BEIRUT – A conservative Islamist rebel group said on Tuesday it would protect Syria’s minorities, pressing a campaign in Western media to address concerns about one of the most powerful insurgent forces fighting President Bashar al-Assad.
Ahrar al-Sham is an ultra orthodox Salafist group and part of a military alliance including the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front that captured nearly all of the northwestern province of Idlib from Assad earlier this year.
But in two opinion pieces this month — one in the Washington Post and a second in Britain’s Daily Telegraph — the group has distanced itself from al-Qaida’s brand of cross-border jihadism. It has denied organizational ties and sharing its ideology.
The group is a major force despite its senior leadership being wiped out in an attack last September.
One of its slain leaders, Abu Khaled al-Soury, had fought alongside al-Qaida founder Osama bin Laden and was close to its current chief Ayman al-Zawahiri, links that have complicated Western cooperation.
Writing in the Telegraph, Ahrar’s foreign affairs director Labib Al Nahhas said his faction, whose name means “Free men of Syria,” was a “mainstream Sunni Islamist group deeply rooted in the revolutionary landscape.”
But he also cautioned the West, which has preferred to deal with rebels it deems politically moderate, against expecting a Sunni political movement in its own image.
“Those expecting a ‘perfect’ Sunni alternative according to Western liberal standard are sure to be disappointed,” Nahhas wrote.
The fate of minorities, including Assad’s own Alawite sect, is one of the concerns raised by Western officials.
In an interview broadcast in May, the Nusra Front leader urged Alawites to renounce Assad and change their beliefs to remain safe.
Western states, alarmed by the rise of the Nusra Front and Islamic State, have been reluctant to support Islamists in the war, instead backing factions grouped loosely under the banner of the Free Syrian Army that has been eclipsed by Islamists.
Groups fighting under the Free Syrian Army banner still have a strong presence in the south near the border with Jordan.
Nahhas said Ahrar al-Sham fought to defend Syrians and was battling the army, allied Iran-backed Shi’ite fighters and the ultra hard-line Islamic State group, which controls large tracts of northern and eastern Syria.
“Ahrar Al-Sham wants to see the end to Assad’s reign, (Islamic State) comprehensively defeated and a stable and representative government in Damascus,” Nahhas wrote.
“We would like to see a political system that respects the identity and legitimate political aspirations of Syria’s majority while protecting minority communities and enabling them to play a real and positive role in the country’s future.”
He also criticized the British government and its allies for failing to take action against Assad.
Noah Bonsey, a senior analyst with International Crisis Group, said the editorials pointed to “significant ideological, strategic, and political differences” distinguishing Ahrar and other rebels from the likes of al-Qaida and Islamic State.
“Those disagreements may at some point grow into larger rifts, but for now are largely set aside in favour of tactical coordination toward shared objectives against the Assad regime and Daesh,” he said. Daesh is an Arabic name for Islamic State.
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