Rebel fighters from the Ahrar al-Sham Islamic Movement cover their ears during the launch of grad rockets from Idlib countryside towards forces loyal to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, who are stationed at Jureen town in al-Ghab plain in the Hama countryside April 24, 2015.. (photo credit:REUTERS)
You know al-Qaeda and the Nusra Front , but what about Ahrar al-Sham?
Syria’s devastating civil war is notoriously complex, involving hundreds of factions fighting on the ground and dozens of outside actors seeking to influence the result from a safe distance. At its simplest level the conflict can be viewed as a sectarian clash between the two sides of Islam’s great division – Sunni and Shiite. While five years of fighting has brought familiarity to many of the main combatant organization to observers around the world, two significant forces — the Sunni Ahrar Al-Sham and Shiite Hazara — are far less known than their impact on the conflict arguably warrants.
The Islamic State (ISIS); Jabhat Al-Nusra (the Al-Nusra Front) and its parent al-Qaeda have received their share of attention from both world (including Western) media outlets and warplanes sent to the region by the United States and Russia to provide cover and support for their rivals on the ground. Less well known but almost as important on the battlefields of Syria is Ahrar Al-Sham – the “Free Men of the Levant.”
Formed by Islamist prisoners released from Syrian jails in 2011, Ahrar Al-Sham once held radical fundamentalist beliefs similar to those espoused by Jabhat Al-Nusra, but following an explosion in 2014 that wiped out much of its senior leadership, the group appeared to moderate. Despite predictions after the blast that Ahrar Al-Sham would become extinct, the group instead recovered and grew.