What's Behind Recent Rebel-Qaeda Tensions in Syria?

By Michael Weiss

The last week was a busy one for internecine warfare among Syrian rebel groups. First, Kamal Hamami, or Abu Bassir al-Ladkani, a member of the 30-man Supreme Military Command (SMC) of the Free Syrian Army, was killed on July 11 while traveling in northern Latakia. According to the Washington-based Syrian Support Group, which documented eyewitness accounts, Hamami encountered an "illegal" checkpoint manned by the al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham as he and his convoy were returning home to break the Ramadan fast. They were denied passage by Islamic State militants and, after a tense stand-off, Hamami was shot in the chest by Emir Al-Baghdadi, the group's commander for the coastal region of Syria.

"The Islamic State phoned me saying that they killed Hamami and that they will kill all of the Supreme Military Command," Qassem Saadeddine, the spokesman for the SMC, explained to Reuters. One of Saadeddine's colleagues who preferred to remain anonymous added that Hamami's assassination meant all-out war with al-Qaeda: "We are going to wipe the floor with them."

This past Tuesday, however, Aleppo's Military Council, which is nominally under the control of the FSA, denied that Hamami had been killed by jihadis at all; it was Assad's security forces who were responsible, the Council said.

Complicating matters further, two FSA fighters were reportedly beheaded by Islamic State jihadists in Dana, a rebel-controlled town in Idlib, last week. No one really knows who then attacked the FSA's local headquarters in Dana on July 13 - "unidentified armed groups," Syrian Air Force jets, or the Islamic State have all been blamed. Col. Abdul-Jabbar Akaidi, the FSA's commander in Aleppo, and the Aleppo Media Center have also denied further allegations of skirmishes between FSA units and Islamic State militants at a checkpoint at Bustan al-Qasr.

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According to Charles Lister, an analyst with IHS Jane's Terrorism and Insurgency Center in London, while Hamami's assassination is demonstrable, "all claims of fighting [in Idlib and Aleppo] have come from anti-Islamist sources and have since largely been denied or proven inaccurate by influential and well-placed sources on the ground." He adds that there is doubtless simmering rivalry and mutual suspicion between the FSA and Islamic State jihadists, owing largely to the latter's infiltration of villages and towns in northern Syria. "Fundamentally, this recent flare-up in rhetoric appears to have been a media campaign pushed by the moderate political opposition outside Syria," Lister said.

So desperate are these forces to receive long-promised arms from the United States - arms that may or may not finally arrive in August - that they are now trying to exploit real or imagined tensions on the ground to help expedite Washington's torpid rebel aid program. Unfortunately, this strategy is backfiring as local and regional commanders have disclaimed the emergence of a sideshow between their forces and the takfiris.

Contrary to the conspiracism propagated by Damascus and its Russian and Iranian handmaids, this does not so bespeak a strong ideological affinity between the FSA and al-Qaeda so much as it does a convenient partnership that's becoming increasingly inconvenient. A civil war within a civil war at this stage, particularly after the loss of Qusayr and the ongoing siege of Homs, would prove disastrous to the combined military effort of defeating the regime. Even FSA spokesman Louay Moqdad admits as much in press interviews.

Moreover, clashes between the FSA and jihadists are nothing new. In January, Jabhat al-Nusra gunned down Thaer al-Waqqas, the northern commander of the al-Farouq Brigades, in Sermin, near the Syrian-Turkish border, in reprisal for the killing of al-Nusra leader Firas al-Absi four months prior. In March, another Farouq commander, Mohammed al-Daher, who operates under the nom de guerre Abu Azzam, was rushed to a hospital in southern Turkey after he and two of his men were attacked with hand grenades and machine guns by al-Nusra fighters. Neither episode ultimately proved a curtain-raiser on a major showdown between the rival rebel groups.

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Michael Weiss is a columnist for NOW Lebanon and the editor-in-chief of The Interpreter, a Russian translation journal sponsored by the Institute of Modern Russia. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldweiss. Reprinted with permission.

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