x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Syrian commander's killing deepens divide among rebels

Armed opposition to President Bashar Al Assad in disarray as Free Syrian Army says killing by Al Qaeda-linked group is a declaration of war.

Free Syrian Army fighters prepare for an offensive against forces loyal to President Bashar Al Assad in Deir Al Zor on Thursday. Khalil Ashawi / Reuters
Free Syrian Army fighters prepare for an offensive against forces loyal to President Bashar Al Assad in Deir Al Zor on Thursday. Khalil Ashawi / Reuters

Syrian opposition forces were in disarray yesterday after rebels said the assassination of one of their top commanders by Al Qaeda-linked militants was equal to a declaration of war.

"We will not let them get away with it because they want to target us," a Free Syria Army commander said after members of the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant killed Kamal Hamami on Thursday.

"We are going to wipe the floor with them."

Louay Mekdad, the 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 a roadblock in the country's north.

Mr Mekdad said a fighter who was travelling with the brothers 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," Mr Mekdad said.

He said the bodies of the two were still with their killers.

Rivalry has been growing between the FSA and extremist rebels, whose smaller but more effective forces control most of the opposition-held parts of northern Syria.

The killing is a setback for the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), the main opposition political bloc, which has been calling on the West to arm rebel fighters. A day before Hamami's assassination, the western-backed SNC accused "elements in the US Congress" of delaying the Obama administration's efforts to increase support for rebel forces.

The president, Barack Obama, recently said the US was willing to send weapons to the opposition.

But Washington has been reluctant to arm rebels battling president Bashar Al Assad's regime, fearing the weapons could further empower militants linked to Al Qaeda.

The SNC said on Thursday that it would ensure "arms will not reach extremist elements".

Hamami, also known as Abu Bassir Al Ladkani, is one of the top 30 figures on the FSA's supreme military command.

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

Mr Al 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 to the outskirts of the capital and put them on the defensive in the south, as radical fighters assert control in the north.

The FSA commander said the Al Qaeda-linked militants had warned FSA rebels there was no place for them where Hamami was killed in Latakia province, a northern rural region of Syria bordering Turkey.

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

The FSA and more extreme fighters have fought together from time to time but the FSA, desperate for greater firepower, has recently tried to distance itself to allay US fears that its arms could reach Al Qaeda.

The FSA has been trying to build a logistics network and reinforce its presence across Syria, in part to present a bulwark against units the US considers "terrorist organisations".

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

The FSA, a mixture of loosely affiliated brigades, is accused by locals of looting and has not been able to present a unified front to oppose hardline units that favour an Islamic caliphate over pluralist democracy.

"Last Friday, the Islamic State killed an FSA rebel in Idlib province and cut his head off. There have been attacks in many provinces," said Rami Abdelrahman, of the pro-opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights based in the Britain.

* Reuters with additional reporting by Associated Press