Posted by Aron Lund on Saturday, September 12th, 2015
by Aron Lund, editor of Syria in Crisis
The Syrian Islamist group known as Ahrar al-Sham Islamic Movement, which is one of the biggest armed groups in the country, has elected a new leader: Abu Yahia al-Hamawi.
Founded in 2011, Ahrar al-Sham was first led by Hassane Abboud, who also used the alias Abu Abdullah al-Hamawi. Like most of the group’s leaders, he was a former inmate of the ”Islamist wing” of the Syrian government’s main political prison in Seidnaia, north of Damascus. According to one piece of not-necessarily-accurate information, Abboud was held in jail—not necessarily in Seidnaia all of the time—between 2004 and 2011 on charges of having links to salafi-jihadi groups; other sources say 2007-2011.
Many of these Islamist prisoners were released early on in the uprising by presidential amnesty, a hotly debated decision. The amnestied prisoners formed several different armed groups in 2011 and began connecting with relatives, older Islamist sleeper cells from inside or outside prison, a number of exiles who fled the anti-Islamist crackdown of the 1980s, as well as foreign Islamists and jihadi figures, in order to create a Syria-wide armed movement.
The resulting faction, known then as the Ahrar al-Sham Battalions, took shape in the Idleb-Hama region of northwestern Syria, where many of its leaders were born and where the group remains strongest today. Abboud, for example, reportedly hailed from Khirbet Naqous in the Ghab Plains area, which juts up from western Hama into Idleb. The group then grew step by step, by gobbling up smaller factions looking for protection and leadership, as well as by reconnecting with old Seidnaia cellmates who had independently set up their own movements in other provinces (such as the Aleppo-based Fajr al-Islam faction created by Abu Hamza and Abu Yazen, both of whom died in 2014). Having expanded its network to most of Syria, albeit still weak in the east and south, the group took its current name after a major series of mergers in spring 2013.
On September 9, 2014, most of Ahrar al-Sham’s first generation of leaders were killed in an explosion in an underground site near Ras Hamdan in the Idleb Province, where they had gathered for a top-level meeting. The causes of the explosion remain unknown. There have been suggestions of it being set off by accident (since the Ras Hamdan site reportedly also contained a bomb factory), or by a suicide bomber, or by internal treachery on behalf of a foreign government, the so called Islamic State, or even al-Qaeda, but it is all speculation. Ahrar al-Sham leaders interviewed about the event have refused to comment except by saying that an investigation is in progress.
Abu Jaber and the 2014 Leadership
Abboud and most of his lieutenants were among the dead and many, me included, expected the group to be dramatically weakened and perhaps to split. But it somehow defied expectations and bounced back impressively.
Immediately after the explosion, surviving members of the Ahrar al-Sham Shoura Council gathered to quickly elect a new team of leaders leaders, including a number of formerly second-tier commanders and recent affiliates.
As their new head—Ahrar al-Sham prefers the term “general leader,” or qaid ‘amm, over “emir”—the Shoura Council appointed Hashem al-Sheikh. Also known by the alises Abu Jaber al-Maskani and Abu Jaber al-Sheikh, he was not from either Idleb or Hama. Rather, he came from the currently Islamic State-occupied town of Maskanah, east of Aleppo, where he had run a small group known as the Moussaab bin Omeir Battalion until it was absorbed into Ahrar al-Sham in 2013. Abu Jaber, too, was a former Seidnaia prisoner, held by the regime from 2005 to 2011, allegedly for helping to transfer foreign fighters to the Islamist insurgents in Iraq.
Abu Jaber and the new leadership held the group together over the following year and—thanks in large part, it would appear, to increased support from Turkey and Qatar—even managed to expand its influence.
Meanwhile, the group continued to try to moderate its political position, stepping back from the hardline, jihadi-inflected salafism that had colored its rhetoric from the first public statements in 2012 until early 2014. The change in tune (whether it is also a change in actual content is a matter of some dispute) began already in spring 2014, before the death of the old leadership. It seems to have been triggered by the onset of two crises at once:
– First, Qatar reportedly stopped much of its support for the group after U.S. pressures and as part of attempts to reorganize the rebellion via a new Military Operations Center in Turkey. This wreaked havoc with Ahrar al-Sham finances and left it in a weak negotiating position vis-à-vis foreign sponsors.
– Second, Ahrar al-Sham (and other groups) entered into battle against the Islamic State, thereby forcing it to grapple seriously with the problem of jihadi ultra-extremism and to redefine Ahrar al-Sham’s own identity in opposition to it. Some, such as the above-mentioned Abu Yazen al-Shami, who was an influential ideologue until his death in the September 2014 explosion, even began to publicly apologize and distance themselves from their past as salafi-jihadi hardliners.
The ensuing series of ideological revisions, some seemingly heartfelt but others surely opportunistic, are still ongoing today. The cooptation of less hardline Islamist factions in the autumn and winter of 2014 may further have strengthened the ”doves” within Ahrar al-Sham, but with the group’s internal politics so secretive that no one can really claim to know for sure.
At any rate, Ahrar al-Sham’s public rhetoric has continued to move in the direction of the pragmatics, with anti-Islamic State editorials aiming to appease the West recently published in the Washington Post and the Daily Telegraph by its new foreign-relations official Labib Nahhas (Abu Ezzeddine al-Ansari, from Homs, whose Haqq Brigade faction joined Ahrar al-Sham only in December 2014). Ahrar al-Sham also, to the consternation of some more hardline members, also welcomed the Turkish intervention in northern Syria.
Some now claim that the group’s internal tensions have taken on an institutional character, with hardliners stronger in the Military and Sharia Offices elected in 2014 (headed by Abu Saleh Tahhan, from Idleb, and the Syrian-Kurdish salafi scholar Abu Mohammed al-Sadeq, respectively) while the Political Office (led at first, after the 2014 explosion, by the Islamist intellectual Jaber al-Halloul, who later resigned and was replaced by Sheikh Abu Abderrahman—not to be confused with Abu Abderrahman al-Souri alias Mohammed Talal Bazerbashi, who is another prominent leader of the group—and, yes, this is an unacceptably long parenthesis) has promoted a program of ideological pragmatism and collaboration with Western-backed rebels.
Abu Jaber al-Maskani Steps Down
Abu Jaber’s appointment as Ahrar al-Sham leader was only set to last for one year. He could have opted to run for reelection, but he declined, said the Ahrar al-Sham spokesperson Ahmed Qara Ali when I contacted him earlier today: ”As his term ended, brother Hashem al-Sheikh refused to extend his term, since he wanted to allow for new blood to be pumped into the leadership.”
Internal campaigning to succeed Abu Jaber has been going on for a while and it has apparently been quite fierce, at least partly due to the ideological tensions within the group.
According to a source close to Ahrar al-Sham, the victorious Abu Yahia al-Hamawi had squared off in a fierce internal debate against other contenders—most prominently Abu Ali al-Sahel, but there were others, too, including, apparently, an Abu Amer, of whom I know nothing more. Charles Lister also names Abu Azzam al-Ansari, head of the former Liwa al-Haqq contingent from Homs, Abu Abderrahman al-Shami, and Abu [Ammar?] Taftanaz.
However, according to Ahmed Qara Ali, Abu Yahia was elected ”by consensus.” When I ask about other contenders, he insists that ”the Shoura Council session was a closed meeting and brother Abu Yahia was elected by consensus, as has been publicly announced.”
My other source—who says he is not a member of the group and whose information I cannot confirm—insists that there was ”kind of a vote, but only inside the Shoura Council.” He says that there has been a longstanding factional debate inside the group, and since it was inconclusive, the Shoura Council initially tried to convince Abu Jaber to extend his mandate. When that failed, ”finally, they chose this person, as he is not a strong man, so he does not represent either side.”
The New Leader: A Preliminary Biography
Abu Yahia al-Hamawi is the alias of Mohannad al-Masri, a Syrian citizen born in 1981. (He has also been called Abu Yahia al-Ghab and presumably a number of other things.) He is a civil engineer by training, who studied at Tishreen University in Latakia City before the uprising. At Tishreen, as it happens, he became friends with Hadi al-Abdullah, who would after 2011 emerge as one of the most famous media activists in the Syrian opposition.
Like Abboud and so many other early Ahrar leaders, Abu Yahia is also a son of the Ghab Plains. According to the senior Ahrar al-Sham leader Khaled Abu Anas—who is himself from Saraqeb in the Idleb area—Abu Yahia hails from Qalaat al-Madiq. This Sunni Arab community of some 80,000-100,000 inhabitants (before the war) lies next to the famous Roman ruins of Apamea, a major tourist destination (also before the war…). It is currently in an area fought over by Bashar al-Assad’s government and rebel forces, prominently including Ahrar al-Sham, following the fall of Idleb and Jisr al-Shughour in March, and the town has been badly shelled and bombed.
Abu Yahia is also, unsurprisingly, a former Seidnaia prisoner, first arrested on August 2, 2007. One online source claims he was part of a group of Islamist activists arrested at the same time, which also included ”Abu Abdullah al-Hamawi and Abu Talha,” the former being the nom de guerre of Ahrar al-Sham’s founding leader Hassane Abboud and the latter presumably a reference to Abu Talha al-Makhzoumi, the Ahrar al-Sham military leader who was killed in 2014. Both of them were from nearby villages in the Ghab Plains.
At any rate, Abu Yahia was held in Seidnaia until his release in mid-Arab Spring on March 16, 2011, coinciding almost to the day with the start of the Syrian uprising. At first, he participated in peaceful demonstrations but he soon switched track to help pioneer Syria’s armed uprising and to create Ahrar al-Sham. Hassane Abboud has claimed that the group’s first real armed operations began in the Idleb-Hama area—which is another way of saying the Ghab Plains—around May-June 2011, thus predating the July 2011 announcement of the Free Syrian Army in Turkey.
Along with his associates, then, Abu Yahia began to organize armed ambushes for the government. He became the leader of the Osama bin Zeid Company, a small armed group based in and around his hometown of Qalaat al-Madiq. According to Ahmed Qara Ali, this was the first armed group working under the Ahrar al-Sham banner.
Abu Yahia then moved on to command the Osama bin Zeid Company’s parent group, the Omar ibn al-Khattab Battalion. As the conflict grew, he became the head of an even larger structure, called the Khattab Brigade. (He is seen speaking to Khattab Brigade fighters here, in a January 2014 video release from Ahrar al-Sham.) While in this role, Abu Yahia was appointed to serve as Ahrar al-Sham’s head of operations in rural Hama, which includes the Ghab Plains and is clearly a very important front for the group. He was finally appointed deputy leader under Abu Jaber in 2014—reportedly with special responsibility for security—and has served in this role until now. The Ahrar al-Sham media activist Abul-Yazid Taftanaz also claims that Abu Yahia heads the Central Force that Ahrar al-Sham is establishing in an attempt to reorganize its armed forces, following its merger with the Suqour al-Sham faction earlier in 2015.
Be that as it may, Abu Yahia’s family roots and longstanding leadership role in the Ghab region may well have played a role in his election, since this is currently one of the hottest fronts of the Syrian war. Ahrar al-Sham plays a leading role in the Fath Army coalition that dominates these battles, taking place in and around the hometowns of Ahrar al-Sham’s founders.
A Rebel Group with Real Institutions
Syrians and others will now look for signs of a shift in Ahrar al-Sham’s political line. So what do we know about his politics? Almost nothing.
A Twitter account that Abu Yahia started in 2013 (it hasn’t been active since April this year) mostly contains retweets of sayings and statements by senior Ahrar al-Sham figures or independent Islamists such as Abdulaziz al-Tareifi, an influential salafi scholar in Saudi Arabia. But there are also some 140-character quips by Abu Yahia himself, such as this one: ”If our project is a project of the Umma, then our jihad must by necessity also be a jihad of the Umma; an Umma whose jihad is led by an elite that will not restrict the jihad to the elite alone.” (For context, see the bottom of this post.)
More information is likely to filter out in the coming weeks, but according to Charles Lister, who regularly meets with Ahrar al-Sham leaders and has excellent insights into the group, Abu Yahia “played a lead role in developing the group’s new political ‘discourse’ of reaching out to West, including the US.”
As for my above-cited anonymous source—the one close to but not inside Ahrar al-Sham—Abu Yahia’s political priorities are not likely to be significantly different from those of Abu Jaber. And perhaps it would not matter anyway. According to this source, ”the problem with Ahrar’s structure is that the leader has limited authority. It’s the exact opposite of the Islam Army, where Zahran has the ultimate say, even though both have a Shoura Council.”
While this might indeed be a problem for Ahrar al-Sham, for example by slowing-down its command structure and policymaking, the level of institutionalization achieved by the group is also a major asset. Diplomats and others who are in contact with its leadership report that Ahrar al-Sham seems well structured, even at times disturbingly bureaucratic, to the extent that it is capable of pulling out a file on every past meeting with notes on exactly who was there and what was said by whom. Most of the Free Syrian Army militias in Syria could only dream of that level of organization. It is surely also what kept Ahrar al-Sham alive after the loss of most of its top-ranking leadership in September 2014, a blow so serious that few other groups could have survived it.
Abu Jaber seems to have bowed out gracefully. He has announced his resignation and the appointment of Abu Yahia on his personal Twitter account, commenting that ”the soldiers of Ahrar al-Sham are brought up to cling to the project rather than clinging to personalities. Whether moving from soldier to leader or from leader to soldier, all work under the same ceiling, which is obedience to God.” He is now being roundly praised by Ahrar al-Sham activists and supporters online for not clinging to office, as is the norm in Syrian rebel groups.
So far, then, the leadership change—Ahrar’s second in one year—seems to have gone very smoothly. Whether it will help solve the group’s internal contradictions remains to be seen. In terms of both ideology and alliances, Ahrar al-Sham still has one foot among the foreign-backed militias that depend on the largesse of Gulf Arab or Turkish sponsors, and must therefore do their bidding, and another in the hardline salafist camp that refuses to take instructions and gravitates towards al-Qaeda.
While the focus is now on the public replacement of Abu Jaber, and on the new leader Abu Yahia, the group’s rank and file is likely remain torn between these contradictory instincts. Ahmed Qara Ali says there are no new elections planned at the moment—for the political, military, media, organizational, etc, sub-offices—but at some point, Ahrar al-Sham will have to come down on one side or the other of the political gulf that it has tried to straddle since 2011.
— Aron Lund, editor of Syria in Crisis