The head of the Islamist group Ahrar al-Sham, once one of the strongest militias in the Syrian civil war, has urged fellow insurgents to fight on after a blast on Tuesday wiped out its senior leadership.
In a video on YouTube, Ahrar al-Sham said Hashem al-Sheikh, also known as “Abu Jaber,” had been named its leader and Abu Saleh Tahan its military chief. Another video showed a man identified as Abu Jaber exhorting his men to fight on.
Aron Lund, a Syria expert and a contributor to the Carnegie Endowment’s Syria in Crisis website
, told The Jerusalem Post
on Wednesday that Ahrar al-Sham’s leadership seems solidly Islamist, though there are probably various ideological trends present amongst its members as well.
Asked if there is a chance of its members defecting to other opposition groups such as Islamic State, Nusra Front, or the Western-backed Free Syrian Army, Lund, the author of a report on Ahrar al-Sham and its sub-groups for the Swedish Institute for International Affairs, responded, “The rank and file might not be quite as committed, since many have been recruited locally along village or family lines, or joined after their own factions were co-opted into the group.”
“They do seem to have some level of ideological schooling and indoctrination among members, but Syria’s war has been so messy that I wouldn’t be at all surprised if some members switch to pseudo-secular FSA groups or, at the other end of the spectrum, to al-Qaida or Islamic State,” he said.
The group, which is believed to have received funds from Gulf states and forms part of the Islamic Front alliance fighting both the Syrian army and the now dominant Islamic State movement, said that the explosion in northwestern Syria killed at least 12 people, including Ahrar al-Sham’s former leader Hassan Aboud.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a group monitoring the conflict, said the blast killed 28 of Ahrar al-Sham’s commanders, dealing a major blow to the organization.
“Jihadi men of our nation... do not let the crisis shake you or the calamity divide you,” Abu Jaber said on the video while eulogizing the dead. “Rise, let us die for what they have died for,” he said in a statement read from behind a desk.
Some 50 of the group’s leaders had gathered at a house when the blast went off inside, according to the Observatory.
There has been no claim of responsibility for the blast, which took place in Syria’s Idlib province.
Lund asserts that the group has not yet collapsed, and so it cannot be ruled out as continuing to play a central role in the Syrian opposition.
According to Lund, ideologically, Ahrar al-Sham is probably closer to Nusra Front than Islamic State, adding that the group has been fighting the latter for many months and suffered hundreds of deaths as a result.
Lund said, however, if Islamic State goes on the attack and gains more power, and “the only way to survive is to pledge allegiance to their caliph, then maybe that’s what they would do.”
“Unless Ahrar al-Sham somehow manages to recover and sustain its relevance as a major Islamist faction, Islamic Front may now be beyond repair,” argued Lund in an article for Carnegie titled, “Syria’s Ahrar al-Sham Leadership Wiped Out in Bombing.”
Joel Parker, a researcher who focuses on Syria at the Moshe Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University, told the Post that many analysts expect tens of thousands of fighters associated directly or indirectly with Ahrar al-Sham and Islamic Front to eventually drift away and join other groups.
“The safest place to go seems to be the ranks of Islamic State. They might not receive a warm welcome, though – Islamic Front, Ahrar al-Sham’s umbrella organization, has executed Islamic State fighters in the past,” said Parker.
“A partnership with Nusra Front, which has collaborated with Ahrar al-Sham before seems more likely,” he said, pointing out that this would “give Nusra Front a significant edge, especially in the south, around Dera’a and the Golan, as well as to make gains immediately in Idlib, where Ahrar al-Sham was strongest.”
If it transpires that Islamic State actually carried out the attack, there could be retaliation, “but so far, no announcement of revenge has been made,” he said.
Parker noted that some pro-Islamic State figures in social media “have been gloating over the event, seeing it as a just punishment for Ahrar al-Sham’s refusal to join Islamic State.”
Some observers have described Tuesday’s incident as a gas attack. Abu Baraa, a rebel figure from a group allied with Ahrar al-Sham, said a doctor who examined the bodies said there was little visible sign of external injuries.
The doctor saw bodies with frothing at the mouth and fluid coming from the eyes and noses, Abu Baraa said, adding the group had been meeting in a heavily fortified underground bunker.
Charles Lister, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar, in an article written for the Huffington Post on Wednesday said, “Other than Ahrar al-Sham, the Islamic Front’s three largest member factions, Jaish al-Islam, Suqor al-Sham, and Liwa al-Tawhid, have all begun swaying closer towards the moderate semi-establishment camp in recent weeks, thereby putting pressure on the durability of an Islamist alliance that was founded in November 2013 as an explicit expression of opposition to moderate opposition bodies linked to Syria’s exiled opposition leadership.”
“Should it occur, the dissolution of Islamic Front will likely be a long and drawn-out process, but it would offer an invaluable opportunity for moderate opposition structures to co-opt what have long been Syria’s most powerful rebel factions,” added Lister.