Earlier this month outrage flared among Syrian rebels and opposition activists when the Nusra Front kidnapped the commander of the Liberation Army, one of the largest U.S.-backed rebel factions in Syria’s north. It seemed like another instance of Syria’s Al Qaeda affiliate crushing a smaller, pro-Western rival, systematically eliminating alternatives to its jihadi brand.
Yet the air went out of the controversy when, barely a week later, the same commander cut a deal with Nusra. The U.S.-backed rebel leader reached a compromise with the jihadists that allowed him to return to the front lines. There, empowered by the deal, he could focus on quelling a mutiny by internal rivals in the Liberation Army who had accused their commander of nepotism and corruption.
This sort of horse-trading is a reality in northern Syria, but it’s also what has made it so complicated for the United States and its allies to back Syrian rebels. Russia has complained that what the U.S. State Department calls “moderate” rebels are hopelessly entangled with Al Qaeda. American officials don’t have a good response, and it’s easy to see why after a long streak of Nusra domination, only the latest example of which is the Liberation Army’s apparent capitulation and devil’s deal with Nusra.
The Liberation Army (Jeish al-Tahrir) is a major “Free Syrian Army” faction in Syria’s north, a merger of nationalist brigades from Hama and Idlib provinces and a recipient of support from a joint operations room in Turkey that reportedly includes the CIA and allied intelligence services.
And yet, when Nusra unilaterally detained the Liberation Army’s top leadership, there was never any question of whether the Liberation Army would turn its guns on Nusra. In the north, the Nusra Front is just too powerful to confront.
Moreover, the Liberation Army and other brigades like it have other priorities. They want to fight the regime of Bashar al-Assad, not their neighbors and cousins in the Nusra Front.
And—sometimes—these rebels want to go at each other.
According to interviews with Liberation Army officials, local rebels and activists, and observers in neighboring Turkey, the abduction of Liberation Army commander Muhammad “al-Ghabi” al-Ahmed now looks more like an interlude in a power struggle within the Liberation Army (Jeish al-Tahrir) than simply an act of Nusra villainy.
In recent days, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has taken an increasingly hard public line on rebel ties with Nusra as
he has reached a tentative agreement with his Russian counterparts to deepen military and intelligence coordination and to jointly target Nusra. Opposition factions may have fought alongside Nusra because it is fighting the Assad regime, Kerry said on July 15, “but that doesn’t excuse it, and it will not excuse it in our eyes.”
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry addresses reporters during a news conference in the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Osobnyak Guesthouse in Moscow, Russia, on July 15, 2016. Source: U.S. Department of State.
Yet inside Syria’s rebel-held north, it seems impossible for rebels to distance themselves from the Nusra Front when Nusra can operate anywhere it wants to. At this stage in the conflict, Nusra seems like less one of many rival factions and more like a dominant umbrella over all the others. Like the weather, Nusra in the north is present almost everywhere, shaping the behavior of other militias.
Ghabi, the commander of the American proxy militia, made a “reconciliation” agreement that arguably puts him under Nusra’s supervision. But Ghabi’s supporters say their commander was forced to negotiate with Nusra because his rivals inside the Liberation Army were conspiring to remove him—and called on the Nusra Front to intervene.
The State Department
has faced some tough questions recently after a member of another rebel faction that had received U.S. support was caught on camera beheading a captive.
A State Department spokesperson who spoke on condition of anonymity declined to comment on which specific factions receive U.S. support but said the U.S. government is following developments with the Liberation Army and its dispute with Nusra, which, he noted, is a designated foreign terrorist organization.
This kind of power struggle is a more or less standard feature of Syria’s rebel brigades, and bodes poorly for any effort by the United States and its allies to empower allied Free Syrian Army rebels to counterbalance jihadists like Nusra.
The rival factions within the Liberation Army, however, have been willing to invoke Nusra as they train their sights on their more immediate rivals: each other. This kind of power struggle is a more or less standard feature of Syria’s rebel brigades, and bodes poorly for any effort by the United States and its allies to empower allied Free Syrian Army rebels to counterbalance jihadists like Nusra.
There are two intersecting narratives to the Liberation Army commander’s detention: the Nusra-centric one that stirred up the Syrian opposition; and the behind-the-scenes story of the Liberation Army’s own politics.
On July 3,
the Nusra Front stormed an Iftar at the home of Ghabi’s father, where the commander and his relatives were breaking their Ramadan fast, and detained Ghabi and his brothers. Nusra also reportedly raided the Liberation Army’s media office. The Nusra Front never announced specific charges against Ghabi, although an unofficial set of allegations circulated on social media.
Syrian opposition rebels, activists and clerics have recently grown more publicly critical of Nusra on the ground and on social media, particularly since Nusra’s March attack on another U.S.-backed proxy, the rebel 13th Division. Nusra’s attack on the Liberation Army was met with a new round of condemnation from opposition civil society, and Nusra’s resistance to an Islamic court in the case provoked debate over whether Nusra was repeating the mistakes of the self-proclaimed Islamic State.
Ghabi was released days after his arrest in circumstances that are still unclear.
After Ghabi’s release,
the Nusra Front issued a statement in which it defended its right to move on any “agent of America” and on “suspect characters” like Ghabi. Nusra said its issue was with Ghabi specifically and that it was ready to deal with the Liberation Army under new leadership.
Then news broke of a handwritten “reconciliation” agreement between Ghabi and Nusra that circulated on social media.
When I reached Ghabi over Twitter and Skype, he referred me to his aide Jaber Qinnawi, who confirmed the document’s authenticity.
According to the agreement, Ghabi committed to “not participate in any project that harmed the mujahideen” and promised to be held accountable for any “irresponsible act” according to “agreed-upon measures.” For its part, Nusra said it would maintain positive relations with the Liberation Army and release remaining detainees.
Local activist Ibrahim al-Idlibi told me he had supported Ghabi but was left stunned by the deal.
“We were blown away by this document,” Idlibi told me over WhatsApp. “Just blown away. What is this humiliation? Who’s Nusra to come along and control the Liberation Army?”
Also over WhatsApp, the Liberation Army commander’s aide, Qinnawi, argued the agreement actually amounted to an implicit admission by Nusra that it had no evidence against Ghabi. “It was in [Nusra’s] interest and in ours to resolve this dispute, and for us to stay on the front lines,” he told me.
Representatives for the Nusra Front did not respond to requests for comment.
Importantly, the deal neutralized Nusra’s threat to Ghabi. Without Nusra to worry about, he seems to have turned back to the challenge he faced from within the Liberation Army from a set of Liberation Army commanders who had been trying to remove him. Two of them, Raed al-Aleiwi and Capt. Heitham al-Khleif, provided me with a litany of allegations of fiscal and organizational malfeasance against Ghabi. “[Ghabi] thinks the Liberation Army’s backing is a personal windfall,” Khleif told me over a WhatsApp call.
Liberation Army commander Muhammad al-Ghabi inspects his troops in north Aleppo. Source: Liberation Army Twitter.
Ghabi removed the dissident commanders in June, alleging they had demanded a slush fund and tried to turn the brigade against Ghabi.
Both camps still claim to lead the Liberation Army and command its main fighting force.
Nusra’s arrest of Ghabi came days after Ghabi dismissed the dissident commanders. After Ghabi’s release by Nusra but before he resurfaced publicly, the rival commanders
announced the “restructuring” of the Liberation Army, including the removal of “bad actors”—that is, Ghabi—within the brigade.
Those close to Ghabi accuse his dissident deputies of colluding with Nusra. “It was coordinated with them,” Qinnawi told me. “And I’ll leave it at that.”
Ghabi fired Aleiwi and Khleif for a second time in mid-July for conspiring against the Liberation Army’s leadership “with parties outside the Liberation Army inside Syria.” Both men denied the accusation, telling me they had no role in their commander’s detention by Nusra.
Yet Ghabi made his own deal with Nusra, the price of continued participation on the battlefield. Qinnawi told me they reached the agreement “in the interest of the Syrian people, so we can continue to fight Bashar al-Assad and free us from his oppression in Syria.”
And both camps within the Liberation Army clearly remember the parade of nationalist rebels Nusra has crushed in the north. Both have tried to position themselves to avoid being liquidated by Nusra and survive to fight the regime.
Khleif said the Liberation Army’s “restructuring” was an emergency measure to head off a broader Nusra attack. “Muhammad al-Ghabi fled to Turkey,” Khleif said he told the Liberation Army’s assembled commanders. “He didn’t fill us in on what happened to him when he was attacked by the Nusra Front—whether the Nusra Front wanted him personally, or if there would be more attacks on the Liberation Army and its bases and the pursuit of its fighters.” Khleif said the Liberation Army feared a total rout at Nusra’s hands, as befell other once-major outfits like Jamal Marouf’s Syrian Revolutionaries Front.
Some Syrian activists and members of the opposition public, frustrated that the Nusra Front seems to be subsuming the Syrian revolution, want the Free Syrian Army to stand up to Nusra.
Activist Idlibi, for one, argued Ghabi should have pushed his case. “It would have led to Nusra losing popular support,” he said. “Maybe, if things developed, it would have gotten to the point it did with [the Islamic State], in terms of the hate for it among the public and among civilians.”
“Instead, he chose to submit to Nusra’s initiative and embarrass us in front of the whole world,” said Idlibi.
But others were sympathetic to a more pragmatic approach, including some in unlikely quarters.
13th Division commander Col. Ahmed al-Saoud has not returned to Idlib province since Nusra defeated the 13th Division in March. Since then, residents of Saoud’s hometown of Ma’arat al-Nu’man have protested Nusra. From Turkey, Saoud has fiercely criticized the jihadists. Immediately after Ghabi’s arrest, Saoud tweeted in solidarity with the Liberation Army.
Speaking to me over WhatsApp, Saoud called Ghabi’s decision to sign the reconciliation “mistaken” and “insulting.”
Yet Saoud also said he understood the move, if that’s what it took to keep fighting. “His decision was weak,” Saoud told me. “But we’re willing to justify this step for him, in the interest of continuing on.”
Now both camps within the Liberation Army need foreign support to continue to fight the regime. Aleiwi and Khleif said they had gone to Turkey to meet with the Saudis and Americans in an attempt to reunite the Liberation Army, but that talks had failed. Qinnawi declined to answer whether he and Ghabi were in Turkey to meet their backers.
Now these commanders are waiting for their sponsors’ to decide which leaders to back within the Liberation Army. Khleif told me fighters would likely side with whoever can guarantee them wages and ammunition.
Whoever leads the Liberation Army will return to a Syrian north in which Nusra Front dominance is a given.
Secretary Kerry may be frustrated that northern rebels have not peeled away from the Nusra Front, but those rebels have more immediate worries. The Liberation Army and the rest of the Free Syrian Army’s factions have a set of concerns running from the fight against the Assad regime to managing donor relations to, occasionally, settling personal scores.
For these rebels, the Nusra Front simply isn’t the priority the United States would like it to be. For many, Nusra is now just another frustrating element of Syria’s war. Nusra is obviously menacing, but for Syria’s rebels it’s mostly something to be ducked and avoided—or appeased, if that’s what it takes to keep on fighting the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to the Liberation Army (Jeish al-Tahrir) as the Victory Army (Jeish al-Nasr).
Cover photo: Al-Nusra Front members and a Free Syrian Army commander in Maarrat al-Nu’man, 11 March 2016. Source: Wikimedia, Voice of America.