Commanders of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) have reacted with fury to the assassination of a senior officer by a jihadist group, warning that the killing would lead to further violence between the disparate factions battling to oust the president, Bashar al-Assad.
Kamal Hamami, a member of the opposition's supreme military command, was killed and his body mutilated after he was lured to a planning meeting on Thursday with fighters believed to be foreign jihadists in the Jebel al-Krud region, north of Latakia.
The killing – the first internecine targeting of a ranking member of the mainstream Syrian opposition group – follows rising tensions between the exclusively Syrian militia and jihadi fighters, including increasing numbers of foreigners who see the civil war in Syria as part of a global jihad.
Rebel leaders in northern Syria said yesterday that the assassination had shattered trust between the two sides and set off a blood feud.
“This will not go unpunished,” said a former officer of the Syrian army who now commands a mainstream opposition militia near Idlib province. “They are trying to assert themselves, to make us bow to them. They need to be taught a lesson.”
Since they entered northern Syria in mid-July last year, jihadist groups have become the most effective fighting force in the land, renowned for their prowess on the battlefield and skill in obtaining weapons.
Blighted by ill-discipline and infighting, the FSA has meanwhile struggled to assert itself as its fight against the Assad regime stagnated and more battle-ready militants seized the initiative during raids on military bases that yielded crucial hauls of guns and ammunition.
Recently, however, the jihadists have been accused of the same shortcomings as discipline gives way to power grabs and growing tensions between Syrian and regional al-Qaeda leaders.
The main homegrown group, Jabhat al-Nusra, has been undermined by a power struggle between its nominal leader, Abu Muhammad al-Golani, and the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who has led the terror group in its revitalised insurgency against Iraq’s Shia-led government.
Baghdadi has attempted to combine his group with Jabhat al-Nusra but was rebuffed in May by Golani, who was reported to have instead pledged loyalty to the al-Qaeda leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri. Since then, Jabhat al-Nusra’s ranks have split in the same way that the FSA has splintered in the past year.
While it remains a formidable fighting force, it cannot boast the same rigid control over its members and especially over foreign fighters who are increasingly creating their own leadership structures and setting their own rules.
'Land of warlords'
"I've always said that this would become like Anbar," where al-Qaeda was driven out in 2006 after earning the ire of local hosts, said a rebel leader in Aleppo.
“And I was right. This is now a land of warlords and clans, of foreigners with a perverse form of Islam that share neither our views or goals.
"This is what becomes of a civil war in a place like Syria when help doesn't come the way of the people who need and deserve it." – (Guardian service)