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Ahrar al-Sham jihadists emerge from shadows in north Syria

Daily Star

ATME, Syria:  Jihadist group Ahrar  al-Sham is emerging from the shadows of the  larger rebel outfit Al-Nusra Front  as key player in northern Syria,  playing up its nationalist roots and more moderate form of Islam.

Fighters from the group, whose name means in Arabic the “Free Men of Syria”,  are mainly to be found on the battlefields in the northern provinces of Idlib,  Aleppo and central Hama alongside some 30 other jihadist organisations.

For a long time it was eclipsed by the hardline ‘Al-Nusra Front’ which has  claimed responsibility for the majority of deadly suicide bombings in Syria’s  nearly two-year conflict and is blacklisted by Washington  as a terror outfit.

But in recent months Ahrar al-Sham has begun unleashing its fighters across  the battlefronts, especially in Idlib  where they played a leading role in  advances around the city of Jisr al-Shughur, an AFP reporter said.

Its fighters are also on the frontlines of the battles around the city of  Idlib and further south in Maarat al-Numan.

Their victories have been trumpeted on the Internet and, rebel sources say,  have been accomplished thanks to financial backing from Gulf Arab countries.

At the end of December, Ahrar al-Sham announced the creation of an Islamic  front grouping a dozen of other organisations including Ansar al-Sham, Liwa  al-Haq and Jamaat al-Taliaa.

On January 31 several other groups announced on a statement posted on the  Internet that they had joined forces with Ahrar al-Sham to form a broader  coalition dubbed “Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya” (The Islamic Movement of  Ahrar al-Sham).

Although some Arab jihadists fight amongst their ranks, most of Ahrar  al-Sham’s fighters are Syrian nationals while the group’s founders, according to  a source close to it, were former political prisoners released in an  amnesty.

“The founders of the movement are all former political prisoners who were  detained in the infamous Sednaya prison near Damascus,” the source said.

“For years they lived and suffered together in jail (but) were set free as  part of an amnesty ordered by the regime in May 2011.”

The group appears to be well-structured although the names of their  commanders are not in the public domain. However, a fighter known as Abu Anas  is the leader for battlegrounds in  northern Syria.

One of Ahrar al-Sham’s strengths is that it has deep roots in northern  rebel-held territory, where unlike the shadowy Al-Nusra Front, its men enjoy  grassroots support because some are from the villages and cities of the  region.

The group’s approach to Islam  is less rigid that the position of Al-Nusra  Front — which Washington says has links to Al-Qaeda in Iraq — with group  leaders insisting they oppose “fanaticism.”

Ahrar al-Sham supports the creation of an Islamic state in Syria  but one that is based on sharia, Islamic  law, that would guarantee the rights of minorities including Christians.

“Their rhetoric is loaded with Islamic references but… deep down their goal  is to restore the sovereignty of the Syrian people and do away with  dictatorship,” said Jean-Pierre Filiu, an expert on jihadist movements.

On the ground Ahrar al-Sham fight sometimes alongside the mainstream rebel  Free Syrian Army and Al-Nusra, joining in attacks on regime military targets —  but apparently refrain from taking part in suicide bombings.

Like other jihadists their fighters wear black turbans and their beards long,  and fly a white flag with an eagle soaring over the name of the group on their  checkpoints.