Washington and its allies in West Asia region make efforts to draw a line between the two terrorist groups ISIS and al-Nusra Front and other groups in which they have representatives in the Syrian peace talks. The most prominent of them are Ahrar ash-Sham and Jaysh al-Islam which Washington wants to separate from other militant groups and refuses to blacklist them as terror groups and at the same time, even insists that they are part of the Syrian opposition. Meanwhile, Moscow has expressed its refusal to the idea, calling the groups terrorists with no difference from ISIS and al-Nusra Front terrorists in practice. What could these groups be called? Why does the title “terrorist groups” fit them well?
Ahrar ash-Sham: A background of terrorism, looting and trying to disintegrate Syria
The Islamic Ahrar as-Sham group, as it calls itself, is considered as one of the armed groups in Syria that takes up the Salafism as its ideological basis. It rose in the beginning of the Syrian crisis on November 11, 2011 after unification of four Islamist Syrian movements Ahrar ash-Sham Battalions, al-Fajr Islamic Movement, Jamaat al-Talia al-Islamiya and al-Iman Fighting Brigades. Despite the fact that the movement has emphasized, since its establishment, that it was independent and that it would not follow any of the fighting movements inside and outside Syria, the movement has failed to hide its regional links to both Turkey and Qatar.
The strategy of Ahrar ash-Sham has focused on attacking the well-equipped Syrian army’s units and taking away as spoil the equipment and weapons and using the expertise of some of its personnel. At the same time, looting the financial reserves and some of the Syrian banks stand as the terrorist movement’s policy through which it seized control of some of Syrian Central Bank’s buildings which were, reportedly, keeping between 4 and 6 billion Syrian pound.
In addition to looting, Ahrar ash-Sham has taken control of border crossings as an income sources, a step that has driven it in many cases to work with ISIS terrorist organization. Moreover, the terrorist group receives donations from some institutions. Some sources suggest that Ahrar ash-Sham has been provided with huge Qatari and Turkish military support, as well as fundings supplied to the group by IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation, a non-governmental Turkish organization (NGO) but holding links to Turkey's government. Besides, the group received help from Qatar Charitable Society, a civil organization, also connected to the Qatari government.
A terror partnership with al-Nusra Front and open adoption of Salafist ideology
The Ahrar ash-Sham militant group is known for its outstanding military relations with the terrorists of al-Nusra Front although it tried to move away from Al-Qaeda terrorist organization and claim that it does not carry the same ideology of the terror organization. Many of its large-scale military assaults took place in coordination with al-Nusra Front, however. While Ahrar ash-Sham tries to claim that its cooperation with al-Nusra is tactical and happens due to situational requirements and calls the members of the Front "Khawarij"-the outsiders in English-, it overtly announced that it adopted a Salafist ideology and that it moved towards establishment of an Islamist state. Additionally, it repeatedly said that it would use solely armed methods and power to trigger change in Syria- the crux of Salafist ideology.
Therefore, the group’s attempts to stand out of other terror organizations active in Syria fail when its ideological and intellectual bases are brought in spotlight. One of its ideological leaders is Abu Musab al-Suri, one of the most prominent Al-Qaeda propagandists, and Abu Basir al-Tartusi, who came back to Syria from Britain as his exile place and started activity in takfirism promotion.
Jaysh al-Islam: Its foundation and links to Al-Nusra Front
Jaysh al-Islam is a result of mix of over 55 armed factions, formed after outbreak of Syrian crisis. It started work under title Saraya al-Islam as a military brigade aiming at fighting the Syrian government. Afterwards, it developed into Jaysh al-Islam following rise in number of its fighters. On July 29, 2013 there a statement emerged, announcing foundation of Jaysh al-Islam as an outcome of combination of tens of factions. The group was at that time the largest armed force of opposition, led by Zahran Alloush, before it joined the Islamic Front which had also Alloush as chief commander. Administratively, Jaysh al-Islam is comprised of leadership council, 26 executive offices and 64 battalions. Present in many Syrian regions, Jaysh al-Islam took part in many terror operations in a variety of Syrian cities. It never hid its partnership with al-Nusra Front. Its former Commander-in-Chief Zahran Alloush said that “ al-Nusra Front is a fighting faction in Syria with which we worked in an array of battles and we observed their practice, jihad and diligence, and we hail al-Nusra Front and do not consider them Khawarij.
Analysis and reasoning
Without doubt, the US and Russia disagree on blacklisting these two sides as terrorist groups. A couple of cases need clarification concerning the case, including:
1. Washington attempts to exploit these groups as political trump cards including for its own interests in Syria and, as it is clear, Washington’s policies are on collision course with those of the Syrian people. The key feature of the two groups is the working to impair the Syrian government. They use killing and looting to realize their aims and ensure their funding. Besides, it embraces a Salafist ideology, which it never hides.
2. Here the Russian interests collide with those of the US, especially that Moscow is diligently seeking to guarantee success of the Syrian peace negotiations, but it seems that they are faltering as a result of problems inside what is called the Syrian opposition, leading to some members defecting from the High Negotiations Committee (HNC), the main Syrian opposition delegation to Geneva peace talks. The defection took place after members of HNC disparaged “dominance of the extremists, including leaders of Jaysh al-Islam, over the negotiating delegation.” Such a dominance led to Moscow’s infuriation, expressed by the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who called for blacklisting such groups as terrorist organizations.
What is obvious is Moscow’s hard work to broker a peaceful political deal for the Syrian crisis while Washington shows not much caring about finding a settlement for a devastating five-year conflict, rather, its stances and attempts lay bare its need for killing the time and thus betting on getting more bargaining chips in the future- a good interpretation for failure of Syria’s peace negotiations so far.
So, Washington return to terrorism afresh as many incidents indicate the size of involvement of Ahrar ash-Sham and Jaysh al-Islam in terror acts in Syria, something easily observable from their performance which has terrorism and hitting integrity of Syria’s government as its key characteristics.