Al - Qaeda- affiliated gunmen kill Free Syrian Army commander , rebels say

BEIRUT — Syrian rebels said Friday
they would retaliate for what they
described as the assassination of
one of their senior commanders by
an al-Qaeda-affiliated group,
threatening to widen a rift between
moderate and jihadist opposition
forces fighting to topple President
Bashar al-Assad.
The killing of Kamal Hamami, a
member of the Western-backed Free
Syrian Army’s top executive body,
comes amid heightened tensions
on the opposition side as jihadist
groups extend their influence in
rebel-held areas of northern Syria.
Rebels said that Hamami, whose
nom de guerre is Abu Bassir al-
Ladkani, was shot dead Thursday in
the coastal province of Latakia by
gunmen from the Islamic State of
Iraq and the Levant.
With the rebel forces struggling to
fend off Assad’s troops in the
central city of Homs, infighting
among their disparate factions
could play to the government’s
advantage. Jihadist groups such as
the Islamic State of Iraq and the
Levant — an offshoot of the main
Islamist opposition group in Syria,
Jabhat al-Nusra — are fewer in
number than more moderate
forces, but they are considered
some of the best-equipped and most
effective fighters on the battlefield.
Moderate rebels say they have been
left behind militarily as radical
Islamist groups receive arms and
financial support from elsewhere,
while weapons pledged to the
moderates by the United States have
yet to arrive. Although Jabhat al-
Nusra is seen as “more adept at
coordinating its efforts on the
battlefield with other groups,” a
U.S. official in Washington said,
“whether the groups will be able to
set their differences aside and
cooperate against Assad is really an
open question.” The official spoke
on the condition of anonymity to
comment on a still-fluid situation.
“The Islamic State phoned me
saying that they killed Abu Bassir
and that they will kill all of the
Supreme Military Council,” a
spokesman for the Free Syrian
Army, Qassem Saadeddine, told the
Reuters news agency, referring to
the FSA executive body.
“We are going to wipe the floor
with them,” a rebel commander
who spoke on the condition of
anonymity told Reuters.
The details of Thursday’s killing
were unclear, but the Britain-based
Syrian Observatory for Human
Rights said that Hamami, one of 30
military leaders on the Supreme
Military Council, was shot after an
attack on one of the checkpoints he
had set up in a mountainous area
outside the city of Latakia.
Saadeddine said he had been
discussing battle plans with
members of the Islamic State of
Iraq and the Levant.
Despite growing frictions, moderate
factions and jihadist groups do still
coordinate on the ground, said
Charles Lister, an analyst at IHS
Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency
Center. He said that is unlikely to
change, although the FSA may use
the assassination for political gain.
“Moderate forces could use this as a
way to prove to the West that they
are willing to break relations with
jihadis in order to get more
Western assistance,” he said. “The
reality is very different for the
commanders on the ground.”
Louay al-Mokdad, a political and
media coordinator for the FSA, said
that Hamami was killed by “the
forces of evil.”
“We must take the necessary
measures, on all levels, and the
Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant
brigades should hand over to us
those who killed Hamami,” he told
al-Arabiya television. FSA officials
were to hold an emergency meeting
Friday to discuss their response, he
said.
Mouaz al-Khatib, a moderate
Syrian cleric and former head of
the Syrian Opposition Coalition,
said in a statement that the killing
by “a criminal gang that knows no
religion. . . and believes jihad to be
blood and murder” could be the
beginning of a division that would
devastate the country.
The stamp of the Islamic State of
Iraq and the Levant has appeared
on graphic video footage from
Syria showing beheadings. The
group had not released an official
comment on the assassination
Friday night. However, a Twitter
feed often used to disseminate the
group’s views acknowledged the
killing, saying: “This man was
blaspheming God . . . so God’s
ruling was implemented against
him.”
While the killing underscores the
dissension between the U.S.-backed
FSA and Islamist extremists whom
the United States and other
supporters of the rebels have tried
to isolate, it also comes in the wake
of discord among the Islamic
factions themselves.
The existence of the Islamic State of
Iraq and the Levant was first
announced in April by Abu Bakr al-
Baghdadi, the head of al-Qaeda’s
Iraqi affiliate, following the State
Department’s designation of Jabhat
al-Nusra as an “alias” and terrorist
subsidiary of the Iraqi group. While
Jabhat al-Nusra “sought to portray
itself as part of the legitimate
Syrian opposition,” the State
Department said, it was merely “an
attempt [by al-Qaeda in Iraq] to
hijack the struggles of the Syrian
people.”
The day after Baghdadi’s
announcement, Jabhat al-Nusra’s
leader, Abu Mohammed al-
Jawlani, released a video pledging
allegiance to the overall al-Qaeda
leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, but
denying there had been any merger
with Baghdadi’s Iraqi group.
Last month, after reports that the
claimed merger had led to
battlefield infighting and defections
from Jabhat al-Nusra to an Islamic
State of Iraq and the Levant splinter
group, al-Jazeera published a letter
it said came from Zawahiri
chastising Baghdadi for claiming a
merger under his leadership.
Syria, Zawahiri said, was the
“spatial state” for Jabhat al-Nusra
under Jawlani, and Baghdadi’s rule
would be confined to Iraq.
“It’s reasonable to think that a fair
number of ISIL militants are Iraqis”
and more beholden to Baghdadi
than to leaders inside Syria, the
U.S. official said.
DeYoung reported from
Washington. Ahmed Ramadan in
Beirut contributed to this report.