Ahrar al Sham, the “Islamic Movement of the Free Men of the Levant,” is a 10-20,000-strong group of jihadist-Salafi fighters which constitutes the main component of the “Islamic Front” fighting Syrian President Bashar Assad. The group represents the so-called “moderates” in the jihadist movement. On September 9, Ahrar al Sham was dealt a major blow in what appears to have been a suicide attack that cost the lives of at least 46 (and perhaps as many as 70) top military officers and political leading figures of the group.1
Ahrar al Sham emerged in 2011 after the Egyptian Revolution that toppled President Mubarak from which it seems to have drawn its inspiration. Its presence in Syria was felt in early 2012 when it quickly became one of the leading Salafi groups in Syria. Ahrar al Sham was considered to be second in strength to the Islamic State and much more powerful than Jabhat el Nusra. Ahrar al Sham did not engage in the type of sophisticated, high-profile urban suicide bombings that became the trademark of the Jabhat al-Nusra group. In January 2013 the group claimed to operate 83 units across Syria, including in the cities of Damascus and Aleppo. In February 2013 it merged with three other groups to form Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya.2 Unlike the Islamic State, formerly ISIS, Ahrar al Sham seeks a state run on Islamic principles that would also protect women’s rights, as well as ethnic and religious minorities.
According to some sources, the explosive device on September 9 could have contained poisonous gas when it detonated in the basement of a house — a closed compound where members had gathered for their meeting – which could explain the extent of human loss.3 “The bodies of many of those killed were intact,”4 according to another source, “suggesting that they had died from asphyxiation, rather than blast injuries.” According to the report, the basement where the meeting was held was adjacent to an ammunition factory which could have been the source of the explosion and the poisonous, asphyxiating gas.
Four of the main leaders of Ahrar al Sham were killed in the attack:
• Hassan Abud, alias Abu Abdallah Al Hamawi, founder and Emir of the movement, and head of the political department of the” Islamic Front”;
• Abu Talha al Ghab, military chief;
• Abu Ayman Ram Hamdan, former head of the Badr brigade and responsible for planning; and Abu Abdel Malek al Shari, its religious leader.
• Three other officials — Abu Mustafa Al Abssi, a member of the political bureau of the movement, and two regional chiefs respectively from the areas of Deraa and south Quneitra, who were absent from the meeting — are among the survivors.5
The meeting took place in the province of Idlib in the basement of a supposedly protected house belonging to Abu Ayman Ram Hamdan, the former head of the Badr brigade and the actual head of planning for Ahrar al Sham. It was meant to determine a joint course of action against the Islamic State together with two other jihadist movements — the Iman Brigades and the Abdallah Azzam Brigades.6
Accusations regarding the attack were made against the Assad regime which has achieved recent successes in targeting jihadists and jihadist convoys based on information collected mainly through signal eavesdropping efforts. At the same time, the IS (Islamic State) is also considered a possible perpetrator since the two groups have been fighting for the same turf in the northeastern part of Syria.
The elimination of such high-ranking leaders of Ahrar al Sham will no doubt have a negative impact on the capabilities of the movement to continue its current operations against the Assad regime.
Ahrar al Sham reacted swiftly to the loss of its leaders. On September 10, the movement nominated Hashem el Sheikh (Abu Jaber) as its leader and Abu Saleh Tahan as its military chief.7
Even so, such devastation in its ranks will definitely have operational consequences. Ahrar al Sham will need time to re-organize and to fill the ranks of the dead commanders. This “time-out” could prove beneficial for both Bashar Assad and the Islamic State. Both will try to leverage as much as possible the timely disappearance of Ahrar al Sham in order to consolidate their positions and gain more assets on the ground. In this duel between Assad and the IS, it seems that currently the advantage is in the Assad Camp. On the eve of crucial decisions to be made by the Obama administration in the Syrian and Iraqi contexts and in light of the Russian stance backing Assad, the blow dealt to a key element that could have rallied to the American cause will bear dire consequences.