While the al-Nusra Front gains most of the headlines in the Syrian Civil War, there is another group, called Ahrar al Sham, which is at least Al Nusra’s equal, if not even more important. A loose conglomeration of Islamist groups from across Syria, Ahrar al Sham, “The Islamic Movement of the Free Men of Greater Syria,” has considerable support, an active IO campaign that surpasses anything Al Nusra has put out, and is growing fast, claiming 83 rebel units under its banner as of January 2013, up from 50 in July 2012.
The group’s leadership has kept itself in the shadows; only one commander, known only as Abu Anas, has his name anywhere in the public domain. There are rumors of a leader known as Abu Abdullah al-Hamawi, but his identity is similarly murky. They say only that their leadership were political prisoners of the Assad regime, released from Sednaya Prison in May 2011 as part of an amnesty by the government.
Ahrar al Sham’s Information Operations campaign has made a big deal about being more moderate than the Al Nusra Front. While overtly Islamist in character, they stress that they are willing to replace the Assad regime with a secular government, as long as Islamic law is established and observed. They do tend to prefer traditional insurgent attacks and avoid the suicide bombings that Al Nusra is known for, and while Al Nusra really just blows stuff up, Ahrar al Sham also conducts outreach and relief programs for civilians in Syria.
The group’s broadcasts certain contradictions. While it claims to be more moderate than the hard-core al-Qaeda affiliates of the Al Nusra Front, and to support an Islamic Syria that recognizes the religious freedom of other sects, but in many of their messages, they carry on the traditional Salafist condemnations of Alawites and Shiites, whom the Salafists consider heretical. The group is supported by radical Salafist cleric Shaykh Adnan al-Arour and is rumored to be receiving arms and support from Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
In December, Ahrar al Sham created a wider front of Salafist organizations in Syria, called Harakat Ahrar al Sham al-Islamiya. The group is an umbrella that covers Ahrar al Sham, Ansar al Sham, Liwa al Haq, and Jamaat al-Taliaa. It is another sign of Ahrar al Sham’s growing influence in Syria. Also, unlike the Al Nusra Front, the Northern-Syria-based Ahrar al Sham enjoys considerable grassroots support in the north of the country, and takes pride in the claim that the majority of its members are Syrian nationals, often talking up the nationalist angle of its cause.
However, according to Radikal in Istanbul and al Safir, for all their talk of nationalism and moderate Islam, areas that have fallen under Ahrar al Sham’s control have had businesses looted and strict Salafist Islamic laws imposed.
The group favors black turbans and beards, and flies a white banner with their eagle emblem at their checkpoints and in their videos.
Militarily, they have displayed extensive planning and preparation for their operations, and have been seen utilizing fire support and effective use of cover and proper infantry movement techniques. They have also been documented using armored vehicles including tanks, in addition to IEDs and VBIEDs.
Their propaganda videos are quite polished, and have progressed in sophistication as the war has gone on. They have increasingly emphasized their outreach programs, and the organized relief they are offering to displaced civilians suffering because of the war.
Watch: Ahrar al Sham Outreach Video
With their increasing importance as the head of the Harakat Ahrar al Sham al Islamiya, and the connections they are making with the civilian populace in Syria, Ahrar al Sham are definitely the group to keep an eye on.