Internal division may determine fate of “Ahrar al-Sham Movement”
Enab Baladi – Ali Darwish
“The real plight did not come yet; all of this is introductions.” These words were stated by the former official of “Ahrar al-Sham Islamic Movement” in the eastern region, Hussein Abdul Salam, to the Qatari “al-Jazeera” channel in a film released in March 2016 about “Ahrar al-Sham.” In the film, Abdul Salam described the difficulties that the movement faced since its establishment to its confrontation with the so-called “Islamic State (IS)” organization as “introductions” before he was killed with other leaders from Ahrar al-Sham in September 2014.
The killing of the first raw leaders of Ahrar al-Sham was the biggest challenge to the movement since its forming. Even though the movement maintained its military power, the repercussions of the killings continue to this moment.
After the killing of Ahrar al-Sham’s founder and first leader, Hassan Abboud, also known as “Abu Abdullah al-Hamawi,” the movement’s leadership was transferred to engineer Hashim al-Sheikh, known as “Abu Jaber.” Nevertheless, al-Sheikh submitted his resignation to the movement’s Shura Council a year later, to give space to new expertise, according to his expression.
Muhannad al-Masri, known as “Abu Yahya al-Ghab” took the leadership, then came Ali al-Omar, who was succeeded by Sheikh Hassan Soufan, whose name rose to fame again in the recent days due to internal conflicts within the movement that put its future and presence at stake. Currently, the Ahrar al-Sham Movement is led by Jaber Ali Pasha.
After resigning… Soufan makes peace with the HTS
Soufan announced his resignation from the Ahrar al-Sham leadership in May 2019, to be succeeded by the current commander, Jaber Ali Pasha. Soufan and the movement’s military wing leader, captain Anad Darwish, known as “Abu al-Mundhir” tried to displace Ali Pasha amid accusations to the “Hay’ at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS)” of supporting Soufan.
Soufan attributed his resignation at that time to personal reasons, without belonging to any faction or group; however, his name came back to light recently with the internal conflicts of the Ahrar al-Sham.
Researcher of “jihadist” groups, Abbas Sharifah, told Enab Baladi that “Soufan has been moved out from the Ahrar al-Sham Movement because the movement’s Shura Council was not happy with his unilateral policy.”
Soufan’s removal from the movement remained a cause of dispute and sensitivity between himself and the current leadership. Moreover, with the military leadership’s refusal to implement some of the Ahrar al-Sham’s leaders’ decisions, the refusal turned to a revolt and a coup against the current leadership.
According to Sharifah, the internal problems of the Ahrar al-Sham Movement and Hassan Soufan’s return to its leadership after his resignation came after an agreement between “Abu Muhammad al-Jolani,” the leader of the HTS that has the greatest influence in Idlib and part of the western countryside of Aleppo and the wing represented by Hassan Soufan and the military commander “Abu al-Mundhir.”
The agreement aims to reproduce a new form of administration and control over Idlib by strengthening the Tripartite Military Committee, which was originally Soufan’s idea.
The Joint Tripartite Military Committee includes “Abu al-Mundhir” from Ahrar al-Sham, “Abu Hassan 600” from the HTS, in addition to a representative from the “Sham Legion.”
The Sham Legion and Ahrar al-Sham are part of the “National Liberation Front (NLF),” affiliated to the Turkish-backed “Syrian National Army (SNA).”
The NLF, HTS, and “Jaysh al-Izza” are all included in the “al-Fath al-Mubeen” operations room.
According to Sharifah, the Tripartite Committee transformed from mere operations and coordination room between the HTS and the NLF to an authority in which the factions merge and produce a civil and political leadership, as a step to ending the term “Tahrir al-Sham” and the factions.
In addition, the committee aims to create a new authority that Soufan and those with him try to suggest that it is a move supported by Qatar and Turkey on the road to the dismantling of the HTS, but in reality, it strengthens the power and control of the HTS over the factions with the change of name only.
Dismantling Ahrar al-Sham Movement is in no one’s interest
The HTS, the most influential power in Idlib, denied supporting any party inside the Ahrar al-Sham Movement at the expense of another side, after being accused of supporting the opposing wing within the movement.
According to Sharifah, “if the main driving force for what is going inside the Ahrar al-Sham movement is the HTS, then it aims to control the movement,” through the new leadership of S0ufan and Abu al-Mundhir.”
Sharifah does not think that the HTS wants to dismantle the Ahrar al-Sham Movement, which puts the current situation in the face of many possibilities.
The possibilities include the split of Ahrar al-Sham between pro-current leadership and the leadership of Soufan and Abu al-Mundhir, or the movement of Ahrar al-Sham with all of its members to the northern Aleppo countryside, or the reconciliation between the parties and the return of things as they were before the recent conflict.
In 2017 and 2018, armed clashes took place between Ahrar al-Sham and the HTS, diminishing the presence of Ahrar al-Sham in the areas of Idlib, western Aleppo countryside, and northern Hama countryside. The clashes also led to the HTS control of the movement’s economic resources, namely the “Bab al-Hawa” border crossing, military equipment, headquarters, and machinery.
The internal dispute reaches advanced levels
The division of the Ahrar al-Sham lines has aggravated, and on 23 October, it reached the level of besieging and taking over headquarters belonging to the movement by the opposing wing of the general command, represented by Soufan and Abu al-Mundhir.
The opposing wing of the general command of Ahrar al-Sham took over several headquarters, most prominent of which is “Headquarter 101” in Ariha city, south of Idlib, and headquarters in the al-Fu’ah village in the eastern Idlib countryside, according to Enab Baladi’s correspondent in Idlib.
The correspondent quoted elements from Ahrar al-Sham as saying that its general commander, Jaber Ali Pasha, had ordered the emptying of headquarters in Ariha, al-Fu’ah, and other places of their equipment and human capacity to Afrin, northwest of Aleppo.
A leader in the NLF, who spoke to Enab Baladi on the condition of anonymity, said that Jaber Ali Pasha’s wing rejects armed clashes regardless of what the opposing wing is doing.
It is worth mentioning that the NLF failed to resolve the dispute until this report’s preparation time.
The internal dispute within the movement began on 12 October, after the Ahrar al-Sham leadership decided to dismiss the cost sector commander and place a substitute; however, the movement’s military wing leader, captain Anad Darwish, and the coast sector commander rejected the general command’s decision.
Darwish demanded in a statement the appointment of the movement’s former leader, Sheikh Hassan Soufan, as a general leader to the Ahrar al-Sham Movement. The current leadership of the movement considered Darwish’s call as a coup attempt, so it dismissed Darwish, restricted him to work in the “movement’s” military council, and replaced him with “Abu Faisal Al-Ansari.”
The command of Ahrar al-Sham has also dismissed captain “Abu Sohaib” from his post as deputy commander of the military wing and replaced him with “Abu Musa al-Shami.” The movement’s leadership also appointed “Abu al-Ezz Ariha” to command the reserve brigade instead of “Abu Mahmoud Khattab.”
Soufan from “Saidnaya” prison to the leadership of Ahrar al-Sham
Hassan Soufan (Abu al-Bara) spent about 12 years in “Saidnaya” prison. Soufan was released after a prisoners’ exchange operation with the Syrian regime in December 2016. The exchange deal was led by “al-Farouk Abu Bakr,” who was then a leader in the Ahrar al-Sham Movement.
Soufan was born in Lattakia city in 1979. He studied Sharia science at “King Abdul Aziz” University in Saudi Arabia. Soufan also has a degree in economics from “Tishreen” University in his hometown.
Soufan was arrested in Syria and began to appear as an opposition figure, until he was arrested in 2004, in a campaign launched by the Syrian regime against political opponents.
According to testimonies by former detainees at Saidnaya prison, Soufan was part of the negotiating team during the famous 2008 riot inside the prison.
They mentioned that Soufan was a “moderate man who was open to everyone.” They also said that Soufan was known for standing up to the extremists who joined the IS organization and “al-Nusra Front.”
Soufan was sentenced to life imprisonment at that time, while six others were executed.
The Syrian regime kept Soufan in prison, despite having released dozens of those affiliated to the Islamic current in 2011, who became first-line leaders of Islamic factions and formations. Some of these leaders are Zahran Alloush, the founder of the “Army of Islam,” Hassan Abboud, and Ahmed al-Shaikh (Abu Issa), the founder of the “Sham Falcons” Brigades.
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