The Russia-US truce in Syria leaves an Islamist mess

With no official documentation publicly available, the latest Syria cease-fire negotiated by the US and Russia has been criticized as unusually vague, nontransparent, and weak.

But in the seemingly incoherent array of US policies and alliances between secular and Islamist fighters, the agreement is merely a prelude to a Syria with Islamist groups like the 20,000-strong Ahrar al-Sham, that epitomize how Syrian politics will always stubbornly transcend US and Russian interests.

Despite having perhaps as many fighters as ISIS, Ahrar al-Sham has received little public attention from the US media. Based near Aleppo, it has a record of human rights abuses, including a massacre of Alawite civilians alleged by Russia and the Syrian government in May 2016, and another of Christian civilians in March 2015. It has continued in recent months with the establishment of Sharia courts, giving them license to arbitrarily abduct civilians including human rights activists, women, and children.

As an ally of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly named Jabhat al-Nusra), Ahrar al-Sham has previously had a close relationship with al-Qaeda. One of its early leaders, Abu Khalid al-Suri, previously fought alongside al-Qaeda, and it received mentoring from al-Qaeda during AQ’s attempts to establish a foothold early in the Syrian revolution. Hawkish analysts have thus taken Ahrar al-Sham’s Sharia courts as evidence of its path towards a (presumably anti-American) Syrian theocracy, as though its foreign policy might be antithetical to Saudi Arabia’s pro-American sentiments.

Russia and Syria have seized upon these abuses and have repeatedly called for the United Nations to designate Ahrar al-Sham as a terrorist organization. But that can only happen with unanimous consent from the 15-member UN Security Council. Britain, France and the US have blocked such designations, perhaps because of some speculative reports indicating that Ahrar al-Sham is cooperating with the Free Syrian Army.

Ahrar al-Sham’s recent rhetoric has been favorable towards the West, contrary to neoconservatives’ beliefs: in May, it disavowed ties to Al Qaeda, and in August it announced that the US has the potential to play a “positive” role in the Syrian war. According to the Long War Journal, Ahrar al-Sham’ brand of Islamism is unique, having been partly modeled on the Taliban: one that tolerates all Sunnis and is willing to engage in “normal politics and diplomacy” without monopolizing governance.

This presents a rather awkward scenario for those who see the War on Terror as one exclusively against Islamism: Ahrar al-Sham, as a group that may be valuable to the Free Syrian Army’s Aleppo operations and has been at least lukewarm to US involvement and a multiparty Syria, has executed civilians and established conservative Islamism in its own territories. And while condemning Al Qaeda, it has continued to cooperate with Jabhat Fateh al-Sham.

The mess has been muddied even further as its branches have issued conflicting statements both for and against the ceasefire.

So long as US and Russian policymakers think they can simplify the Syrian conflict as one for or against Bashar al-Assad and Islamic “terrorism”, Western involvement will continue to collapse under its own platitudes. As groups like Ahrar al-Sham demonstrate, Syrian rebels are not simply pro-American or anti-American. Syria’s future likewise will not fall into simplistic categories like “Islamist” or “secular”.

Syria’s rebels represent a diverse array of perspectives, each with a different vision for what Syria and its international relationships should be. When the US and Russia arbitrarily condemns or supports certain rebel groups for their politics, the West is unwittingly writing the future of Syria’s politics.

Just because a group like Ahrar al-Sham has espoused strict conservative interpretations of what Syria’s culture should be and does not mean it is wholly opposed to the idea of a multiparty state. Even its previous support for al-Qaeda’s core is not a simple issue when viewed through an American hawk’s lenses.

The only thing that has been consistently clear in Syria’s civil war is realpolitik: rebel groups and foreign actors like the US operate under fluid alliances and ideologies based on convenience rather than three-way false dilemmas of “Islamic terrorism” vs. “secular rebels” vs. Assad’s dictatorship. Rather than treating Syria as a confusing conglomerate pro-West/anti-West actors, it’s time Syria was understood as a country. Syria’s people are not America’s or Russia’s to bend.


Anhvinh Doanvo is an MSPPM candidate at Carnegie Mellon University. He has written for numerous publications including The Hill, Georgetown Public Policy Review, and Baltimore Sun. He is one of forty 2016 finalists for the Thomas R. Pickering Foreign Affairs Fellowship, which funds twenty US citizens' graduate education annually and places them in the American Foreign Service of the Department of State. You can follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/anhvinhdoanvo or Facebook at Facebook.com/AnhvinhD.

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