What does US think of Ahrar al-Sham, the most powerful Syrian Opposition Group after ISIS
Last American Ambassador served in Damascus, Syria, Mr. Robert Ford recently wrote this about Ahrar al-Sham: “probably the most important group fighting the Syrian regime now is Ahrar al-Sham (Free Men of the Levant), a Salafi group fighting mainly in the north but also in central and southern Syria.” (Aaron Stein & Sam Heller piece and also Muhammed al-Amin's Ahrar piece very informative)
On this particular group, so far the American officials made either no comments or said very few things by mostly unnamed officials (as far as I know). For the last week, I tried to get what do US administration’s various agencies think about Ahrar al-Sham. Since Turkey and US agreed to open Incirlik airbase and to create some type of “ISIL-free zone” in northern Syria, Ahrar became even more important because there need to be local partners to secure this zone on the ground. Since Nusra Front is considered as a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the US, this particular group cannot be considered anti-ISIL partner.
I asked US Defense Department and State Department following questions:
- What is US' view on Ahrar al-Sham group or the Sham Front?
- Are they considered as "moderate" by US?
- Are you okay with them securing the newly planned ISIL-free region by the Turkish border, in the north of Syria?
- Is US in contact w/Ahrar al-Sham currently?
Here how US State Department’s Spokesperson John Kirby commented:
“The United States has neither worked with nor provided any assistance to Ahrar al-Sham. The United States supports moderate Syrian opposition groups.
Though the United States has not designated Ahrar al-Sham (AAS) as a Foreign Terrorist Organization, we continue to have concerns with regard to the group’s relations with extremist organizations.”
Kirby’s comments indicate indirectly that US doesnt consider AAS as “moderate” group.
Here is what US Department of Defense spokesperson Cmmndr Laura Seal said:
“Regarding our partners to counter ISIL, including along the Turkey-Syria border.:
Any local ground force participation would be mutually agreed upon by the United States and Turkey. We’ve been clear that the Coalition will continue to support the efforts of counter-ISIL forces in northern Syria, which include Syrian Kurdish, Arab, and Turkoman fighters. Since September 2014, counter-ISIL forces have been supported by more than 2,300 coalition airstrikes throughout Syria, and these forces have made significant progress in northern Syria – regaining key areas from ISIL, such as the Tel Abyad border crossing.
We are also supporting other counter-ISIL forces, which are making concerted efforts in other areas of Syria. It is essential that counter-ISIL forces in liberated areas administer inclusively, protect local populations and property, and promote and protect human rights. This is critical to hold and stabilize territory recaptured from ISIL.”
Again from Pentagon, this time MAJ Roger M. Cabiness II who oversees the Syria file, commented on Ahrar al-Sham:
‘’The United States has neither worked with nor provided any assistance to Ahrar al-Sham. The United States supports moderate Syrian opposition groups. Though the United States has not designated Ahrar al-Sham (AAS) as a Foreign Terrorist Organization, we continue to have concerns with regard to the group’s relations with extremist organizations.’’
Aaron Stein's comments on US statements re Ahrar al-Sham:
Ahrar al Sham’s relationship with Jabhat al Nusra makes American cooperation with the group near impossible. There does appear to be some willingness to talk to the group, but there is a very large difference between holding informal discussions, and giving US support. I presume that the disagreement about Ahrar is part of the current discussions with Ankara about the proposed ISIS free zone. The US and Turkey support a number FSA groups, in addition to the Division 30 train and equip force. There are some points of commonality between Ankara and Washington. However, I do not think the US and Turkey will ever see eye-to-eye on Ahrar.