Front: Jaysh al-Ahrar, al-Bara, Dhu Nurayn, al-Sawa'iq and Usud al-Har Battalion. On the same day, it was announced that Ahrar al-Sham, Suqour al-Sham Brigade, Jabhat Ahl al-Sham, Jaysh al-Islam and Fastaqim Union would established a joint operations room to combat al-Nusra and its subgroup Jund al-Aqsa.
On 23 January 2017, the al-Nusra Front attacked Jabhat Ahl al-Sham bases in Atarib and other towns in western Aleppo. All the bases were captured and by 24 January, the group was defeated and joined Ahrar al-Sham.
On 25 January 2017, several factions from Jaysh al-Islam based in Aleppo left to join Ahrar, establishing the al-Ansar Regiment. On the same day, the remaining Fastaqim Union members of its Aleppo branch joined Ahrar.
On 25 January 2017, Suqour al-Sham Brigade along with the Idlib branch of Jaysh al-Islam and the Aleppo branch of the Levant Front joined Ahrar al-Sham. On the following day, al-Miiqdad Brigade also joined Ahrar.
Tariq Abdelhaleem complained that religion was absent from and a nationalist secular state was proclaimed in the Astana conference by Russia in a new constitution. He called it "shame" and said Ahrar was one of the "Astana factions". He called the Geneva and Astana as "treacherous conferences" and claimed there was a Turkish Russian western alliance behind these factions. Tariq Abdelhaleem used insults like "dwarves", attacking Ahmad Najeeb, defending Hani al-Siba'i and referred to Ahrar al-Sham as the "Movement of Evil people" and calling him a corrupter.
On 4 February, American aircraft killed an Egyptian al-Qaeda member, Abu Hani al-Masri. He was killed in Idlib's Sarmada region by a drone strike. Egyptian Islamic Jihad was co-created by him. Thomas Joscelyn pointed out that the publication al-Masra of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula talked about Abu Hani al-Masri. He was also a military commander in Ahrar ash-Sham. In Egypt he was jailed for several years and he was in Chechnya, Bosnia, Afghanistan, and Somalia. In 2012 he was released from prison in Egypt. In Chechnya, several Russian prisoners once appeared in a video with Abu Hani al-Masri.
Ahrar al-Sham is one of the best-armed and most powerful rebel factions active in the Syrian Civil War. It progressed from the use of improvised explosive devices and small-arms ambushes in early 2012 to assuming a lead role in large-scale sustained assaults on multiple fronts by 2013. The capture of materiel from the Syrian Armed Forces enabled Ahrar to regularly deploy tanks and mobile artillery and anti-tank guided missiles. It occasionally employed 1990s-era Croatian rocket and grenade launchers. Ahrar al Sham was involved in every major rebel victory over Syrian Government forces between September 2012 and mid-2013. Ahrar grew significantly by absorbing into its ranks other rebel factions from the Islamic Front and the Syrian Islamic Front which preceded it.
Discussions about foreign support in the media often center on the weapons that foreign powers provide to their proxies. Money is just as important as weapons though. As soon as a soldier / rebel has to fight away from his home, the rebel group has to pay at least his sustenance, and in practice some more. For Ahrar the amount of financial aid it got from abroad might be the very reason it became so powerful. After the December 2013 suspension of all U.S. and the U.K. non-lethal support, which included medicine, vehicles, and communications equipment, to the Free Syrian Army after the Islamic Front, a coalition of Islamist fighters that broke with the American-backed Free Syrian Army, had seized warehouses of equipment. In 2014 the U.S. was considering indirectly resuming non-lethal aid to the moderate opposition by having it "funneled exclusively through the Supreme Military Council, the military wing of moderate, secular Syrian opposition" even if some of it ends up going to Islamist groups. Several European states have attempted small-level engagements with individual Ahrar al-Sham political officials in Turkey.
Donations from supporters abroad were important for Ahrar's growth. Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey have been actively supporting Ahrar al-Sham. A statement issued by Ahrar al-Sham thanked Turkey and Qatar for their help.
By 2013, the Kuwaiti private fund Popular Commission to Support the Syrian People, managed by Sheikh Ajmi and Sheik, Irshid al-Hajri had supported Ahrar with US$400,000, for which Ahrar recorded a public thank you.
The Islamic Front and Ahrar al-Sham in particular have received weapons from Turkey, according to German intelligence.
Designation as a terrorist organization and relations with other designated groups
Ahrar al-Sham's relationships with U.N. designated terrorist organizations has been, and continues to be, a key point of contention in U.S. and Russian foreign relations and in their Syrian ceasefire negotiations. Syria, the United Arab Emirates, Russia, Iran and Egypt have designated Ahrar al-Sham as a terrorist organization while according to the U.S. Department of State, "Ahrar al-Sham is not a designated foreign terrorist organization". However, some U.S. officials have reportedly considered designating it as a terrorist organization because of its links to al-Qaeda subgroups such as the al-Nusra Front. Ahrar al-Sham had worked with ISIS until the two groups began their present-day hostilities with one another in January 2014. Abu Khalid al-Suri, a "top al-Qaeda leader", co-founded Ahrar al-Sham and was until the time of his February 2014 death, by an ISIS suicide car bomb attack, helping to lead Ahrar al-Sham which allowed Ayman Zawahiri, the leader of al-Qaeda, to influence the rebel group's actions despite the group officially having no affiliation with al-Qaeda. In 2015, Ahrar al-Sham, "whose late leader fought alongside Osama bin Laden," again denied having any links to al-Qaeda and in May 2016, the U.S., Britain, France, and Ukraine blocked a Russian proposal to the United Nations to blacklist Ahrar al-Sham as a terrorist group. The group is openly allied with its longterm partner al-Nusra Front and carries out joint operations with the group, and is, as of September 2016, in talks with this former al-Qaeda subgroup about a possible merger. In an official statement, Ahrar al-Sham rejected the 2016 September 12 U.S. and Russian brokered Syrian ceasefire citing the ceasefire's exclusion of certain Syrian rebel groups and declared solidarity with the al-Nusra Front, which is one of the groups excluded from this ceasefire.
But the most important thing, frankly, is seeing if we can reach an understanding with the Russians about how to, number one, deal with Daesh and al-Nusrah. Al-Nusrah is the other group there – Jabhat al-Nusrah. They are a designated terrorist group by the United Nations. And there are a couple of subgroups underneath the two designated – Daesh and Jabhat al-Nusrah – Jaysh al-Islam, Ahrar al-Sham particularly – who brush off and fight with that – alongside these other two sometimes to fight the Assad regime.
before which he had said of Ahrar al-Sham that
From Orlando to San Bernardino to the Philippines and Bali, we’ve seen pictures and we’ve heard testimony of shocking crimes committed by al-Qaida, by Boko Haram, by Jaysh al-Islam, by Ahrar al-Sham, by al-Shabaab, Daesh, other groups against innocent civilians, against journalists, and against teachers particularly.
These statements had political repercussions with one senior administration official reportedly saying that despite the fact that "for months, we’ve been arguing to make sure the Russians and the Syrian regime don’t equate these groups with the terrorists, Kerry's line yields that point." Explaining these comments, US State Department spokesman John Kirby said that "secretary Kerry was simply trying to describe the complexity of the situation in Syria, noting that we aren’t blind to the notion that some fighters shift their loyalties."
On 6 October, a German court has convicted four men who supplied the group in Syria of supporting a terrorist organization. On 28 January 2017, Tahrir al-Sham chose the former leader of Ahrar al-Sham, Abu Jaber Hashem Al-Sheikh, also known as Abu Jaber, to lead the newly created group; a group that resulted from the al-Nusra Front's merger with Idlib's Nour al-Din al-Zenki Movement and other Salafist rebel groups.
On 30 March 2017, two Syrian refugees who were members of Ahrar al-Sham were placed on trial in Munich, Germany for being members of a terrorist organization. According to the persecutor, the goal of the group is to "overthrow the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and establish an Islamic regime".
Ahrar al-Sham was credited for rescuing NBC News team including reporter Richard Engel, producer Ghazi Balkiz, cameraman John Kooistra and others after they were kidnapped in December 2012. While Engel initially blamed pro-Assad Shabiha militants for the abduction, it later turned out that they were "almost certainly" abducted by an FSA affiliated rebel group. There were around 500 people in Ahrar al-Sham in August 2012.
December 2012 Ahrar joins the Syrian Islamic Front
In December 2012, a new umbrella organization was announced, called the Syrian Islamic Front, consisting of 11 Islamist rebel organizations. Ahrar al-Sham was the most prominent of these, and a member of Ahrar al-Sham's, Abu 'Abd Al-Rahman Al-Suri, served as the Front's spokesman.
In January 2013, several of the member organizations of the Syrian Islamic Front announced that they were joining forces with Ahrar al-Sham into a broader group called Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya (The Islamic Movement of Ahrar al-Sham). In September 2013, members of ISIL killed the Ahrar al-Sham commander Abu Obeida Al-Binnishi, after he had intervened to protect a Malaysian Islamic charity; ISIL had mistaken its Malaysian flag for that of the United States.
In August 2013, members of the brigade uploaded a video of their downing of a Syrian Air Force MiG-21 over the Latakia province with a Chinese-made FN-6 MANPADS, apparently becoming the first recorded kill with such a weapon.
November 2013 Ahrar joins the Islamic Front, open war against Isil
In mid-November 2013, after the Battle for Brigade 80 near the Aleppo International Airport, fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant beheaded a commander of Ahrar al-Sham forces, mistaking him for an Iraqi Shiite pro-government militiaman.
In December 2013, there were reports of fighting between ISIL & another Islamic rebel group in the town of Maskana, Aleppo; activists reported that the Islamic rebel group was identified as Ahrar al-Sham.
September 2014 A bomb kills most of Ahrar's leadership
On 9 September 2014, a bomb went off during a high level meeting in Idlib province, killing Hassan Abboud, the leader of the group, and 27 other senior commanders, including military field commanders, members of the group's Shura council, and leaders of allied brigades. There was no claim of responsibility for the attack. The day after the bombing Abu Jaber was announced as replacement leader. Ahrar ash-Sham received condolences from the al-Qaeda organization Nusra. Ahrar received condolences from other al-Qaeda members.
|Hassane Abboud||Head of the Political Bureau of the Islamic Front||Abu Abdullah al-Hamawi|
|Abu Yazen al-Shami||Had founded the Aleppo-based Fajr al-Islam |
|Abu Talha al-Ghab||a top military commander|
|Abu Abdulmalek al-Sharei||Head of the Islamic Sharia Council of the Islamic Front|
|Abu Ayman Al-Hamwi|
|Abu Ayman Ram Hamdan|
|Abu Sariya al-Shami||Ideologue|
|Abu Yusuf Binnish|
|Abul-Zubeir al-Hamawi||Ahrar leader in Hama|
|Abu Hamza al-Raqqa||Had founded the Aleppo-based Fajr al-Islam|
|several other leaders|
November 2014 meeting with al-Nusra Front
In early November 2014, representatives from Ahrar al-Sham reportedly attended a meeting with al-Nusra Front, the Khorasan Group, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, and Jund al-Aqsa, which sought to unite the groups against the Syrian government. However, by 14 November 2014, it was reported that the negotiations had failed.
During the night of 6 November 2014, a US airstrike targeted the group for the first time, hitting its headquarters in Idlib governorate and killing Abu al-Nasr, who was in charge of receiving weapons for the group. On 24 November 2014, a US airstrike on the ISIL headquarters building in Ma'dan, Raqqa killed another Ahrar al-Sham fighter, who was being held prisoner by ISIL.
March 2015 killing of Christians
The New York Times reported that the pro Al-Qaeda Saudi cleric Abdullah Al-Muhaisini ordered that Christians in Idlib were not to be killed, and that Christians were being defended by Ahrar al-Sham. However, there were subsequent reports of Ahrar al-Sham executing Christians in the city.
On 14 July 2015, two suicide bombers blew themselves up at an Ahrar al-Sham Movement headquarters killing Abu Abdul Rahman Salqeen (an Ahrar al-Sham leader) and 5-6 others in Idlib province.
On 21 October 2015, the Jund al Malahim operations room was created as an alliance of Ajnad al Sham, Ahrar al-Sham and Al-Nusra in Rif Dimashq.
February 2016 Bombing of Russian base
On 25 February 2016, a car bomb was detonated at the Russian military base in Idlib, Syria. Ahrar al-Sham claimed responsibility on their website alleging "dozens" of casualties among Russian officials. On the following day, Jaysh al-Sunna's branch in Hama merged with Ahrar al-Sham, though its northern Aleppo branch was not a part of this merger.
On 13 May 2016, Amnesty International named Ahrar al-Sham as one of the groups responsible for "repeated indiscriminate attacks that may amount to war crimes" and reported allegations of their use of chemical weapons.
May 2016 Zara'a killings and kidnappings
On 12 May 2016, militants of the Al-Qaeda linked Al-Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham attacked and captured the Alawite village of Zara'a, Southern Hama Governorate. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights confirmed that civilians had been kidnapped and the Red Crescent confirmed that 42 civilians and seven NDF militiamen were killed during the militant attack. Additionally, some pro-Syrian government news sources reported that around 70 civilians, including women and children were kidnapped and taken to Al-Rastan Plains. Some of the captured were pro-government troops. A number of houses were destroyed and local property was looted following the rebel capture of the village.
|Flags of Ahrar al-Sham|
- Jabhat Ahl al-Sham
- Army of Mujahideen
- 19th Division
- Ansar Caliphate Brigade
- Khan al-Asal Free Brigades
- Ash-Shuyukh Brigade
- Muhajireen Brigade
- Battalion of the Martyr Muhammad Sha'ban
- Farouq Battalion
- 5th Battalion
- Revolutionaries of Atarib Gathering
- Atarib Martyrs Brigade
- Battalion of the Martyr Alaa al-Ahmad
- Central Force for the City of Atarib
- Ansar al-Haqq Battalion
- Loyalty to God Battalion
- Shells of Justice Brigade
- 19th Division
- Banners of Islam Movement
- Thuwar al-Sham Battalion
- al-Quds Brigades
- Amjad al-Islam Brigade
- al-Noor Islamic Movement
- Army of Mujahideen
- Jaysh al-Islam (Idlib branch)
- Fastaqim Union (most members, since January 2017)
- Kurdish Islamic Front
- Liwa al-Haqq
- Jaysh al-Sunna (Hama branch)
- Levant Front (southern Aleppo branch)
- Suqour al-Sham Brigade
- Omar al-Farouq Brigade
- Farouq Army (Daraa branch)
- Jund al-Malahima
- Brigade of Conquest (Idlib branch)
- Manbij Brigade
- Fajr al-Umma
- Ibn Taymiyyah battalions
- al-Miqdad ibn Amr
- Homs Legion
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- Official website