x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Al Qaeda kidnapping of Syrian commander could open new front

The kidnapping of colonel Ahmed Nehmeh risks causing more in-fighting between moderate and extremist rebel groups in southern Syria.

Debris rises in what Free Syrian Army fighters and Islamist rebels said was an operation to strike the Al-Sahaba military checkpoint and remove forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar Al Assad in Maarat Al Nouman, Idlib province on May 5. Rasem Ghareeb / Reuters
Debris rises in what Free Syrian Army fighters and Islamist rebels said was an operation to strike the Al-Sahaba military checkpoint and remove forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar Al Assad in Maarat Al Nouman, Idlib province on May 5. Rasem Ghareeb / Reuters

AMMAN // Rebel commanders and tribal leaders on Syria’s southern front are negotiating with Al Qaeda affiliated Jabhat Al Nusra in an attempt to release a Western-backed military leader the group abducted earlier this week.

Ahmed Nehmeh, a former air force colonel, was kidnapped in Deraa on Saturday after he had criticised extremist groups. Earlier this month, Col Nehmeh, the chief of the Deraa Military Council (DMC), told rebels in a meeting in the province that he did not want Syria to be ruled by extremists who cut off heads.

A five-member mediation committee comprising tribal leaders, and representatives of nearly 40 FSA factions in the Deraa area are negotiating with Al Nusra to release Col Nehmeh.

Rebels and activists said negotiations stipulated that Col Nehmeh stand before a mutual court that includes both Free Syrian Army commanders and representatives from Al Nusra as a condition to hand him over to the FSA.

“But until this moment nothing is concrete yet and negotiations are still underway,” said a senior military officer who is closely coordinating with the FSA inside Deraa.

Since his defection in April 2012, Col Nehmeh was based in Jordan and had established close links to both Jordanian and western intelligence agencies. But he was unpopular among rebel groups who were suspicious of his foreign connections and blamed him for a major loss in a decisive battle last summer, along with unevenly distributing weapons.

Although he maintained his title as head of the DMC and still commands fighters on the ground, Col Nehmeh was increasingly sidelined from his role within the Free Syrian Army’s command structure.

He was not involved with the Military Operations Command (MOC) operations room, staffed by Arab and Western agencies which provides support for FSA groups in southern Syria. But he had previously wielded influence, as a conduit for weapons to rebels and as a key element in the chain of command between units on the ground and the Supreme Military Command, the FSA headquarters in Turkey.

However, he fell out of favour last year, and was largely bypassed in weapon flows, robbing him of any sizeable power.

Nonetheless, his abduction is a setback for the rebels’ efforts to unify their ranks and push a new offensive against the forces of President Bashar Al Assad on the southern front.

It also shows that although the south is widely considered the most coherent opposition bloc in the country it is also affected by lingering rebel schisms.

Most of the rebel groups operating in the area, including Harakat Al Muthanna, Al Islamiya and Ahrar Al Sham, enjoy good relations with Al Nusra. FSA brigades also routinely cooperate with the group.

Col Nehmeh was taken by Al Nusra in the eastern part of Deraa province on Saturday evening, a few days after returning there from Jordan.

His capture came after a statement by the group saying Col Nehmeh was wanted for trial at a court in the eastern part of Deraa, that includes representative from different military factions and Jabhat Al Nusra.

On Thursday, Col Nehmeh had announced the creation of a new group, the Rebels Front of Southern Syria, which he asked different rebel factions in Deraa to join. Al Nusra later released another statement saying it would arrest anyone who is part of the new front.

“An Al Nusra check point was waiting for him. He escaped with his escorts. But seven other officers were arrested,” Nijem Abu Al Majd, a Deraa-based senior commander in the FSA, said.

“Al Nusra chased him and then arrested him after clashes,” Mr Al Majd added.

Two of the officers detained with Col Nemeh were released and the FSA gave Al Nusra an ultimatum to release him on Tuesday, Mr Al Majd added.

Since the incident, tensions have been high in Deraa.

Two of the detained officers are members of the powerful Harriri and Maslameh tribes, which have threatened retaliation unless they are freed.

Another commander arrested with Col Nemeh was asked to pay blood money in exchange for his freedom due to his involvement in the killing of an Al Nusra fighter. He is still being held.

“JN is trying to avoid a confrontation,” said Abu Al Majd, the military commander in Deraa. “And therefore the release will be secured if the FSA vows to punish him if there is evidence that will incriminate him”.

Al Nusra on Saturday raided three headquarters of rebel groups in Deraa who were closely co-operating with Col Nehmeh, one activist who had a meeting with Al Nusra members said.

“Al Nusra told me anyone who is co-operating with Nehmeh and has received support will be held accountable and stripped from his weapons,” he said. “If Al Nusra decides to execute Nehmeh, there will be fierce battles in Deraa and that will be a disgrace.”

Two months ago, the commander of Maghaweer Houran brigade, known as Abu Fuad Al Husseini, who was close to Col Nehmeh, was also captured by Al Nusra. He was charged with treason by Al Nusra.

“We do not know what the specific charges are against Nehmeh,” said a media activists in Deraa.

“They do not allow anyone to question them.”

foreign.desk@thenational.ae