The Ahrar al-Sham movement was shattered when Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) launched a massive assault against it. The movement lost all its financial resources and many of its most strategically vital territories, including a border crossing that earned it more than $8 million a month. In the wake of the attack, its young leader Ali al-Omar quit and was replaced by Hassan Soufan from Lattakia city.
Soufan was born in 1977 and graduated from the economics college of Tishreen University. The new Ahrar al-Sham leader is known for having fully memorized the Quran at a young age. He studied Islamic theology under Salafist sheikhs in Saudi Arabia including Ibn Uthayman and Ibn Jabrin, but was arrested by the Saudi authorities in 2005 and detained for three years before being handed over to the Syrian authorities, who placed him in the notorious Saydnaya prison. He was a key negotiator after helping lead an uprising in the prison in 2008, in which inmates seized jail officers and guards to avoid a planned massacre by the regime, and entered into negotiations with regime forces that had surrounded the prison. The prisoners eventually handed over 1,300 detained soldiers and officers. Soufan left the prison this year under a prisoner swap deal with the Syrian regime, negotiated by Rami Hamidoush, an Allawite officer from Qardaha, the birthplace of Bashar al-Assad.
Another former Saydnaya detainee, political activist Maher Asbar, described Soufan as “an Islamist who works to help everyone, a humanitarian who represents moderate Islam despite being a Salafist. He is from a moderate ideological path.” Asbar said Soufan is against fighting other opposition factions. “He disagrees with al-Nusra and especially with Daesh (ISIS, ISIL, or the Islamic State) in imposing Sharia law on the ground, as he sees the subject of takfir (declaring other Muslims to be non-believers) and the spilling of blood to be the most complex of subjects,” he said, adding that Soufan does not intend to fight al-Nusra and ISIS.
Asbar said Soufan is Ahrar al-Sham’s only hope for survival today, adding that it would be mad to deny the presence of an Islamic society in Syria and its role in the current political situation. Despite the fact that Soufan is an Islamist, Asbar said he belongs to the revolution and holds the ideology of his movement’s early leaders who were killed in 2014. He predicted that Soufan would be able to unify all the Islamist factions in Syria, as he is a moderate thinker and uses a moderate discourse that appeals to many in Syria. He has an outlook that enables him to win rights for both Islamists and non-Islamists, meaning he represents a threat both to extremists and to the regime.
Ahrar al-Sham today controls a few fragments of territory. Its fighters’ main bases are in the Sahel al-Ghab region of the northern Hama countryside, western Idlib province and the al-Jabal al-Wastani area, as well as a number of units scattered throughout rural Idlib including the city of Ariha on the road from Idlib to Aleppo. Ahrar al-Sham has become like any other rebel group following its defeat at the hands of HTS, and no longer has any options but to conform with everything HTS imposes on it, as it is vulnerable to being targeted again. This is the second time it has faced a disaster. On the first occasion, in September 2014, its entire senior leadership including Abu Abdullah al-Hamwi were killed. But the second disaster was at the hands of fighters who claim to uphold Sharia law and who have fought under various names, most recently that of HTS—a group assisted by the senior leadership of Ahrar al-Sham.
“Ahrar al-Sham was not defeated and did not withdraw from the fight with Jabhat al-Nusra. Ahrar al-Sham did not believe that there was a battle to flee or a fight in which to be defeated,” Diab Siriya, another former Saydnaya inmate, wrote in a Facebook post. He said the movement does not consider al-Nusra to be an enemy or a threat to itself or to the revolution. “Never. They see Jabhat al-Nusra as brothers in religion and ideology although they may differ in method. They do not want to fight them. As the saying of the Prophet goes: ‘to see the Kaaba destroyed to its last stone would be easier for Allah than to see the blood of a Muslim spilled.’”
Diab said the reasons for the dispute go back to the time Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra leaders spent together in Saydnaya. “This has been known about them since the 2008 rebellion in Saydnaya prison. During the uprising, the group led by Abu al-Abbas Abu Tut and Hassan Soufan (which later took part in setting up Ahrar al-Sham) was declared to be an infidel group by the group led by Abu Khaled al-Iraqi (most of whom later joined IS) and a faction of a group led by Abu Hudifa Ibrahim al-Dafer (many of whom later joined al-Nusra). The direct reason was that they freed hostages, police, and military officers. At the time, the leaders of all the groups that had staged the uprising agreed to free some hostages and continue to hold the officers, but the latter were smuggled through with the final batch of hostages released. The groups of Abu al-Abbas Abu Tut and Hassan Soufan were accused of releasing them, and Abu Khaled al-Iraqi’s group openly declared them infidels, as did some from Abu Hudifa’s group, who fought a fierce war against them inside the prison.” Despite this, those who set up Ahrar al-Sham did not fight the others, but insisted that they were all brothers in faith.
Soufan therefore faces an extremely difficult task if he is to rebuild Ahrar al-Sham once again and raise its stature among a plethora of competing groups in Idlib, even as major states intervene in the city, which is the focus of growing attention. Many theorists of the jihadist movement believe that Ahrar al-Sham is made up of less extreme Salafists than HTS, as it has accepted dialogue with others and allows the revolutionary flag to be raised. Ahrar al-Sham is trying to return to its popular base, calculating that whoever can win the approval of that base will have the greatest level of protection amid the multiple international interventions targeting Idlib, the last remaining refuge of jihadists in the east or west.
Saleem al-Omar is a freelance journalist who has written for Al-Jazeera, Alquds Alarabi Newspaper, Arabi 21, and Syria Deeply.