It is surely a sign of the bizarre circumstance in which we find ourselves today that “What exactly is Ahrar al-Sham?” has become a question of international political importance.
As the United States, Russia, and other members of the International Syrian Support Group make a new push to resolve Syria’s civil war, the debate over which armed opposition groups are outside the bounds of any settlement has proven controversial and divisive.
Much of this debate has centered on opposition faction and Islamist movement Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyyah (the Islamic Movement of the Freemen of al-Sham, shortened as Ahrar al-Sham) – whether Ahrar are “jihadists,” or how they might be linked with al-Qaeda. Just last month, the United States helped block a Russian effort in the U.N. Security Council to designate Ahrar al-Sham a terrorist organization.
Now, Ahrar al-Sham has itself weighed in with an hour-long, videotaped lecture by its deputy leader, Ali al-Omar (Abu Ammar), titled “The Ahrar al-Sham Islamic Movement’s Position Among the Islamist Trends.” Over the course of the lecture, al-Omar explains how Ahrar understands itself. He repeatedly delineates the distinctions between Ahrar and the Salafi-jihadist doctrine of al-Qaeda and the self-proclaimed Islamic State, even as he makes clear that Ahrar maintains a fundamentally militant and religious outlook.