Rebel fury at leader’s killing

As­sas­si­na­tion by al Qaeda-linked group splits Syr­ian op­po­si­tion

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - WORLD -

BEIRUT: Syr­ian rebels said yes­ter­day the as­sas­si­na­tion of one of their top com­man­ders by al- Qaeda- linked mil­i­tants was tan­ta­mount to a dec­la­ra­tion of war, open­ing a new front for the Western-backed fight­ers strug­gling against Pres­i­dent Bashar al-As­sad’s forces.

Ri­val­ries have been grow­ing be­tween the Free Syr­ian Army (FSA) and the Is­lamists, whose smaller but more ef­fec­tive forces con­trol most of the rebel-held parts of north­ern Syria.

“We will not let them get away with it be­cause they want to tar­get us,” a se­nior FSA com­man­der said af­ter mem­bers of the Is­lamic State of Iraq and Le­vant killed Kamal Ha­mami.

“We are go­ing to wipe the floor with them,” he said.

Ha­mami was one of the top 30 fig­ures on the FSA’s Supreme Mil­i­tary Com­mand.

His killing high­lights how the West’s vi­sion of a fu­ture, demo­cratic Syria is un­rav­el­ling.

As­sad ap­peared close to de­feat a year ago when rebels killed top of­fi­cials in a bomb at­tack and pushed deep into Da­m­as­cus. Now, with mil­i­tary and fi­nan­cial sup­port from Rus­sia and Iran, he has pushed the rebels back to the out­skirts of the cap­i­tal and put them on the de­fen­sive in the south while rad­i­cal Is­lamists as­sert con­trol over the north.

The FSA com­man­der said the al- Qaeda- linked mil­i­tants had warned FSA rebels that there was “no place” for them where Ha­mami was killed in Latakia prov­ince.

Other op­po­si­tion sources said the killing fol­lowed a dis­pute be­tween Ha­mami’s forces and the Is­lamic State over con­trol of a strate­gic check­point in Latakia and would lead to fight­ing.

The two sides have pre­vi­ously fought to­gether from time to time, but the Western and Arab­backed FSA, des­per­ate for greater fire­power, has re­cently tried to dis­tance it­self to al­lay US fears that any arms it might sup­ply could reach al-Qaeda.

Louay Mek­dad, FSA Supreme Com­mand Po­lit­i­cal Co­or­di­na­tor, said Abu Ay­man al-Bagh­dadi, the Is­lamic State’s Emir of the coastal re­gion, per­son­ally shot dead Ha­mami and his brother at the road­block.

He said a fighter who was with them was set free to re­lay the mes­sage that the Is­lamic State con­sid­ers the FSA heretics and that the Supreme Com­mand is now an al-Qaeda tar­get.

“If th­ese peo­ple came to de­fend the Syr­ian rev­o­lu­tion and not help the As­sad regime, then they have to hand over the killers,” Mek­dad said.

The FSA has been try­ing to build a lo­gis­tics net­work and re­in­force its pres­ence across Syria as the US ad­min­is­tra­tion con­sid­ers send­ing weapons, in part to present a bul­wark against “ter­ror­ist or­gan­i­sa­tions”.

But with fund­ing from Gulf­based in­di­vid­u­als, Is­lamist bri­gades have taken a lead­ing role in rebel- held re­gions of Syria, fill­ing the vac­uum of power by set­ting up re­li­gious courts and gov­er­nance bod­ies.

The FSA, ac­cused by lo­cals of loot­ing, has not been able to present a uni­fied front to side­line hard­line units who favour an Is­lamic caliphate over plu­ral­ist democ­racy.

Some frus­trated FSA fight­ers say they have joined Is­lamist groups and mod­er­ate and hard­line fight­ers some­times buy and sell weapons from each other.

The anti-As­sad Syr­ian Ob­ser­va­tory for Hu­man Rights said the FSA and the Is­lamic State have had vi­o­lent ex­changes in sev­eral ar­eas of Syria over the past few weeks, show­ing grow­ing an­tag­o­nism be­tween As­sad’s foes.

“Last Fri­day, the Is­lamic State killed an FSA rebel in Idlib prov­ince and cut his head off. There have been at­tacks in many prov­inces,” the Ob­ser­va­tory’s leader Rami Ab­delrah­man said.

US con­gres­sional com­mit­tees are hold­ing up plans to arm the rebels be­cause of fears that such de­liv­er­ies will not be de­ci­sive and the arms might end up in the hands of Is­lamist mil­i­tants.

Syria’s op­po­si­tion be­moans the de­lay, and re­peated as­sur­ances on Thurs­day that the arms will not go to Is­lamist mil­i­tants. – Reuters

PIC­TURE: AP

REBEL YELL: Syr­ian rebels hold a ban­ner and flash the vic­tory sign dur­ing a protest in Hass town, north­ern Syria. Rebels com­plained that ‘ele­ments in the US Congress’ are ob­struct­ing the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s ef­forts to step up sup­port for the rebels.

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