MMP: Ahrar al-Sham

"Ahrar al-Sham fighters on parade." Halab Today TV, 11 September 2014. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/deed.en

Ahrar al-Sham

Ahrar al-Sham is a Sunni Salafist militant group operating in northern Syria.

Key Statistics

2011 First Recorded Activity
2012 First Attack
2022 Profile Last Updated

Profile Contents

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Overview

Narrative of the Organization's History

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Organization

Leadership, Name Changes, Size Estimates, Resources, Geographic Locations

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Strategy

Ideology, Aims, Political Activities, Targets, and Tactics

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Major Attacks

First Attacks, Largest Attacks, Notable Attacks

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Interactions

Foreign Designations and Listings, Community Relations, Relations with Other Groups, State Sponsors and External Influences

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Maps

Mapping relationships with other militant groups over time

Contact MMP

Send a message to the Mapping Militants team.

Download Full Profile as PDF

Last updated March 2022.

How to Cite

Mapping Militant Organizations. “Ahrar al-Sham.” Stanford University. Last modified March 2022. https://cisac.fsi.stanford.edu/mappingmilitants/profiles/ahrar-al-sham
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Organizational Overview

Formed: 2011

Disbanded: Group is active

First Attack: November 1, 2012: Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra attacked the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas, killing several Syrian army soldiers and seizing weapons and vehicles (unknown killed, unknown wounded).[1]

Last Attack: May 21, 2019: Ahrar al-Sham, using munitions supplied by Turkey and fighting alongside HTS and Jaish al-Izza, captured the town of Kafr Nabudah, which had been taken by Syrian government forces several weeks prior (unknown killed, unknown wounded).[2]

Executive Summary

Ahrar al-Sham is a Sunni Salafist militant group operating in northern Syria that was established in 2011 by amnestied Islamist prisoners in 2011. The group’s primary goal is to replace the Assad Regime with an Islamic government but has struggled to fulfill this goal as more effort has been focused towards overcoming rebel oppositions within the Idlib province. Ahrar al-Sham was a key actor in several prominent coalitions and umbrella groups since its formation that bolstered its influence, and eventually garnered the support of Turkey. However, since its peak in 2015, Ahrar al-Sham succumbed to in-fighting and splintering, losing influence within northern Syria as other rebel opposition groups surpass it in strength and importance.

Group Narrative

Ahrar al-Sham, also known as Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya, or the Islamic Movement of the Free Men of the Levant, is a Sunni Salafist militant group operating in Syria that aims to replace the Assad Regime with an Islamic government.[3] Hassan Abboud and other former prisoners of the Assad Regime founded Ahrar al-Sham in late 2011 after Assad freed them in an effort to placate religious protestors during the Arab Spring.[4] The group initially operated in the Idlib governorate but quickly expanded throughout Syria.[5] Although it conducts operations across the nation, Ahrar al-Sham remains most active in North and West Syria.[6]

Ahrar al-Sham has a long history of cooperating with other armed groups in Syria. Since 2012, Ahrar al-Sham has primarily coordinated attacks against the Syrian army and other militants sympathetic to the Assad Regime with Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra. Both groups became prominent by pioneering the use of IEDs in Syria as well as the practice of targeting military bases in order to capture weapons. In 2014, the U.S. Director of National Intelligence considered Ahrar al-Sham and HTS among the most effective Syrian opposition groups.[7] Ahrar al-Sham is also known for uniting Islamist opposition forces under larger umbrella organizations. It led the formation of the Syrian Islamic Front (SIF) in 2012 and co-created the Islamic Front in 2013, which had 40,000-70,000 fighters and was Syria’s largest umbrella group.[8] When these groups drifted apart, Ahrar al-Sham absorbed many of the fighters from smaller factions within the umbrella organizations. In 2015, Ahrar al-Sham expanded its operations against the Assad Regime by co-creating the Jaysh al-Fatah (Army of Conquest) umbrella organization, which pushed the Syrian army out of the Idlib governorate in June 2015. [9] As a result of Jaysh al-Fatah’s victory, Turkey and Saudi Arabia began funding Ahrar al-Sham in order to bolster Syrian opposition forces.[10]

Ahrar al-Sham worked with the Islamic State (IS) until January 2014 when tensions between the two groups escalated. Cooperation ceased when IS killed an Ahrar al-Sham fighter after the group’s leader, Hassan Abboud, criticized IS commander Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi for rejecting reconciliation efforts between Syrian Sunni militant groups and classifying other jihadists as infidels.[11]  The two groups engaged in a series of small skirmishes. Violence escalated when Ahrar al-Sham and its allies, including Jabhat al-Nusra, began to actively target IS within Raqqa, a city in northwestern Syria, and drove IS out on January 6, 2014.[12] IS allegedly retaliated in February and September of 2014 with attacks that killed almost all of Ahrar al-Sham’s leaders, including co-founders Abu Khalid al-Suri and Hassan Abboud.[13] Ahrar al-Sham and IS reached an agreement in which Ahrar al-Sham would remove its fighters from IS-dominated Raqqa if IS removed its fighters from Ahrar al-Sham-dominated Idlib as well.[14] Since the withdrawal of their forces out of the respective cities, there is little evidence of further violent clashes between Ahrar al-Sham and IS.   

In addition to its combat operations, Ahrar al-Sham played a crucial role in negotiating ceasefires with the Assad regime despite its original resistance to peace talks. As a member of the Islamic Coalition, it wanted the opposition’s political activities to be run only by groups fighting inside Syria.[15] However, Ahrar al-Sham eventually agreed to its first ceasefire with the Syrian Army and Hezbollah on August 12, 2015. The ceasefire was brokered by Turkey and Iraq on behalf of Ahrar ah-Sham and the Assad Regime, respectively. As part of the ceasefire, Ahrar al-Sham suspended hostilities for 48 hours in the southwestern city of Zabadani, as well as cities within the Idlib province: Al-Foua and Kefraya.[16] Additional ceasefire talks were held in September 2015 between Ahrar al-Sham, which represented Idlib’s Sunni militant groups, and Iran. During these talks, Ahrar al-Sham negotiated a six-month ceasefire between the Syrian Army and Hezbollah and opposition forces in Zabadani, Al-Foua, and Kefraya. It also agreed to a population exchange that moved Shiites from Idlib to government-controlled areas and allowed Sunni militants to return to the province.[17]  

In December 2015, Ahrar al-Sham withdrew from peace talks that were hosted by its ally, Saudi Arabia, after citing concerns that the parties were too sympathetic to the Assad Regime. Shortly thereafter, Ahrar al-Sham signed a statement with its allies that declared their intent to negotiate peace terms with Assad in 2016, but stated they would not allow him to remain in power for a transitional period after the war.[18] Ahrar al-Sham was also not party to the February 2016 national ceasefire, and it supported the umbrella group Jaysh al-Fatah’s May offensive in Aleppo.[19] In October 2016, Ahrar al-Sham agreed to a ceasefire with Jund al-Aqsa.  Jund al-Aqsa is a prominent Sunni-Salafi opposition group that was initially a subunit within Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (Fatah al-Sham) formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra. The ceasefire was brokered after Jund al-Aqsa merged into Fatah al-Sham.[20]

In late 2016, Ahrar al-Sham began to splinter. Disagreements arose over the group’s participation in Operation Euphrates Shield, a Turkish-led military operation against the Islamic State, and over merger negotiations with Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (Fatah al-Sham). Although Ahrar al-Sham’s leaders issued a fatwa permitting the group’s participation in Operation Euphrates Shield, many Ahrar al-Sham fighters argued that the necessary religious conditions to issue a fatwa had not been met. Simultaneously, members of Ahrar al-Sham’s Shura Council disagreed on whether to merge with Fatah al-Sham, leading to contested leadership elections. Although a majority of the Shura Council elected Ali al-Omar as the group’s leader, pro-Fatah al-Sham members refused to accept candidates other than former leader Sheikh Hashim al-Sheikh or military commander Abu Saleh Tahhan as the group’s new leader.[21] Following the election, eight of the Shura Council’s 22 members suspended their membership, and Sheikh Hashim al-Sheikh formed an independent sub-faction within Ahrar al-Sham known as Jaysh al-Ahrar.[22]

In January 2017, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (Fatah al-Sham) began attacking militant groups in the Aleppo and Idlib governorates that sent representatives to peace talks with the Assad Regime in Kazakhstan. Ahrar al-Sham did not participate in the peace conference. As a result of these attacks, Jaysh al-Mujahedeen, the Levantine Front’s Aleppo-based fighters, and Jaysh al-Islam’s Idlib-based fighters merged with Ahrar al-Sham.[23] Fatah al-Sham’s attacks also prompted Jaysh al-Ahrar to leave Ahrar al-Sham and join Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), formerly known as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham. On February 9, 2017, Sheikh Hashim al-Sheikh released his first public statement since becoming HTS’s leader and called for unity in the Syrian insurgency.[24] These attacks prompted Ahrar al-Sham to target HTS, particularly in the Idlib governorate.[25]

Although the groups occasionally clashed with each other, both Ahrar al-Sham and HTS collaborated with other Sunni opposition groups in a March offensive to capture territory in the Hama governorate from the Assad Regime. In April 2017, both groups offered protection to journalists who wished to cover the aftermath of the Assad Regime’s chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun in the Idlib governorate.[26]

In May 2017, the relationship between HTS and Ahrar al-Sham again started to fracture, apparently based on Ahrar’s increased support for the Free Syrian Army (FSA).[27] These clashes over imagery were backgrounded by intensifying economic and military competition; disagreements between Ahrar al-Sham and HTS arose over the provision of electricity in Idlib and control of strategically-significant transport routes and towns.[28] Additionally, Ahrar al-Sham and HTS were in a near constant contest over the control of armed opposition factions, and many soldiers defected back and forth between the two groups.[29] By June, Ahrar al-Sham had won over more recruits and was widely considered to have a larger force than HTS by a few thousand fighters. Though superior in quantity, Ahrar al-Sham lagged behind HTS in quality. Ahrar al-Sham was not able to properly integrate its newly acquired forces, while HTS successfully recruited higher quality forces with better equipment.[30]

Open conflict between Ahrar al-Sham and HTS broke out in July 2017 in Eastern Idlib and South Aleppo. Ahrar al-Sham reportedly tried to protect the FSA from HTS’ attempts at consolidation, and the conflict quickly expanded across Northwest Syria.[31] Despite the considerable gains in manpower Ahrar al-Sham had made in the months leading up to the outbreak of conflict, these groups were not coordinated enough to mount the necessary defense.[32] HTS quickly became the dominant force in Idlib at the expense of Ahrar al-Sham, which rapidly lost hundreds of fighters.[33] After a few days, HTS asserted its victory by way of a ceasefire. The ceasefire reallocated several pieces of territory that had been under Ahrar al-Sham’s control. This included the Bab al-Hawa border crossing, which Ahrar al-Sham had leveraged to make a profit of over one million USD a month. In losing control of this border cross, Ahrar al-Sham also lost a significant portion of its income.[34]  

Following heavy attrition from its conflict with HTS, Ahrar al-Sham tried to recoup by selecting Hassan Sawfan as its new organizational leader. Sawfan came from moderate Islamist thinking, believing that attacking opposition groups would not further Ahrar al-Sham's cause; instead, Sawfan believed the group needed to unify other Islamist factions within Syria.[35] With calls for unification from the Syrian Islamic Council, Ahrar al-Sham backed the idea of a unified national army to bolster the strength of the fractured rebel groups against HTS and the Assad regime.[36] It appears, however, that Ahrar al-Sham persisted in its military cooperation with HTS against regime targets despite the competitive nature between the two groups[37]

In February 2018, Ahrar al-Sham grew stronger when the Sunni Islamist group Nour al-Din al-Zenki Movement merged under Ahrar al-Sham's banner and together, aligned under the umbrella group Jabhat Tahrir Souriya (JTS),.[38] Sawfan maintained his position as leader of Ahrar al-Sham, while Sawfan’s deputy leader Jaber Ali Basha was selected as leader of JTS, and the leader of the Nour al-Din al-Zinki Movement was chosen to be JTS deputy commander.[39] HTS quickly attacked JTS, but JTS resisted the assault and reportedly seized control of 36 strategically valuable cities from HTS after just a few days.[40] In August, JTS joined a Turkish-led coalition called the National Liberation Front (NLF), a prominent rival of HTS in the Idlib province.[41] The NLF posits its affiliated civilian arm, the “interim government,” as the rightful administrator of Idlib, which HTS counters with its own body, the “salvation government.”[42]

Several months of fighting between JTS and HTS seemed to conclude in January 2019 when HTS successfully strengthened its control over most of northwestern Syria and reached a ceasefire with its opponent.[43]  Under the terms of the deal, HTS expanded its control over much of northern Syria. This included the Ghab plain, where Ahrar al-Sham agreed to dissolve its presence as part of the ceasefire, and other territory that had formerly been under the control of Ahrar al-Sham and other NLF-aligned groups.[44] Although Ahrar al-Sham lost significant territory to HTS in the ceasefire, it (along with the NLF-aligned Saqour al-Sham) retained control over two cities, Maarat al-Nouman and Ariha, and a few other towns in northwestern Syria.[45] In addition to this exchange of territory, the deal also included a limited handover of weapons from Ahrar al-Sham to HTS.[46]

In March 2019, media outlets reported that Ahrar al-Sham had resumed violent conflict with HTS, including a battle for the town of Umm Seir in southern Idlib governorate.[47] Two months later, in May 2019, other sources indicated that Ahrar al-Sham had begun collaborating with HTS to fight the Assad regime in Idlib. As the government’s forces encroached further on Idlib, the two militant groups acted in concert to resist their attacks.[48]

In November 2020, Ahrar al-Sham struggled with internal splintering after Jaber Ali Basha, the leader of the group, dismissed the head of the military wing. This dismissal led to some military personnel demanding the reinstatement of the former leader Hassan Sawfan who held closer ties to HTS at the time of his resignation.[49] With the military wing positioning themselves towards Sawfan and HTS, the leadership and ideological wings stayed closer to JTS, creating a persisting division in the group. Following Amer al-Sheikh's appointment as Ahrar al-Sham's leader in 2021, around 1,000 key fighters allegedly defected. Their reasons for defection included Sheikh’s apathy towards their demands about specific positions in the council and internal interests, in addition to allegedly not paying some of the key fighters in the organization.[50]

 

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[2] Bucci, Peter. “Rebel groups capture key town from Syrian Army after intense assault (maps).” Syrian War Daily. 22 May 2019. Web. 27 May 2019. <https://syrianwardaily.com/2019/05/22/breaking-rebel-groups-capture-key-....

[3] Abouzeid, Raina. "TIME Exclusive: Meet the Islamist Militants Fighting Alongside Syria’s Rebels." Time Magazine. N.p., 26 July 2012. Web. 18 July 2014.

[4] Bar, Herve. "Ahrar Al-Sham Jihadists Emerge from Shadows in North Syria." Agence France Presse. N.p., 13 Feb. 2013. Web. 18 July. 2014. "Guide to the Syrian Rebels." BBC News. N.p., 13 Dec. 2013. Web. 20 Jul. 2014. Lund, Aron. “Syria's Salafi Insurgents: The Rise of the Syrian Islamic Front.” Rep. UI Occasional Paper 17, 19 Mar. 2013. Web. 22 Jul. 2014

[5] "Guide to the Syrian Rebels." BBC News. N.p., 13 Dec. 2013. Web. 20 July 2014.

[6] “Syria Frontlines Update.” Syria Conflict Mapping Project. The Carter Center, 9 Oct. 2015. Web. 13 May. 2016

[7] Pellerin, Cheryl. “Intelligence Leaders Detail Global Threats to Senate Panel.” U.S. Department of Defense. N.p., 11 Feb. 2014. Web. 22 Jul. 2014.

[8] "Competition among Islamists." The Economist. N.p., 20 July 2013. Web. 03 July 2014. Hassan, Hassan. “Front to Back.” Foreign Policy. The FP Group, 4 Mar. 2014. Web. 7 May 2016.

[9] Rifai, Ryan. “Syrian group claims control of Idlib province.” Al Jazeera. Al Jazeera, 9 Jun. 2015. Web. 30 Apr. 2016

[10] Sengupta, Kim. “Turkey and Saudi Arabia alarm the West by backing Islamist extremists the Americans had bombed in Syria.” The Independent. 11 May. 2015. Web. 13 May. 2016

[11] Joscelyn, Thomas. “Ahrar Al Sham Leader Criticizes Head of Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham.” Long War Journal. Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, 29 Jan. 2014. Web. 21 Jul. 2014. Lund, Aron. “Pushing Back Against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant: The Islamic Front.” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. N.p., 8 Jan. 2014. Web. 1 Jul. 2014.

[12] Barnard, Anne, and Rick Gladstone. "Rebel Infighting Spreads to an Eastern Syrian City." New York Times. N.p., 6 Jan. 2014. Web. 17 Jul. 2014.

[13] Joscelyn, Thomas. "Al Qaeda's Chief Representative in Syria Killed in Suicide Attack." Long War Journal. Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, 23 Feb. 2014. Web. 21 Jul. 2014. “Syrian rebel leader Abu Kahled al-Suri killed in Allepo.” BBC News. 24 Feb. 2014. Web. 30 Apr. 2016. "Syria conflict: Blast kills leader of Ahrar al-Sham rebels." BBC News. 10 Sep. 2014. Web. 30 Apr. 2016.

[14] Al-Aswad, Harun. ”After Baghdadi: Will Islamic State fighters seek to return to Al-Qaeda?” Middle East Eye. Web. 9 Nov. 2019.

[15] Solomon, Erika. “Syria rebels reject opposition coalition, call for Islamic leadership.” Reuters. Thomas Reuters, 25 Sep. 2013. Web. 29 Jun.  2016. Evans, Dominic. “Factbox: Syrian rebels against opposition coalition.” Reuters. Thomas Reuters, 25 Sep. 2013. Web. 29 Jun. 2016.

[16] “Turkey, Iran help broker rare truce in Syria.” Al-Jazeera America. 12 Aug. 2015. Web. 6 May. 2016.

[17] Barnard, Anne. “Truce Struck in 2 Areas of Syria.” The New York Times. 25 Sep. 2015. 6 May. 2016. Karouny, Mariam. “Resilient insurgent group Ahrar al-Sham to play big role in Syria.” Reuters. 22 Sep. 2015. Web. 23 April 2016.

[18] "Syria conflict: Opposition agrees framework for peace talks.” BBC News. BBC, 10 Dec. 2015. Web 22 Jun. 2016

[19] Abboud, Samer. “Syria War: What you need to know about the ceasefire.” Al Jazeera. 28 Feb. 2016. Web. 6 May. 2016. Joscelyn, Thomas. “Jaysh al Fath coalition launches new offensive in Aleppo province.” The Long War Journal. Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. 6 May. 2016. Web. 13 May. 2016.

[20] Hussein, Tam. “Why Did Jund Al-Aqsa Join Nusra Front in Taking Out ‘Moderate’ Rebels in Idlib?” Huffington Post. 11 Jun. 2014. Web. 23 Sep. 2016. “Weekly Conflict Summary.” The Carter Center. 12 Oct. 2016. Web. 23 Oct. 2016.

[21] Haid, Haid. “Why Ahrar al-Sham is fighting itself- and how this impacts the battle for Syria. Middle East Eye. Middle East Eye, 21 Dec. 2016. Web. 18 Feb. 2017.

[22] Haid, Haid. “Why Ahrar al-Sham is fighting itself- and how this impacts the battle for Syria. Middle East Eye. Middle East Eye, 21 Dec. 2016. Web. 18 Feb. 2017.

[23] Mroue, Bassem. “Syrian rebels and insurgents battle in split over peace push.” Associated Press, 6 Feb. 2017. Web. 18 Feb. 2017. <https://www.apnews.com/ed40ee023fe749e4a0a72508f2e29935>. Petkova, Mariya. “Syrian opposition factions join Ahrar al-Sham.” Al Jazeera. 26 Jan. 2017. Web. 18 Feb. 2017. <https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/01/syrian-opposition-factions-join-a....

[24] Joscelyn, Thomas. “Hay’at Tahrir al Sham leader calls for unity in Syrian insurgency. The Long War Journal. Foundation for Defense of Democracies, 10 Feb. 2017. Web. 18 Feb. 2017.

[25] Weekly Conflict Summary: May 11-17, 2017.” The Carter Center. The Carter Center, May . 2017. Web. 10 Jul. 2017. 

[26] “Weekly Conflict Summary: March 30- April 5, 2017.” The Carter Center. The Carter Center, April 2017. Web. 23 Jul. 2017.

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[28] “Al-Qaeda Affiliate and Ahrar Al-Sham Compete for Control in Idlib,” Middle East Institute, accessed August 9, 2018, https://www.mei.edu/content/article/al-qaeda-affiliate-and-ahrar-al-sham.... “Idlib Electricity War: The Regime Is Providing It and Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham and Ahrar Al-Sham Are Cutting It Off,” Enab Baladi, June 20, 2017, https://english.enabbaladi.net/archives/2017/06/idlib-electricity-war-re....

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[30] “What Is Going on in Idlib between Tahrir and Ahrar Al-Sham?” Middle East Institute, accessed August 6, 2018, https://www.mei.edu/content/article/what-going-idlib-between-tahrir-and-.... “Why Ahrar Al-Sham Couldn’t Stand up to HTS’s Attack in Idlib,” Syria From Within | Chatham House, accessed August 6, 2018, https://syria.chathamhouse.org/research/why-ahrar-al-sham-couldnt-stand-....

[31] al-Hamra, “Blow-by-Blow Breakdown of Ahrar Al-Sham and Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham Clashes in Free Idlib,” Extra Newsfeed, July 20, 2017, https://extranewsfeed.com/blow-by-blow-breakdown-ahrar-al-sham-and-hayat.... “Opposition Infighting between Ahrar Al-Sham and Tahrir Al-Sham Kills 14 in Syria’s Idlib,” Alaraby, accessed August 7, 2018, https://www.alaraby.co.uk/english/news/2017/7/19/opposition-infighting-i.... “Fighting Renewed Between Nusra Front, Ahrar Al-Sham In Idlib Countryside - Al Shahid,” Al Shahid News, July 24, 2017, https://alshahidwitness.com/hts-ahrar-al-sham-fighting-idlib/.  “Rival Groups Clash in Syria’s Rebel-Packed Idlib,” Rudaw, accessed August 10, 2018, http://www.rudaw.net/english/kurdistan/16072017. “Hay’at Tahrir Al Sham’s Gamble: The Failure of Blood,” openDemocracy, July 26, 2017, https://www.opendemocracy.net/north-africa-west-asia/gregory-waters/haya....

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[34] “What Became of the Four Rebel Groups That Once Dominated the Syrian Conflict?,” The National, accessed August 10, 2018, https://www.thenational.ae/opinion/comment/what-became-of-the-four-rebel.... “Why Ahrar Al-Sham Couldn’t Stand up to HTS’s Attack in Idlib,” Syria From Within | Chatham House, accessed August 6, 2018, https://syria.chathamhouse.org/research/why-ahrar-al-sham-couldnt-stand-.... “Al Qaeda in Syria Close to Snuffing out Competition in North,” The National, accessed August 10, 2018, https://www.thenational.ae/world/mena/al-qaeda-in-syria-close-to-snuffin....

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[38] “Syrian Kurds Angered by Western Silence on Afrin.” Jerusalem Post, accessed August 27, 2018, https://www.jpost.com/Middle-East/Syrian-Kurds-angered-by-Western-silenc.... “Two of the Largest Factions in Syria’s Northwest Merge, Challenge HTS Dominance,” Syria Direct, accessed August 27, 2018, https://syriadirect.org/news/two-of-the-largest-factions-in-syria%e2%80%.... “Major Syrian Opposition Factions Join Forces,” TRT World, accessed August 27, 2018, https://www.trtworld.com/mea/major-syrian-opposition-factions-join-force.... “The Newest Battle for Idlib,” TRT World, accessed August 12, 2018, https://www.trtworld.com/mea/the-newest-battle-for-idlib-15608.

[39] “Ahrar Al-Sham, Nour Al-Din Al-Zenki Unify against Syrian Regime,” DailySabah, accessed August 27, 2018, https://www.dailysabah.com/politics/2018/02/20/ahrar-al-sham-nour-al-din....

[40] “Two of the Largest Factions in Syria’s Northwest Merge, Challenge HTS Dominance,” Syria Direct, accessed August 27, 2018, https://syriadirect.org/news/two-of-the-largest-factions-in-syria%e2%80%.... “New Rebel Faction Seizes Cities and Towns from Hardline Islamist Coalition in Syria’s Northwest,” Syria Direct, accessed August 27, 2018, https://syriadirect.org/news/new-rebel-faction-seizes-cities-and-towns-f.... “Ahrar Al-Sham and Nour Al-Din Al-Zenki Unite in ‘Hayyaat Tahrir Syria’ and Tensions Continue between the Latter and Hayyaat Tahrir Al-Sham,” The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (blog), February 18, 2018, http://www.syriahr.com/en/?p=85119. “The Violence of Battles Increased West of Aleppo and the Countryside of Idlib and Al-Zenki and Ahrar Al-Sham and Soqur Al-Sham Advance at the Expense of Hayaat Tahrir Al-Sham with Fighters Getting Killed and Captured,” The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (blog), February 21, 2018, http://www.syriahr.com/en/?p=85335. “Al-Zenki, Ahrar Al-Sham and Suqour Al-Sham Continue Their Advancement in Idlib Countryside at the Expense of Tahrir Al-Sham and the Fighting between Them Rages the Resentment of the Residents of Aleppo and Idlib” The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (blog), February 22, 2018, http://www.syriahr.com/en/?p=85385. “Tightening the Screws on Pakistan | Monday Briefing,” Middle East Institute, accessed August 12, 2018, https://www.mei.edu/content/flash/2018-02-26. “The Fighting between Ahrar Al-Sham and Suqour Al-Sham against Tahrir Al-Sham Continues for the 3rd Day with Advancement by the Latter in Idlib Countryside,” The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (blog), February 23, 2018, http://www.syriahr.com/en/?p=85475. “What Became of the Four Rebel Groups That Once Dominated the Syrian Conflict?,” The National, accessed August 10, 2018, https://www.thenational.ae/opinion/comment/what-became-of-the-four-rebel....

[41] “Russia, Turkey, and the Fate of Idlib,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, accessed August 27, 2018, http://carnegieendowment.org/sada/?fa=76999. “Syrian Rebels in the Idlib Province Form ‘National Liberation Front,’” Al Bawaba, August 26, 2018, https://www.albawaba.com/news/syrian-rebels-idlib-province-form-national.... Pulse News Agency International by AFP, “Syria Rebel Groups Form New Coalition as Regime Eyes Idlib,” accessed August 27, 2018, https://www.pulse.ng/news/world/syria-rebel-groups-form-new-coalition-as.... “‘Ahrar Al Shamal’ Joins the National Liberation Front in Northern Syria,” Call Syria, August 15, 2018, http://nedaa-sy.com/en/news/7893.

[42] Shaheen, Kareem. “Why Jihadist Advances in Idlib Should Revive the Syrian Peace Process.” The Century Foundation. 4 Feb. 2019. Web. 27 May 2019. <https://tcf.org/content/report/jihadist-advances-idlib-revive-syrian-pea....

[43] Joscelyn, Thomas. “Jihadist group consolidates control in northwestern Syria.” Long War Journal. Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. 10 Jan. 2019. Web. 19 May 2019. <https://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2019/01/jihadist-group-consolida....

[44] Shaheen, Kareem. “Why Jihadist Advances in Idlib Should Revive the Syrian Peace Process.” The Century Foundation. 4 Feb. 2019. Web. 27 May 2019. <https://tcf.org/content/report/jihadist-advances-idlib-revive-syrian-pea.... “Ceasefire struck to ward off regime offensive in Idlib.” The Australian. 11 Jan. 2019. Web. 27 May 2019. <https://www.theaustralian.com.au/nation/world/ceasefire-struck-to-ward-o....

[45] “Ahrar Al-Sham Dissolves Itself in the Al-Ghab and Shahsheo Areas of Hama.” The Syrian Observer. 10 Jan. 2019. Web. 27 May 2019. <https://syrianobserver.com/EN/news/47869/ahrar-al-sham-dissolves-itself-....

[46] “Ahrar Al-Sham Dissolves Itself in the Al-Ghab and Shahsheo Areas of Hama.” The Syrian Observer. 10 Jan. 2019. Web. 27 May 2019. <https://syrianobserver.com/EN/news/47869/ahrar-al-sham-dissolves-itself-....

[47] “Trouble in paradise: Heavy clashes breakout between HTS and Ahrar Al-Sham in southern Idlib.” Almasdar News. 18 March 2019. Web. 15 May 2019. <https://www.almasdarnews.com/article/trouble-in-paradise-heavy-clashes-b....

[48] Kittleson, Shelly. “Long-expected battle for Idlib may have begun.” Al-Monitor. 12 May 2019. Web. 27 May 2019. <https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2019/05/syria-russia-idlib-of....

[49] Al-Kanj, Sultan. ”Shakeup rattles major Islamist group in Idlib." AL-Monitor. 11 Nov. 2020. https://www.al-monitor.com/originals/2020/11/syria-idlib-ahrar-al-sham-h...

[50] Al-Kanj, Sultan. "Defections threaten Ahrar al-Sham jihadist movement in Syria.” AL-Monitor. 6 July 2021. https://www.al-monitor.com/originals/2021/07/defections-threaten-ahrar-al-sham-jihadist-movement-syria

Organizational Structure

Leadership, Name Changes, Size Estimates, Resources, Geographic Locations
Leadership
  • Leadership
  • Name Changes
  • Size Estimates
  • Resources
  • Geographic Locations

Leadership

With the exception of the group’s early leaders, Ahrar al-Sham’s commander is usually elected by a majority vote of its 22-member Shura Council and typically serves for a one-year term.[1]

Abu Khalid al-Suri (Unknown to February 23, 2014): Suri, also known as Abu Omeir al-Shami, was one of Ahrar al-Sham’s co-founders. He also acted as Al Qaeda’s (AQ) representative in Syria and was charged with facilitating reconciliation among regional Islamist militants. Suri was killed in an alleged IS suicide bombing against Ahrar al-Sham’s headquarters in February 2014. Following his death, AQ published a eulogy for the fallen Ahrar al-Sham leader. It also posted a video documenting his participation in Al Farouq training camp in Afghanistan, including photos of him with Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri.[2]

Hassan Abboud (2012 to September 9, 2014): Abboud, also known as Abu al-Hassan or Abu Abdullah al-Hamawi, co-founded and subsequently led Ahrar al-Sham. He also led the political office of the Islamic Front, which was the largest alliance of armed groups to operate in the Syrian civil war. Abboud made no public appearances during Ahrar al-Sham’s rise, but he established a consistent media presence after emerging in mid-2013 with an interview on Al Jazeera. He was killed in an alleged IS car bombing in Idlib that also killed other senior leaders in the Islamic Front.[3]

Sheikh Hashim al-Sheikh (September 11, 2014 to September 2015): Sheikh, also known as Abu Jaber, became Ahrar al-Sham’s interim leader after Hassan Abboud’s death. Prior to the Syrian civil war, Sheikh was imprisoned by the Assad Regime in 2005 for transferring foreign fighters to Iraq but was released in September 2011. Before he joined Ahrar al-Sham’s Shura Council, Sheikh commanded units in the Free Syrian Army and Ahrar al-Sham battalions in Aleppo. Under his leadership, Ahrar al-Sham launched a successful military campaign in Idlib and moderated its rhetoric in an attempt to appeal to the West. In September 2015, Sheikh stepped down as commander in order to found Jaysh Halab, an umbrella organization of Aleppo-based militant groups that includes Ahrar al-Sham. In late 2016, Sheikh formed a sub-faction with Ahrar al-Sham known as Jaysh al-Ahrar in response to contested leadership elections. Sheikh ultimately defected from Ahrar al-Sham to become the leader of Jabhat al-Nusra, now known as Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). Despite this position, Abu Mohammad al-Julani, the previous head of al-Nusra and the current head of military for HTS, is widely considered to be the ‘true’ leader of HTS.[4] 

Abu Yahya al-Hamawi (September 2015 to November 29, 2016): In September 2015, Hamawi, also known as Muhannad al-Masri, succeeded Sheikh Hashim al-Sheikh as Ahrar al-Sham’s commander. Hamawi is from Qalaat al-Madiq, a populous Sunni Arab community in northwestern Syria, and is trained as a civil engineer. He was imprisoned several times by the Assad Regime until his final release in March 2011. After his release, Hamawi commanded many opposition units, including a brigade within the Syrian Mujahedeen, until he became Ahrar al-Sham’s head of operations in rural Hama in January 2014. In September 2014, Hamawi became Sheikh Hashim al-Sheikh’s deputy commander, a position he held until he replaced Sheikh as Ahrar al-Sham’s commander, serving from September 2015 to November 29, 2016.[5]    

Labib al-Nahhas (September 2014 to Present): Nahhas, also known as Abu Ezzeddine, is Ahrar al-Sham’s Foreign Affairs Director. Nahhas lived in western countries for 15 years before returning to Syria in 2010. In 2014, Nahhas joined Liwa al-Haq, a faction that merged with Ahrar al-Sham in late 2014. He became Ahrar al-Sham’s Foreign Affairs Director shortly after an attack killed most of the group’s leaders in September 2014. In addition to visiting with western diplomats, Nahhas has published opinion pieces in The Washington Post and The Telegraph that call on the West to engage with Ahrar al-Sham.[6]   

Ali al-Omar (November 29, 2016 to August 1, 2017): Omar, also known as Abu Ammar al-Omar, succeeded Abu Yahya al-Hamawi as Ahrar al-Sham’s commander. Prior to his succession, he served as Abu Yahya al-Hamawi’s deputy commander.[7]

Hassan Safwan (August 1, 2017 to August 2018): Safwan was appointed as Ahrar al-Sham’s leader following clashes between HTS and Ahrar in July 2017. He became the leader of JTS when it was formed in 2018. He was a former inmate of the Sednayya prison.[8] Safwan was expected to revitalize the group following losses in combat to HTS and defections of its own members to HTS.[9] He resigned from his position in August 2018.[10]

Jaber Ali Basha (August 2018 to January 9, 2021): Following Safwan’s resignation, Ali Basha was selected by the group’s senior leadership, known as the Shura Council, to serve as its top commander. He holds a master’s degree in Islamic Shariah from Damascus University. Ali Basha served within Ahrar al-Sham’s leadership prior to Safwan’s accession to the top post, at which point he was demoted.[11]

Amer al-Sheikh (January 9, 2021 to present): Sheikh, also known as Abu Ubaidah Qatana was appointed as Ahrar al-Sham's new leader after organizational worries about leadership succession due to a division between Basha and Safwan’s military wing. Sheikh was also a former inmate of the Sednayya prison, like Sawfan, and allegedly maintains close ties with Turkey.[12] His tenure as Ahrar al-Sham's leader has led to 1,000 fighters defecting because of his avoidance of their leadership demands.[13]

 

[1] Haid, Haid. “Why Ahrar al-Sham is fighting itself- and how this impacts the battle for Syria. Middle East Eye. Middle East Eye, 21 Dec. 2016. Web. 18 Feb. 2017.

[2] Joscelyn, Thomas. "Syrian Rebel Leader Was Bin Laden's Courier, Now Zawahiri's Representative." The Long War Journal. Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, 17 Feb. 2013. Web. 18 Jul. 2014.

[3] “Syria conflict: Blast kills leader of Ahrar al-Sham rebels.” BBC News. BBC, 10 Sep. 2014. Web. 30 Apr. 2016.

[4] Roggio, Bill. "New leader of Ahrar al Sham previously led Free Syrian Army unit." Long War Journal. Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, 11 Sept. 2014. Web. 24 Sep. 2014. Lund, Aron. “Abu Yahia al-Hamawi, Ahrar al-Sham’s New Leader.” Syria Comment. Joshua Landis, 12 Sep. 2015. Web. 23 Apr. 2016. Joscelyn, Thomas. “Allepo-based rebel groups reportedly unite behind Ahrar al Sham’s former top leader.” The Long War Journal. Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, 20 Feb. 2016. Web. 23 Apr. 2016. Joscelyn, Thomas. “Hay’at Tahrir al Sham leader calls for unity in Syrian insurgency.” The Long War Journal. Foundation for Defense of Democracies, 10 Feb. 2017. Web. 18 Feb. 2017.

[5] Mroue, Bassem. “One of Syria’s most powerful rebel groups is rebranding itself with Turkey’s backing.” The Associated Press and Business Insider. 8 Oct. 2015. Web. 23 April 2016. Karouny, Mariam. “Resilient insurgent group Ahrar al-Sham to play big role in Syria.” Reuters. 22 Sep. 2015. Web. 23 April 2016. Roggio, Bill. “Chechen commander forms ‘Army of Emigrants,’ integrates Syrian groups.” The Long War Journal. Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, 28 March. 2013. Web. 28 May. 2016. Lund, Aron. “Abu Yahia al-Hamawi, Ahrar al-Sham’s New Leader.” Syria Comment. Joshua Landis, 12 Sep. 2015. Web. 23 Apr. 2016. El Deeb, Sarah. “The Latest: Turkey Says 2 Soldiers missing in Syria.” Middle East. The Associated Press, 29 Nov. 2016. Web. 18 Feb. 2017.

[6] Lister, Charles. “Syrian Islamists reach out to the U.S., but serious issues remain.” Markaz. Brookings Institution, 14 Jul. 2015. Web. 23 Apr. 2016. Zambrana, Marga. “Ex-UK clocks up air miles on mission to rebrand Syrian Islamists.” The Guardian. The Guardian, 22 Feb. 2016. Web. 20 May. 2016. Al-Nahhas, Labib. “The deadly consequences of mislabeling Syria’s revolutionaries.” The Washington Post. 10 Jul. 2015. Web. 30 Apr. 2016. Al-Nahhas, Labib. “I’m a Syrian and I fight Isil everyday. It will take more than bombs from the West to defeat this menace.” The Guardian. 21 Jul. 2015. Web. 30 Apr. 2016.

[7] Hassan, Hassan. “Ahrar al-Sham and the myths that surround it.” The National. 11 Dec. 2016. Web. 18 Feb. 2017. El Deeb, Sarah. “The Latest: Turkey Says 2 Soldiers Missing in Syria.” The Associated Press. 29 Nov. 2016. Web. 18 Feb. 2017. Saleem al-Omar, “Ahrar Al-Sham Tries to Catch Its Breath Under New Leader Hassan Soufan,” Atlantic Council, accessed August 9, 2018, http://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/syriasource/ahrar-al-sham-tries-to-....

[8] Saleem al-Omar, “Ahrar Al-Sham Tries to Catch Its Breath Under New Leader Hassan Soufan,” Atlantic Council, accessed August 9, 2018, http://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/syriasource/ahrar-al-sham-tries-to-.... “Ahrar Al-Sham, Nour Al-Din Al-Zenki Unify against Syrian Regime,” DailySabah, accessed August 27, 2018, https://www.dailysabah.com/politics/2018/02/20/ahrar-al-sham-nour-al-din....

[9] Osseiran, Hashem. “Why One of Syria’s Biggest Rebel Groups Reordered Its Leadership.” Syria Deeply. Web. 3 Aug. 2017. Web. 15 May 2019. <https://www.newsdeeply.com/syria/articles/2017/08/03/why-one-of-syrias-b....

[10] “Jaber Ali Basha Succeeds Hassan Soufan in Ahrar Al-Sham Leadership.” Enab Baladi. 17 Aug. 2018. Web. 15 May 2019. <https://english.enabbaladi.net/archives/2018/08/jaber-ali-basha-succeeds....

[11] “Jaber Ali Basha Succeeds Hassan Soufan in Ahrar Al-Sham Leadership.” Enab Baladi. 17 Aug. 2018. Web. 15 May 2019. <https://english.enabbaladi.net/archives/2018/08/jaber-ali-basha-succeeds....

[12] قائد “أحرار الشام” الجديد يعيد القيادة إلى معتقلي سجن “صيدنايا. Enad Baladi. 10 Jan. 2021. https://www.enabbaladi.net/archives/447525.

[13] Al-Kanj, Sultan. "Defections threaten Ahrar al-Sham jihadist movement in Syria.” AL-Monitor. 6 July 2021. https://www.al-monitor.com/originals/2021/07/defections-threaten-ahrar-al-sham-jihadist-movement-syria

Name Changes

In January 2013, Ahrar al-Sham absorbed several smaller groups and lengthened its formal name to Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya (The Islamic Movement of Ahrar al-Sham). However, it continues to be called by its short form, Ahrar al-Sham. When it merged with Nour al-Din al-Zinki, it formed an umbrella group known as Jabhat Tahrir Souriya (JTS.[1] JTS later allied with the Turkish-backed National Front for Liberation to incorporate many of the northwestern rebel groups.[2] The group continues to be frequently identified in news reports as Ahrar al-Sham, in addition to JTS or NLF.

 

[1] Joscelyn, Thomas. “Al Qaeda again addresses factional infighting in Syria.” Long War Journal. Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.” 24 March 2018. Web. 9 May 2019. <https://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2018/03/al-qaeda-again-addresses....

[2] تعرف على أبزرقيادات الجبة الوطنية للتحرير” Enab Baladi. 1 Aug. 2018. https://www.enabbaladi.net/archives/244317.

Size Estimates

Due to the nature of Ahrar al-Sham's affiliations, some of these size estimates may represent the total number of total fighters in various umbrella groups rather than Ahrar al-Sham specifically.

  • 2013: 10,000-20,000 (BBC)[1]
  • 2013: 10,000-20,000 (The Economist)[2] 
  • 2014: 10,000-15,000 (Washington Post)[3] 
  • 2014: 20,000 (Al Jazeera)[4]
  • 2015: 20,000 (The Independent)[5]
  • 2017: 20,000 (Asia Times)[6]
  • 2017: 18,000-20,000 (Foreign Policy)[7]
 

[1] “Guide to the Syrian Rebels." BBC News. N.p., 13 Dec. 2013. Web. 20 July 2014.

[2] “Competition among Islamists. The Economist.” N.p., 20 July 2013. Web. 03 July 2014.

[3] Ignatius, David. A Nightmare Group in Syria Could Target the United States. Washington Post. N.p., 13 May 2014. Web. 15 July 2014.

[4] “Syrian rebels name slain leader’s replacement.” Al Jazeera. 10 Sept. 2014. Web. 7 May. 2016.

[5] Dawber, Alastair. “Meeting of Syrian rebel groups in Saudi Arabia ends in chaos as Islamist militia Ahrar al-Sham walk out.” The Independent. 10 Dec. 2015. Web. 7 May. 2016

[6] Moubayed, Sami. “Failed Islamic State?” Asia Times. 29 Jan. 2017. Web. 25 Feb. 2017.

[7] Lister, Charles. “Al Qaeda is Starting to Swallow the Syrian Opposition.” Foreign Policy. 15 Mar. 2017. Web. 10 Jul. 2017.

Resources

Ahrar al-Sham made most of its money by charging trucks a toll to cross the Bab al-Hawa border with Turkey until the group surrendered the border—and income source—to HTS in 2017 after several days of fighting.[1] It also receives funding from sources outside of Syria.[2]  Ahrar al-Sham first received foreign funding from Islamist networks in the Persian Gulf that were reportedly linked to the Qatari government.[3]  Through these networks, Salafi fundraiser Sheikh Hajjaj al-Ajami became one of the group’s key donors in 2012.[4]  In 2014, Qatar began funding Ahrar al-Sham. In response to Qatar’s move to support Ahrar al-Sham and other groups in Syria, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates withdrew their ambassadors from Qatar.[5] However, in 2015, Saudi Arabia and Turkey began funding Ahrar al-Sham in a joint effort to promote the Jaysh al-Fatah umbrella group and bolster Syrian opposition forces.[6]

Foreign support is less apparent with respect to recruitment. Prior to 2013, Ahrar al-Sham accepted foreign fighters in order to supplement its forces. Since then, reports on Ahrar al-Sham’s stance regarding foreign fighters have varied.[7]  Ahrar al-Sham’s military effectiveness has allowed the group to recruit a high number of local Syrian fighters.[8]

 

[1] Al-Khalidi, Suleiman. ”Syrian rebels reopen main border crossing with Turkey. Reuters. 27 July 2017. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-crossing/syrian-....

[2] Mroue, Bassem. “One of Syria’s most powerful rebel groups is rebranding itself with Turkey’s backing.” The Associated Press and Business Insider. 8 Oct. 2015. Web. 23 April 2016.

[3] Hassan, Hassan. "The Army of Islam Is Winning in Syria." Foreign Policy. 1 Oct. 2013. Web. 07 Aug. 2014.

[4] Lund, Aron. "Holy Warriors." Foreign Policy. 15 Oct. 2012. Web. 18 Jul. 2014.

[5] Blair, David. “How Qatar is funding the rise of Islamist extremists.” The Telegraph. 20 Sep. 2014. Web. 13 May. 2016.

[6] Sengupta, Kim. “Turkey and Saudi Arabia alarm the West by backing Islamist extremists the Americans had bombed in Syria.” The Independent. 11 May. 2015. Web. 13 May. 2016.

[7] Hubbard, Ben. "Islamist Rebels Create Dilemma on Syria Policy." New York Times. N.p., 27 Apr. 2013. Web. 3 Jul. 2014. Bar, Herve. "Ahrar Al-Sham Jihadists Emerge from Shadows in North Syria." Agence France Presse. N.p., 13 Feb. 2013. Web. 18 July 2014. Lund, Aron. “Syria's Salafi Insurgents: The Rise of the Syrian Islamic Front.” Rep. UI Occasional Paper 17, 19 Mar. 2013. Web. 22 July 2014.

[8] Hassan, Hassan. "The Army of Islam Is Winning in Syria." Foreign Policy. N.p., 1 Oct. 2013. Web. 07 Aug. 2014.

Geographic Locations

Disclaimer: This is a partial list of where the militant organization has bases and where it operates. This does not include information on where the group conducts major attacks or has external influences.

At its inception in 2012, Ahrar al-Sham operated primarily in Idlib.[1] In 2013, Ahrar al-Sham expanded its operations to Aleppo, Hama, Raqqa, Al-Hasakah, Deir al-Zour, Daraa, and Latakia.[2] Ahrar al-Sham began operations in Quneitra in 2014 and expanded to Homs in 2015.[3] As of mid-2018, the group primarily operated in Idlib.[4]

 

[1] Roggio, Bill. "Al Nusrah Front Claims 2 Suicide Attacks, Joint Operations with Jihadist Groups in Syria." Long War Journal. Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, 15 Nov. 2012. Web. 22 Jul. 2014. Lund, Aron. "Holy Warriors." Foreign Policy (n.d.): n. pag. 15 Oct. 2012. Web. 18 Jul. 2014.

[2] Zelin, Aaron, and Charles Lister. "The Crowning of the Syrian Islamic Front." Foreign Policy. N.p., 24 June 2013. Web. 18 Jul. 2014. "Competition among Islamists." The Economist. N.p., 20 July 2013. Web. 03 July 2014. Hubbard, Ben. "Islamist Rebels Create Dilemma on Syria Policy." New York Times. N.p., 27 Apr. 2013. Web. 3 July 2014. “Syria: Executions, Hostage Taking by Rebels.” Human Rights Watch. 10 Oct. 2013. Web. 13 May. 2016.

[3] Weiss, Caleb. “Syrian Revolutionaries Front again supports al Qaeda and The Islamic Front in Quneitra.” Threat Matrix. Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, 14 Sep. 2014. Web. 13 May. 2016. “Syria Frontlines Update.” Syria Conflict Mapping Project. The Carter Center. 9 Oct. 2015. Web. 13 May 2016.

[4] “The Newest Battle for Idlib,” The newest battle for Idlib, accessed August 12, 2018, https://www.trtworld.com/mea/the-newest-battle-for-idlib-15608.

Strategy

Ideology, Aims, Political Activities, Targets and Tactics
Ideology and Goals
  • Ideology and Goals
  • Political Activities
  • Targets and Tactics

Ideology and Goals

Ahrar al-Sham seeks to establish a Sunni Islamic state in Syria. Unlike the Islamic State and Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, Ahrar al-Sham emphasizes that its campaign is limited to Syria and that it is not pursuing global Jihad.[1] To combat the impression of extremism, Ahrar al-Sham began rebranding itself as a moderate group in 2015. With Turkey’s help, Ahrar al-Sham has sought to convince the United States that it is a better option for post-war Syria than IS or the Assad Regime.[2] 

 

[1] "Competition among Islamists." The Economist. N.p., 20 July 2013. Web. 03 July 2014.

[2] Al-Nahhas, Labib. “The deadly consequences of mislabeling Syria’s revolutionaries.” The Washington Post, 10 Jul. 2015. Web. 30 Apr. 2016. Mroue, Bassem. “One of Syria’s most powerful rebel groups is rebranding itself with Turkey’s backing.” The Associated Press and Business Insider. 8 Oct. 2015. Web. 23 April 2016.

Political Activities

In September 2013, Ahrar al-Sham joined the Islamic Coalition, a political group that called for opposition to the Assad Regime to be run only by groups fighting inside Syria and opposed the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces.[1] In December 2013, Ahrar al-Sham’s leader Hassan Abboud stated that the group would not abide by the results of the Geneva II peace conference, a UN-sponsored conference that included the Assad Regime and the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces.[2]

Despite its original hostility to negotiations, Ahrar al-Sham eventually agreed to its first ceasefire with the Syrian Army and Hezbollah on August 12, 2015. Under the ceasefire, Ahrar al-Sham agreed to suspend hostilities for 48 hours in Zabadani, Al-Foua, and Kefraya.[3] This agreement was brokered by Turkey, who represented Ahrar al-Sham, and Iran, who was acting on behalf of the Assad Regime. In September 2015, Ahrar al-Sham again engaged in ceasefire talks, this time directly negotiating with Iran. During these talks, Ahrar al-Sham agreed to a six-month ceasefire under which its forces in Zabadani, Al-Foua, and Kefraya would not mount attacks against the Syrian army or Hezbollah. It also agreed to a population exchange that expelled Shiites from Idlib and allowed Sunni militants to return to the province.[4]

In December 2015, Ahrar al-Sham withdrew from peace talks that were hosted by its ally, Saudi Arabia, after citing concerns that the parties were too sympathetic to the Assad Regime. Shortly thereafter, Ahrar al-Sham signed a statement with its allies that declared an intent to negotiate peace terms with Assad in 2016. However, this statement also made clear that they would not allow Assad to remain in power for a transitional period after the war.[5]

Several militant groups signed a national ceasefire in February 2016, but Ahrar al-Sham was not party to this agreement.[6] In December 2016, Ahrar al-Sham denied signing onto a ceasefire brokered by Turkey and Russia, however the group allegedly signed onto the nationwide agreement with many rebel groups in Syria.[7] Several months later, Russia, Iran, and Turkey created another ceasefire that included the de-escalation of zones within Syria, including Idlib, however it is unclear if Ahrar al-Sham was one of the rebel groups who explicitly opposed this agreement.[8]

 

[1] Solomon, Erika. “Syria rebels reject opposition coalition, call for Islamic leadership.” Reuters. Thomas Reuters, 25 Sep. 2013. Web. 29 Jun. 2016. Evans, Dominic. “Factbox: Syrian rebels against opposition coalition.” Reuters. Thomas Reuters, 25 Sep. 2013. Web. 29 Jun. 2016.

[2] “Hassan Abboud: ‘We will fight for our rights.’” Talk to Al Jazeera. 10 Sep. 2014. 6 May. 2016. “What is the Geneva II conference on Syria?” BBC News. 22 Jan. 2014. Web. 29 Jun. 2016.

[3] “Turkey, Iran help broker rare truce in Syria.” Al-Jazeera America. Al-Jazeera, 12 Aug. 2015. Web. 6 May. 2016.

[4] Barnard, Anne. “Truce Struck in 2 Areas of Syria.” The New York Times. 25 Sep. 2015. 6 May. 2016. Karouny, Mariam. “Resilient insurgent group Ahrar al-Sham to play big role in Syria.” Reuters. 22 Sep. 2015. Web. 23 April 2016. 

[5] Syria conflict: Opposition agrees framework for peace talks. BBC. BBC, 10 Dec. 2015. Web 22 Jun. 2016.

[6] Abboud, Samer. “Syria War: What you need to know about the ceasefire.” Al Jazeera. Al Jazeera, 28 Feb. 2016. Web. 6 May. 2016

[7] France-Presse, Agence. "Turkey and Russia ’broker ceasefire deal for all of Syria.’" The Telegraph. 28 Dec. 2016. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/12/28/turkey-russia-broker-ceasefi...

[8] Barnard, Anne and Rick Gladstone. "Russia Reaches Deal for Syria Safe Zones, but Some Rebels Scoff.” New York Times. 4 May 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/04/world/middleeast/russia-iran-turkey-syria-de-escalation-zones.html?smpr&_r=0.  

Targets and Tactics

Ahrar al-Sham was one of the first groups in Syria to use IEDs and to target military bases in order to capture weapons.[1]  From 2012 to 2014, its primary targets were the Syrian army, militants who supported the Assad Regime (e.g., Hezbollah), and select Kurdish brigades. In 2014, Ahrar al-Sham began targeting the Islamic State.

As its weapons arsenal expanded, Ahrar al-Sham began conducting more large-scale assaults. The group allegedly has a Technical Division devoted to cyberattacks.[2] As of 2022, there are no reports of Ahrar al-Sham using suicide attacks despite its close ties with Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, which regularly utilized this tactic until its organizational adjustment in 2020 towards moderation.[3] 

 

[1] "Guide to the Syrian Rebels." BBC News. N.p., 13 Dec. 2013. Web. 20 Jul. 2014.

[2] Zelin, Aaron, and Charles Lister. "The Crowning of the Syrian Islamic Front." Foreign Policy. N.p., 24 June 2013. Web. 18 July 2014.

[3] Bar, Herve. "Ahrar Al-Sham Jihadists Emerge from Shadows in North Syria." Agence France Presse. N.p., 13 Feb. 2013. Web. 18 July 2014. "Syria’s HTS ’renounces’ use of suicide car bombings in latest rebrand attempt." The New Arab. 24 Sept. 2020. https://english.alaraby.co.uk/news/syrias-hts-renounces-use-suicide-car-bombings.

cardinal red photo

Major Attacks

Disclaimer: These are some selected major attacks in the militant organization's history. It is not a comprehensive listing but captures some of the most famous attacks or turning points during the campaign.

As of March 2022, there is no observable evidence that Ahrar al-Sham has committed a major attack since 2019.

November 1, 2012: Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra (Al-Nusra) attacked the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas, killing several Syrian army soldiers and seizing weapons and vehicles (unknown casualties).[1]

December 2012: Ahrar al-Sham rescued NBC correspondent Richard Engel from the North Idlib Falcons Brigade, a Sunni militant group associated with the Free Syrian Army that had taken Engel as a hostage (unknown casualties).[2]

March 8, 2013: Ahrar al-Sham and Al-Nusra seized Raqqa from government forces, making it the first provincial capital to come completely under the control of opposition forces (unknown casualties).[3]

August 4, 2013: Ahrar al-Sham, the Islamic State, Al-Nusra, Jaysh Muhajireen wal-Ansar, and Suqquor al-Izz attacked Alawite villages as part of a Latakia offensive. They killed 190 civilians, while Ahrar al-Sham only lost 3 fighters. IS and Jaysh Muhajireen wal-Ansar took 200 hostages (193+ killed, unknown wounded).[4]

January 6, 2014: Ahrar al-Sham coordinated with Al-Nusra, Islamic Front units, and battalions from the Supreme Military Council to drive IS out of Raqqa. IS retook Raqqa in July 2014 (100 dead, unknown wounded).[5]

June 9, 2015: Ahrar al-Sham coordinated with the umbrella organization Jaysh al-Fatah to drive the Syrian army out of Idlib province (45 killed, unknown wounded).[6]

August 7, 2015: Ahrar al-Sham and Al-Nusra clashed with Assad Regime forces in al-Qarqor near Idlib province. The militants killed Ali Kan’an, a prominent Syrian army field commander (1+ killed, unknown wounded).[7]

April 28, 2016: Ahrar al-Sham and other militants attacked members of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, an umbrella organization of Kurdish and Arab fighters. Ahrar al-Sham and its allies lost 53 fighters, which represents the largest opposition death toll from clashes with Kurdish forces during the Syrian War (64 killed, unknown wounded).[8]

May 12, 2016: Ahrar al-Sham and Al-Nusra seized Al-Zara, a predominantly Alawite village in the Homs governorate, from government forces as part of an operation known as "revenge for Aleppo." The militants kidnapped and executed 42 civilians (49 killed, unknown wounded).[9]

August 7, 2016: Ahrar al-Sham coordinated with the Jaysh al-Fatah umbrella organization and the Fatah Halab control room to break through the Assad Regime’s siege on the city of Aleppo. On August 10, the Assad Regime reportedly retaliated with a chlorine attack on opposition-held areas in the city of Aleppo (unknown casualties).[10]  

October 2016: After a period of rising tensions, Ahrar al-Sham claimed that Jund al-Aqsa, a former member of the Jaysh al-Fatah umbrella organization, had ties to IS and launched an offensive against the group. As a result of this offensive, Jund al-Aqsa merged into Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra. Fatah al-Sham leaders also negotiated a ceasefire with Ahrar al-Sham (unknown casualties).[11]

January 2017: Ahrar al-Sham fought a few brief skirmishes with Jabhat Fateh al-Sham.[12]

March 24, 2017: Ahrar al-Sham began a campaign against the Syrian army in the Hama governorate that coincided with an attack by Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham. By March 31, all opposition began to retreat following their failed attacks (unknown casualties).[13]

July 2017: Ahrar al-Sham fought with Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) for several days. HTS managed to push Ahrar al-Sham out of many strategically significant positions in Idlib.[14]

February 2018: Jabhat Tahrir Souriya (the umbrella group formed by Ahrar al-Sham and Nour al-Din al-Zinki) fought Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, managing to take 36 strategically valuable cities from HTS after just a few days (unknown casualties). [15]

October 29, 2018: Ahrar al-Sham attacked a Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham base in northwestern Aleppo, killing two HTS commanders (two killed, unknown wounded).[16]

March 18, 2019: Ahrar al-Sham fought Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham for control of the town Umm Seir in southern Idlib governate (unknown casualties).[17]

May 21, 2019: Ahrar al-Sham, using munitions supplied by Turkey and fighting alongside Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham and Jaish al-Izza, captured the town of Kafr Nabudah, which had been taken by Syrian government forces several weeks prior (unknown killed, unknown wounded).[18]

 

[1] Roggio, Bill. "Al Nusrah Front Claims 2 Suicide Attacks, Joint Operations with Jihadist Groups in Syria." Long War Journal. Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, 15 Nov. 2012. Web. 23 July 2014.

[2] Somaiya, Ravi, Chivers, C.J, and Shoumali, Karam. “NBC News Alters Account of Correspondent’s Kidnapping in Syria.” New York Times. The New York Times, 15 Apr. 2015. Web. 28 May. 2016.

[3] Roggio, Bill. "Al Nusrah Front Seizes Control of Syrian City of Raqqah." Long War Journal. Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, 8 Mar. 2013. Web. 23 July 2014.

[4] “Syria: Executions, Hostage Taking by Rebels.” Human Rights Watch. Human Rights Watch, 10 Oct. 2013. Web. 13 May. 2016

[5] Barnard, Anne, and Rick Gladstone. "Rebel Infighting Spreads to an Eastern Syrian City." The New York Times, 06 Jan. 2014. Web. 23 Jul. 2014. Pizzi, Michael and Nick Shabaan.  “ISIS builds power base unchecked, takes over A-Raqqa.” Syria: direct. 16 Aug. 2013. Web. 22 Jun. 2016. “Profile: Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS).” BBC News. 6, Jun. 2014, Web. 23 Jun. 2014.

[6] Rifai, Ryan. “Syrian group claims control of Idlib province.” Al Jazeera. 9 Jun. 2015. Web. 30 Apr. 2016

[7] “The rebel and Islamist factions expel the regime forces from al-Qarqor and kill the military arm of Soheil al-Hasan.” Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, 7 Aug. 2015. Web. 28 May. 2016.

[8] “Fighting between rebels and Kurds ‘kills 64’ in north Syria.” The Daily Mail. 28 Apr. 2016. Web. 7 May. 2016. “U.S.-backed fighters begin offensive on edge of ISIS’ capital.” CBS and The Associated Press. 24 May. 2016. Web. 22 Jun. 2016.

[9] Rebels seize Alawite village in Syria, abduct civilians: Observatory.” Reuters. Thomas Reuters, 12 May. 2016. Web. 18 Oct. 2016. Tomson, Chris. “Islamists agree to hand over corpses of civilians massacred in northern Homs.” Al-Masdar News. Al-Masdar News, 24 May. 2016. Web. 25 Feb. 2017.

[10] Joscelyn, Thomas. “Jihadists and other rebels claim to have broken through siege of Aleppo.” The Long War Journal. Foundation for Defense of Democracies, 7 Aug. 2016. Web. 18 Aug. 2016. “Weekly Conflict Summary August 4-10. The Carter Center. 10 Aug. 2016. Web. 18 Aug. 2016. “Syria conflict: Aleppo ‘chlorine gas attack’ investigated.” BBC News. 11 Aug. 2016. Web. 18 Aug. 2016.  

[11] Joscelyn, Thomas. “Amid infighting, Jund al-Aqsa swears allegiance to Al-Qaeda’s rebranded branch.” Long War Journal. Foundation for Defense of Democracy, 9 Oct. 2016. Web. 16 Oct. 2016. “Weekly Conflict Summary.” The Carter Center. 12 Oct. 2016. Web. 23 Oct. 2016.

[12] “Syria Islamist Factions, Including Former Al Qaeda Branch, Join...,” Reuters, January 28, 2017, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-rebels/syria-isl.... “Jihadists Battle Moderate Rebels in Northern Syria,” Reuters, January 24, 2017, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria/jihadists-in-syr.... “Analysis: Why Jabhat Fatah Al-Sham Is Lashing Out at Syrian Rebels,” News Deeply, accessed August 27, 2018, https://www.newsdeeply.com/syria/articles/2017/01/27/analysis-why-jabhat.... “Syrian Rebels Flock to Ahrar amid Fighting with Former Al-Qaeda Group,” Middle East Eye, accessed August 9, 2018, https://www.middleeasteye.net/news/syrian-rebels-flock-ahrar-al-sham-ami.... “Four Syrian Rebel Groups Merge with Former Al-Qaeda Affiliate,” Alaraby, accessed August 27, 2018, https://www.alaraby.co.uk/english/news/2017/1/28/four-syrian-rebel-group....

[13] “Weekly Conflict Summary: March 30- April 5, 2017.” The Carter Center. April 2017. Web. 23 Jul. 2017. Fadel, Leith. “Jihadist rebels open new front in Hama.” Al Masdar News. 24 March. 2017. Web. 23 Jul. 2017.

[14] al-Hamra, “Blow-by-Blow Breakdown of Ahrar Al-Sham and Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham Clashes in Free Idlib,” Extra Newsfeed, July 20, 2017, https://extranewsfeed.com/blow-by-blow-breakdown-ahrar-al-sham-and-hayat.... “Two of the Largest Factions in Syria’s Northwest Merge, Challenge HTS Dominance,” Syria Direct, accessed August 27, 2018, https://syriadirect.org/news/two-of-the-largest-factions-in-syria%e2%80%.... “New Rebel Faction Seizes Cities and Towns from Hardline Islamist Coalition in Syria’s Northwest,” Syria Direct, accessed August 27, 2018, https://syriadirect.org/news/new-rebel-faction-seizes-cities-and-towns-f.... “Ahrar Al-Sham and Nour Al-Din Al-Zenki Unite in ‘Hayyaat Tahrir Syria’ and Tensions Continue between the Latter and Hayyaat Tahrir Al-Sham.” The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (blog), February 18, 2018, http://www.syriahr.com/en/?p=85119.

[15] “The Violence of Battles Increased West of Aleppo and the Countryside of Idlib and Al-Zenki and Ahrar Al-Sham and Soqur Al-Sham Advance at the Expense of Hayaat Tahrir Al-Sham with Fighters Getting Killed and Captured.” The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (blog), February 21, 2018, http://www.syriahr.com/en/?p=85335. “Al-Zenki, Ahrar Al-Sham and Suqour Al-Sham Continue Their Advancement in Idlib Countryside at the Expense of Tahrir Al-Sham and the Fighting between Them Rages the Resentment of the Residents of Aleppo and Idlib.” The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (blog), February 22, 2018, http://www.syriahr.com/en/?p=85385. “Tightening the Screws on Pakistan | Monday Briefing,” Middle East Institute, accessed August 12, 2018, https://www.mei.edu/content/flash/2018-02-26. “The Fighting between Ahrar Al-Sham and Suqour Al-Sham against Tahrir Al-Sham Continues for the 3rd Day with Advancement by the Latter in Idlib Countryside.” The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (blog), February 23, 2018, http://www.syriahr.com/en/?p=85475. “Tightening the Screws on Pakistan | Monday Briefing,” Middle East Institute, accessed August 12, 2018, https://www.mei.edu/content/flash/2018-02-26.

[16] Aboufadel, Leith. “Ahrar Al-Sham storms HTS base in northwest Aleppo.” Almasdar News. 29 Oct. 2018. Web. 19 May 2019. <https://www.almasdarnews.com/article/ahrar-al-sham-storms-hts-base-in-no....

[17] “Trouble in paradise: Heavy clashes breakout between HTS and Ahrar Al-Sham in southern Idlib.” Almasdar News. 18 March 2019. Web. 15 May 2019. <https://www.almasdarnews.com/article/trouble-in-paradise-heavy-clashes-b....

[18] Bucci, Peter. “Rebel groups capture key town from Syrian Army after intense assault (maps).” Syrian War Daily. 22 May 2019. Web. 27 May 2019. <https://syrianwardaily.com/2019/05/22/breaking-rebel-groups-capture-key-....

Interactions

Foreign Designations and Listings, Community Relations, Relations with Other Groups, State Sponsors and External Influences
Designated/Listed
  • Designated/Listed
  • Community Relations
  • Relationships with Other Groups
  • State Sponsors and External Influences

Designated/Listed

Ahrar al-Sham is not designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department, the United Nations, or the European Union.

The UN Security Council attempted to include Ahrar al-Sham as a designated terrorist organization several times between 2015 and 2016. Russia, Lebanon, Iraq, Egypt, and the UAE supported the classification of Ahrar al-Sham as a terrorist group, but the Security Council did not receive a unanimous consensus each time the debate was raised.[1]

 

[1] Miles, Tom and Irish, John. “Syrian terrorist list produces 163 names and no agreement.” Reuters. \ 17 Feb. 2016. Web. 28 May. 2016. “Countries List of Armed Groups Acting In Syria.” Reuters. 2016. Web. 7 May 2016.

Community Relations

Like many opposition groups in Syria, Ahrar al-Sham has been active in providing public services to the communities under its control.[1] It maintains a relief office that engages in humanitarian missions and provides the population with food and fuel. The organization also operates water pumping stations, dams, and a road and bridge repair team.[2] As of 2022, it is unclear if Ahrar al-Sham is still providing these public services.  

In June 2015, Ahrar al-Sham intervened to end a Jabhat al-Nusra massacre that killed 20 Druze villagers in Idlib.[3]  In July 2015, Ahrar al-Sham announced in a Washington Post opinion piece that it would protect Syria’s minority communities.[4]

 

[1] “Competition among Islamists.” The Economist. N.p., 20 Jul. 2013. Web. 3 Jul. 2014.

[2] “Guide to the Syrian Rebels. BBC News.” N.p., 13 Dec. 2013. Web. 20 Jul 2014. Zelin, Aaron, and Charles Lister. “The Crowning of the Syrian Islamic Front.” Foreign Policy. N.p., 24 Jun. 2013. Web. 18 Jul. 2014.

[3] “Syria conflict: Al-Nusra fighters kill Druze villagers.” BBC News. BBC, 11 Jun. 2015. Web. 30 Apr. 2016.

[4] Al-Nahhas, Labib. “The deadly consequences of mislabeling Syria’s revolutionaries.” The Washington Post. 10 Jul. 2015. Web. 30 Apr. 2016. Al-Nahhas, Labib. “I’m a Syrian and I fight Isil everyday. It will take more than bombs from the West to defeat this menace.” The Guardian. 21 Jul. 2015. Web. 30 Apr. 2016.

Relationships with Other Groups

Many Ahrar al-Sham members are sympathetic to Al Qaeda (AQ), but there is not a formal alliance between the two groups.[1]  In 2014, AQ posted a video and photos documenting Ahrar al-Sham leader Abu Khalid al-Suri participating in the Al Farouq training camp in Afghanistan, including photos of him with Osama bin Laden and current AQ leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.[2] AQ also claimed that Hassan Abboud had been in contact with Zawahiri, and that it sent experienced fighters to assist Ahrar al-Sham in Syria.[3] Despite its early leaders’ ties to AQ, Ahrar al-Sham has not emphasized its relationship with AQ. However, it worked closely with former AQ affiliate Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), previously known as Jabhat al-Nusra and Jabhat Fatah al-Sham.[4]   

Ahrar al-Sham has had both a close and complicated relationship with HTS. Both groups are part of the Jaysh al-Fatah umbrella organization, which was formed in 2015.[5] However, tensions arose between Ahrar al-Sham and Al-Nusra in January 2016 when Ahrar al-Sham rejected a merger with Al-Nusra. The leadership of Ahrar al-Sham claimed Al-Nusra’s AQ ties and pursuit of global jihad were counterproductive to the Syrian revolution. Most of the group rejected the merger, though a sub-faction, known as Jaysh al-Ahrar, ultimately left Ahrar al-Sham to join HTS.[6] Days after the merger failed, a fight broke out between Ahrar al-Sham and Al-Nusra in Idlib province. Several insurgents on both sides were killed before other militant groups brokered a ceasefire.[7]  Although the groups continued to cooperate throughout 2016, fighting resumed in early 2017. A series of skirmishes and attacks by Jabhat Fatah al-Sham in the Idlib and Aleppo governorates led some prominent opposition groups to merge with Ahrar al-Sham.[8] Since these mergers, Ahrar al-Sham has frequently fought against HTS, especially in the Idlib governorate.[9] In 2019, the group’s relationship with HTS has seen repeated upheaval. After military victories by HTS, the two groups agreed on a ceasefire in January.[10] Under the terms of this deal, Ahrar al-Sham made significant concessions to HTS.[11] In March, however, the news media reported that the two militant organizations had resumed violent conflict.[12] Two months later, in May, other sources attested that Ahrar al-Sham and HTS had begun collaborating to fight the forces of the Syrian government in Idlib.[13]

Ahrar al-Sham’s relationship with the Islamic State has changed throughout its lifetime. Initially, Ahrar al-Sham and the Islamic State cooperated with each other. However, tensions between the two groups grew after Ahrar al-Sham’s leader Hassan Abboud criticized IS commander Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi for rejecting reconciliation efforts between Syrian Sunni militant groups and classifying other jihadists as infidels.[14]  After receiving this criticism, IS killed a member of Ahrar al-Sham in January 2014. A series of small skirmishes ensued, and Ahrar al-Sham and its allies, including Jabhat al-Nusra, began to target IS and drove it out of the Syrian city of Raqqa.[15]  IS allegedly retaliated in February and September of 2014 with attacks that killed almost all of Ahrar al-Sham’s leaders, including co-founders Abu Khalid al-Suri and Hassan Abboud.[16]  Since these assaults, Ahrar al-Sham periodically clashed with IS in northern Syria following 2014 but there is little evidence of recent conflict as of 2022..[17] 

In addition to its relationships with individual groups, Ahrar al-Sham has been an active leader in several Syrian Islamist umbrella organizations. It formed three prominent umbrella organizations—the Syrian Islamic Front (SIF), the Islamic Front, and Jaysh al-Fatah—and often absorbs smaller groups when these organizations drift apart. Ahrar al-Sham formed its first umbrella organization, the SIF, in December 2012 in order to unite Syrian Islamic opposition forces and pursue a Syrian government that implements Shariah law.[18] While the SIF refused to come under the command of the Free Syrian Army’s (FSA) Supreme Military Council (SMC), it regularly coordinated military maneuvers with SMC affiliated brigades.[19]  In January 2013, three smaller SIF members (Harakat al-Fajr al-Islamiya, Jamaat al-Taliaa al-Islamiya, and Kataeb al-Iman al-Muqatila) merged into Ahrar al-Sham, making it the SIF’s largest member.[20]

In December 2013, Ahrar al-Sham dissolved the SIF and worked with six other militant groups (Suqquor al-Sham, the Tawhid Brigade of Aleppo, Jaysh al-Islam, the Haq Brigade of Homs, the Kurdish Islamic Front (KIF), and Ansar al-Sham) to co-create the Islamic Front, the largest alliance of Syrian opposition forces that has existed in the Syrian Civil War. The Islamic Front sought to replace the Assad Regime with an Islamic government and had 40,000-70,000 fighters at its peak.[21]  Ahrar al-Sham led the Islamic Front’s Shariah and Political Offices. The group remained one of the organization’s most influential members until the Islamic Front drifted apart in mid-2014 due to disagreements between Ahrar al-Sham and Jaysh al-Islam.[22] After the Islamic Front collapsed, Ahrar al-Sham absorbed the Haq Brigade of Homs and the KIF, a brigade it allegedly helped to create in order to dismiss the impression that the Islamic Front’s conflict with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) was ethnically motivated.[23] 

In spring 2015, Ahrar al-Sham absorbed the sizeable Suqour al-Sham faction and co-created the umbrella group Jaysh al-Fatah (Army of Conquest) with Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham and other smaller brigades (Ferliq al-Sham, Ajnad al-Sham, Jaysh al-Sunnah, al-Haq Brigade, and Jund al-Aqsa).[24] Since it claimed control of Idlib province in June 2015, Jaysh al-Fatah has remained a prominent umbrella organization by expanding its operations to other regions in Syria, such as Aleppo.[25]  In addition to Jaysh al-Fatah, Ahrar al-Sham is part of Jaysh Halab, an umbrella organization that was created by former Ahrar al-Sham leader Sheikh Hashim al-Sheikh in February 2016. The group includes five Free Syrian Army factions (the 101st Division, the 16th Division, the First Regiment, the Mountain Falcons Brigade and the Sultan Murad Division) and Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zenki, but excludes HTS. It is unclear if Jaysh Halab has conducted any attacks.[26]  On June 23, 2016, Ahrar al-Sham absorbed Jaysh al-Sham.[27]

In February 2018, Ahrar al-Sham grew stronger when Nour al-Din al-Zinki merged under Ahrar al-Sham's banner and joined  Jabhat Tahrir Souriya (JTS). Safwan continued as Ahrar al-Sham's leader, Basha was chosen to be the leader of the new group, and the leader of Zinki was chosen to be deputy.[28] HTS quickly attacked JTS, but JTS proved to be able to resist the assault and even managed to take 36 strategically-valuable cities from HTS after just a few days. [29] In August of 2018, JTS joined the Turkish-led coalition called the NLF.[30]

As of 2022, Ahrar al-Sham continues to compete with HTS in light of recent defections due to leadership disputes within the military wing.[31] Ahrar al-Sham has maintained its connection to JTS and NLF for material support from Turkey and other rebel organizations within the umbrella groups.

 

[1] Mroue, Bassem. “One of Syria’s most powerful rebel groups is rebranding itself with Turkey’s backing.” The Associated Press and Business Insider. Business Insider, 8 Oct. 2015. Web. 23 April 2016. 

[2] Joscelyn, Thomas. “Head of Islamic Front, other senior leaders killed in explosion.” Long War Journal. Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, 9 Sep. 2014. Web. 24 Sep. 2014.

[3] Joscelyn, Thomas. “Head of Islamic Front, other senior leaders killed in explosion.” Long War Journal. Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, 9 Sep. 2014. Web. 24 Sep. 2014.

[4] Kaouny, Miriam. “Syrian rebel splits deepen after failed ‘merger’ with al Qaeda arm.” Reuters. Thomas Reuters, 29 Jan. 2016. Web. 30 Apr. 2016.

[5] Roggio, Bill. “Chechen Al Qaeda Commander, Popular Saudi Cleric, and an Ahrar Al Sham Leader Spotted on Front Lines in Latakia.” Long War Journal. Foundation for Defense of Democracies, 27 Mar. 2014. Web. 1 Jul. 2014. Roggio, Bill. "Al Nusrah Front, Ahrar Al Sham Attack Syrian Villages." Long War Journal. Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, 17 Sept. 2013. Web. 21 July 2014. Zelin, Aaron. “International Jihad and the Syrian Conflict.” The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. N.p., 7 Aug. 2013. Web. 22 Jul. 2014. Rifai, Ryan. “Syrian group claims control of Idlib province.” Al Jazeera. 9 Jun. 2015. Web. 30 Apr. 2016. “Syria Frontlines Update.” Syria Conflict Mapping Project. The Carter Center, 9 Oct. 2015. Web. 13 May 2016.

[6] Joscelyn, Thomas. “Hay’at Tahrir al Sham leader calls for unity in Syrian insurgency. The Long War Journal. Foundation for Defense of Democracies, 10 Feb. 2017. Web. 18 Feb. 2017.

[7] Kaouny, Miriam. “Syrian rebel splits deepen after failed ‘merger’ with al Qaeda arm.” Reuters. Reuters, 29 Jan. 2016. Web. 30 Apr. 2016.

[8] Mroue, Bassem. “Syrian rebels and insurgents battle in split over peace push.” The Big Story. Associated Press, 6 Feb. 2017. Web. 18 Feb. 2017. Petkova, Mariya. “Syrian opposition factions join Ahrar al-Sham.” Al Jazeera. 26 Jan. 2017. Web. 18 Feb. 2017. 

[9] Weekly Conflict Summary: May 11-17, 2017.” The Carter Center. The Carter Center, May . 2017. Web. 10 Jul. 2017.

[10] Joscelyn, Thomas. “Jihadist group consolidates control in northwestern Syria.” Long War Journal. Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. 10 Jan. 2019. Web. 19 May 2019. <https://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2019/01/jihadist-group-consolida....

[11] Shaheen, Kareem. “Why Jihadist Advances in Idlib Should Revive the Syrian Peace Process.” The Century Foundation. 4 Feb. 2019. Web. 27 May 2019. <https://tcf.org/content/report/jihadist-advances-idlib-revive-syrian-pea.... “Ahrar Al-Sham Dissolves Itself in the Al-Ghab and Shahsheo Areas of Hama.” The Syrian Observer. 10 Jan. 2019. Web. 27 May 2019. <https://syrianobserver.com/EN/news/47869/ahrar-al-sham-dissolves-itself-....

[12] “Trouble in paradise: Heavy clashes breakout between HTS and Ahrar Al-Sham in southern Idlib.” Almasdar News. 18 March 2019. Web. 15 May 2019. <https://www.almasdarnews.com/article/trouble-in-paradise-heavy-clashes-b....

[13] Kittleson, Shelly. “Long-expected battle for Idlib may have begun.” Al-Monitor. 12 May 2019. Web. 27 May 2019. <https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2019/05/syria-russia-idlib-of.... Bucci, Peter. “Rebel groups capture key town from Syrian Army after intense assault (maps).” Syrian War Daily. 22 May 2019. Web. 27 May 2019. <https://syrianwardaily.com/2019/05/22/breaking-rebel-groups-capture-key-....

[14] Joscelyn, Thomas. “Ahrar Al Sham Leader Criticizes Head of Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham.” Long War Journal. Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, 29 Jan. 2014. Web. 21 Jul. 2014. Lund, Aron. “Pushing Back Against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant: The Islamic Front.” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. N.p., 8 Jan. 2014. Web. 1 Jul. 2014.

[15] Barnard, Anne, and Rick Gladstone. “Rebel Infighting Spreads to an Eastern Syrian City.” New York Times. N.p., 6 Jan. 2014. Web. 17 Jul. 2014.

[16] Joscelyn, Thomas. "Al Qaeda's Chief Representative in Syria Killed in Suicide Attack." Long War Journal. Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, 23 Feb. 2014. Web. 21 Jul. 2014. “Syrian rebel leader Abu Kahled al-Suri killed in Allepo.” BBC News. 24 Feb. 2014. Web. 30 Apr. 2016. “Syria conflict: Blast kills leader of Ahrar al-Sham rebels.” BBC News. 10 Sep. 2014. Web. 30 Apr. 2016.

[17] Mroue, Bassem. “One of Syria’s most powerful rebel groups is rebranding itself with Turkey’s backing.” The Associated Press and Business Insider. Business Insider, 8 Oct. 2015. Web. 23 April 2016.

[18] Zelin, Aaron, and Charles Lister. "The Crowning of the Syrian Islamic Front." Foreign Policy. N.p., 24 Jun. 2013. Web. 18 Jul. 2014.

[19] Guide to the Syrian Rebels. BBC News. N.p., 13 Dec. 2013. Web. 20 Jul. 2014.

[20] Lund, Aron. Syria's Salafi Insurgents: The Rise of the Syrian Islamic Front. Rep. UI Occasional Paper 17, 26. 19 Mar. 2013. Web. 22 Jul. 2014.

[21] Lund, Aron. The Politics of the Islamic Front, Part 1: Structure and Support." Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. N.p., 14 Jan. 2014. Web. 01 Jul. 2014. Hassan, Hassan. “Front to Back.” Foreign Policy. 4 Mar. 2014. Web. 7 May 2016.

[22] Lund, Aron. “The Politics of the Islamic Front, Part 2: An Umbrella Organization.” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 15 Jan. 2014. Web. 16 Jul. 2014. Lund, Aron. “Islamist Mergers in Syria: Ahrar al-Sham Swallows Suqour al-Sham.” Syria In Crisis. The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. 23 Mar. 2015. Web. 30 Apr. 2016.

[23] Lund, Aron. “The Politics of the Islamic Front, Part 5: The Kurds.” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. N.p., 30 Jan. 2014. Web. 10 Aug. 2014.

[24] Lund, Aron. “Islamist Mergers in Syria: Ahrar al-Sham Swallows Suqour al-Sham.” Syria In Crisis. The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. 23 Mar. 2015. Web. 30 Apr. 2016. “Syria Frontlines Update.” Syria Conflict Mapping Project. The Carter Center. 9 Oct. 2015. Web. 13 May 2016.

[25] Rifai, Ryan. “Syrian group claims control of Idlib province.” Al Jazeera. 9 Jun. 2015. Web. 30 Apr. 2016. “Syria Frontlines Update.” Syria Conflict Mapping Project. The Carter Center. 9 Oct. 2015. Web. 13 May 2016. Joscelyn, Thomas. “Jaysh al Fath coalition launches new offensive in Allepo province.” The Long War Journal. Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. 6 May 2016. Web. 13 May 2016.

[26] Jocelyn, Thomas. “Allepo-based rebel groups reportedly unite behind Ahrar al Sham’s former top leader.” The Long War Journal. Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, 20 Feb. 2016. Web. 23 Apr. 2016.

[27] “Jaish al-Sham announces joining the Islamic Movement of Ahrar al-Sham.” Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, 23 Jun. 2016. Web. 1 Jul. 2016.

[28] “Ahrar Al-Sham, Nour Al-Din Al-Zenki Unify against Syrian Regime.”

[29] “Two of the Largest Factions in Syria’s Northwest Merge, Challenge HTS Dominance,” Syria Direct, accessed August 27, 2018, https://syriadirect.org/news/two-of-the-largest-factions-in-syria%e2%80%.... “New Rebel Faction Seizes Cities and Towns from Hardline Islamist Coalition in Syria’s Northwest,” Syria Direct, accessed August 27, 2018, https://syriadirect.org/news/new-rebel-faction-seizes-cities-and-towns-f.... “Ahrar Al-Sham and Nour Al-Din Al-Zenki Unite in ‘Hayyaat Tahrir Syria’ and Tensions Continue between the Latter and Hayyaat Tahrir Al-Sham.” The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (blog), February 18, 2018, http://www.syriahr.com/en/?p=85119. “The Violence of Battles Increased West of Aleppo and the Countryside of Idlib and Al-Zenki and Ahrar Al-Sham and Soqur Al-Sham Advance at the Expense of Hayaat Tahrir Al-Sham with Fighters Getting Killed and Captured.” The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (blog), February 21, 2018, http://www.syriahr.com/en/?p=85335. “Al-Zenki, Ahrar Al-Sham and Suqour Al-Sham Continue Their Advancement in Idlib Countryside at the Expense of Tahrir Al-Sham and the Fighting between Them Rages the Resentment of the Residents of Aleppo and Idlib.” The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (blog), February 22, 2018, http://www.syriahr.com/en/?p=85385. “Tightening the Screws on Pakistan | Monday Briefing,” Middle East Institute, accessed August 12, 2018, https://www.mei.edu/content/flash/2018-02-26. “The Fighting between Ahrar Al-Sham and Suqour Al-Sham against Tahrir Al-Sham Continues for the 3rd Day with Advancement by the Latter in Idlib Countryside.” The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (blog), February 23, 2018, http://www.syriahr.com/en/?p=85475. “What Became of the Four Rebel Groups That Once Dominated the Syrian Conflict?” The National, accessed August 10, 2018, https://www.thenational.ae/opinion/comment/what-became-of-the-four-rebel....

[30] “Russia, Turkey, and the Fate of Idlib,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, accessed August 27, 2018, http://carnegieendowment.org/sada/?fa=76999. “Syrian Rebels in the Idlib Province Form ‘National Liberation Front,’” Al Bawaba, August 26, 2018, https://www.albawaba.com/news/syrian-rebels-idlib-province-form-national.... Pulse News Agency International by AFP, “Syria Rebel Groups Form New Coalition as Regime Eyes Idlib,” accessed August 27, 2018, https://www.pulse.ng/news/world/syria-rebel-groups-form-new-coalition-as.... “‘Ahrar Al Shamal’ Joins the National Liberation Front in Northern Syria,” Call Syria, August 15, 2018, http://nedaa-sy.com/en/news/7893.

[31] Al-Kanj, Sultan. "Defections threaten Ahrar al-Sham jihadist movement in Syria.” AL-Monitor. 6 July 2021. https://www.al-monitor.com/originals/2021/07/defections-threaten-ahrar-al-sham-jihadist-movement-syria

State Sponsors and External Influences

Qatar began providing Ahrar al-Sham with weapons and money in early 2014.[1] In 2015, Saudi Arabia and Turkey began sending Ahrar al-Sham weapons and money in a joint effort to promote the Jaysh al-Fatah umbrella group and bolster Syrian opposition forces.[2] Turkey has also pressured Ahrar al-Sham to distance itself from Jabhat al-Nusra.[3]

In August 2018, Ahrar al-Sham, as part of Jabhat Tahrir Souriya (JTS), joined an umbrella group organized by Turkey, the National Liberation Front (NLF). The NLF includes about a dozen factions of the Free Syrian Army enjoying Turkish support, as well as the umbrella group JTS, Jaysh al-Ahrar, and Suqour al-Sham.[4] Consequently, Turkey has since acted as a state sponsor for JTS and Ahrar al-Sham and has furnished the group with weapons for its operations in Idlib.[5] Since Ahrar al-Sham lost much of its claims in Idlib due to advances by HTS, Turkey has funneled more resources towards HTS as Ahrar al-Sham attempts to overcome internal divisions.[6]

 

[1] Blair, David. “How Qatar is funding the rise of Islamist extremists.” The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group, 20 Sep. 2014. Web. 13 May. 2016.

[2] Sengupta, Kim. “Turkey and Saudi Arabia alarm the West by backing Islamist extremists the Americans had bombed in Syria.” The Independent. The Independent, 11 May 2015. Web. 13 May. 2016.

[3] Mroue, Bassem. “One of Syria’s most powerful rebel groups is rebranding itself with Turkey’s backing.” The Associated Press and Business Insider. Business Insider, 8 Oct. 2015. Web. 23 April 2016.

[4] “Russia, Turkey, and the Fate of Idlib,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, accessed August 27, 2018, http://carnegieendowment.org/sada/?fa=76999.

[5] Bucci, Peter. “Rebel groups capture key town from Syrian Army after intense assault (maps).” Syrian War Daily. 22 May 2019. Web. 27 May 2019. <https://syrianwardaily.com/2019/05/22/breaking-rebel-groups-capture-key-....

[6] Ali, Zulfiqar. "Syria: Who's in control of Idlib?” BBC News. 18 Feb. 2020. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-45401474.

Maps

The project develops a series of interactive diagrams that “map” relationships among groups and show how those relationships change over time. The user can change map settings to display different features (e.g., leadership changes), adjust the time scale, and trace individual groups.