On Tuesday, a single event happened that could change the course of the the Syrian war. At least a dozen commanders of Ahrar al-Sham, including leader Hassan Aboud, were wiped out in an instance by what has been described as a suicide bomb during a high-level meeting in Ram Hamdan in Syria’s Idlib province.
Less than 24 hours after the explosion, the group announced new leaders, but relatively little is known about them. In a video, its new leadership announced that the group will continue on the same course as before.
Analysts have their doubts, however, on whether that will be true – or even if Ahrar al-Sham can survive at all. "This will be a turning point of sorts," Syrian journalist and analyst Hassan Hassan tweeted shortly after the news spread.
Could one explosion really change the Syrian war?
Formed in 2011 by former Islamist prisoners – including a number of al-Qaeda alumni – Ahrar al-Sham pushed a Salafist agenda and called for a Sunni Islamist state, but steered clear of calls for a global jihad and focused on the Syrian state. Over the course of the Syrian civil war, the group (whose name means "The Free Men of Syria") gained a reputation as one of the strongest and best organized forces among the rebel groups.
By mid-2013 the group was estimated to have 10,000-20,000 fighters, and months later it helped to form the Islamic Front, an Islamist alliance that rivaled the Western-backed, secular Supreme Military Council (SMC) and the Free Syrian Army. While Ahrar al-Sham was one of the more hard-line Salafist groups, it cooperated with both the SMC as well as Jabhat al-Nusra, al Qaeda's branch in Syria. It's leader, Aboud, was widely regarded for his intelligence and fluent English, and went on to became the political head of Islamic Front.
Ahrar al-Sham was ultimately too Salafist to be considered an ally by the West, but it was never declared a terrorist organization by the United States (unlike Jabhat al-Nusra) and was seen as a bridge between the secular rebels and the more extremist groups. There were signs that the group was softening its religious stance, however, partly due to a weakening funding. There were stories that the group had even met with a top U.S. State Department official, for example, and the group had recently agreed to join the Revolutionary Command Council, a broad opposition coalition that enjoyed U.S. support.
Crucially, the group was also a key enemy of Islamic State, the extremist group that had captured much of Syria and Iraq in the past six months. The two groups had fought fiercely for much of the year, and on February, Ahrar al-Sham accused Islamic State of assassinating Abu Khalid al-Suri, one of its top leaders and an alleged link to al-Qaeda, in a suicide attack.
The death of Aboud and the rest of Ahrar al-Sham's leadership has been labeled as some kind of suicide bombing, but no one has claimed responsibility for it and a number of rival theories exist. While an Islamic State suicide bomber might be the most obvious choice, others suggest that Syrian regime forces could have bombed the building where the meeting was being held with an airstrike, and the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has described it as a car bombing.
"There is a possibility that the meeting was infiltrated and an explosion happened first in the bunker," Abu al-Mustafa al-Ambsi, a member of the political wing of Ahrar al-Sham, told Al Jazeera. "Maybe someone planted a device inside because the bunker is at a secret location."
Other reports call into question more fundamental aspects of the explosion. Reuters spoke to one rebel leader who claimed that doctors at the scene were "frothing at the mouth and fluid coming from the eyes and noses," reminiscent of scenes from alleged chemical weapons attacks in the country or smoke inhalation. Another account shared on social media and cited by McClatchy suggests that the explosion may not have been an attack at all, but an accident.
What happens now?
Analysts seem unanimous: Whatever caused this blast, it was a big deal.
"The gutting of Ahrar al-Sham’s leadership will have major ripple effects in the opposition," writes Aron Lund at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, "Unless Ahrar al-Sham somehow manages to recover and sustain its relevance as a major Islamist faction, the Islamic Front may now be beyond repair."
Charles Lister, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar, argues that the killing of Aboud in particular would be devastating. "He was almost certainly a crucial barrier preventing young Syrian Ahrar al-Sham fighters from joining Al-Qaeda (Jabhat al-Nusra) or even ISIS," Lister, who had met Aboud, writes at the Huffington Post. Lister later adds "it would seem Ahrar al-Sham's senior leadership has lost a balance it previously managed between moderates and hardliners, with the latter now more openly dominant."
The timing may be everything. Just as the United States was looking like it could possibly cut some leeway to Salafist groups like Ahrar al-Sham, and just when that group appeared to be attempting to work more closely with moderate levels, its entire leadership has been destroyed. Even if it can survive as a group, its direction may well change. If it can't survive, exactly where its thousands of fighters would defect to is unclear.
"If ISIS is behind assassination of Abboud and co, it could well attract some [Ahrar al-Sham]'s disoriented fighters," Emile Hokayem, an analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, tweeted on Tuesday. "Big setback for anti-ISIS rebels."