x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 20 February 2018

Blinded by feuds, Syria’s southern rebels turn guns on one another

Events surrounding the killing of Habib, a political activist, bring into sharp focus the complex forces at play on Syria’s southern front, including fratricidal rivalries between rebels.

Screen grab from Youtube of Qaisar Habib, who was shot dead in the Issa Ajaj field hospital in Deraa province. Youtube
Screen grab from Youtube of Qaisar Habib, who was shot dead in the Issa Ajaj field hospital in Deraa province. Youtube
AMMAN // Qaisar Habib died in a makeshift hospital in southern Syria, not from the gunshot wounds he was being treated for but from another 30 bullets fired into his body at close range by rebels who raided the clinic with the intention of ending the already injured man's life.

Events surrounding the killing of Habib, an opposition activist, highlight some of the complex forces at play on Syria's southern front, including fratricidal rivalries between rebels, the often porous lines separating moderates from extremists and deep-rooted social conventions that require blood be avenged by blood.

His death also stands as an inauspicious marker in the ongoing struggle to build a system of law and order in the inherently chaotic and violent conditions of rebel-held, wartime Syria.Habib's murder was predictable, even if the exact timing and manner of his death, on October 19, shortly after being admitted to the Issa Ajaj field hospital in Deraa province, were not.

Two months earlier, Habib – his real name is Mahmoud Al Hashish but like many opposition activists he adopted an alias – had been involved in a disagreement with a powerful and popular rebel commander, Captain Qais Al Qatahneh.

Shared animosity towards Bashar Al Assad, the Syrian president both men had devoted themselves to overthrowing, was not enough to unite them and a simmering dispute ended in bloodshed at a face-to-face meeting on August 28 in Deraa province.

Guns were drawn and Al Qatahneh, head of the Omari Brigades in Deraa, and Habib, a local journalist sympathetic to the rebel cause, shot each another.

Al Qatahneh died that day from his injuries, while Habib survived with serious wounds.

Afterwards, Habib sought the protection of the Baridi and Al Hashish tribes, which, in accordance with local customs, agreed to protect him from retribution.

Al Qatahneh was a member of another powerful local clan, the Khawaldeh tribe which, operating under those same conventions, sought to have Habib punished for the killing and demanded his execution.

What would otherwise have been a matter of rival tribes following a mutually agreed upon path to justice was made more complicated by Syria's war, a conflict that has already killed more than 190,000 people, forced millions to flee their homes and dragged in regional and world powers.

Syria's southern region is awash with heavy weaponry and dozens of rebel groups that are not neatly divided along tribal lines, creating an elaborate web of loyalties. While tribal conventions remain strong, they compete with intensified religious sensibilities, myriad political pressures and armed factions that want to obey their own rules.

To protect Habib after he killed Al Qatahneh, the Hashish tribe set up a military-style operations room that brought together 700 of its fighters, most of whom were affiliated with different factions, including two extremist groups, Syria's Al Qaeda franchise Jabhat Al Nusra and Harakat Al Muthanna.

Meanwhile, both the Omari Brigades, part of the western- and Gulf-backed alliance known as the Syrian Revolutionary Front (SRF), made no secret of their desire to exact revenge against Habib, warning civilians to stay away from checkpoints set up to catch the media activist and his associates.

With tensions flaring throughout September, all sides in the dispute agreed to submit the case to the rebel- and tribal-administered Al Gharz court to prevent further bloodshed.

As part of those proceedings, Habib was detained by the rebel court and given rudimentary medial treatment for his injuries. But his health deteriorated – rot set into his wounds – and Habib smuggled messages out of his cell, posted on his Facebook page on September 29, saying conditions were worse than that of the regime, and he was going on hunger strike in protest. That tactic apparently worked and the court transferred him from detention to the rebel-operated Issa Ajaj field hospital. The Omari Brigades backed the move and Al Qatahneh's bother, Iyad, even visited Habib in hospital, rebels said, “to ensure he was getting proper treatment”.

Just hours after that visit, as Habib lay in bed with a high fever, gangrene in his leg wounds and a catheter draining his malfunctioning organs, the hospital was surrounded by an Omari Brigades force, armed with anti-aircraft guns and more than a dozen vehicles.

Guards assigned to protect Habib were disarmed and the medical staff told to leave. According to rebel sources, Habib was then beaten and shot multiple times, including a final shot to the face.

The Omari Brigades, which receive much of their backing from Saudi Arabia, had complained bitterly since Al Qatahneh's death that the court was moving too slowly, accusing it of ignoring the case and neglecting their complaint.

After the killing, the Omari Brigades said they had lost faith in the rebel legal proceedings and, therefore, had no choice but to take action “to prevent [further] discord”.

Just as Al Qatahneh's death was a setback for moderate rebels on the southern front as they were gaining momentum against the Assad regime, Habib's killing delivered a blow to the nascent, loosely defined legal system the Omari Brigades and other western- and Gulf-backed factions had agreed to be part of.

Those courts, mixing tribal, Islamic and customary systems of justice, have had some success maintaining order in rebel-held southern Syria compared to the infighting and chaos seen elsewhere in the country. But the system has been far from perfect – often ignored by powerful rebel groups, and contested by extremist factions such as Al Nusra, which have sought their own, parallel justice system.

“Habib's killing has thwarted our efforts and given a pretext to the Islamist movements to say that the Free Syrian Army is not really committed to the courts that we have obliged those Islamist movements to be part of,” said a moderate rebel commander.

“It could shake up people's trust in the courts and mean people start taking the law in their hands,” he said.

And, rather than bringing the matter to a close, the killing of Habib pushed Deraa closer to a tribal war, on top of the war against regime forces it is already fighting.

The Hashish tribe, which had promised Habib protection, demanded Iyad Qatahneh and anyone else involved in the murder hand themselves in for punishment.

It sent armed squads to seize the Omari Brigades headquarters – which the latter had already evacuated – and set up checkpoints to try to catch the men.

For weeks, both sides in the dispute detained members from the rival factions and sought to drum up support from other rebel groups, many of which opted to stay out of the dispute.

“They considered it a Bedouin conflict but many rebel groups were supportive of the Hashish tribe's actions, because they were following the laws,” said a senior rebel commander involved in southern front operations.

By the start of this month, and with regime forces successfully hitting rebel headquarters, an uneasy truce had been struck between the Omari Brigades and the Hashish tribal alliance, mediated by other rebel factions, with each staying out of areas controlled by the other to avoid outright confrontation.

A tribal council in Deraa called on both sides to end the dispute with Habib's death.

“Our enemy is the Nusayri Regime …. we fought in one boat and we have one aim. Qais Al Qatahneh and Qaisar Habib are brothers … and there are many who want to distort and do not wish us victory,” the council said.

Nusayri is a pejorative term for the Alawite-dominated Assad regime. Deraa is a Sunni-majority area.

So far, that plea for unity has not gained traction.

The fragile truce continues to hold but the Hashish alliance insists a new court be established to punish Habib's killers.

If it is not, they will take justice into their own hands.

foreign.desk@thenational.ae