International Policy Digest

U.S. Dept of State
World News /12 Sep 2016
09.12.16

In Russia-U.S. Deal, West Leaves Syrian Islamist Mess

Although no official documentation is publicly available, the latest cease-fire negotiated by the US and Russia has been criticized as unusually vague, nontransparent, and weak. But in the seemingly incoherent array of US policies and alliances between secular and Islamist fighters, the agreement is merely a prelude to a Syria with Islamist groups like the 20,000-strong Ahrar al-Sham, that epitomize how Syrian politics will always stubbornly transcend US and Russian interests.

Despite having perhaps as many fighters as ISIS, Ahrar al-Sham has received little public attention from the US’s media. Based nearby Aleppo, it has had a record of human rights abuses, including an alleged massacre of Alawite civilians in May 2016 and another of Christian civilians in March 2015. In recent months, the establishment of Sharia courts has given them license to arbitrarily abduct civilians including human rights activists, women, and children.

As an ally of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra), Ahrar al-Sham previously had a close relationship with al-Qaeda. One of its early leaders, Abu Khalid al-Suri, fought alongside al-Qaeda and received mentoring from al-Qaeda during AQ’s attempts to establish a foothold early in the Syrian revolution. Hawkish analysts have interpreted Ahrar al-Sham’s Sharia courts as evidence of its path towards a (presumably anti-American) Syrian theocracy and its foreign policy as antithetical to Saudi Arabia’s pro-American sentiments.

Russia and Syria have seized upon these abuses and have repeatedly called for the United Nations to designate Ahrar al-Sham as a terrorist organization, but groups can only be designated as such upon unanimous consent from the 15-member UN Security Council. Britain, France, and the US have blocked such designations, perhaps because of some speculative reports indicating its cooperation with the Free Syrian Army.

Its recent rhetoric has in fact been favorable towards the West, contrary to neoconservatives’ beliefs. In May, it disavowed its ties to Al Qaeda and in August it stated that the US has the potential to play a “positive” role in the Syrian war. According to the Long War Journal, its brand of Islamism is unique, having been partly modeled on the Taliban: one that tolerates all Sunnis and is willing to engage in “normal politics and diplomacy” without monopolizing governance.

This presents a rather awkward scenario for those who see the War on Terror as one against Islamism. Ahrar al-Sham, is a group that may be valuable to the Free Syrian Army’s Aleppo operations and has been at least lukewarm to US involvement and a multiparty Syria. It has executed civilians and has established conservative Islamism in its own territories and while condemning Al Qaeda, it has continued to cooperate with Jabhat Fateh al-Sham.

The mess has been muddied even further as its branches have issued conflicting statements both for and against the ceasefire.

As long as the policymakers of the US and Russia think they can simplify the Syrian conflict as one for or against Bashar al-Assad and Islamic “terrorism,” Western involvement will continue to collapse under its own platitudes. As groups like Ahrar al-Sham demonstrate, Syrian rebels are not simply pro-American or anti-American. Syria’s future likewise will not fall into simplistic categories like “Islamist” or “secular.”

Syria’s rebels represent a diverse array of perspectives, each with a different vision for what Syria and its international relationships should be. When the US and Russia arbitrarily condemn or support certain rebel groups for their politics, the West is unwittingly writing the future of Syria’s politics.

Just because a group like Ahrar al-Sham has espoused strict conservative interpretations of what Syria’s culture should be does not mean it is wholly opposed to the idea of a multiparty state. Even its previous support for al-Qaeda’s core is not a simple issue when viewed through an American hawk’s lenses.

The only thing that has been consistently clear in Syria’s civil war is realpolitik: rebel groups and foreign actors like the US operate under fluid alliances and ideologies based on convenience rather than three-way false dilemmas of “Islamic terrorism” vs. “secular rebels” vs. Assad’s dictatorship. Rather than treating Syria as a confusing conglomerate pro-West/anti-West actors, it’s time Syria was understood as a country whose citizens are Syrians.