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Ahrar al-Sham

Six armed opposition factions in Syria announced 26 January 2017 that they were joining the ranks of Ahrar al-Sham, one of the country's largest rebel groups. Their decision came after Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra, attacked their positions in Idlib and Aleppo provinces. The six factions include Alwiyat Suqour al-Sham, Kataib Thawar al-Sham, Jaish al-Mujahideen and Tajamo Fastaqim Kama Umirat, along with Jaish al-Islam's Idlib branch and al-Jabha al-Shamiya's west Aleppo branch. Ahrar al-Sham issued a statement welcoming the factions and warning that any attack on them would be considered "a declaration of war". Tensions between Jabhat Fateh al-Sham and armed opposition groups, including the Free Syrian Army (FSA), escalated on 24 January 2017 after Jabhat Fateh al-Sham attacked factional headquarters across the two provinces.

Ahrar al-Sham was among the seven armed groups that Russia declared as "moderate opposition", which were part of the ceasefire announced on December 30, 2016. However, Ahrar al-Sham opted not to participate in the recent Astana talks, while the FSA, Jaish al-Islam and other armed opposition groups sent a delegation. Nusra is trying to present it as though the FSA factions want to surrender, to have the Assad regime stay in power and reach a settlement with Russia. By attacking them, it supposedly is preventing such a settlement from taking place.

By 2015 Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya (the Islamic Movement of the Free Men of Syria), aka Ahrar al-Sham, was perhaps the most powerful non-jihadist rebel force in Syria. This primarily northern group was established by Islamists and originally included internationally known jihadists with long-standing ties to al-Qaeda. Though some of Ahrars founding members had ties to al-Qaida going back to the late 1970s and 1980s, most of these men are dead.

In the years since the 2014 assassination of most of its leadership in a mysterious explosion while they were conducting a meeting, it has sought to moderate its image, partly at the behest of its backers in Turkey and Qatar.

Ahrar openly calling for the establishment of an Islamic state in Syria. In addition, its collaboration with Nusra on the battlefield against the Assad regime, as well as the Islamic State, added to Western suspicions.

Ahrar al-Sham was implicated by Human Rights Watch in the slaughter in Lattakia province in August 2013 - so far the only documented large-scale massacre of Alawi civilians. The organisation denied involvement. Islamist Front leader Zahran Alloush promised protection to minorities (which implies no automatic equality of citizenship) while also vowing to cleanse Damascus of "Shia influence".

Previous Ahrar leader Hassan Abboud, killed in 2014, appeared flexible about the structure of an Islamic state. On September 10, 2014 Ahrar al-Sham appointed a new leader and military chief after their predecessors were killed in a blast. The explosion in northwestern Syria killed at least 12 including Ahrar al-Sham's leader Hassan Aboud.

An umbrella group of opposition fighters reportedly seized control over almost all of Idlib province from government forces after launching a major offensive on 08 June 2015. Abu Yazeed, a spokesman for Ahrar al-Sham, one of Syria's most powerful anti-government groups which is also a part of the the Fattah Army coalition, told Al Jazeera that the fighters now hold control over "about 99 percent" of Idlib. The province borders the two key largely government-controlled provinces of Latakia and Hama.

Former US Ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, urged the Obama administration to open talks with Ahrar al-Sham, or face being left behind from the race to influence the fate of Syria. Ford wrote "lumping Ahrar and Nusra together is intellectually sloppy, especially when they exhibit ideological and political differences. This is not to say that the United States has no differences with Ahrar."

Asked on 29 October 2015 by UpFront host Mehdi Hasan about Qatar's support for the controversial rebel group Ahrar al-Sham, which has been accused by human rights groups of possible war crimes, Qatar's Foreign Minister Khalid al-Attiyah said: "I don't think Ahrar al-Sham committed any of these crimes." He also "guaranteed" that the group has no links to al-Qaeda, despite the late Ahrar al-Sham commander Abu Khalid al-Suri once proclaiming his allegiance to al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.

On December 10, 2015 Ahrar al-Sham, one of Syria's main rebel groups, pulled out of opposition talks aimed at forging a united front prior to potential discussions with the Damascus regime. Ahrar al-Sham said it withdrew to protest the role given to groups it felt are too close to the government of President Bashar al-Assad. Ahrar al-Sham, a Saudi-backed ultraconservative group that operates mainly in northern Syria, withdrew at the end of a two-day conference in Riyadh, the Saudi capital.

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Page last modified: 30-01-2017 19:37:19 ZULU