A boy walks past a sign that reads 'Islamic State in Iraq and Syria' in Raqqa, Syria, August 20, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Zohra Bensemra

Once hailed as one of the more moderate — and powerful — military groups in the Syrian battlefield, Ahrar al-Sham is disintegrating rapidly and there is nothing its Turkish backers can do to save it.

Established back in December 2011, Ahrar al-Sham once boasted nearly 20,000 fighters and played an instrumental role in every single rebel victory against government troops during the years 2013-2015. Many in the West pinned high hopes on it, seeing it as a potential player in the future of Syria, especially after its troops joined in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS) and agreed to support a political endgame to the Syrian conflict.

Many ignored the fact that one of its founders, Abu Khaled al-Souri, was a ranking former al-Qaeda operative with close ties to Osama Bin Laden. He was killed by ISIS in February 2014. They also turned a blind eye to its declared program of wanting to set up an Islamic state in Syria based on sharia law. The US did not consider Ahrar a terrorist organization and neither did countries like Great Britain and France —so long as it was doing a good job in fighting ISIS, there was no need to ask questions. With the exception of the United Arab Emirates, several Gulf states embraced the group, and at one point, a donation of US$400,000 was publicly written out in its name by a Kuwaiti private fund, for the “people of Syria.”

Over the past ten days, however, massive defections have been recorded from Ahrar al-Sham, both in northern Syria and in the al-Ghouta orchards around Damascus. Hundreds are fleeing Ahrar camps and joining Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a rebel coalition headed by Ahrar’s former ally, Jabhat al-Nusra. The two groups were once partners, working side-by-side in the battle for Idlib and jointly over-running northwestern Syria in mid-2015. But this month, HTS expelled Ahrar from Idlib, enforcing the grip of al-Qaeda and its allies on the last remaining city in the hands of Syrian rebels. It also expelled Ahrar from the Bab al-Hawa border crossing between Syria and Turkey. Frantically, Ahrar warriors have retreated into villages in the Hama countryside in central Syria and into the two Turkish-held pockets along the border, Jarablus and Azaz. They are also still present in the town of Ariha, south of Idlib.

Trying to save the group from total collapse, Turkey has engineered a change in Ahrar’s top command, appointing Hassan Soufan (also known as Abu al-Baraa), a reportedly well-respected leader, as leader of the military group. In his first address, he asserted that the shocking defeat in Idlib was due to internal divisions within the group, rather than the superiority of government troops and the Russian Army. A one-time detainee in Saudi Arabia, Soufan was extradited to Syria in 2004 — when relations were at their warmest between Damascus and Riyadh — and remained in Syrian jails until last December, when he was released in a prisoner swap after the Syrian Army retook Aleppo.

US Special Envoy to Syria Michael Ratney described the city’s fall to al-Qaeda as a “tragedy”; the US is left with very few options to support in Syria

The Turks believe he can salvage Ahrar al-Sham, which will be easier said than done. First, Soufan doesn’t know the terrain too well, having spent the last 12 years of his life behind bars. He is completely unfamiliar with the dynamics of the Syrian battlefield. He also is not very well connected with the fighters, who see him as a newcomer parachuted into the job by their Turkish backers. Although commanding moral authority due to his Salafi credentials, he doesn’t have the power base needed to convince fighters to leave HTS and return to Ahrar al-Sham, or to attract new recruits. Additionally he lacks the military experience needed to lead such a group during the lowest point in its six-year history.

Military analysts claim that the majority of Ahrar’s 20,000 members are affiliates who never officially joined the group but have pledged allegiance to its Shura Council. They have never attended Ahrar camps, or received Ahrar training, arms, or money. Instead they have used Ahrar’s name to project power and influence in rebel-held towns and villages, similar to what many did with ISIS after it stormed the scene in 2014. Size made the group look important but transformed it into an oversized, unorganized and bulky militia — easy to penetrate and defeat. Another problem is that it failed to create real alliances with other rebel groups — due to an inflated sense of ego. It did not side with the Free Syrian Army when the latter’s troops were slaughtered by ISIS in 2015; nor did it support ISIS or al-Nusra when they were hit by the Russians. Earlier it had likewise taken a neutral stance when ISIS and al-Nusra fought each other.

Ahrar’s total defeat in Idlib is raising red flags in Washington. US Special Envoy to Syria Michael Ratney described the city’s fall to al-Qaeda as a “tragedy,” and the US is left with very few options to support in Syria anymore, excluding, that is, the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces. All groups championed as “moderate” have been devoured by Islamists, leaving only ISIS and al-Nusra. Even the Turks are very worried about what happens to Idlib, as it directly threatens their border enclave. They hope very much that a rebirth of Ahrar al-Sham can be engineered by Hassan Soufan. If that fails, they will have no option but to try and create a new proxy militia to advance their interests — something that will be very hard with the Russians now controlling most of the ground and airspace in Syria.

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