Syrian Rebel Leader Subhi al-Refai on U.S. relations with Ahrar al-Sham

by Aron Lund, editor of Syria in Crisis

Subhi al-Refai is a leader of the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC), a coalition of Syrian revolutionary factions formed in December 2014. He has been kind enough to provide me with the following statement, presenting his personal analysis of a question that is on the mind of many in both Syria and the United States at this moment.

Former U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford recently penned a piece for the Middle East Institute, a Washington-based think tank, together with the Beirut-based Middle East analyst Ali El Yassir. In the text, they argued that the U.S. needs to overcome its resistance to working with Ahrar al-Sham, one of Syria’s largest Sunni rebel factions.

The first foundations of Ahrar al-Sham, whose full name is now “the Ahrar al-Sham Islamic Movement,” were laid in 2011, after the start of the Syrian uprising. Most of its founders and leaders were former political prisoners who had been jailed for advocating Islamist causes or for involvement with the Sunni insurgency in Iraq. Having formed networks and built trust among each other in the Seidnaia prison north of Damascus, where Islamist prisoners were assembled in a special section, they were released on presidential amnesty in the early months of the uprising and promptly went underground to create militant cells. The groups they formed to fight President Assad’s regime were gradually expanded and connected to each other, first in the Idleb-Hama region, which remains the group’s main stronghold. Ahrar al-Sham then grew through clever alliance-building among the Syrian rebels until it reached its present size and shape. (As a legacy of the latest of those coalitions, Ahrar al-Sham also operates under the “Islamic Front” brand, which refers to a now essentially defunct coalition in which Ahrar al-Sham gradually absorbed most of the minor members.)

Often characterized as a salafi group, it is an ideologically committed Islamist organization that seeks a Sunni religious state in Syria. It has proven itself militarily strong and hardy and has survived years of fighting, and—no less impressive—has held together through the merciless backbiting and internal rivalries of Syrian rebel politics. In September 2014, most of Ahrar al-Sham’s leadership was wiped out in a mysterious explosion, but the group defied expectations and managed to survive this setback, electing new leaders and carrying on the struggle. Most powerful in northern Syria, it has established what appears to be a strong working relationship with the Turkish AKP government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and recently endorsed the Turkish-American bid for a ”safe zone” in northern Syria.

The question of whether or not the U.S. should work with Ahrar al-Sham in its bid to put pessure on Bashar al-Assad’s government is controversial, not least because some members of the group have been connected to global anti-American jihadi factions including al-Qaeda. Ahrar al-Sham itself claims to be a fully independent group and it does not engage in armed action outside Syria. It has at times been critical of al-Qaeda and its Syrian affiliate, the Nusra Front, but—like many other rebel factions, particularly the Islamist groups—it works closely with the Nusra Front on the battlefield.

Recently, the Ahrar al-Sham leadership has been on a charm offensive, pushing back against Western views of it as a dangerous jihadi faction. Its foreign relations official Labib al-Nahhas, alias Abu Ezzeddin al-Souri (who I interviewed here, before his group merged into Ahrar al-Sham), recently penned editorials in The Washington Post and The Daily Telegraph arguing that his group should be considered a moderate and centrist faction in the uprising and is deserving of international support and acceptance.

But the group still remains committed to its ideology and the idea of a Sunni theocracy in Syria, and it continues to play to Islamist opinion in ways that are clearly at odds with U.S. strategy (whether one agrees with that strategy or not). For example, Ahrar al-Sham recently released a public euology of Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar that included praise for the Taliban movement’s fourteen-year long war against the U.S. army in Afghanistan, as well as Ahrar al-Sham’s best wishes for his successor, described as “the Mujahed Brother Mullah Akhtar Mansour.” I’m sure that played well within the group and among its Islamist allies in Syria and abroad, but I can’t imagine it will do much to improve Ahrar al-Sham’s image in Washington.

That Robert Ford, as a former ambassador and policymaker on Syria, has taken such a strong position in favor of working with Ahrar al-Sham has of course drawn attention both in the U.S. and among Syrian rebels. Now, the RCC leader Subhi al-Refai—who is not a member of Ahrar al-Sham, although the group is involved with the RCC—joins this debate with his own analysis of the chances of a collaborative relationship between the American government and Ahrar al-Sham.

What follows is the statement provided to me by Subhi al-Refai, in my own translation from the original Arabic.

–Aron Lund, editor of Syria in Crisis


Analysis of Mr. Robert Ford’s comments about the Ahrar al-Sham Islamic Movement

An initial analysis of Mr Robert Ford’s positive view of the Ahrar al-Sham faction, and of the necessity of opening relations with it, points to the existence of a significant school of thought inside the White House that pushes for working with the movement.

However, I believe that this is an attempt to widen the gulf between the two differing schools of thought that exists within Ahrar al-Sham, in order to destroy it from within.

The first of these schools is striving to be more open towards the West and to restore the Umma Project to the National Project, as expressed by the late Abu Yazen.

The second school of thought remains committed to the Umma Project, which transcends Syria’s borders, and it views the Free Syrian Army as a Western project that they must refrain from trusting or working with.

Of course, it is possible that I am wrong in my analysis! But what could it be that has encouraged the American government to move towards working with a faction that is so forcefully supported by parties whose goals completely contradict its own? In particular, we must consider that taking this route would complicate relations with these other parties even more than today. In addition, the chances for success of this new relationship are very slim, for two reasons.

The first reason is that Ahrar al-Sham is incapable of taking a decision to open up new relations that could harm the interests of a fundamental ally of the movement.

The second reason is the strength and control that the school of thought opposed to relations with the USA exercises within the movement. In addition, a not-insignificant proportion of the movement’s components lean towards the ideology of Jabhat al-Nusra, a fact that stands between the leadership of the movement and this (adventurous) step in the direction of the Americans.

Therefore, we find that, for the most part, Ahrar al-Sham’s foreign policy takes the path of hidden relations, in so far as these relations concern the West generally or the United States in particular.

Perhaps some serious thinking on how to change the politico-military map of northern Syria has finally begun!

Subhi al-Refai

President of the Executive Office
Revolutionary Command Council
Syria

Notes by Aron Lund:

The Umma Project, Mashrou’ al-Umma, is a slogan that has been used by Ahrar al-Sham to describe its ideological and political foundations. The word Umma can be translated as ”nation,” but in this context it specifically refers to the Islamic nation, i.e. the global community of Muslims inside and outside Syria. In contrast to Umma, the term Watan— which can be translated as ”nation,” ”homeland,” or ”country”—signifies a more narrow focus on Syria and Syrian interests.

Abu Yazen al-Shami was an influential leader and religious ideologue within Ahrar al-Sham, who was killed alongside most of the rest of the group’s historical leadership on September 9, 2014. He has posthumously been identified as a leading light among the ”reformers” in Ahrar al-Sham, who were shocked into a reappraisal of politico-religious principles by the rise of the Islamic State. Before his death, he had begun to argue against hardline jihadi purism in favor of a more pragmatic albeit still unambiguously Islamist stance.

READ ALSO:

For an interview with Mohammed Talal Bazerbashi, alias Abu Abderrahman al-Souri, a leading member and co-founder of Ahrar al-Sham, click here.

For a previous interview of mine with the RCC’s Subhi al-Refai, click here.

Comments (20)


1. Majedkhaldoun said:

KSA and Iran and Russia are cooking a deal, so complicated, and may not be accepted to the Rebels , nor Assad

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August 12th, 2015, 4:30 pm

 

2. John Cabral said:

Mr. Lynd what we need is not discussion of which armed factions the U.S. government should support, but how the U.S. government can help all of the factions to stop the fighting.

The discussion of which military factions to support or not support in Syria is a discussion the CIA and the Pentagon have.

We in the U.S. who want an end to this dangerous and tragic war should not join the CIA and the Pentagon in these deliberations.

Syria needs an immediate or a gradual region-by-region ceasefire. The question is how to achieve that, not which side to support.

Put the lives of men women and children in Syria first, not geopolitical advantage for one state or another.

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August 12th, 2015, 7:10 pm

 

3. Observer said:

This militia and that militia but wow where is the glorious SAA that we are being told is holding the front intact?

Iran does not want any true military structure in the Arab world it wants militia it can play with and do the fighting through gullible others.

At this rate with 10% of the population Shia there is no way this is going to happen.

There will be a rollback of all those militia. IT is clear the regime is going out one way or the other.

As for the US we do not have a dog in this fight, not one. Let them duke it out. We will protect our allies Turkey and the Kurds and the rest can have pox on their houses.

This includes Bibi and his gangs.

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August 12th, 2015, 8:01 pm

 

4. Majedkhaldoun said:

AlJubeir of KSA did not give concession to Lavrove in Moscow, insisted that Assad must go,
Ali Mamlook asked for a meeting between Bashar and King Salman, there is no agreement for such meeting yet, it should take place in Cairo.
Waleed Muaallem also suggested for a meeting between Assad and King Salman
Zareef in Syria to discuss an election in Syria under supervision of troops from Arab League, while Assad still in power
Iran wants guarantees that if Assad leaves HA will not be attacked, Iran suggesting that Assad will be allowed to stay as president of Alawistan
all these meetings may turn out to be waste of time

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August 12th, 2015, 9:11 pm

 

5. mjabali said:

Robert Ford should accept that his calculations were wrong.

Now he is trying to sell another Islamic movement that wants to join the Muslim Ummah more than working for SYRIA.

He, and others should look for another way to stop this violence instead of putting their money on another Nusra.

Putting Syria together now is an almost impossible task because of many factors. So,, at least, why not work for a cease fire of any sort instead of putting Syrians through another round of escalated violence.

The situation is going to become even more dangerous than it is now especially with the Turks making up their mind to not let the Kurds take a big chunk of SYRIA. And, with the Saudi war mongers wanting to settle scores with IRAN…

The money question is when the big showdown between the Kurds VS the Turks is going to happen?

Today rockets (3) fell in the heart of the city, first to hit the city center since last year when two or three rockets hit city center killing around 8.

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August 13th, 2015, 6:40 am

 

6. Observer said:

Which city center Damascus or Latakia?

Ceasefire? Did I read ceasefire?

Now that the grip on the country is slipping day by day we are told it is impossible to put Syria together.

It would have been better if a peaceful separation had happened before. Now it is too little too late.

The regime is going out by hook or crook. The question is who is going to fill the vacuum that is the crux of the entire discussion.

If Iran thinks that it can have a nuclear deal and keep HA it is delusional.

Having said that, Obama may very well oblige and allow that; Bibi will not.

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August 13th, 2015, 7:54 am

 

7. ALAN said:

4. MAJEDKHALDOUN
AlJubeir of KSA is just a f**king mooron!

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August 13th, 2015, 8:45 am

 

8. Ziad Abu Fadel said:

Another miserable attempt to soft-soap the terrorism of these foreign monsters. Dr. Assad should never have granted amnesty to these mass murderers and bigots. He should have done what I suggested which is to keep them until they finish their terms. In any case, Ahrar Al-Sham is losing and our army is winning. You Americans just don’t get it and never will. This whole article was propaganda favoring the Obama regime’s volte face in order to work with Alqaeda. Don’t think it’s anything else. Russia and Iran are watching. Don’t mess with the bear.

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August 13th, 2015, 10:24 am

 

9. Akbar Palace said:

One of Dr. Assad’s Adoring Fans NewZ

Ziad,

What would “Dr. Assad” have to do for you to reject him, or is it “unconditional love”?

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August 13th, 2015, 11:02 am

 

10. Akbar Palace said:

If Iran thinks that it can have a nuclear deal and keep HA it is delusional.

Observer,

Why not? That’s what this Iran deal does, it gives Iran billions for weapons and proxies and let’s them pull the wool over the eyes of the blind and brainless inspectors. The world is giving Iran a “Free Pass”.

My suggestion is for the Arabs and Israelis to pool their resources so we can kick Iran’s butt when the time comes. No one else has the belly for it.

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August 13th, 2015, 11:14 am

 

11. Tara said:

Now those who couldn’t give a rat’s ass about sunnis dying in droves and whole sunni cities leveling out, are calling now for cease fire now that the war reached their villages .

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August 13th, 2015, 11:37 am

 

12. mjabali said:

Sunnis like Tara and Observer have nothing to offer to stop the madness in Syria. Nothing, NADA….صفر

They can not even wish for a cease fire.

They want revenge and blood.

Even Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyah made a cease fire with al-Assad in al-Zabadani and in Kfaryah and al-Faw’a, and still Sunni revenge seekers on this board who live in America can not fathom this and still want revenge and stand in the face of anyone who is seeking to calm things down.

For Tara: Every Alawite throws barrel bombs on Sunnis…Same with al-Shaykh al-Fadel Obeservarcion…

Observer takes it to the next level and claims that Iran wants to destroy all Arabic Armies….hahhahaaaa

Of course, absent from the Sunni narrative of Observer is Saudi Arabia, for example, and how it is destroying most of the Middle East, with the other war monger Qatar, UAE…

Look at the libya for example: who turned the country into Militia? Iran? hahhaa

Unlike them, I, MJABALI, always spoke about political solutions from day one.

Today rockets slammed into the heart of Latakia killing (2 or 4 depending on sources) and injuring tens…

Some one should tell Tara and al-Shaykh Observer ( عدو الروافض) that the Sunnis in Latakia, are not happy with these rockets…They are scared …go read what they have been writing about this today….Tara and OBservar ( who live in America) of course have no idea…

روحو فصفصو بزر

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August 13th, 2015, 12:24 pm

 

13. Juergen said:

hmm looks like the old saying is true, money does not stink

Assad’s wealthy cousin in
shady business with Israeli
Israeli businessman Freddy Zinger acted as an offshore business proxy for Rami Makhlouf and other members of the Syrian ruling family.

https://now.mmedia.me/lb/en/NewsReports/565727-assads-wealthy-cousin-in-shady-business-with-israeli

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August 13th, 2015, 4:41 pm

 

14. Tara said:

Mjabali,

Ceasefire was only made after rebels owned firearms they can use to defend them. Until then, it was one way fire from Shabeehat Al Assad towards the sunnis .

Secondly, the negotiation for cease fire took place between the rebels and an iranian delegate in Turkey. Your Assad is just a stooge and hence he has no saying in any negotiation.

And thirdly , kindly tell us why didn’t your people ask for cease fire when barrel bombs were thrown at us like rain . Weren’t they busy distributing sweet and calling the death of innocent children, hardly a massacre

Sectarianisn and hypocrisy at its glory!

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August 13th, 2015, 5:45 pm

 

15. Observer said:

Tara there is no use. He is fully under the spell of Ibn Tamyieh ideology in reverse.
I do not know how many times I say I am an atheist and he calls me a Sunni. If I note that the war is on Sunnis or if I note that Iran does not want Iraq to have a real army or that the dissolution of the Syrian army slow and persistent is being replaced with militia as we have on these posts he laughs. It is as if the guy cannot read. Iran does want Syria and Iraq like Lebanon with a militia that essentially vetoes any progress or resolution of anything
Today the Lebanese newspaper L’Orient Le Jour is quoting Bassil saying that the presidency will be decided by outside powers. Aaoun part of the government with his family does not want anyone else but him and his family to be in power and hence the paralysis.

The cease fire was forced by the reciprocity of the fight in the north with that of Zabadani. Well two rockets fell on Latakia and the sect is up in arms but more than 1400 rockets and more than a 1000 barrel bombs on Zabadani are nothing.

Ibn T’s sectarianism has no end and no bound. Go ahead have your statelet and have the Assad thugs run your life like Hilal and his son Suleiman.

Popsicle is what I am having while some are drinking matte

Cheers

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August 13th, 2015, 5:59 pm

 

16. Zawalawi said:

If Assad goes to meet Salman in Egypt then someone should do us all a favor and end the whole thing there.

Assad can not remain leader of any country whether all of Syria or an Alawite nation because he has no legitimacy in the eyes of his own people and the Sunnis – even those loyal to him – deep down do not trust the Alawites and love life and money to stick around and watch Assad drag them down.

Assad will either be disposed of or taken into hiding in Iran or in some other high profile country where nobody can reach him and remain under house arrest or protection – however you want to describe it – much like many of the Nazi SS officers.

In Syria the various groups will continue to form into militias and mini armies executing orders received by their financiers. Syria will be split into confederations and the militias will establish demarcation lines so that business becomes easier to conduct. Transportation and commercial networks will develop naturally as people start to flock into quasi – kingdoms where they will find ample opportunities to make quick money in various legitimate and black market industries. Such circumstances will be helped by the lack of traditional war fare and significantly less air strikes on non Islamic Terrorist controlled territory.

Attempts will be made to unify all armed factions against “takfiri” groups who have a “Ummah” project because such a project is antithetical to the modern nation state established after the Westphalia agreement.

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August 13th, 2015, 7:48 pm

 

17. mjabali said:

Tara:

Revenge does not solve anything.

And, you can offer nothing to solve matters…that is the bottom line…

al-Shaykh al-Fadel Observer:

Who talks like a Sunni Wahhabi is one….Also, you can offer nothing to solve matters in Syria, not even a wish for an end to violence…Also, please know the topic before you go on a rant: the rockets fell today in areas considered not Alawi….Again: the rockets today fell in non-Alawite areas,,,the Sunnis were upset…do you care? not really: you want revenge…Sunnis like you are an obstacle to solve anything…

روح فصفص بزر

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August 13th, 2015, 9:45 pm

 

18. ALAN said:

US – the main criminal aggressor state in the Syrian case.
So it is not correct to search with it for solutions. The solution will come from Russia and it will be accepted by the United States unwillingly.

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August 14th, 2015, 12:34 am

 

19. Nathanael said:

If Mister Ford is so keen to work with Ahr al Sham and Alqaeda he must back them up for the implementation of charia in the US.

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August 14th, 2015, 12:41 am

 

20. ALAN said:

Former US Intelligence Chief Admits Obama Took “Willful Decision” to Support ISIS Rise
http://journal-neo.org/2015/08/13/former-us-intelligence-chief-admits-obama-took-willful-decision-to-support-isis-rise/

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August 14th, 2015, 12:52 am

 

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